This is a guest post by filmmaker Alan Denman. Alan is a British writer, director, producer and script consultant. He has taught screenwriting extensively in North America, the UK and Europe and has spent much of his career in Los Angeles. As a script consultant, he integrates his experience of screenwriting, directing and producing to help writers create scripts that are not only well-crafted, imaginative stories but that also have strong, commercial potential.

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Is screenwriting easy? Can anyone write a screenplay? What are the elements that make screenwriting a unique form of storytelling? People are always approaching me, once they discover I’m a screenwriter and filmmaker, and telling me their idea for a screenplay. I listen, I’m patient, but I am regularly bemused by their assumption that screenwriting is simple and that anyone can do it.

Of all the narrative forms – short stories, novels, plays, radio drama – screenwriting is in my view the most challenging and unique. You’re not only using different parts of your brain simultaneously, you are also having to unify creative and commercial demands. Whatever your background, whether you’re a total newcomer to the craft or you’re a published novelist, you need to approach screenwriting as a new venture requiring learning and practice, an apprenticeship of sorts.

To clarify what I believe is special to the craft of screenwriting I have created seven principles. Treat these as “signposts”, always guiding you back on track in your effort to create a great screenplay. The seven signposts are:

1. BLUEPRINT: A screenplay is not a work of literature, it’s actually a set of instructions to everyone involved in producing it – actors, director, cinematographer, composer, set designer and so on. Learn to think practically. Do you really need that army of ten thousand/ thirty-seven different locations/ that lavish, period mansion? Learn all you can about the production process. Understanding these practical elements will change the way you write.

2. ECONOMY: This isn’t about money – it’s about keeping things simple. Less is more. The simpler the story the stronger it will be and the easier for audiences to get hold of. If you want to write a labyrinthine script full of minute detail, then be a novelist. Economy is also about language. Don’t be fooled by the white space on the page of a good screenplay. It’s actually harder for us as adults to write simply. One adjective per noun, no adverbs, strong, active verbs, sparse dialogue. Look at great artists like Picasso and Matisse – they got simpler as they got older.

3. AUDIENCE: Check in with yourself and ask what kind of writer you are. Are you writing to explore ideas and experiment with language or are you writing because you love to reach an audience, to entertain and entrance people with the magic of storytelling? Story is as old as civilization. Ask trusted friends to read your outlines and scripts. They’re your first audience. Observe people’s responses at movies and see what works and what doesn’t. A good idea or a worthy script is not enough. You must be entertaining, page by page.
4. VISUAL: A film is not a stageplay. Stageplays are dialogue-driven. A film is a story told in pictures. If you can’t visualize your characters, see them moving around and doing their stuff, if you can’t see the landscape or living room in your story, then you’re not a screenwriter. Take a camera with you everywhere, photograph stills, study light, people’s faces, their body language, draw, record your dreams. Replace as much dialogue with action or facial expression that conveys the same meaning. Think visually.

5. EMOTION: We watch movies to be stimulated emotionally and feel more alive. The reason good screenplays are so sparse is because there is a hidden script written in invisible ink: it’s what is going on at an emotional level. For your characters to be real they must perform explicit actions but they must also have non-verbal agendas driven by emotional needs. Always be asking: what is my character feeling in this scene – and the next, and the next. Don’t allow yourself to be caught up solely in the visual action or in the linear sequencing of your story. Feel your characters and write with passion.

6. RHYTHM: A film is like a piece of music. It begins at a certain tempo, it accelerates, picks up pace, slows down, one “movement” or sequence comes to an end, a new one begins, and added together they build to the climax of the whole piece. Film editors know about rhythm. A film is counted out in frames. Rhythm and structure are bedfellows, but if you slavishly follow a structural formula your screenplay will lack soul and rhythm. This musical analogy will also connect you back into emotion. Feel your screenplay rather than write it in your head. Get that rhythm!

7. STORY: And last, but far from least, what your screenplay is all about. Be a storyteller above all and be true to this ancient, subtle craft. Don’t worry about fitting into this or that genre. Most stories naturally inhabit one main genre. Make your story interesting – twist the plot, surprise your audience, don’t let them guess what’s coming. Check there’s always tension and that your protagonist has got a great antagonist. But even more important, if you want to make your screenplay really appealing to audiences and producers make sure it has something to say, that inside the story there is a great human theme. This will give it universal appeal and make it stand out from the 95% of average to awful scripts circulating the planet.

There we are – seven signposts for successful screenwriting! And you will notice that the first letter of each one combined forms the acronym B.E.A.V.E.R.S. (I only tinkered with the headings a little bit to achieve this.) Acronyms are great memory devices and so I hope, as you beaver away at your desk, you’ll remember these seven principles.

© Alan Denman 2012