Screenwriting Course For Beginners

This is a four-part video series, with written guides and explanations teaching beginners how to write a screenplay, from finding ideas to packaging your script to send out for funding. If you walk through the videos with me, by the end you should have your first draft of your own short screenplay.

1. Finding Ideas and Getting Started

2. Screenplay Structure (Getting the plot right) 

3. How To Format A Screenplay

4. Treatments, Loglines and Synopsis + Feedback

 
 

1. HOW DO I DECIDE ON A TOPIC OR THEME FOR MY SCRIPT? FOR ME, IT ALWAYS HAS TO HAVE SOME ROOT IN REALITY.

There must be something about the story or the characters that I have seen or heard in real life. What touches you emotionally? What issues are you passionate about? Have you met somebody who really fascinates you? Those are the little seeds that grow into an idea. For example, one of latest short films, The Flu, came from a true story my friend told me about when she’d just had a baby and her friend came over to help her but fell ill and she had to look after her and the baby instead. I loved that story, it made me laugh. I can’t start writing a script until there is something that clicks into place that has a connection to something real in my life. 

2. I LIKE TO WORK WITH DIALOGUE A LOT, ESPECIALLY THESE DAYS. SO WHAT I’LL DO IS I’LL WRITE THE DIALOGUE JUST STRAIGHT UP. TYPE, TYPE, TYPE. THEN I’LL STOP AND I’LL READ IT - OUT LOUD TO MYSELF.

I’ll walk around reading it, listening to it and the second I hear words that don’t flow I’ll edit them and then say the lines again and edit again until I’m happy with it all. I really like the sound of words and I like dialogue that sort of bubbles against each other. I like pauses and breaks being part of the flow so sometimes I’ll write those in. Then once I’m happy with the dialogue I’ll go back and start adding in actions and names and little details.

3. I ALWAYS START WITH MY FAVOURITE SCENE IN MY FILM.

This could be any scene in my film. It could be at the end, in the middle or at beginning, anywhere, but it often tends to be a scene that is important to me emotionally or is an important moment in the scope of the story. 

The reason I start with the scene I love is because it develops my love and my passion for the story. It’s like spending time with the person you love - it fosters more love and more excitement for the project. And trust me - you are going to need every bit of love you have for your script because now comes the time to work on your structure. This is when I outline a structure for my plot. I don’t stop until I have a really strong clear skeleton of a story. There are different formats you can use to guide you along this. Just make sure you have a really strong middle and a really strong ending and don’t leave it alone until you are really happy with it. You can tell when it’s a good plot because up until the moment you get it right you will have a sense of doubt about the story structure. You will think, oh I wonder if that part will be boring or ask yourself, will that section be interesting and make sense. When you have a strong skeleton,  with every section worked out well, you won’t be worried about whether it will work - you will know it will.

4. I DON’T WRITE NAMES.

Most of my first drafts don’t have character names. They are either titles ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ or ‘A’ and ‘B.’ This is because I like to write the dialogue before I have even properly developed the characters. Don’t get me wrong, you do need to develop your characters but for me, writing their dialogue is how I start to get to know them. Just the way you would find out more about a person the more you listen and watch them. I just like to write a stream of dialogue between characters before I put in any actions or names.

MAKE A LIST OF STORIES YOU'VE HEARD FROM FRIENDS OR FAMILY THAT HAVE RESONATED WITH YOU. FIND TOPICS AND THEMES THAT HAVE A TRUTH FOR YOU. MAKE A LIST OF THESE TOPICS, THEMES AND STORIES AND SEE WHICH ONES SPARK A FILM IDEA.

If you need ideas to spark your film, check out my 50 Film Ideas blog post for writing prompts to get you started.

 
 

Once I have an idea for my film, after I've written the scenes I see and any dialogue that I wanted to work on, I then use a structure guide to fill out the skeleton of my story using a Film Structure Guide.

This is a guide that I've made for you to use. It's designed to give you a simple straightforward structure you can follow to build your film's plot with. 

THE PUDDING FILM STRUCTURE GUIDE

The Current State of Affairs:

This is what your character’s life is like when your film starts. Introduce your character, what their current state of mind and life is like at the beginning of the story. This is the norm stated before you get into the story

Examples: 

Titanic - Rose is stuck in an oppressive relationship, with an oppressive mother, unable to escape the chains of her rich life

Sound of Music - Maria is a nun, though a bit of a rubbish one, living her life in the abbey

A Pudding Falls Out Of The Sky:

Something happens that changes the normal course of your character’s life. The reason I called this section ‘a pudding falls out of the sky’ is because when I was 15 we were asked to write a short story in English class and to make sure we wrote something that would immediately hook the audience. So the first sentence I wrote was “A pudding fell out of the sky.” This is where you want something or someone to come in and literally sweep your character off their feet. 

Examples: 

Juno - Juno decides not to have an abortion after visiting a clinic and decides to put her baby up for adoption instead

Gone With the Wind - Civil war breaks out, disrupting and changing Scarlet’s rich, decadent world

Life With the Pudding: 

This is where you get to write all the things you want to put in your film. The fun little discussions between characters, the trip to the seaside. These are the scenes of your character living with the pudding. 

Examples: 

Jurassic Park - Large dinosaurs chase and hunt adults and children. 

Sound of Music - Maria develops a great relationship with the Von Trapp children and they go singing all over the town


Kevin’s Nemesis: People Are Unhappy:

Kevin, my husband, always hates this part of every film. This is the part where things start to become unhappy and difficult for your character. They come up against obstacles and difficulties that start to crush them. 

Allow your character to come up against obstacles. 

Examples: 

Jurassic Park - T-rex attack, car in a tree…raptors in the kitchen! 

Sound of Music - The Nazis are closing in and slowly taking over the pretty world of Austria


Nobody Likes Pudding: 

Your character is despondent. They are questioning their choices and everything is now against them but this is the point where your character is so hard pressed that they make a decision to either carry on and push through, or be overwhelmed. 

Examples: 

Titanic - Rose is told that Jack is a thief, Jack is locked up and Rose is being led to the lifeboat with her mother and fiancé, back to the life she detests. 

Jurassic Park - The man who created Jurassic Park realises he was an idiot. More people get eaten by dinosaurs. 


Indie Sees The Bridge:

If you have seen my favourite film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, you will have seen the famous scene where Indiana Jones is trying to cross a huge crevice to reach the holy water that will save his dying father’s life. It seems impossible, until he realises that there is a bridge, cleverly hidden.

This is the moment in your plot where your character sees the bridge. They see their way forward. They begin to come out of the darkness. If you want a sad ending that doesn’t change, your character can still see the light and not be able to make it. 

Examples: 

Joy -  Joy figures out the nuances of her contract and finds some dirt on her supplier to enable her to leverage the situation to her advantage and get her money back and save her business

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade -  Ironically, it’s the moment Indiana is hanging off the cliff and his dad calls him “Indiana” for the first time. He realises his dad does understand who he is and that effectively saves his life. 

The Purpose of the Pudding: 

The end of your film and the end of your character’s story. Your character realises the purpose of the pudding, how the entrance of the pudding in their life has changed their view and has changed them. There is often a revelation at this point and a sense of conclusion. That’s why we feel satisfied at the end of a good film. Things that were incomplete at the start are made complete at the end. 

Examples: 

 Coco - Through his journey, Miguel finally comes to understand how important his family really is to him

Gone With the Wind - Scarlett realises that she has not yet lost everything…as long as she’s got her Tara and her potatoes she’ll figure out how to get Rhett back in her clutches. 

USING THE GUIDE I HAVE CREATED, START CREATING THE SKELETON FOR YOUR FILM.  

 
 

FORMATTING YOUR SCREENPLAY

A lot of people don’t know how to format a script or how to begin writing one. Script writing is very different to writing a short story or even a play. It has its own set of rules and formatting techniques. Once you learn the basics it becomes second nature. 

ELEMENTS OF A SCREENPLAY

1. You start the scene with a SCENE HEADING which describes the scenes location and time of day. You begin the scene heading with whether the scene is inside or outside. 

INT = Interior (Inside) and EXT = Exterior (Outside)

INT. BERT'S HOUSE - EVENING

2. When you introduce a character for the first time in your script you write their names in capital letters. If your scene has any dialogue then you will need to format the person who is speaking’s name like this . Action describes what is happening in the scene and is written in the present tense.  

INT. BERT'S HOUSE - EVENING

ALICE (7) wanders through the halls, tracing her fingers along the walls as she goes. 

3. Dialogue is centered (screenwriting software will do this for you) - like this

INT. BERT'S HOUSE - EVENING

ALICE (7) wanders through the halls, tracing her fingers along the walls as she goes. 

                                                       ALICE

                                        Hello?

 
 

1. A synopsis is a one page document that gives the whole story of your film. 

2. A logline is one sentence that sells your story to anyone you pitch it to

3. A treatment is usually your entire script written in prose form - like a book. It is different to a synopsis because it goes into more detail as to what happens in each scene. It’s a document that you usually send to the producer when you’re trying to get funds for your film or working with a producer.

 Treatments help you sell your script idea to a producer or company. They are also brilliant for making your story and structure stronger.

 As well as that, treatments are really good for sending to people for feedback. Scripts are hard to read, especially for people who aren’t used to reading them, so sending a treatment allows other people to read your story and give you their feedback. 

Getting Feedback on Your Script

  1. Send your script or treatment to friends and family. Try and meet other filmmakers or writers and ask them for feedback. 

  2. When you get constructive criticism, LISTEN to the advice. One of the most common responses to feedback is to defend every part of your script. If you do that, there is no point in asking for feedback because if you justify every area criticised than you’re never going to make the script better. I have had so many people send me scripts and ask for feedback and then when I make one tiny point about something that doesn’t work for me, I get a response saying something along the lines of “well, I see your point but I feel that the character is acting this way because of this,this and this, or I’m confident this works.” No one is questioning whether it works, but whether it will come across to the audience. You don’t have to change your story for other people but if people are finding certain parts of your story hard to understand or they don’t get a character’s motives then listen to them. Look at that part of the script. It’s usually just a case of something not being explained rather than a bad story. 

  3. Be ruthless with your own work. I meet so many new filmmakers who think everything they make is wonderful. It’s good to have confidence but if you think everything you make is great you’ll never get better, you’ll never try to be better. The best thing that ever happened to me artistically was I took Art A-Level at school. I had 3 art teachers and one day they asked us to paint a composition. I did and I worked really hard on it and I was so proud of the result. Then my 3 art teachers came and looked at it and then they started to rip into it. They said it was boring, that I had used the wrong colours. They told me I should rip it up and start again. I was heartbroken…and angry. But it taught me such a good lesson because I did redo it and from then on I began to learn that tearing your art up and remaking it will often make it better. Once you learn to release your work and stop hanging onto it like it’s something precious, you will realise that you have more control over your work. You can steal criticism from people, even when it’s hurtful and use it to make something beautiful, without feeling as thought someone else has insulted your art. In fact, I would suggest taking one of your projects, a film you’ve made or a piece of art and doing it all over again. Re-edit your film to be completely different, make it half the length. Re-paint a painting you thought was perfect. Watch John Cleese’s talk about creativity - it goes along with what I’m saying. 

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