Hi, Maari !
I am answering this question from the position of a short-story writer
who also has had a dozen or so comedy dinner theatre scripts produced
professionally, and who is currently working on a screenplay.
Pink Freud is right - take advice from the writers when working on
your first draft of fiction, and sit down and just write. But writers
who say this are often talking about getting into the discipline of
writing as much as anything else. Noel Coward, a very polished writer,
set himself a goal of 1000 words a day when he was writing.(He was
also a stage director and actor). Once he'd achieved 1000 words, his
working day was over. But it was done every day, first thing, without
fail, until the job was finished.
However, Stephen King's advice is as a writer of novels, not
screenplays, and as I will outline below, these are two very different
disciplines. First I'll talk about writing in general.
Look closely at what the writing teacher is advising:
...."the protagonist and antagonist must have something in common..."
Well, yes, it's useful if they live in the same country, or have
actually met, and it's stronger if they are both in love with the same
girl; but effective conflicts can be drawn just as well between your
hero and the society in which he/she lives. And your reader can share
the values of that society, rather than those of the protagonist..
(Graham Greene "Brighton Rock", Salinger "Catcher in the Rye".)
"...also that the protagonist must do something immoral and realize at
the end the right and wrong of certain values and themes..."
I think this is intended to mean that the protagonist should learn
something of value in the course of the story. OK, it's one approach,
but I can't see how this would apply to - say - "Romeo and Juliet" or
"Hamlet" or "Othello" where if any conclusions about right and wrong
are drawn it's by the surviving bystanders.
"...That the answers to the morality question must come at the end
and must be sudden"...
This rules out, say, Jane Austen's "Persuasion" or even "Pride and
Prejudice" where the delight of the story is the gradual realisation
of affection between the characters.
So the teacher has certainly given you a structure to work with, and
as suggested below, it may not be the teacher's own concept, but
rather the required structure for a particular TV show or production
company. It is not the only possible structure.
Nevertheless, while writing to formula - "cookie cutter writing" as
Pink says, -is unlikely to result in anything very original, it can be
very supportive when starting out. It's a good way of learning the
craft. And "genre" writing, such as the Sword and Sorcery Quest
structure, can have an special interest all of its own.
For example, we know that when the young adventurer sets out with a
wizard, a barbarian fighter and a rogue to find the talisman that will
defeat whoever-it-is who wants to take over the world this time, that
they're going to win. Of course they are. The interest in how THIS
adventurer and THIS rogue succeed THIS time, and many different
writers have used this formula to create compelling characters in
compelling situations. (Tolkein, Feist, Katherine Kerr, Sherri S.
If the characterisation is good, the structure is secondary. If the
characterisation is wooden, it doesn't matter how original your
plotline is, it won't work well.
Remember, too,. that when Stephen King sits down to "just write" he
probably has at the back of his mind the general plotline, even if it
is only: "nice young family buy old house on the cheap, discover its
sinister secrets, escape from demons against all odds." That said,
most writers will tell you the moment they know they are on the right
track is when their characters "take over" and do something different
from what was planned for them.
Another very traditional piece of advice is: "Write about what you
know". This does not have to mean that you have to write everything
from the perspective of a hog farmer in Maine if you happen to be a
hog farmer in Maine, or from the perspective of a New Jersey housewife
if that is who you are. "What you know" includes what you have
observed, and what you have been told. You may know enough of your
grandmother's early life or your friend's struggle with addiction to
write interestingly about them.
A very useful trick when writing is to read aloud what you have
written. This is particularly important when writing dialogue (or
poetry) but will also help you to hear whether your prose flows
naturally or needs to be broken into shorter sentences.
Next, the "just write" advice applies to the first draft. The long
slow process of polishing, cutting, and refining comes next and is
where many beginning writers often falter. If you find you can't see
where to cut and polish because you're too close to the story, try the
time-honoured trick of putting the work away for a month or two,
working on something new, and coming back to it later. It's surprising
what stands out at you.
Personally I enjoy the revision stage, but not everybody does. I
suppose for me it's like roughing out a sculpture, and then gradually
chipping and polishing until the piece is as perfect as I can make it.
If you are lucky enough to acquire a professional editor at an early
stage, take their advice on board. Otherwise use your writing group,
teacher and friends, and really listen to what they say. You don't
have to agree with them, but do listen. They represent your
readership. If two or more of them criticise the same thing, have a
good hard think about changing it.
Don't wipe your early drafts off the computer. Save them somewhere and
back them up. then try out the new ideas in a new draft. That way you
have not lost your original work, or do not need to type it in again
from a battered print-out.
All that is general advice.
Screenplays, now, are a whole different discipline (and different
again from play writing). I'm assuming here you want to write a
saleable screenplay. If it's just for fun, then just go ahead. But if
you want to write a screenplay that someone might actually produce,
that's another matter.
First of all, screenplays are laid out in very industry specific ways
and it is very important that this is done correctly or production
companies will simply not look at your script. For example, a standard
font - often Courier -is usually required. This is because, with the
standard layout and standard font the company can tell immediately
just how many minutes your script will run, very important for
That said, some production companies have specific layout requirements
of their own. Ask them for their guidelines before submitting your
You may care to invest in professional software such as Final Draft
which will allow you to set up the correct indents for dialogue,
directions and scene headings automatically. It also has inbuilt
templates for the standard layouts required for submission to many
popular US and British TV shows. Find the website at:
The site has links to writer's resources and screen writing courses,
as well as a screen writing competition. I believe there is a special
price for genuine students in the US.
A good article on the importance of formatting is on the Breaking In
Lenore Wright says:
"Why are movie scripts formatted?
In order for your screenplay to be transformed into a motion picture,
hundreds of film professionals (often thousands) will read your script
so they can do their part to make it a motion picture. ... The script
must be accessible to all these people so they can do their jobs.
So if you believe you will revolutionize film making by starting with
film formatting - guess again. You will NEVER revolutionize film
making that way. How do I know this? Because I know you will not even
get your scripts READ unless they are properly formatted! So when
you're tempted to enhance your title page with artwork or draw
attention to the star's character description by using that color
laser printer you bought off a dying dot-com, control yourself. "
She goes on to discuss the reasons for formatting, such as scheduling,
rhythm and marketing, among others.
The Breaking In site is full of useful articles like that one.
Next, screenplays follow some very specific rules as to timings,
number of plotlines, etc. and have to keep an eye on the commercial
realties of film making. Small independent film-makers may be less
strict, but are likely to have tiny budgets. So no matter how well
written, if your script requires a battle involving twelve vintage
planes and six hundred extras, it is unlikely to be considered.
Episodic TV programmes have timings that must be followed precisely to
allow for the sponsor's messages, and well defined structures that
must be adhered to so that the viewer is retained for the entire
programme. A stand-alone TV drama or mini-series follows other
guidelines, and a feature film has more flexibility but is much more
expensive to make.
Expect a feature, even for TV. to take anything from three to ten
years from concept to finish, and do not expect to be the only writer
involved in the process. Especially as a first-time screenplay writer,
you can expect to take the project only to the second or third draft
stage, before an experienced script editor or another more experienced
writer is assigned to the project (this is assuming you've got a
production company interested). You may end up on the credits as "from
a concept by..." Don't resent it, make sure you're paid, and learn
from it. Your own precious contribution as you wrote it should still
be safely tucked away.
Don't ever submit anything without running a spell checker and
preferably also getting someone else to proof-read it. Readers may
forgive one or two typos, but not lots of them, and never, never on
the title page. (It happens. I've seen it. Once I did it. Only once.)
Study film and/or TV closely (whichever you're planning to write for)
and time the length of the shots used. Most shots are less than 10
seconds long. Make notes as to the plot structure. Your writing
teacher may have been giving you the exact format for a particular TV
Make sure you know the difference between a shot and a scene.
Generally speaking the director will decide what shots are to be
filmed and how; it is not your job to specify "Close-up" etc.
Make sure you know the basic jargon, such as POV ("point of view",
where the camera sees something as if through the eyes of one of the
characters) and VO ("voice over" - we hear the character, but don't
see them, so the actor may be recorded sound only separately from the
Many production companies will not want you to submit a finished
script up front; they will instead ask you for a one sentence and a
one paragraph summary before inviting you to "pitch" your concept in a
face to face meeting. To practise this, it can be fun to try and
summarize well-known books or films in this way. Try summarizing the
same story from different perspectives to see how that changes the
thrust of what you are saying. eg:
- "Lord of the Rings" -
"In a fantasy world elves, dwarves and others combine forces to battle
the ultimate evil"
has a very different feel and focus to:
"When Frodo becomes the Ringbearer he must face evil within himself as
well as the threat from without."
Remember, learning the craft does not necessarily mean "cookie cutter
writing". It does mean serving an apprenticeship, if you like, while
you take on board what other people have to offer. I also think it is
a pity that the term "craftsman" has somehow been lost, or downgraded.
There are many craftsmanly writers who give a lot of pleasure to a lot
of people, and striving to be a good craftsman (-person?) is nothing
to be ashamed of. And it is the first step to becoming that rare
thing, a really good original writer. The craftsmanship is the
foundation. That is probably what your teacher is trying to suggest.
You might consider try cutting your teeth by combining forces with a
student film maker and working on a short movie aimed at the
The best of luck and keep in mind that it is the characters - the
people - and what happens to them that will make your writing live.
screenplay writing advice
Book - "A Talent to Amuse" - Noel Coward
personal industry knowledge