A Scriptwriter’s Toolbox

Knowing what sells is essential if you want to write a successful script, so a key part of a scriptwriter’s toolbox is to read as many scripts as possible written by others.

It also becomes less disheartening when you see that some of the most successful films and TV shows contained ideas in early drafts that didn’t make it to the screen because the character or situations were not believable, intriguing or funny enough.

So there’s a job change here, a character tweak there, even a simple name change can make a difference. Then, with characters and situations redefined or dropped and/or new ones introduced, we watch the events unfold on screen as if the writers had always intended it that way.

And we would hardly believe that, even after shooting and editing, three episodes may have been trashed completely and another episode moved to become the season pilot, as is the case with one very successful Amazon TV series. So even the seasoned scriptwriter clearly doesn’t always get it right.

Libraries

Here are some useful websites for accessing scripts (movies and TV pilots) but there are many others out there too:

Layout

Another consideration is layout. I don’t want my submission to head straight for the bin because it wasn’t formatted correctly. If the recipient thinks the writing is bad or it’s not funny or believable, that’s something else, but there is no excuse for not sticking to the layout rules. I came across these two documents that show how a screenplay should be laid out and formatted:

Firstly, from the OSCARS website, a little screenplay about how to format a screenplay:

For A Few Days More by April Rider

and from BBC Writers’ Room, a template showing how a screenplay should be formatted:

Screenplay Format by Matt Carless.

One of the main things I can do (meaning, should not do) is to ensure that I don’t overwork the content in terms of instructions. My script is just a speculative script – a submission script, a first draft, a sales script, whatever you want to call it – and I need to keep it simple and follow the stringent format guidelines. I’m not an independent filmmaker and I’m not writing a shooting script, so production language is not required – no scene numbers, no camera angles, no editing transitions.

As a desktop publishing specialist, there is no excuse for me not following layout rules – and working in 12 point Courier is a refreshing change from all the fanciness that goes on in the design world.

Having said that, there’s a whole host of online and offline script formatting software out there to choose from, including:

  • Celtx – online (free trial for three scripts)
  • Fade In Pro – offline (cheaper than some)
  • Final Draft – offline (pricey, industry standard)
  • Trelby – offline (free, limited functionality)
  • Writer Duet – online (free trial for three scripts)

But there are others out there too.

Learning

Another key component in a scriptwriter’s toolbox is to learn about the different ways in which to structure the story (three acts, or otherwise).

It is worth signing up for an introductory course. For example, try the short course An Introduction to Screenwriting on Future Learn. You can access it for free for four weeks before you have to pay. It gives a good overview of the key concepts involved in the process of screenwriting, presented in the form of brief notes, videos of panel discussions, scripts to analyse, and tasks to carry out and discuss with other students.

I recommend listening to this BAFTA podcast of a lecture and Q&A with screenwriter Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Love Actually, to name but a few). It is very enlightening. He discusses where he gets his inspiration from and how he goes about making a script funny, or funnier. You will also hear about how many drafts of Four Weddings it took before his script was submitted and hear about a scrapped storyline for Notting Hill. And there are some good tips, for example who he suggests you should send your script to. We also find out how much control he actually has over the finished films that are made from his screenplays.

My script will be nothing whatsoever like a Hugh Grant romantic comedy, but that won’t stop me reading scripts and watching movies from that or any other genre that my script doesn’t fall into. It’s all part of my own scriptwriter’s toolbox. But also, I really enjoy them!

I have posted a couple of comparative analyses of successful pilot scripts I’ve read, setting out some of the character rewrites that occurred between the draft script and the version that made it onto the screen. One post will focus on a long-running TV sitcom, and another will discuss an internet TV legal drama.

Understanding what was unsuccessful in other draft scripts and the changes that were forced to be made, will hopefully improve the chances of my first script not being a complete failure, should I ever get close to finishing it.