How to Break Into Screenwriting

Screenwriting is a discipline most of us are unacquainted with before going to university. You may have a sound knowledge of film or television, know your Vertigos from your Borgens or your Mudbounds, and never have encountered a single screenplay. This is normal. Starting-out in screenwriting only requires ideas, and the drive and imagination to visualise them.

Your time at Warwick is the best time to act on these ideas. The resources freely available to you, in addition to your proximity to a host of likeminded creatives, mean you can kick-start your career in screenwriting right here on campus. As a third-year English Literature and Creative Writing student who formerly specialised in fiction, I’ve laid-out a few reasons to consider screenwriting, whether you’re an experienced writer in any discipline or new to creative writing altogether.

Firstly, I should set this straight: just as it’s essential to read widely and constantly if you’re hoping to become a bestselling author, it is paramount to read as many screenplays as you can get your hands on to achieve success as a screenwriter. The more diverse, the better. Don’t exclusively read Tarantino’s screenplays (which, if you replicated them, wouldn’t even get you through the door of a production company, by the way – Tarantino breaks all of the rules and only gets away with it because of his reputation).

But equally, don’t rely on the screenplays of your indie filmmaker friend with the YouTube channel. Read both in measure, and everything in-between. This is as much to acquire technical know-how as it is to understand structure, whether for a short film, TV episode or feature film. The more widely you read, the easier you’ll find it to adapt your own style and find a niche that rings true.

Before you approach any of the subsequent stages, take the time to plan. To tackle my old nemesis Writer’s Block, I create enormous spreadsheets and Word documents, plotting out scene-by-scene every character’s movements; their intentions, their intricacies, their objectives. Who wouldn’t they want to sit next to on the bus? What is their political stance? What do they like on their toast? The writing process is so much simpler when you know the answers to all of these questions, whether they’ll be imperative to your screenplay or not. Know your characters and your plot inside-out, and the writing will flow naturally.

Screenwriting is a much more technical, rule-bound process than most other forms of creative writing. It’ll take a few attempts to get to grips with the strict formatting, and as such, I would recommend downloading screenwriting software as soon as possible. There are some great free ones out there (Celtx, Writer Duet), and if you’re serious about screenwriting, there are some top-end software well worth investing in (I use Final Draft, the industry standard). These will do much of the formatting for you, and relieve you of the inevitable disaster you’ll face attempting to write a screenplay on Word.

There are also numerous books and online resources offering tips and tricks for screenwriters (check out Syd Field’s ‘Screenplay’ and Ray Frensham’s ‘Screenwriting’, just two examples which have helped me). These aren’t sacred texts, however. If you’re developing short scripts (which I’d always recommend starting with), for instance, there’s room for more experimentation with narrative structure. In longer screenplays, the exposition, conflict and resolution must be clearly defined. Such resources will familiarise you with how other screenwriters have forged their path into the industry. It’s never going to be a direct route, and you’ll need to be prepared to persevere.

At first, a career in screenwriting seems inaccessible, shrouded in the distant glitz and glamour of Hollywood. And that’s true, certainly of the screenplays and screenwriting guides you’re likely to find in libraries or bookshops. But there are more opportunities for young people to write for the screen in the UK than ever before. And while you’re at Warwick, there are innumerable opportunities to get your ideas out there, no matter how little experience you have.

BFT Film Productions, Warwick’s filmmaking society for whom I’m the Writers’ Representative for 2018-19, take on short scripts all year round, working with writers to develop them into films. I’ll be running weekly workshops and one-to-one sessions to help bring your ideas onto the page and refine them until they’re as good as they possibly can be, before they’re developed for the screen. It’s also a great way to meet fellow budding screenwriters and find potential collaborators on projects. Pester people! The more feedback you can get on your work, and the more stringently you edit your scripts in response, the better they will be.

Finally, I can’t stress enough how valuable it is to gain experience in whatever form you can. It’s almost unheard of to find screenwriting opportunities advertised online (certainly anything with a cash incentive), so instead, put yourself out there. Send your CV and your scripts to anyone who will take them: look for contacts on production company websites, considering where you can reach over the holidays. Show your willingness to gain experience. Ninety-five per cent of these companies won’t get back to you, but the five per cent who do may just offer you a week supervising on-set, or shadowing a writers’ room. Accumulate these experiences.

In my two years at Warwick thus far, I’ve written and performed for the stage, directed, produced, written and acted in numerous short films, and even written and hosted a weekly radio show. I haven’t had a budget. This September, I’m working at a television production company based in Manchester: something I’ve only accessed on the back of these experiences. And though you may be asking yourself of their direct relevance to screenwriting specifically, these experiences have not only fundamentally altered my perspective as a screenwriter, but have already assisted me in unlocking the next steps of my screenwriting career.

Be willing – I think that’s the crux of everything I’ve identified in this editorial. The worst that’ll happen is you won’t get a reply. So try again. And keep trying.

by Joel Russell

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