It takes a long journey to become a cinematic storyteller of professional quality, and you need all the help you can get along the way. What follows are nine points of advice to build and strengthen your skills as you develop as a writer.
This may seem painfully obvious, but it is surprising how many wannabe writers there are who never make the effort to put pen to paper and develop any skills. Writers write. Period. If you do not write, you are not a writer.
You can read every screenwriting book from cover to cover, but all that knowledge will be useless if it is never put into practice. You can read a book on how to swim, but you will still not know how until you actually get into the water.
It takes years of practice for a beginner to nurture their skills to a professional level. You will have to churn out five to ten completed screenplays before you can be confident in your grasp of the craft. This means that a dedicated storyteller must be disciplined. Set aside a few hours every day to write. No distractions. No excuses. Do you think all the NBA all-stars got to where they are today on nothing but talent? No. They are where they are through discipline. They practiced every day since childhood, and continue to practice every day despite the fact that they are the best in the world.
At first, there will be resistance. After all, writing is hard. Even professional screenwriters are tempted to put off working to watch TV or goof around on the internet. But if you really want to be a writer, you must push through the resistance. No pain, no gain. Though there may be says where you do not want to write, sit there until you write something. Eventually, it will become a habit. You will want to write every day at that certain time. You will not be able to think about doing anything else. You may even get upset whenever something keeps you from writing ever day. This is when you know you really are a writer.
Reading makes you a better writer. And I don't just mean read books on screenwriting. Read anything and everything: fiction, nonfiction, novels, plays, newspapers, magazines. Absorbing the words of others will build your vocabulary, improve your communication skills, and enrich your creative grasp on the English language. Novels, short stories, and stage plays, will expand your conception of the possibilities of story beyond the narrow, often-cliched forms seen in the movie theater. Their freer use of plot, theme, and character may help break you out of your confined way of thinking.
Expand your sphere of knowledge into as many areas as possible. Botany, economics, swing dancing... It could all be useful. Why do you think there are so many lame books and screenplays where the main character is a writer? So many independent films about people making independent films? Because this is the only world their writers know. A storyteller cannot believably portray a world without first knowing about that world. Study history, science, politics. Explore other cultures and learn about persons different than yourself. Each field of study is an endless source of material to exploit in your own work. Real world knowledge provides a way out of the cliche stereotypes we see in hackneyed television and movies into a story world rich with layers of meaning and truth. The more you know, the more you can draw upon in your work.
3. Become an active viewer of movies
Don't just watch movies. Watch them through the eyes of a storyteller. Analyze how the story has been put together. Identify the Story Spine and the act breaks. How are the scenes constructed? How does the storyteller distribute information to create curiosity, surprise, and suspense? It is often necessary to watch a film twice to see how it works. Watch it the first time is to experience the story as a member of the audience. Watch it again to focus on the craft. Remember how you experienced the film on the first viewing and then try to figure out what the storyteller did you make you think and feel this way.
If you happen to be watching a bad movie, don't just zone out. Figure out why it is bad. Where did the storyteller go wrong? What would you have done to make it better? If you were hired to fix the script, what would you change?
4. Read screenplays of films you admire
The screenplays for thousands of produced films are available online for free. Many have also been printed as books available in stores and libraries. One of the best ways to develop your skills is by studying the work of successful professionals. In certain ways, this is preferable to watching the movie itself, because it will allow you to focus on solely how the story was put together on the page without being distracted by the performances, the direction, editing, or cinematography. You can read and reread each scene at your own pace. Reading screenplays is especially helpful when it comes to learning how to write action and description. This is the part of screenwriting that the audience never sees, and reading it on the page will help you to understand how to communicate information in a clear, active, and efficient manner that allows readers to see the potential movie unfolding in their minds.
5. Get hired as a script reader.
Since production companies, agencies, and management companies receive dozens of spec screenplay submissions every week, they hire readers (usually unpaid college interns) to comb through these piles and separate the good from the bad, from the ugly. I graduated from one of the country's top film schools, but this was not where I learned about story. My real training came from reading hundreds upon hundreds of unproduced screenplays (most of them terrible). Reader not only read scripts, but also write “coverage”- a short one to two page analysis of each submission so that executives, agents, and the like can get a quick overview of each script without having to read it themselves. The wonderful thing about writing coverage is, rather than simply generating a general opinion about a script as being good or bad, it forces the reader to really think about what specifically is good or bad about that script, for what reason it is good or bad, and what might possibly need to be done to fix any problems.
Most of what you read will be crap. You may be shocked that 90% or more of the scripts you will read won't be very good. Out of the remainder, 9 out of 10 still will not be good enough to be produced. However, there is a bright side. These poor script give an unparallelled opportunity to sharpen your own critical skills as a writer. Being forced to criticize, dismantle, and diagnose screenplays written by someone other than yourself develops a from the inside-out understanding of screencraft. You will understand the right way to write a script by seeing all the ways a script can go wrong. You will learn what readers like to see in a script by being one yourself. You will start to connect symptoms with causes, and many of the more abstract notions contained on this blog will become clear to understand as you see these concepts in action.
Paid reader jobs are hard to get, and most unpaid gigs require you to be enrolled in college to receive course credit in lieu of payment. However, there are always plenty of small companies , film festivals, and screenplay competitions that need volunteers to sift through submissions. There are also a number of online communities where developing screenwriters post their work for feedback. If you are really serious about developing your critical ability, you can even practice this on your own. Find unproduced screenplays online, or scripts to movies you have not seen and write your own mock coverage. Just make sure you get the most of it by putting your analysis in writing. No education is complete without homework.
6. Watch documentaries
In many regards, watching documentaries can make you a far better writer than watching narrative films alone. Cinematic stories are supposed to be imitations of reality, but if a writer only watches movies, the only thing the writer will learn to imitate is other movies. Documentaries are drama too, but they show the drama of real life. Documentaries present real people struggling with real conflicts in situations that are sometimes far richer and more complex than can be found in any fictional narrative. Like reading, documentaries will expose you to subjects and cultures that will broaden your knowledge and open you mind to new storytelling possibilities. They can vastly improve your ability to create rich, identifiable characters by presenting the intimate thoughts and actions of real human beings in situations that are at times far stranger than any fiction.
7. Read biographies and autobiographies
Biographies and autobiographies of public and historical figures can help a writer better understand what it takes to create interesting, well-rounded, fully human characters. Persons of fame (or infamy) are usually seen by the public in only one dimension. We know only the simple superficial details told to us by the media or public word of mouth. A rock star is just a musician and partier. A politician is just a suit making speeches. An actress's image comes only from the roles she has played. But biographical works allow us to see these people in all three dimensions. We learn the backstory that made this person who they are. We find how they achieved what they have done, what drove them to do it, and the struggles they faced along the way. If the work is autobiographical, we are allowed to go even deeper into character, learning the intimate thoughts, emotions, wants, needs, and fears behind those actions that made the person famous. A storyteller needs to understand his or her characters on such a level of intimacy. Discovering the complex tangle of psychological impulses behind public personas will help writers understand what must go into creating characters who are equally fascinating.
8. Make an effort to understand human psychology
A writer cannot create believable human behavior on screen without first understanding it in real life. Most people cannot understand why other people do what they do. Some of us don't even understand ourselves. Stiff, flat, unnatural characters are the result of a writer who lacks the ability to empathize- to see the world through the eyes of persons different than themselves. A great storyteller must be able to take the viewpoint of any character at any time, regardless of gender, race, culture, age, or sexual orientation. He or she must be able to occupy dozens of different minds at a time, each with their own unique way of seeing the world.
A basic understanding of human psychology can help the writer empathize with any type of person. It can give the ability to predict how any given person will react in any given situation. It can explain how the experiences, traumas, wants, needs, and fears found in a character's past will make them who they are today and continue to influence their actions in the future. Stories, after all, are about people. They explore humanity. That makes storytellers anthropologists. We got to study our subjects to know what makes them tick.
9. Write more.
Writing is not easy. It is not glamorous. It is arduous labor. The amount of time and dedication it takes to become a success guarantees that only the strong will survive. This is why the first and foremost quality any writer must have is a genuine LOVE of writing. A real writer does not write for money. Nor does he or she write for fame. A real writer writes because he or she wants to. There are ideas deep inside the writer that he or she absolutely must communicate to the world. A real writer couldn't possibly imagine him/herself doing anything else in life.
It is this passion alone that will get you through the growing pains of the long years it takes to grow from beginner to pro. You have to want it.