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Expert screenwriting tips by working screenwriters

Screenwriting is Not Novel Writing

Writing is an art. With time, effort and persistence you can get good at it. Talent plays a part too - some are naturals and gain a good standard quickly, for most it takes time.

The above goes for novel writing as well as screenwriting.

Novel writing is very different from screenwriting, the format and styles are polar opposites.

A lucky few scribes are good at both, typically most specialize - you're either a screenwriter or novel writer.

Read as many pro screenplays as you can

A common issue most non-pro screenwriters have is a self-inflicted one: they don't read enough professional scripts which impacts how they write.

We get many, many screenplays were the text is verbose and the non-pro screenwriter goes into detail on everything - including things that are insignificant and unimportant to the script. That's not a screenwriting style - screenwriters typically keep their writing tight.

Yes some pro screenwriters have a somewhat verbose style (not novel verbose though) - Michael Mann (Heat is 157 pages), John Gatins (Flight is 150 pages), Quentin Tarantino et al. They are exceptions to the rule and since they're well established with hundreds of millions of box office revenues behind them, they can pretty much write however they want. Although they tend to be verbose, they know the art of screenwriting and avoid including unnecessary info, scenes and dialogue.

If the words are not significant to the story, characters or scenes they don't include them. I have read countless non-pro screenplays with 6+ lines descriptions of scenes that could and should have been done in a faction of that.

It shouldn't blow your chances (of landing a sale, getting an agent etc) if you do this rarely but what tends to happen is that most non-pro screenwriters don't know any better, so they repeat this mistake a lot.

The Bourne Identity

An example: script writing

Tony Gilroy was the chief screenwriter of the Bourne trilogy. His writing is very tight and particularly well suited for the action screenplay arena that he excels in.

Here's the start of the Bourne Identity screenplay:


The darkness is actually water. A SEARCHLIGHT arcs across heavy ocean swells. Half-a-dozen flashlights -- weaker beams -- racing along what we can see is the deck of an aging FISHING TRAWLER.

FISHERMEN struggling with a gaff -- something in the water --


An example: novel writing

Robert Ludlum wrote the original Bourne novels and had a hugely successful and prolific novel writing career.

Here's the same scene as detailed in the novel:

The rays of the early sun broke through the mists of the eastern sky, lending glitter to the calm waters of the Mediterranean. The skipper of the small fishing boat, his eyes bloodshot, his hands marked with rope burns, sat on the stern gunnel smoking a Gauloise, grateful for the sight of the smooth sea. He glanced over at the open wheelhouse; his younger brother was easing the throttle forward to make better time, the single other crewman checking a net several feet away. They were laughing at something and that was good; there had been nothing to laugh about last night. Where had the storm come from? The weather reports from Marseilles had indicated nothing; if they had he would have stayed in the shelter of the coastline. He wanted to reach the fishing grounds eighty kilometers south of La Seyne-sur-Mer by daybreak, but not at the expense of costly repairs, and what repairs were not costly these days?

Or at the expense of his life, and there were moments last night when that was a distinct consideration.

'Tu es fatigue, hein, mon frere?' his brother shouted, grinning at him. 'Va te coucher maintenant. Laissemoi faire.'

'D'accord,' the brother answered, throwing his cigarette over the side and sliding down to the deck on top of a net 'A little sleep won't hurt.'

It was good to have a brother at the wheel. A member of the family should always be the pilot on a family boat; the eyes were sharper. Even a brother who spoke with the smooth tongue of a literate man as opposed to his own coarse words. Crazy! One year at the university and his brother wished to start a compagnie. With a single boat that had seen better days many years ago. Crazy. What good did his books do last night? When his compagnie was about to capsize. He closed his eyes, letting his hands soak in the rolling water on the deck. The salt of the sea would be good for the rope burns. Burns received while lashing equipment that did not care to stay put in the storm.

'Look! Over there!'

It was his brother; apparently sleep was to be denied by sharp family eyes.

'What is it?' he yelled.

'Port bow! There's a man in the water! He's holding on to something! A piece of debris, a plank of some sort.'

The skipper took the wheel, angling the boat to the right of the figure in the water, cutting the engines to reduce the wake. The man looked as though the slightest motion would send him sliding off the fragment of wood he clung to; his hands were white, gripped around the edge like claws, but the rest of his body was limp—as limp as a man fully drowned, passed from this world.


Read as many professional screenplays as you can.

Keep writing. As your knowledge and experience grows, so too will your skill level.

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