5 Tips to Start You on the Screenwriting Road to Oscar

by Steph Greegor (@stephgreegor)

So, you’ve finally made the decision to jump right in and write your first screenplay. I mean, hey, if Hollywood can produce Gigli, surely you’ve got a shot, right?

But, before you sit at your desk and write the next Hurt Locker, you’ve got these five things to do—they’ll help save you oodles of time (and money!) in the long run.

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1. Writer, Analyze Thy Motives

Are you really, really, sure you want to write a screenplay? Screenwriting takes time and money—two very valuable commodities. You must make time to read, plan, write, re-write, send queries, re-write some more… and then there’s the money for equipment, entering contests, buying consultation services.

It’s work. And if you want to be any good at it, you have to invest both time and money, and a lot of energy.

If your motive for writing a screenplay is to sell it for $1 million and win an Oscar before rushing off for drinks with Steven Spielberg, know this: About 1 in 5,000 spec scripts sell at all, let alone for a cool mill. Don’t get me wrong, wanting success is a good thing, but the elusive gold medal of Hollywood is a fickle beast and even the BEST don’t always get the prize.

If you want to be a screenwriter, do it because you love it and you can’t imagine doing anything else. Because that, and a box of tissues, are the only things that will get you through the pile of rejection letters you’re likely to see in the beginning.

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2. Seriously, Save the Cat

OK, so your motives are pure—you’ve won half the battle! But there’s more to do before you pen that 110-page, Brad Pitt-worthy action flick. You’ve got to save the cat.

Screenwriting is about structure. The book Save the Cat by Blake Snyder is one of the best, most accessible books on structure out there. It’s short, sweet, and really gives you the foundation from which to build your story. Now, Syd Field’s methods are also good, and Robert McKee’s book, Story, gives a wonderful, high-level look at screenwriting craft, but Snyder’s Cat will give you a hook to hang your story on. Covering how to break your script into three acts, writing scenes that move from positive to negative, using minimal dialogue, and following the Hero through specific turning points, Cat teaches you how to build structure.

3. Invest in Software

Alright, you know what it means to “save the cat,” you’ve thought up a high concept, truly amazing idea, and now you’re ready to start writing. You could open up a Word doc and set up the proper formatting, or you could save yourself the headache and just invest in software made specifically for screenwriters, like Movie Magic or Final Draft. Every dollar spent on screenwriting software is a really huge headache you’ve saved yourself down the line. It properly aligns the margins, puts the dialogue and action scenes in the right spots, breaks it down for production, and has the title page pre-set, among other things.

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4. Set Aside Time

Congrats, you’re ready to start writing! Most likely, the first few hours and days will be exciting. You’re following your dream, doing something new, and everyone in your family knows you’re writing the next big blockbuster thanks to the Christmas newsletter… and then, writer’s block. Or the kids need to get picked up. Or you have a meeting. Or a party. Or you just don’t feel like it. Next thing you know, your screenplay is stuck on hold.

Don’t let this happen to you! Make writing a priority by scheduling time for it the same way you’d schedule time for a client or a happy hour. Make the appointment with yourself—or your favorite character—and stick to it! Sometimes the best writing comes after 5 minutes of junk. Just put pen to paper and keep going.

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5. Get Outside Input

No matter what your mother says, you did not just write a masterpiece. In fact, you’re about 20 drafts shy of a masterpiece, maybe more. And you need a discerning eye to help you understand where you went wrong, how to fix it, and how to do better the next time.

So, before you start entering contests and looking to get in the Nicholl Fellowship, let someone read your masterpiece—and let them criticize it.

Alright, now’s your time. Go get started! And good luck!

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Steph Greegor is an award-winning journalist and prize-winning screenwriter based in Columbus, OH. She was recently brought on as faculty to teach Intro to Screenwriting at the McConnell Arts Center in Columbus and is currently producing and directing her short film, OLSKY. You can learn more about Steph at her website, www.stephgreegor.com.

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