Before any film exists, there is a script. And that script is the brainchild of one or more writers.
But in many cases, the quality of the script doesn’t just determine how good the final product is — it can also decide whether or not the film even gets produced in the first place. And that puts a lot of pressure on aspiring screenwriters or filmmakers.
Fortunately, there is no shortage of advice out there for up-and-coming filmmakers. You can watch tutorials, sign up for classes, attend writing workshops, or just lurk in social media communities on platforms like Facebook, Discord, and Reddit.
But we’ve done some of that work for you. So all you have to do is read this article and start applying some of these screenwriting tips to your own pre-production process.
What you do with that advice afterwards is up to you.
6 screenwriting tips every filmmaker should follow
1. Build from the ground up
Every masterpiece starts as something small. At one point, Michelangelo’s “David” was just a lump of rock and Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” was a palette of colored paints. The same applies to film or any other artistic endeavor — no great film script starts in the third act.
We connect with great characters and stories on an emotional level, but those pieces that resonate with us aren’t just a lucky byproduct. The best screenwriters start with a problem or catastrophe, then start to shape a story around how people overcome or solve that obstacle.
Coming up with an amazing hero is always fun, but it’s rarely the basis for a good plot.
It might sound counterproductive as one of the most important screenwriting tips, but the truth is that how you start a story will ultimately shape how you end the story.
2. Save the cat
Speaking of amazing heroes and good plots, the idea of “saving the cat” is some screenwriting advice that most writers are taught early on in their careers. (In fact, Save The Cat! is one of the most influential screenwriting books out there.)
Think of it as a way to establish your hero as the hero by showing them do something that will resonate with the audience. Remember in the earliest scenes of Aladdin, when he steals a piece of bread so he can enjoy a meal? But instead of eating it himself, he hands it to a pair of children he sees digging in the trash for food.
Sure, we just saw him commit a crime. But this single “save the cat” moment shows us he has heroic traits — like kindness and generosity — making him a loveable guy instead of a villainous one.
The same goes for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones’ guides betray him and literally try to kill him. However, he goes on to save one of their lives despite having every reason to let him die. (Of course, the guy doesn’t live long afterwards, but not until Indiana Jones has his “save the cat” moment…)
Here are those two examples, plus two others to illustrate why this idea works:
3. Default to three acts
The three-act story structure has existed for as long as humans have been telling stories. At face value, that could be boring. After all, if it’s something everyone uses, why would you want to rely on it too? Don’t you want to break the mold and do something extraordinary?
But a tried and true structure isn’t just a convenient template — it’s a framework for creativity and for charting character development throughout a project. When you know that the three pieces of this basic story arc works, you can focus on the other elements of the screenplay.
These three acts (setup, confrontation, and resolution) are like bones in a body or the frame of a house. They’re essential, but you don’t pay attention to them because your focus is on the stuff that covers that internal structure. Here’s why:
- Setup, or Act I: The goal here is to introduce everything. Show us why the hero is great and why the villain isn’t. Highlight the key parts of the setting, whether that’s a specific time period or a unique location. And introduce us to the key conflict. Think about every moment on Tatooine in Star Wars Episode IV.
- Confrontation, or Act II: Don’t just think of this as a follow-up to Act I. Instead, the confrontation is the pivotal moment when the worlds of the hero and villain clash. This isn’t the moment of ultimate victory, but rather a chance for the stakes to get pushed a little further — Darth Vader killing Ben Kenobi, which pushes Luke’s heroic journey.
- Resolution, or Act III: This isn’t always an epic shootout, but it is the big moment after a steady buildup of pressure and drama: Luke survives the trench run, destroys the Death Star, out-pilots Vader, etc. There’s also the thematic payoff of showing Luke succeed with help from his friends while also accepting his role as the narrative hero.
4. Write more than you need
Filmmakers never use every second of footage they capture. That’s because pre-production often shapes a film, even more than pre-production planning does. Seeing an actor’s performance could change the tone of a scene and possibly even the entire project.
In the same way, screenwriters should write more than they actually present in the finished script. Whether it’s making a “lore bible” to build out the setting or cutting out unnecessary dialogue scenes, screenwriters put in this work for two reasons.
First, some viewers love discovering bits and pieces that hint at a deeper sense of meaning to things in a film. But on the other hand, knowing a character’s backstory may help you as the writer (in addition to providing more depth for the audience). After all, most viewers will appreciate a deeper character more than the 15 pages of dialogue from a flashback scene.
All of this information can give you a better understanding of your story and characters…but it’s not necessarily something that needs to be included in the final draft. In fact, that leads us pretty nicely to what is easily the most important thing for screenwriters to remember:
5. Show, don't tell
The Golden Rule of writing is to “show, don’t tell.” Put simply, this advice basically means that your job is to describe or illustrate something instead of just instructing the viewer. And that makes it the most important of our screenwriting tips (even if we’ve hidden it down here).
Think about a film like Dune. It would be easy to start the film with a 15-minute primer that lays out the state of the fictional universe, introduces the character relationships, hints at potential villains, etc. But that would be a downright miserable experience for the audience.
Instead, show that information. Show relationships or cultural tensions in how people behave, instead of just defaulting to exposition. Don’t waste time and effort describing something that the audience could see or hear — instead, use the script to add depth to those things.
Take a look at the Star Wars films and you’ll see examples of both — times we were informed via excessive telling, and times we put together something through context clues.
There’s a reason this piece of advice is shared by every writing instructor, whether it’s for novels or films or comic books or video games. It’s an idea that great writers internalize and implement for every line they write.
6. Read every line out loud
Writing dialogue that feels natural is a difficult task. And that’s especially true for anyone who hasn’t seen how a novel, comic, or academic writing style translates into screenplay writing.
We speak every day, but capturing that and using it to convey a plot can feel…well, scripted. And when it comes to script writing, too many people forget the “show, don’t tell” rule and instead over-explain, over-analyze, or over-state things in the form of characters dialogue.
Nothing will pinpoint bad dialogue quite like hearing it out loud. And if you’re reading it yourself before you hand it to on-screen talent, you’ll be able to catch those unwieldy or clunky spots without embarrassing yourself.
(There’s a reason this is a technique voice actors and content creators use. It’s guaranteed to catch silly mistakes, which means it’s something screenwriters should practice too.)
Dialogue is often the thing that makes or breaks a script. Any trick or technique you can find to clean up and polish this part will go a long way in raising the level of the entire production.
To be clear, these six screenwriting tips are only the beginning. If we want to call back to the three act structure, then understanding and implementing what we’ve covered is basically still part of the “setup” stage in sharpening your skills as a screenwriter.
But for all of that information (and all of the sources that offer additional tips), it’s safe to say that these five screenwriting tips will become the foundation for a strong writing process. They’re tried and true by the very best screenwriters, and that means they’ll be valuable to everyone interested in screenwriting, pre-production, or filmmaking as a whole.
For more screenwriting tips and filmmaking tricks, here are a few hand-picked articles from the Soundstripe blog you might enjoy:
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