Business, Motivation

How to Be a Screenwriter – The Craft

David Wappel explains how to be a screenwriter for the first episode of our series “From Bedroom to HBO”.

From Bedroom to HBO Part I

One day, a friend of mine from Atlanta puts me in touch with another friend he knows living in Los Angeles. “You’re both out there, he’s into film too, you should grab coffee sometime.” So I meet his buddy, who tells me about this project he’s working on. He has most of the script, but is struggling with one problem in particular. Being a writer myself, I give him my two cents, and we move on to other stuff. Two days later, he calls me up and asks me if I want to rewrite his movie. I say sure, and over the next few weeks we trade pages and get a finished script. He shoots it, HBO buys it, and now I’m a produced screenwriter.

Now, that story isn’t just simplified. It’s oversimplified. 

That coffee’s been in the works for years. My “two cents” is the result of hours and hours of writing and reading and studying. Getting a film written, produced, sold, and distributed is like a hole-in-one in a sandstorm.

I can’t tell you how to be a screenwriter. Nobody knows how. But I do know the prerequisites:

  • You must know how to write a story.
  • You must know how to network.
  • You must know how to work.

And you have to understand how all three work together to create a career out telling stories.

This post is the first of three which will detail not only my story in getting my work on screen, but everything behind it from learning the craft, to the dreaded “networking” and ending with the actual process of working on a project.

I’m not saying this is the only way. It is explicitly not. It’s one of a thousand ways. It just happens to be mine.

WHY TO WRITE

To be a writer, you really have to know why you want to be a writer. And that’s different for everyone. For me, I didn’t initially know I wanted to be a writer.

My first taste of something like writing was actually video editing. In high school, I worked after-school for a dance competition stitching together their promos. Editing is basically like writing, except you don’t get to choose which words you have. You have these five shots and you have to put them in an order that tells a story. Learning how two images put next to each other create meaning is the first step to screenwriting, because that’s what you’re doing. Get familiar with the Kuleshov effect.

Kuleshov, an early Soviet filmmaker, posited that to the viewer images will be informed by the preceding images. Here are some of his original frames explaining the effect.

As the audience, we will load the man’s thoughts with the information based on the previous image. So in the first he may appear hungry, in the second he may appear sad, and in the third he may appear loving or even lustful.

So after a year, I saved up enough money to move to Atlanta, Georgia, where production was really starting to grow at the time. Once I got settled, I cold-called every video and film production in town, and offered to volunteer for free for a day or two on their sets. Only one took me up on the offer. It was a small team shooting some green-screen corporate videos. I overheard the producer talking about how they were booking a lot, and didn’t have enough editors. I piped up and told him I knew how to cut, and would be happy to assist. They had a lot of work, so he offered me a job as Lead Editor on some of their videos.

After striking out numerous times, a win can be incredibly rewarding. And even though I moved there for production, when I saw an opportunity to be helpful in post-production, and I had the skillset, so I seized it. When you see a pitch coming at you, even if it’s not the perfect one, if you can hit it you really should try. It might not be the home run you wanted, but you’ll get on base. To finish the story, those early editing jobs eventually led to a full-time position at the company, which included production.


I was editing most days, and going out for shoots once or twice a week, and even producing one or two shoots a month. On these projects, we were partnering up with other companies, clients, vendors, and collaborators. And though we won’t talk about it here, this was incredibly important to me building my network.

So I was working in pre-production, production and post-production. I hadn’t really taken the time to really carve out what I wanted to do, and I ended up in a position where I was doing a little bit of everything. I was happy most of the time, but not all of the time and it took some serious reflection to understand what I enjoyed about these jobs. It’s easy to identify the things we don’t like, but I don’t think we take enough time identifying the things we do. And without this reflection, I honestly don’t know that I would’ve discovered the job that gives me all the things I loved about production and post-production, without the rest.

That job was screenwriting.

Not only do I feel like I found my calling, but I have a deep understanding of why it’s my calling. Take the time to understand yourself and why you want to write, and I guarantee, you will be a stronger writer because of it. Without that self-knowledge, it’s really hard to follow the rest of the steps I’ll lay out.

So I’ve figured out I wanted to be a screenwriter. Okay, now what? I started reading screenplays, reading books about screenplays, and most importantly, writing screenplays. I started learning how to write a story.

YOU MUST KNOW HOW TO WRITE A STORY

The great thing about humans is that we’re storytelling animals. We’re wired for story. Emotionally, you know a good story when you see one. But you may not know how to craft one, and that’s where it’s time to go back to school.

These are the practices I developed as I was learning to write, and what I recommend to anyone just starting out.

Be writing a script.

Be reading a script.

Be reading about writing.

Be watching films and/or tv shows.

Be consuming other narrative media.

Be noticing human behavior.

Writing A Script

This one’s a no-brainer. Screenwriting is a practical craft. You have to be in the practice of putting words on pages in an order that has an effect. Everything else you do will help you do this better, but you’ll learn the most from doing. Find some software (there are plenty of good options, including Arc Studio Pro) that’ll help with formatting.

And then write. Turn off the critic in your head. The voice that tells you that you need to read and study before you try it at all. It’s a lie, and nothing else is even worth it if you’re not also working on something in the meantime. It’s completely ok if it’s bad or unfinished, but it’s part of your training. If you want to write, you have to write.

Reading A Script

Read scripts as often as you can. The more you’ll read, the more you’ll notice patterns and styles emerge. How are writers communicating images, moments, emotions? The more scripts you’ve read, the more examples you have of how things have been done. You’ll start to get a feel for screenwriting.

I started off reading the scripts I thought I should read, but I got a lot more out of this practice once I started reading the scripts I wanted to read. Read your favorites. It’ll help develop the habit, and you’ll have the benefit of being familiar with the material already. Then you can progress to work you’re not as familiar with, but has been known to be good, and after that, you can start taking a look at unproduced work, which means scripts from both pros and amateurs.

I always recommend waiting until you’ve read a good amount of professional level screenplays before diving into the work of hobbyists, amateurs and emerging writers. Get that baseline of quality in your bones, and then as you read, you’ll be able to pick up on the differences between the seasoned vets and the newer writers. Spotting those differences is where the largest opportunity for your growth exists.

Some resources for finding scripts are Simply Scripts, Drew’s Script-o-Rama, and IMSDb. And if you can’t find it there, just try Google and add “script” or “screenplay” to the title. Or you can always crowdsource the search on Twitter or Reddit.

Reading About Writing

The books written on how to write screenplays are about a third as useful as simply reading any given screenplay. That being said, in conjunction with other methods of study, they can help put words to concepts that you’ve been encountering. Thinking of these as a springboard for your thoughts on writing, and not gospel.

As you read the concepts, you’ll want to think about how they directly apply to what you’re writing, and what you’ve been reading. Have you found examples that differ from what the book explains or recommends? If so, how? And if you can hazard a guess, why?

I recommend not just books on screenwriting, but books on writing, on story, and on human behavior. At this point, I’d steer clear of any books on selling your script or navigating the industry. Focus on the craft.

While I don’t agree with everything in these books (in fact I disagree with about half of the analysis in what’s listed below) these are the books that were the most influential in my growth as a writer.

Story by Robert McKee

Save The Cat by Blake Snyder

Into The Woods by John Yorke

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

In addition to books, there are a plethora of blogs, essays, and podcasts that you can also be reading. Just remember, right now, you want to try to stay focused on your art and your craft, so don’t necessarily worry about industry navigation just yet.

Here are some of my favorite ASP craft posts:

The Inciting Incident: Definition and Case Studies

Why Nouns and Verbs Are The Most Important Words in Your Script

5 Elements Of A Great Screenplay

Three Tips to Writing Good Dialogue

Action Lines – What Can They Accomplish?

Additionally, online communities are a great place to learn things. To learn more about how to find one, check out Finding Your Online Screenwriting Community.

Watching Films and/or TV Shows

As you’re reading and writing, you should also be watching. Screenwriting is at the very beginning of a long pipeline, and watching what eventually comes out the other end is instructive. Sure, binge your favorites, but also combine your viewing with your reading. Take a screenplay for a film you’ve never seen, read it, then watch and see if it looks and sounds how the words described it. Take a favorite movie that you know in and out, and read the screenplay to see how those scenes are written. Watch the examples the books love to talk about. Apply what you’re learning to what you’re seeing. When I was first starting, I even wrote scenes from movies after I saw them, and then compared my writing to the original script.

Consuming Other Narrative Media

After Writing A Script, I believe this practice is the next most helpful thing you can do. Once you start to understand how screen stories are built and made, comparing them to stories in other mediums can really help you zone in on what is unique to the craft of screenwriting, and what is just good storytelling. I recommend novels, plays, comic books, video games, flash fiction, and even escape rooms. Understanding why certain narrative choices work in some formats and mediums but not others is incredibly instructive. Find good stories and consume them. Get it in your bones.

In fact, there’s a whole post about this, titled What Screenwriters Can Learn From Other Mediums.

Noticing Human Behavior

This is more of a passive practice, but it’s something that can help you replicate humans on the page. Try to start making yourself consciously aware of the way people speak, the way people act, the way people move. When someone is nervous, how do they act? Remember, you can’t say what people are feeling in a script, you have to show it. And you can only accurately show what you’re aware of, so make yourself aware. This goes for observing others around you, but also yourself. When you get flustered, what do you do? Do you start picking at your nails? That’s a behavior that can be seen. The more you do this, the more it’ll come naturally, and the more specific you’ll be able to be in your writing.

I did all of these, together for the better part of three years. I ended up with three features, an original pilot, and a spec script. Guess what? By my standards today, they’re all terrible. That’s ok. One of the side-effects of successfully learning a new skill is that the things you made along the way will forever be inferior to your current skill. That means you’re growing. And it’s ok if they’re bad, because you wouldn’t have gotten to where you are without them.

WHEN DO YOU KNOW YOU KNOW HOW TO WRITE?

There are two answers to this one:

  1. You don’t.
  2. Other people tell you that you do.

As I was writing and studying, I got involved in whatever screenwriting communities I could find in Atlanta. It’s a highly production-focused town, but there were a few. And as I continued to get more involved and more outspoken, a few people took notice of me. One of those people was one of the twins I had occasionally worked with. He saw that I had a head for story and I consulted on a script he was developing. I also consulted on the story of a documentary that their company was shooting as well.

In a few circles, I became the go-to guy for writing. I was reading tons of local work, and looking for homes for my scripts. It soon became clear to me that Atlanta wasn’t going to be the place for me.

It wasn’t until I was receiving consistent positive feedback on my work that I decided to make the jump to Los Angeles. To be clear, I’m not saying you must move to L.A. There are plenty of posts about that already, and I’ll talk more about my decision in Part 2 of this series. But that decision was predicated on my belief that my work was ready to be taken seriously on a professional level, and that belief came not as much from myself, but from others.

It wasn’t that people told me I was good. You’ll hear that a lot, just as much as you’ll hear that you’re not good. In fact, you get both a lot when you’re starting out. To be more precise, you’re looking for any variation of the following phrase, “Can I share this with so-and-so?” When others want to start passing your work along, you’re ready to begin work on the next level: networking.

You’ll of course continue to write, and continue to hone your craft, but you’ll have undertaken one of the most difficult aspects of being a screenwriter: knowing how to write a story.

From Bedroom to HBO Part II: How to Network as a Screenwriter – The Industry

From Bedroom to HBO Part III: How to Make a Movie – The Job

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David Wappel is a feature writer. Recent work includes the screenplay for Long Gone By, now available on HBO. He was named a Top 25 Screenwriter to Watch in 2020 by the ISA and is the 2019 Stowe Story Labs Fellowship winner. He is an avid Shakespeare and Tolkien fan.

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