10 (Not-So) Secret Skills Screenwriters Need To Succeed
Will the skills listed below guarantee your next spec screenplay will sell? No. Will they help make you a better writer? Yes! Go beyond the storyteller within. Take an interest in these ten disciplines and you’ll immediately see the impact in your final draft.
SCREENWRITING SKILL #1: SCREENPLAY READER
Right. This first skills is complicated because you clearly write/read screenplays all the time. Like it or not, screenplay readers exist and they are often the gate keepers for big producers. Screenplay readers write coverage and recommend the scripts they like to their superiors. Readers are paid to find the next BIG THING. You don’t have to go out and become a screenplay reader to understand how they think. Find screenplays online. Read notes. You can even write your own coverage.
However, this skill is less about becoming an accomplished script reader and more about the ability to separate the reader from the screenwriter. Tackle your own screenplay with a different perspective. You may discover a plot hole that eluded you. I’ve learned from this mistake first hand when I finally sent my work to readers. You may fall in love with a scene but unless you can look at your script objectively, it may hurt your story in the long run.
SCREENWRITING SKILL #2: ACTING
You don’t have to be a good actor to appreciate what it takes to deliver a line of dialogue. Study the subtleties of acting. Many actors research their roles a great deal. What kind of questions will an actor ask you about a particular character? Act out your screenplays. You can do this privately. Speak your lines out loud and you’ll know if a line flows naturally. Becoming your characters gives you valuable insight into who they are. It also gives you the tools needed to convey your vision on the page.
SCREENWRITING SKILL #3: RESEARCH
Nothing makes a screenplay more convincing than in depth research and knowledge of the subject you’re tackling. Immerse yourself in the world you’re trying to create. Watch movies, read books, dig up literary journals. Get first hand experience in the real world. Writing a movie about skydiving? Jump out of a plane! That may be a tad extreme but you can’t just jump into a screenplay about World War II without having a keen interest in the history of that era. To be convincing, you have to be knowledgeable and the only way to gain knowledge is either through direct experience and/or becoming an accomplished researcher.
SCREENWRITING SKILL #4: PSYCHOLOGY
Studying psychology gives you important tools to infuse into your characters. The better you understand your characters, the better the reader/audience will relate to them. You don’t have to become a psychologist but you do need to understand the fundamentals of how a character lives his/her life. The second you betray the psychology of a character, you’ll lose any and all trust you’ve built up with your audience. The more you know what makes your characters tick, the more they’ll stay true to themselves organically.
BOOK RECOMMENDATION: Psychology for Screenwriters by William Indick
SCREENWRITING SKILL #5: MARKETING
This list features a few skills related to marketing and advertising. That’s because they are key skills to compliment your ability to tell a good story. Knowing how to follow the latest trends in the film industry is a valuable tool. Understanding how a script/film is marketed will also give you a huge advantage as you develop your next project. Analyze marketing campaigns. This is not limited to the film industry either. There is marketing all around us. What makes a good campaign work? What makes you want to buy a product or service? At the end of the day, you are trying to sell your original ideas to readers. You have to be convincing but there is also a big element of salesmanship in your words.
Marketing & Branding Your Career As A Screenwriter | Script Magazine
SCREENWRITING SKILL #6: PUBLIC SPEAKING
Public speaking can be terrifying but it’s also a fantastic way to build confidence. If your goal is to become a professional screenwriter, you HAVE to know how to sell your screenplay and yourself. You need to be fearless in a room full of executives and portray an aura of absolute strength. Believe in your story. Believe in yourself. Be honest.
SCREENWRITING SKILL #7: PHOTOGRAPHY
Go out and take pictures. Video too. Learn about composition and how to frame a shot. With a little practice, you’ll be taking amazing photos and you’ll develop an eye for good images. This skill instantly applies to screenwriting especially when it comes to writing action elements. When you’re describing an image, having an understanding of what makes an images memorable is extremely valuable.
Photography/Videography also doubles as a great way to cure writer’s block. Go outside and take some photos when you’re stuck. Be your own location scout if you can. If there is a scene you’re stuck on set in a park, go to a park and take some pictures! Be your own inspiration.
11 Tips for Beginner Photographers | Digital Photography School
SCREENWRITING SKILL #8: COPYWRITING
There are obviously many forms of writing other than screenwriting. Copywriting is a skill that screenwriters can truly benefit from. The art of copywriting involves achieving the greatest amount of impact in the least amount of words in order to sell or advertise a product or service. To write a screenplay you must achieve the greatest amount of impact in the least amount of words in order to sell a story.
Learning different forms of writing will only enhance your skills. The idea of writing advertising may seem strange but this skill teaches you how to grab people’s attention in the shortest amount of time while delivering a strong message.
Here are a couple resources on how to be a good copywriter:
41 Killer Copywriting Tips | Slash Copywriters
35 Copywriting Tips & Tricks From The Pros | Writtent
The 10 Commandments of Copywriting | Entrepreneur
31 Copywriting Tips Based On Psychology | Nick Kolenda
SCREENWRITING SKILL #9: VIDEO EDITING
I have a unique perspective on skill #9 because it happens to be my full time 10+ year career. I may not be a professional screenwriter but I bring my screenwriting skills to work every single day. It works the same in reverse. Learning the process of editing is the ultimate visual form of rewriting a script. You can see which lines work and you learn from your scripting mistakes.
Long ago, I took a shot at producing my own short films. I wasn’t very good but I learned so much about myself by editing a short film I wrote. All the mistakes I made were apparent the second I began assembling the edit. I realized quickly that a 26 page short screenplay could have easily been cut down to 10-15. It made me realize just how economical you can be on the page.
And just because I put it out there, here’s the short film I’m referencing. It’s a drama/comedy set on a golf course called Playing Through. (This movie is old… So be gentle…)
SCREENWRITING SKILL #10: MOVIE BREAKDOWNS
Learn how to breakdown movies. Nothing gives you a better understanding of how a movie is constructed than deconstructing it. Break the movie down to it’s most basic elements. Theme, Structure etc… Then continually add levels like Character studies and location breakdowns. Explore the film’s deeper meaning and analyze the symbolism and visual language.
Become a critic. You don’t have to advertise your opinions but writing a movie review forces you to organize your thoughts on a particular film. What do you like about the movie? What don’t you like? If you can articulate your thoughts and opinions on a movie that already exists, you instantly become a better judge of what works (and what doesn’t work) in your screenplay.