Drama | Screenwriting 1A Lesson One

Welcome to Screenwriting 1A.  With this post you’ll notice a new writing category is added to our masthead, “DRAMA”.   Around two years ago my friend and former Critical Writing professor, Manfred Wolf published his memoir Survival in Paradise – Sketches From a Refugee Life in Curaçao,


Immediately, I and several of his relatives expressed the opinion that the book would make an excellent screenplay.  I thought about it for a few months then sent him an email with words to the effect, “Hey, I don’t know anything about screenwriting but, just for fun, I’d like to research it and take a crack at doing a screen adaptation of your book.”  To my amazement, he agreed.  Considering his connections in the world of academia I thought, “Surely he must have a few professional screenwriters at his disposal.”  Dr. Wolf is an expert on literature, drama in general and Shakespeare in particular.  But like me, he had no exposure  to, nor experience with the craft of writing screenplays.  So we are learning as we go.

Since our agreement to proceed, we have completed a first draft and several revisions.  Our main struggle was to compress the first eighteen years of his life into the industry standard script of 90 to 125 pages  That first draft was 180 pages. Even so, Dr.Wolf was still concerned that we had left out interesting and dramatic anecdotes from his memoir. At this moment we are boiling it down, condensing it  and shortening a few sections to make room for some of those anecdotes we neglected.  How one solves such issues will be covered in future lessons.

So, without further delay, let’s get into it.

Today we’re going to talk about the minimum requirements for starting a screenplay from square one.  Let’s say you’re like I was.  You’ve always liked movies and plays.  You liked the twists and turns of plots, the revelation, the consternation, the fear and the final triumph (or the tragic ending.)  Maybe you play-acted with the neighborhood kids even to the point of rigging up a stage and stringing Mom’s blankets across the front for a curtain. Or perhaps you even acted in  high school and college plays.  But as much as you enjoy movies, you have no idea how the scripts that drive those productions are made.

What to do?  Don’t worry, as soon as you begin to Google “screenwriting how to” or something like it, you will be inundated with a Niagara Falls of “spam” from people in the business of teaching screenwriting.  But that’s not such a bad thing, really. Although most of these websites and blogs sell webinars, courses and books, a lot of them are well written by professionals in the industry, with loads of free information.  The better the free information, the more likely you are to buy their book.  At the end of this post, I’ll put links to some of the sites I find most useful.

How to Launch Your New Career

  1. Get a free, simple Microsoft Word template you can use for formatting a professional looking script. Google that. Try a few of the ones offered by beginning screenwriters, like yourself. (There are professional screenwriting applications like “Final Draft” for around $200 that automate the process, but so far I’m just using one of those free templates, downloaded from the internet.)
  2. Read lots of professional scripts. Repeat:  LOTS of professional scripts.  Not only will you learn proper formatting but you will begin to learn, by osmosis, the ebb and flow of what makes a gripping plot.  There are several ways to get scripts to read from the internet.  Don’t pay for this;  there are always those who offer most script downloads as a free service.  Don’t worry about copyright issues.  It’s the movies themselves that are copyrighted.  The scripts are freely shared–as long as you don’t go off and try to make your own “Indie” movie of the script without paying the screenwriter’s option fee.
    1. Simply think of a movie you liked, like “Grease.” Go to Google and search on “Grease the movie script”.  There will probably be several sources offering the download.  I just successfully  tried it, but I’m reminded of something I need to warn you about. DO NOT click on Any graphic that says “Download the free PDF Now”  I did, and the “free” pdf reader took over my browser, changed the look of it and put all kinds of executables (probably tracking software) on my MacBook Pro.  You don’t need their PDF reader.  Find a site WITHOUT those “Click Here” offers.
    2. Go to a reputable web site like Gordy Hoffman’s  BlueCat Screenplay Competition and sign up for their email newsletter.  There are usually several professional and contest-winning scripts listed with the  link,”Read The Script” in each issue. Clicking on those links brings up a very nice copy  but when I want a PDF for myself I simply click “File-> Export as PDF” on the Mac’s Safari Browser and then direct the export to a folder I have named  “ProfessionalScripts”.
  3. Start writing  simple scenes of dialog, not a complete script.  Get used to your template.  In MSWord you can select the option to “View->Styles” You will get a nice pop up where the various styles are easily selectable.  Examples of styles from the template I downloaded are,  TITLE, NORMAL, AUTHOR, CHARACTER, DIALOGUE, TRANSITION IN, TRANSITION OUT AND PARENTHETICAL.  By placing your cursor in a paragraph and clicking on a style, all of the proper capitalization, tabbing and spacing for that paragraph is automatically applied.  I usually type a whole page just using the return key to create paragraphs, then I go back and place my cursor and apply styles later.


Helpful Links

The Writer’s Store  (Especially their email magazine, “Script”)   http://www.scriptmag.com

The BlueCat Newsletter (free) by registering with your email address http://www.bluecatscreenplay.com

Next Lesson  will include some suggestions on navigating this inundation of information, plus some philosophical thoughts about the Film Industry and what constitutes a winning attitude on the part of a novice screenwriter.