10 Simple Things Every New Screenwriter Should Know (or at least consider)
There’s no shortage of questions to ask and things to learn when a writer decides to take a head-first dive into screenwriting. Not everyone is going to jump right into the deep end; some will test the water, take a step back before deciding to go further, or just walk away because, really, it’s just not for them (which… screenwriting is not for everyone, so that’s totally okay!). Others will go all in right off the bat, take every class, read as many scripts and consume as many books as they can get their hands on, trying to take in all the information they can. There’s no right or wrong way to pursue this profession as long as whatever the writer is doing, they can sustain and do with some level of consistency. Building a screenwriting career is a marathon, not a sprint.
It’s going to take the time it takes, and many lessons are learned and relearned, decisions made and remade over the years. Rome, as we’ve all been told, was not been built in a day, and neither is a screenwriting career, despite some of the lightening-in-a-bottle stories you may find out there. But for writers taking their first steps, here are a few things to know and consider right off the bat:
The industry standard is and has been Final Draft. Other screenwriting software options include WriterDuet, Studio Binder and Celtx all of which offer both free and monthly options but… What can I say? I’m a traditionalist, so it’s going to be Final Draft for me all the way. Even if Final Draft is not your jam, avoid writing your screenplay or pilot in a Word doc if you can. Industry pros will spot your formatting errors from a mile away.
Font, spelling, grammar
It may seem like a little thing, but font is pretty much non-negotiable (though as with anything I’m sure someone somewhere will find an exception) but for new writers it’s all about Courier 12. Some writers get creative with bolding, italicizing, underlining, and we can debate it, along with the particulars of slugline standards, all day long. But Courier 12 it is, all the way.
As for spelling and grammar, they matter. Especially when someone who doesn’t know you from Adam is reading your pilot or screenplay.
Movie screenplay? Teleplay? Spec script?
An original screenplay is referred to as a spec feature, spec screenplay, an original screenplay or a spec. An original TV pilot is referred to as just that, or a spec pilot, rather than the no-longer-popular term, Teleplay. A TV spec may also mean a spec episode for an existing show, written speculatively. An open writing assignment is an OWA, which refers to any for-hire development work that is not in a writers room. For more on industry language, check out my blogpost on industry vernacular.
Before you send your screenplay or pilot anywhere, be it a screenwriting competition or a coverage service let alone an industry professional or executive, be sure to register it with the WGA (or WGA East if you’re on the east coast) as well as the US Copyright Office for those residing inside the US.
The length of your screenplay or pilot should adhere to industry standards and break down as follows:
- Feature screenplay: 90-120 pages (but if you can keep it under 110… even better!)
- 1-hour pilot: 50-65 pages
- 1/2-hour single-cam pilot: 28-38 pages
- 1/2-hour multi-cam pilot: 45-55 pages (be sure to adhere to all the very specific multi-cam formatting standards!)
For more on the length of your screenplay or pilot, check out Size Matters!
Know which genre/s your work falls into, and what is and is not a genre, as it will communicate your understanding of the industry as well as where within the industry space your work fits in.
Genres for both TV and film include:
- Dark comedy
- Family comedy
- Romantic Comedy
- Legal drama
- Family drama
- Suspense drama
While each of these can have many sub-genres, do keep in mind that gambling or detective are not a genre but rather a sub-genre.
Once you start talking to managers, they will likely want to know your specific genre lane, so thinking about this in advance as you develop your craft could be useful in the long term!
Every screenplay or pilot adheres to some sort of structure. Whether you’re a “traditionalist” feature writer sticking to the classic 3-act structure (yes, writers have professed to being this in the past), writing your feature in 4-acts or 8- or 9-sequences, it’s all about understanding the architecture at the heart of your storytelling. TV structure can vary too; a 1-hour pilot may or may not include a teaser or cold open, and may or may not have a tag, while act structure varies from 4- to 6-acts. Cold opens, teasers, tags and runners are all negotiable in a 1/2-hour pilot as well. If you are writing for network, you are more likely to have to adhere to strict network parameters, while including act breaks in your pilot itself is something that streaming pilots steer clear of. Never, ever include act breaks in feature scripts, though you should know where those big story turns land.
I am all for breaking the rules, but in order to do so effectively, you have to really know them in the first place.
While I am not for limiting storytelling due to budget concerns if you’re writing purely on spec (no one will give you extra points for writing a script that could be done on the cheap if the content is not engaging), it’s important to know whether what you’re writing is particularly costly, so that you can understand its potential. If you’re writing features, you are expected to know the general ballpark of your screenplay’s budget, as this, combined with its target audience and general space track record, will dictate its viability. Pilots are expected to reflect the mandates of the industry, even if they do not sell and instead become writing samples. Accordingly, the more expensive a pilot would be to make – if it’s a period piece, or involves a lot of action, world building or SFX – the less potential buyers (and by extension executive audience) it would have.
Short Term Goals
Every writer gets into screenwriting with the hopes of one day seeing their words on the big or small screen, of creating a show, of having their screenplay or TV pilot come to life. But building a screenwriting career happens over time, requiring clear short-term goals to power you towards those bigger prizes down the road. Sure, one day you would like to be a showrunner, but what can you start doing now, regularly and consistently, in order to build towards those all important long term goals?
Long Term Goals
When setting your immediate, short term goals, it’s important to always consider what those long-term goals are, and build your short term goals with those in mind. For example, if you don’t want to direct, a short film may not be the first thing you want to write, unless you want to explore short form content before jumping into a full-length screenplay. Another good reason to write a short film is in order to eventually make it and learn by doing, which would then come handy when writing and producing TV. But if your aim is to only ever write features? A short film may not be the best use of your time right off the bat. In other words? Identify your destination, and use it to inform the many steps it will take to get there.
For additional insights from working industry pros, stay tuned for my next blog post!