Hey guys! Alistair Baldwin here! Over the next seven days, you’ll receive daily prompts that’ll aim to demystify screenwriting as a form! If you have any additional queries you can find me on Twitter at @baldwinalistair.
DAY ONE PROMPT: Formatting
As with the formal requirements of poetic forms, from the sonnet to the sestina, the strictures of form and precision of language can have liberating effects and profound implications.
White Space: An Approach To The Practice Of Screenwriting As Poetry
Formatting can be the most prescriptive and least intuitive aspect of screenwriting for newcomers – so let’s rip that bandaid off! Download this add-on for Google Docs and familiarise yourself with the three essential features of a script: sluglines (which show location and time), action lines (which describe what audiences see) and dialogue.
Write a 1-2 page scene that contains these three elements. Respond to the idea of screenwriting as a poetic form. Notice how breaking up a paragraph of action into single-sentence action lines changes the pace of your script.
DAY TWO PROMPT: Visual Storytelling
Unless you’re using voice-over, scripts won’t tell you what a character’s really thinking. Instead, they show you. You can glean incredible amounts about someone just from whether they leave their teabag in the sink or put it straight in the bin. Does your character chuck on an old T-shirt before heading straight out the door, or try on three different outfits and fuss nervously in the mirror?
It’s these tiny, specific character actions that can make someone feel real – and therefore, someone an audience cares about.
Without dialogue, write a short scene that makes us love, or hate, a character – just from the way they do a series of household chores.
DAY THREE PROMPT: Dialogue
‘When you’re writing a pilot, unless you already have an actor attached to the project, you’re writing it with all the voices sort of in your head. Once you actually cast it, the actors become the voices of the characters, and you start to write for them and their strengths.’
I can’t count the times I’ve written down what I reckon is incredible dialogue, only to realise it’s awful the moment someone has to say it out loud. Nine times out of ten this is because I’ve written dialogue the way I’d say it.
Write a short scene with two people having an argument. Then, pick someone you know in real life with a voice that’s distinct to your own. Maybe they’re less verbose than you, or more sarcastic. They could be incredibly melodramatic, or argue like they’re doing a high school debate. Apply that voice to one of your characters, and rewrite their dialogue accordingly – observing how it can make character conflict more dynamic.
DAY FOUR PROMPT: Cliffhangers
As much as its an artistic form, screenwriting is necessarily a commercial one as well. Think of how much it costs to pay actors, directors, editors, catering, costuming…
Story choices are often made with a production’s commercial needs in mind. In broadcast television, the structure of an episode is written to accommodate ad breaks. Good TV writing will end acts on cliffhangers – moments of peril or mystery or scandal – so you stick around through ad breaks.
Write a short scene that ends on a revelation that would make you want to sit through an entire ad break to find out what happens next. Avoid cliches like “I’m pregnant” or “he’s dead” – challenge yourself to come up with a cliffhanger you’ve never seen on screen before.
DAY FIVE PROMPT: Suspense
Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Bomb Theory’ is an oft-quoted example outlining the difference between surprise and suspense.
If you were watching a scene with two friends having a boring conversation, and then suddenly a bomb exploded, you’d be surprised – briefly. But if the camera panned down under the table to reveal the bomb, with a timer counting down from 5 minutes, their boring conversation would be injected with suspense.
Suspense makes the viewer a participant in the drama, screaming ‘RUN!’ at unaware characters on their screen. Write a short script in which the audience becomes aware of something impending that the characters aren’t – and mine this for tension.
DAY SIX PROMPT: Collaboration
‘I could be just a writer very easily. I am not a writer. I am a screenwriter, which is half a filmmaker. … But it is not an art form, because screenplays are not works of art. They are invitations to others to collaborate on a work of art’
One of the most fundamental differences between screenwriting and other forms, like prose or poetry, is that collaboration is inescapable. Whether it’s breaking story in a writer’s room or getting network notes or talking with directors, you’ll never be the sole creative voice of a film or show.
Find one or more fellow budding screenwriters in the EWF Discord, and decide on an idea for a short script together. Pitch characters, jokes or to each other, and suggest dialogue changes as you go.
DAY SEVEN PROMPT: Pitch
Unfortunately, actually writing can be a somewhat small part of a screenwriter’s career. A lot of your time will actually be spent pitching your idea to people, convincing them to pay you.
A key part of pitching is a logline – that is, a short and sweet sell of what your idea is. It sets up the main narrative thrust of the project, without attempting to answer questions or point to a neat resolution.
Go through the short scenes you’ve written over the past week. Consider what kind of stories they could sit within, and try writing a logline for each.
Thanks for coming on this seven day journey with me! I hope you feel a bit more at home with some basic aspects of screenwriting! If you have any queries about the form or breaking into the industry, find me on Twitter at @baldwinalistair.