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6 Tips for Writing a Script that Sells

The world of screenwriting is a notoriously difficult one to break into – and equally difficult to remain active in even when you’ve had your time as the flavor of the month.

Without representation (an agent, a manager or both), your chances of selling a script are very, very low. Just like in the fiction market, rejection is part and parcel of the job for screenwriters.

Not every novelist can write screenplays, and not every screenwriter can write novels – but if you’re thinking of translating your story to the screen, here are a few core tips that will ensure your screenplay gets a fair read… either at the producer’s table, or by an agent eager to shop your work to the world.

1. Formatting, Formatting, Formatting

A screenplay is not the same as a stage play. It also isn’t a novel. There are specific rules and specific expectations for the visual layout and format of a screenplay. Make sure you know them, and stick to them.

There’s no room for “creative” fonts and attempts to break the mold, here. Producers and agents are inundated with scripts every year – disregard for the rules of the craft doesn’t make you stand out… it just makes for an easy excuse to pass on your work.

Software such as Final Draft, Movie Magic Screenwriter and Celtx will make formatting your screenplays incredibly easy. Scrivener also has a script mode.

If you intend to make a career (or even just a damn good effort) in screenwriting, you owe it to yourself to use the best tools available. You could fart about with Microsoft Word templates – but save yourself the headache and use software specifically designed for the job.

2. Choose Your Genre, And Know It Inside Out

Unless you already have some clout in the filmmaking world, it isn’t a good idea to make your screenplay an exercise in blending or bending genres.

There are some exceptions (for example horror-comedy, which has become a genre in its own right) but for the most part, play it safe. Pick a single genre and stick to it.

And when we say stick to it, we mean like glue: Immerse yourself in the best current films within that genre and within your target budget. Watch them over and over again. Read the screenplays as you go and observe how they translate to the screen.

This will help you pick up the kind of story structure, beats and arcs that are looked upon favorably within your chosen genre.

Check out the Internet Movie Script Database for a whole host of freely available screenplays.

3. Write with a Lead Actor in Mind

If you’re hoping to sell a big budget picture, you’d better make it suit a big budget star… or you’ll never get off the ground.

If you’re aiming low budget, write for the niche darlings. As you did with the specific films in your chosen genre, research the actors that hold sway in that arena.

Read various interviews with them and figure out what makes them tick, what excites them about the roles they take… and then give them what they want. If you can get them attached to your script, it will make an easier sell to producers.

4. Structure, Structure, Structure

We said that three times because there are three acts. Clever, eh?!

Listen – as wild and creative as you might want to make your story, make sure you don’t deviate from standard story structure. You need to plan your story to fit the standard three acts (some would argue that this isn’t necessarily true… but before you’re a big shot, don’t even try to mix it up).

You need your protagonist(s), your villain(s), an inciting incident that kicks off the high stakes confrontation – and you need consistent rising action and a constant sense of progression.

Everything has to mean something. Everything has to lead to somewhere else and move the story forward. This is exactly what adhering to structure helps you to do.

5. The First 10 Pages Are the Key to Entry

It’s well known in the industry that you have exactly 10 pages to grip the reader or your script is going in the trash. It’s as simple as that.

Start off with a bang – physically or emotionally.

Just like the first chapter of a book, the goal of your first 10 pages is to hook the reader, pull them in and intrigue them enough that reading the rest of your screenplay feels like a good use of their valuable time.

This rule translates directly to the screen – it’s been shown that most audiences will decide whether or not they like a film based on the first 10 minutes alone. Distributors can’t sell films that people walk out of before the story’s even moving.

6. “Show, Don’t Tell” is More Important than Ever

It’s a rule in fiction, and it’s doubly important in screenwriting. Remember: You’re writing entirely visually. You don’t have the luxury of internal dialogue, laying out thought processes or long, drawn-out character definitions.

And when you have an accepted maximum of 120 pages (1 minute per page) to tell your story, every word counts.

Attitudes, back-stories, loves, fears… everything must translate visually to the screen, whether through character action/reaction or dialogue (but beware of on-the-nose exposition – again, that’s telling, not showing).

It also isn’t your place to dictate camera movement, shot composition or every technical detail. Just tell your story and leave the rest to the director and their team.

You must be very careful with what you’re showing vs. what you’re telling in your screenplay – but if you nail it, you’ll stand out straight away amidst the tens of thousands of scripts hitting producers’ desks every year.


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