Screenwriting for Dummies

As some of you may already know, I’ve just made my first foray into screenwriting and have received a commission for a short film – ‘Enemy Lines’, produced by FNA Films. It will be screened next month in Newcastle. Since receiving that commission I’ve written another short film and have been hired to write the pilot of an animated children’s series – first draft in the bag.

Up until now I have simply been writing on instinct. I felt like a bit of a fake because I hadn’t read any screenwriting books and wasn’t fully aware of the ‘proper’ way of doing things. I had simply downloaded the free Scriptsmart Gold software from the BBC Writers’ Room and figured it out by trial and error and looking at sample scripts.

However, when the opportunity came to write a full feature film for a competition, I decided I needed a bit of help. I asked some of my more experienced screenwriting friends what books they could recommend and they variously suggested: The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler; Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee and The Definitive Guide To Screenwriting by Syd Field.

john-logan-screenwriting-for-dummiesI have heard of all three writers – they’re hailed by some as gurus in the industry. But that made me nervous. Would they be too advanced for me? Would I get caught up in a ‘method’ war between Hollywood heavyweights? I simply wanted a book that covered the basics that I might have missed. For example, when, if ever do you say CUT TO? Do you or do you not number scenes? I wanted an overview of all the methods, rather than just one. So I unashamedly turned to Screenwriting for Dummies by Laura Schellhardt.

Good move. Like all the Dummies series, this was well-written, unpatronising and full of useful information. I got the basics of layout without feeling like an idiot, was encouraged by being told that you could use ‘cards’ (one of my major mental blocks in screenwriting) but I didn’t have to, and feeling affirmed in my less structured approach to the craft. Don’t get me wrong, Schellhardt is strong on structure, but she also allows for more organic writing styles like mine.

I read it before I wrote my screenplay, got going on the script then checked in with the book whenever I got ‘stuck’. I then scanned it after I’d completed my first draft to see that I’d got everything in the right place. Her discussion of the infamous ‘Three Act Structure’ was particularly helpful without being annoyingly prescriptive.

So I would highly recommend this book for beginner or floundering screenwriters. It’s also a lot cheaper than the rest! Now I feel ready to read ‘the gurus’ and will report back to you as soon as I have.

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16 comments on “Screenwriting for Dummies

  1. dianejwright on said:

    Congratulations, Fiona. I hope you know that LA is chock full of writers who would just love to have a similar success story of their first steps into filmdom. I stumbled on your blog today and thought that if you’d like a little support in your new adventures, you might like to come over to THE STORY SPOT. We post bite-sized tidbits of info for experienced and beginning screenwriters.

    THE STORY SPOT is www.the-story-spot.com and our feed signup is at the top of the page. And… we LOVE comments so feel free to add your experiences to our posts if you like what you read.

    GOOD LUCK TO YOU and great writing!
    /djw

  2. Thank you Diane. Yes, it helps to be in a small pond like Newcastle sometimes. We’re really blessed here to be served by an excellent screenwriting development agency called New Writing North who foster talent at an early stage. I shall definitely drop by your site. See you there!

    Fiona

  3. dianejwright on said:

    Glad you found something that inspired you! Makes my day.
    /djw

  4. Pingback: Incurable Disease of Writing » Blog Archive » Just Write Blog Carnival October 17, 2008 Edition

  5. Lainie@ Miscel(Lainie)ous on said:

    Thanks for the thumbs up on the “Dummies” book. My daughter wrote her first novel and in the process of revising decided it was better suited for a screenplay. I looked for resources and found you just after I requested the SFD book from the library.

    I am thankful they had a copy available.

    Just wanted to say thanks and wish you much success!

  6. Lainie@ Miscel(Lainie)ous on said:

    Oh, I almost forgot…do you know of a scriptwriting software for us MAC people? It seems the BBC one is for Windows platform only.

    Thanks

  7. Hi Lainie, my feature film was an adaptation of a radio play that was an adaptation of a short story. I find it fascinating how a story concept needs to find the correct medium to truly fly. Hope it happens for your daughter. I didn’t know the BBC software was only for PC. I’ll ask around my screenwriting buddies and see if they know of anything. Watch this space.

    Fiona

  8. Lainie, try this and let us know how you get on. I see a post coming on free screenwriting software … http://celtx.com/overview.html

  9. dianejwright on said:

    On MAC screenwriting software…

    Try Montage which is finally fully compatible with Final Draft: http://www.marinersoftware.com/sitepage.php?page=104

    or try Scripped. It’s free and it’s online:
    http://www.the-story-spot.com/2008/07/scripped-online-screenwriting-software.html

    Good luck!
    /djw

    www.the-story-spot.com

  10. Lainie@ Mishmash Maggie on said:

    Thank You Fiona and Diane! I will check out all those sites and see what works for us.

    She has the Dummies book from the library and it’s really worked for her so we just ordered it from Amazon. She was just asking about storyboard help and wondered if the Moviemaking for Dummies book was the one for that. I noticed that Scripped site has storyboard info/helps. This is all very new to me and well, I don’t think I mentioned it, but my daughter is 11. So we’re both in unknown territory. She’s in the middle of Act II. Any advice is appreciated.

  11. Hi Lainie. As far as a know, the storyboarding is done by the editor, not the writer. But Diane would probably know more about it than me. Check out her site http://www.the-story-spot.com

    I’ve never had to do a storyboard for any of my films, but it’s a useful skill to have if your daughter wants to grow up to be a writer / director. And that’s a good way to go, as the director has the final say over the script not the writer.

  12. Lainie@ Mishmash Maggie on said:

    Thanks again Fiona! She is definitely leaning towards writer/director. It suits her first-born personality to a tee. :)

    We’ll keep pressing on and see where this goes.

  13. Well I’ve just asked a writer / director to do a guest post for us in the next week or two. Keep checking back! Your daughter is very blessed to have a mum like you.

  14. Lainie@ Mishmash Maggie on said:

    Oh how exciting! Yes, I will check back!

    Thank you so much for the encouragement too. I just try to stay one step ahead of her. It keeps me busy!

  15. John A C Allen on said:

    Just reading this thread and thought I’d clear up any questions about storyboards. These are prepared as pre-visualisation by some (but not all) directors. They are not necessarily a set in stone plan of the film but mainly a guide. I used them in the short film I just wrapped REAL MUST HAVE where they were invaluable. Writers do not necessarily have to know about them but as I always say the more you know about film making the more camera-ready your script can be!
    The best storyboard based guide I can recommend is ‘Film Directing shot by shot’ by Steven D Katz. It’s a hefty tome but a real visualisation bible. And it’s still in print! And cheap! http://www.amazon.co.uk/Film-Directing-Shot-Visualizing-Productions/dp/0941188108

  16. Fiona on said:

    Thanks for the input John.

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