Practical Screenwriting Advice from Reddit

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People who have been writing and reading scripts for years are also some of the most helpful to newer writers. At times I like to go through some of the more popular threads over at /r/screenwriting and catalog the best responses. A lot of this stuff helps me understand how to write from a chracter’s POV and organize my thoughts in a more concise manner.

So I guess I’m hoping this advice may be useful to other aspiring writers, too. Even if you’re just curious about screenwriting and want to know more, these bits of advice can surely help. Most of these threads were posted over the Spring/Summer of 2013 but there is so much other stuff out there. Searching on Reddit can be a great place to start. I will also work towards putting together another post in the future, too.

I want to start this off with an amazing thread titled Screenwriting 101. I can’t duplicate the content over because it is tremendously long. But it is really worth reading through when you have the time. It outlines generating ideas, structure of a script, the writing process, and even as far as locating a good manager.

I can’t say this thread is a full 101 course in itself. However it is a great way to immerse yourself into the generic ideas of screenwriting. Skim it when you have the time and you won’t be disappointed.

Planning Before Writing

This was a great question discussing the amount of planning for a script. How far along should you be with character personalities, plotline, theme… I’ve noticed it seems different for everyone but there is a bare minimum.

One answer given by Thugglebunny provides a small template you could follow:

Concept – Characters – Beat Sheet – Treatment – First draft.

This usually helps me to get going:

The story is about ________. S/he wants more than anything to ________. The journey begins when _______ and s/he decides to ______. They run into trouble when _______. The story ends when _______ and s/he discovers _______.

I am sure there are other sentences you could fill into this template which would provide value in writing. I like to have a lot of ideas and take notes while I’m thinking, just as a reference. But each writer is different so it’s important to follow what method(s) works for you.

Now I also want to share a response in relation to writing for a sitcom. This comment posted by geegee21 offers some practical tips for getting started writing in the style of a sitcom. The original poster was asking for book recommendations which are also included.

There are a TON of books out there about writing television and comedy in particular and they can be really helpful, but the best way to learn is really to read scripts. Second to that is what I and my colleagues like to refer to as daring to fail (just write your story), if you have a great story, structure can always be taught and worked out.

If you’re working on writing a spec, the best thing you can do is collect as many copies of scripts for the show you’re planning to write a spec for and use them as a map – those scripts will inform you about how that particular show is structured because even though there are industry standards, all shows are unique. Depending on length some shows might be 5 acts and a teaser (if it’s a one-hour) or 3 acts and a teaser (most half hours), or any other combination of acts and teasers and kickers.

When you’re reading these scripts pay close attention to the act-outs to see how the writers typically like to end each act and where the beats fall.

As for books, Show Me the Funny is a good resource. The Hollywood Standard is a staple. Writing the TV Drama Series is one of my favorites, and even though you’re looking to write comedy, it is an excellent resource. I haven’t read Inside the Room, but I’ve heard great things about it and it’s on my list, so it might be worth a look.

One other thing I will point out is that when you’re looking for books that are specifically to be used as resources for writing television, I would steer clear of most books published prior to 2009. I only say that because television more than film has really evolved in a very short amount of time and you want to make sure you’re getting the most up to date information.

Other resources to take a look at would be Jon August’s Blog, Jane Espenson’s blog (though she hasn’t updated it in quite awhile), Ken Levine’s blog, The Aspiring TV Writer, and The Artful Writer.

I also HIGHLY recommend subscribing and listening to the Nerdist Writer’s Panel with Ben Blacker. It’s chock full of amazing advice, tips, and great stories from a ton of current television writers.

Hopefully some of this will be helpful! Good luck in your writing endeavors!

Books are not going to solve every problem you have. But they are a reliable way to study screenwriting before you’ve started, just to understand the syntax and the process of conveying ideas into written words. Jon August’s blog does have a long list of archives which may be more useful since all the posts are free. And obviously many other podcasts along with Nerdist Writer’s Panel exist and they are also worth your attention.

Developing the Story

There are plenty of threads on Reddit which pass by each week asking for advice on story building and plotlines. I love to read through the comments because answers are often very insightful. One certain thread in particular stood out to me with some great advice about story building.

When you think about story it can also be understood as the overall plotline. From the beginning to the end, and all the memories we experience in-between will make up the “story”. Here is some advice given by Reddit user archonemis:

You have a story world.

That’s usually the last step in story-making.

– Step one: Think of an action you’d like to see and how you think it should be completed.

– Step two: decide what kind of character would be the most interesting to perform such an act.

– Step three: Decide the antagonistic force blocking this act.

– Step four: give your protagonist a plan to defeat this antagonist.

There’s a shit load I’m leaving out, but I’m sure you kinda get the idea. Read some Joseph Campbell and some of his students and you’ll get an idea about these things pretty quick. There are a lot of hack story analysts (fuck Robert McKee) that you can simply ignore. Campbell is, by far, the best.

A lot of movies have been made using his schema. Which is somewhat amusing given that a lot of the obvious attempts to make a literal Campbell Plot end up being trite and lame. I blame the panels of producers and executives who vote everything into stale mediocrity.

Don’t worry about “originality”. That’s a trap. It’s a masturbatory trap laid out by narcissists and intellectual hamsters. Anyone who really knows about art knows damned well that good ideas are stolen regularly. Where would David Bowie be without Klaus Nomi? Where would Tarantino be without Brian DePalma? Where would Brian DePalma be without Hitchcock? Where would Hitchcock be without all those novels he lifted? Where would al those novelists be without the source material from which they lifted (ancient folklore, Bible, et cetera)? Write what you like. If you like a particular story or theme then write about it. Put your own twist on it and you’re fine.

Before all else, though:

You must have a single action to be completed by a single character.

The struggle to perform that action is the plot.

Something that often goes hand-in-hand with plot development is the opening act. Your screenplay’s Act One sequence should involve the main characters, introduce the story, and also drop an idea(or ideas) into the viewer’s mind to leave them clamoring for more. In one thread it was explained how this particular user’s Act One felt too dry and stale.

This can be a problem with any TV show or movie script. But especially looking at sitcoms you want the introduction to feel natural and free-flowing. Reddit user Ootrab offers some handy advice to solve this problem.

I’ve dealt with this sort of thing before. The key is to not introduce them all at the same time. Make the main character meet one in the driveway and they walk up together, to be greeted by another at the front door. They go down to the pool to meet two more, etc. Introduce each character in an environment that establishes something about their character and who they are. Would they be watching TV? Would they be in the kitchen cooking or eating? Would they be outside, enjoying the fresh air?

Also, try not to introduce each character until they have something to contribute. If they don’t need to be there in the scene, introduce them later.

If you stagger out the intros, it won’t feel like such an info dump.

That moment when you think up an idea…

Courtesy of this fantastic thread, I found the top answer very refreshing.

You go to work and structure the story. Outline, turning points. You work with the character, what’s their motivation? What’s their want, their need? You come up with a bunch of different scenes, you put posters on a wall, you decide on your act breaks, you make up good sequences, you write a two-three pager describing your movie and show it to friends, get critique, start over, do this for a while.

Then you sit down and write. But don’t expect passion to carry you through all of it. Some of it is hard work.
You ask how much you should know before you begin writing?

I’ll say everything except for dialogue. And then when you write, you focus on writing the best story you can, and don’t bother to look at everything you planned out unless you get stuck.

A List of the Best Screenwriting Advice

I think this might be a good place to end with a small bulleted list. The original thread was posted by Reddit user ludifex which appears to be a personal collection of his/her writing advice saved over the years. I won’t duplicate the entire list but here are some of my favorites:

  • Allow characters to have lives offscreen.
  • Figure out the structure first, especially the ending.
  • Finish first, then rewrite.
  • Get to the plot fast. Don’t fluff the intro with backstory.
  • The audience should know everything the hero knows.
  • The character’s choices should be logical but unexpected.
  • The hero should be proactive, and have a clear goal, in words and actions.
  • The plot should change the hero.

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Tyler is a true culture fanatic with love for comic books, music, movies, video games, and all forms of pop culture.

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