Shaping up your scriptwriting (and beating writer’s block)

To outsiders, scriptwriting sounds easy. All you’re doing is sitting down and putting some words on a page, right? It’s indoor work with no heavy lifting. When you’re trying to make a success of it, however, the experience is very different. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, it just won’t come out the way you want – or, worse, it won’t come out at all. This article will help to get you through that. The first thing you need to know is that there is always something you can do.

Rethink story structure

Whatever you may have been taught in the past, there are lots of ways to approach structuring a narrative. Some people stick with the old favorite of plotting out 40 scenes. Others – especially when writing action, where the pacing is faster – bump that up to 70. Others still prefer to think in terms of the three or five act structures traditionally used on the stage, while others take a completely freewheeling approach, at least in the first draft. You can also experiment with things like non-linear chronology or nested narratives. Two things mark out the really successful scriptwriters: they’ve found techniques that suit their creative instincts; and they’re professional enough to heed others’ input and modify the end results where necessary.

Understand what a script does

Scripts aren’t simply about telling stories. They’re there to provide a structure which everything else in a production can coalesce around. Even documentaries have scripts – you can’t put together a complicated story like Katharina Otto-Bernstein’s Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures without a means of ordering information and linking different elements together. They provide not only scenes but the cues that directors and editors need to work out scene transitions. They let set builders work out what needs to be constructed and cinematographers know how they need to light it, and so on. Keeping all these people in mind as you first structure your script and then again when you make your first edit means it’s much more likely to make it to the screen.

Give characters room to roam

If you’re having difficulty plotting out a series of events in a way that feels satisfactory, sometimes it helps to focus on your characters instead. Spend time filling in backstories and really getting to know them. Imagine them in different types of scenarios. Try to spend time with people with similar backgrounds. Even when you won’t be exploring much of this directly in the script, this will help you to get a better feel for how they would, realistically, behave. It can also help actors to get to grips with them, though you should be aware that some actors will bring strong ideas of their own.

Enrich your diet

No, not what you eat. While staying healthy certainly helps to keep the mind sharp, as a writer you also need to make sure you consume a steady diet of ideas. Many scriptwriters try looking for inspiration in similar pre-existing works, but this can be hazardous – you don’t want to end up producing a pale copy of someone else’s work. If you’re stuck in a rut, watching or reading something completely different can often be more helpful. Listen to music, go to art exhibitions, talk to people outside your usual social milieu. You can also engage in creative procrastination, working on several scripts at once and moving between them. This helps to keep your thinking fresh and ensures that there’s always something useful you can be getting on with.

Listen!

Although there’s much more to scriptwriting than dialog, in the end, if you can’t capture the way people talk, you’re going to struggle. Spending time in different spaces just listening to natural conversation can be a big help. Parties, eateries and public transport are favorite spots for writers and as you move between them, you’ll get a feel for the different rhythms of each. It can also be helpful to record conversation (don’t do it without permission – ask your friends and then leave the recorder running until they forget it’s there) so that you can break it down afterwards and get a better understanding of how it works (which is not as logical as you might think). Finally, make sure you’re listening to your own dialog. Reading it out loud or getting a friend to read it can give you a very different impression from just looking at it on the page.

Invest in a good software package

It’s easy to lose the flow of your writing when you’re constantly having to pause to deal with formatting. A good scriptwriting software package will take care of most of that for you, making it so easy to add simple directions that you’ll find yourself doing it automatically, without having to think. There are several good, affordable software solutions out there which can handle basic formatting and they’re a great place to start even if you then go on to invest in something with more functionality.

If you’ve been struggling with your script for a long time, don’t despair. Every writer goes through it. What matters is having the wit and perseverance to carry on.

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