Screenwriting 101

Typewriter - Once upon a timeArt is not the mirror of life, it is the essence of life

A great script makes the story come alive as film in the imagination of the reader.  It is a visual and narrative poetry, with a life of its own.  It is so taut and suspenseful that it captures the reader totally. 

Screenwriting 101 is here to provide you ideas and information on how to write better scripts and help pitch them. Screenwriting 101 will be adding new articles and blogs on a regular basis. 

 ‘Scheherzade’s survival [like any storyteller] was by keeping the King wondering what would happen next’ – E.M.Forster


5 Tips on Writing Visually

1. Think of your scene like a moving painting, with its own narrative, an unfolding event , with a story that unfolds through space – in the foreground, middle ground and background, and through time – with a beginning, middle and end.

2. Choreograph your visual actions like a dance of intentions. It is the interplay of two people’s desires, conscious or unconscious, a dialectic of forces, and the interchange leads to an outcome which is not exactly the intention of either, and it is a surprise.

3. Show the visual interaction between your character and their world. Use it as a metaphor for the person’s inner state, their feelings, confusions, conflicts. And when the character has a choice, a decision to make, illustrate the consideration of this decision by showing their alternatives in opposing visual ideas.

4. Think of your story like walking through an unknown building, discovering the spaces and events in each room, and then beginning to understand the architecture. Ask what happens and how it happens in each of your locations. Who else is there? How do the things happening in each room interact with your character’s story? And remember the accidental and the random is a part of life too, this opens a scene up, making it alive and credible to an audience.

5. The physical place is part of the character’s life, and their story. Where is their home? What do they feel about it? Where do they escape to? Where do they feel comfortable and where do they feel ill at ease? And they will be discovering new places, how is it that they have come there? And who do they encounter in these new places? How does it change them?


The Life Of A Script

You start with an idea or a character and a story which flows from that idea. You can write this as a story synopsis – a page or possibly two. It is an outline. You are finding the essence,  the heart of the story.

‘One cannot create an art that speaks to men when one has nothing to say’
— Andre Malraux

When you write your story in prose and in full, that is with the plot – a beginning, middle and end, this is a treatment. A treatment can be anything from two to twelve pages or longer as a master scene treatment. In a treatment you write the story as you imagine the film, following the pace and dynamic of the screen page by page. So the midpoint of the film is halfway through your treatment.  It can include the occasional exceptional line of dialogue but it is essentially the film’s prose story.

A beat sheet breaks the story into discreet parts, each with a heading. This can be any length. Its intention is to begin to map the story towards scene sequences and even scenes, in a scene breakdown. This is a working document, not a selling text.

The script is rewritten through as many drafts as it takes to make it read so well that it can be imagined as the great film it should be.

You write a script to sell it. The art of selling is a writing form in itself – the pitch.

‘Life is frittered away by detail. Simplify. Simplify.’ – H.Thoreau

The first pitch is the title, the second a slugline, the third a premise – a sentence, inherent in or leading into a very short story synopsis delivered either verbally in thirty seconds or in words of less than a page.

The pitch answers questions about your project – what is it? – The essential concept and genre. What it is about? – The unique story idea. And what it is again? – Its’ particular selling point, and why an audience will want to watch.

‘Respect your audience’ – Robert McKee


For more information on scriptwriting. . .

There are many books and courses and script report services out there. A few very good, most say the same things, and the worst are formulaic.  If you are looking for answers, they will all give you information, but if you are looking to develop your script, then it is only when the song is shared that you can find the heart of the writing in your project. If I had to recommend one book to read it is The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri.


Interesting Books (in alphabetical order by author)

Aristotle, Poetics, (Penguin, 1996)

Peter Brunette and David Wills, Screen/play: Derrida and Film Theory, Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1989.

Christopher Booker, Seven Basic Plots, Continuum 2004

Ken Danzinger and Jeff Rush, Alternative Scriptwriting: Writing Beyond the Rules, 2nd Edition, Boston, Focal Press, 1995.

Lajos Egri , The Art of Dramatic Writing, Kessinger Publishing, LLC. 2010

Sergei Eisenstein, ‘The Form of the Script’ in Selected Works, Volume 1, Writings 1922-34, ed.,

Syd Field Screenplay , Delacorte Press. 1979

Syd Field, The Screenwriter’s Workbook (Revised Edition) Delta; Rev Upd edition 2006

Lizzie Francke, Script Girls: Women Screenwriters in Hollywood, London, British Film Institute, 1994.

Gates, T. SCENARIO: The Craft of Screenwriting, Wallflower, London. 2002

William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting, London, Macdonald, 1984.

Goldman, W. Five Screenplays, Applause, London. 1997

Paul Gulino, Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach, Continuum, 2004

Charles Harris, Complete Screenwriting Course, John  Murray Learning, 2014

Noah Lukeman, The Plot Thickens, St Martins Press, 2003

Scott MacDonald, ed., Screen Writings: Scripts and Texts by Independent Film-makers, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1995.

Barry McFarlane, Novel to Film: an Introduction to the Theory of Adaptation, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1996.

McKee, R. Story, Methuen, London. 1997

Moritz, C. Scriptwriting for the Screen, Routledge: London. 2001

W.Miller: Screenwriting Narrative for Film and TV Columbus Books

Cherry Potter, Screen Language, From Film Writing to Film Making, London, Methuen, 2001.

Alan Rosenthal, Writing, Directing and Producing Documentary Films and Videos, Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 2002.

L. Segar, Making a Good Script Great Samuel French, 1987

Seger, L. Creating Unforgettable Characters, Henry Holt, New York. 1990

Blake Snyder, Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, 2005

Straczynski, J.M. The Complete Book of Scriptwriting, Titan, London. 1997

Thorn Taylor and Melinda Hsu, Digital Cinema: the Hollywood Insider’s Guide to the Evolution of Storytelling, Studio City, Michael

Wiese Productions, 2003.

Vogler, C. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters, Pan. 1999

Wolff, J. and Cox, K. Top Secrets: Screenwriting, Lone Eagle, Los Angeles. 1993


Scripts & Viewing

Scripts are available from British Film Institute Library Southbank, [including Library Special Collections, Unpublished Scripts], Birkbeck library, the Screenwriters Store, Faber and Faber and other publishers, and free from on line sites.

Reading the script in conjunction with watching the film is highly recommended.

Viewing films is a part of researching the many ways the language of film can create different narratives. There is a history to see and love from different movements and cultures. And watching new filmmakers’ short films is also to see sometimes how this language can be used afresh in both their successes and failures.

Some years ago my friend Ross Clarke and I were discussing our top 100 Fiction Films. We put together our lists and since then this idea has spread to our friends putting their own lists together.

The list has been updated since then. And I am sure I have missed many great films which I have seen, it is impossible to remember them all. Anyway, I tried to balance choices across genres and cinemas, but in the end I suppose these are the films that influenced me most on seeing them and they are films which I feel I can go back to. I hope you find your own top 100, there are so many great films out there. Look on TSPDT, far the best site for films through all the decades and from all cultures, and the site tells you which films were most influential on many great directors. There are some real surprises here

Click here to view the list of my Top 100 Films.