Secrets of Writing A Screenplay

First thing, right up front, there are no secrets. None whatsoever.
Or at least, that was what I thought until I recently got a variety of spam for assorted hot offers that unlock the ancient secrets of the screenplay. Heck, some of these promotions sound as if I will be spending the next twenty years in a Tibetan monastery. Good thing I can substitute my credit card number in lieu of esoteric training.
In reality, some of these folks (and their various web sites) can teach you how to write a screenplay. That doesn’t mean they can teach how to write a good screenplay or even a marketable one. All they can do is give you the basics about how to format and structure something that just might resemble a plausible script in the most elemental sense of the term.
Of course, you could figure that out for yourself if you were so inclined. But it is different strokes for different folks and buyer beware and all of that standard advice. People have a Constitutional right to pay as much as they want for any amount of screenwriting seminars they desire. I have heard reports from folks who claim they come out of these seminars feeling truly inspired, which I assume is why they keep going back every year. Few if any of them have yet to produce a single marketable screenplay, but they have lots of inspiration.
Sometimes you just want to do something that makes you feel better about yourself. Really, nobody can teach you exactly how to write a screenplay. What you can learn, is how to structure a screenplay. That occurred to me while reading an article at The Guardian by the BBC writer/producer John Yorke. In What Makes a Great Screenplay?, Yorke unreels a quick but highly detailed breakdown of key narrative and dramatic components in the screenplay structure.
I’m not sure that I would totally agree with every point Yorke makes in this piece. But it is worth careful scrutiny by anyone interested in learning narrative craft. Yes, I said craft. Great writing is an art, but getting a solid job done involves craftsmanship. What Yorke provides is an introduction to basic concepts of narrative analysis and structure. If you are a beginner, it may be a bit advanced. Especially when he starts referencing Vladimir Propp. In my days, Propp was largely used as a sneaky ringer to spring on graduate students.
If you are a complete beginner, one of the first most basic things you need to know is length. A lot of people will tell you 120 pages. Keep in mind the general estimate of one page of script for one minute of screen time. 120 pages is roughly a two hour movie (give or take a few minutes). You should not be coming in at this length, especially as a beginner: 90 to 110 pages is preferred, with 120 as the absolute max point. I have heard of producers who will not read any scripts longer than this. I even know a few of their names.
As a general rule, you will only want three main characters. I call this the Star Trek rule. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy offers a concise but extensive spread of personality differences for maximum narrative and character development containable within the confines of a movie. If you want more than three strong characters, you should plan on doing TV. I call this the Star Trek: the Next Generation rule. This is why the simpler original series always played better on the big screen than the more complex and superior sequel show.
Traditionally, screenplays are viewed as being composed of three acts. Some have suggested that it is more like four acts. Others attempt to break it up into sequences. It doesn’t matter. Any movie has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Personally, I see the structure as more resembling a chess game with an opening strategy. For those who cannot stand chess, you might use the classical concerto structure as a reference point. Of course, a few might just want to go for the obvious and use theatrical plays.
Why did I not mention the theater in the first place? Simple. You are trying to write a screenplay, not a theater piece. There is a big difference. Plays are about language and the performers. Movies are about visual structure. If movies were to be compared to any form of traditional stage-based presentation, the closest relative would be opera rather than plays. So maybe you should start boning up on Verdi.
Learn to write dialogue. You should try to develop a good sense for naturalistic dialogue. You know, something that sounds similar to the way people actually talk. Better still, study the range of how people speak. In general, a doctor will speak differently than, say, a cab driver. Good screenwriters have a knack for these differences. Great screenwriters have a glorious field day with it.
Don’t overwrite the script. Unless you are doing My Dinner With Andre, Part Deux, you don’t need a lot of dialogue. Remember, you are writing for a visual art form. Whenever possible, you are looking to “show” the audience, not “tell” them. Once in a blue moon, a film gets by with being a “talk fest.” But that is more the exception than the rule.
And always, no matter what, try to keep your sense of passion in the process. If you can keep yourself engaged in the work, it is just possible that you might engage the audience as well. Not necessarily, but it is a definite plus.
One last bit of advice. Unless you are the Lord Almighty, your words are not written in stone. Always be ready to do extensive rewriting. Often this is the best writing of all.