7 Screenwriting Hacks


Screenwriting can sound rather intimidating. It can at times just sound like a lot of work when you are really interested in just shooting a movie. But it is vital to living THAT dream...

So here are a few tips and tricks on how to make it as easy as possible. Let's start by reviewing the steps:

  1. Write about something already developed (it's easier)
  2. Draw a storyboard or "mountain"
  3. Get started on your screenwriting
  4. Write the skeleton
  5. Flesh it out
  6. Format a strong beginning and ending
  7. Have it reviewed

Written out like that, it doesn't really seem too difficult, so now let's dive into the details--step by step.

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1. Write About Something Already Developed

The three main sources for screenwriting ideas are original stories from your brain, books, and events from history.  

Original Stories

Original stories are, by far, the most difficult material to use for movie making. It can be very hard to write a plot and develop characters during your screenwriting. 

The easiest original stories to write are ones that take place in modern times, which can be hard to find an inspiring storyline for. The best thing to do: avoid original stories.

Unless you have a very strong story, not very many people are going to be interested. Sorry.

Old Novels

The second source hotspot for screenwriting is found in old novels. A book which has not been copyrighted within the last 75 years is up for whatever you want to do with it. It is in the public domain. 

These stories capture audiences because they are tried and true, and many people have already read or heard about and trust that they are good stories. When someone buys our movies from us, we always ask them how they found us. 

For Outlaws of Ravenhurst, many people said they had read the book and were looking to see if a film was ever made of it and found us that way! For more information on lifting a script from a book, visit our books to film page.

George Abell is happily living a farmer boy life in colonial America. When his foreign uncle, Sir Roger, claims him and takes him to Scotland to be the Earl of Ravenhurst--the much longed for Protestant Earl of Ravenhurst, no one can imagine what will happen next. Matters get desperate when Sir Roger and his sly comrade, Godfrey, cannot bend the new Gordon's will. Buy Now!

Historic Events

A third and final source for screenwriting material is history. There are many interesting and inspiring stories of virtuous heroes found throughout the course of history. 

Historic films are popular because people feel a connection with the characters. The idea that these were real people who lived in the same world and probably suffered similar trials in their private lives is appealing to everyone.

Everyone has his own favorite period of history and is happy to watch any movie he can about that era. When we made Max & Carlota there were quite a few people who were interested in the movie because they were interested in the Hapsburg family line.

Whatever source you choose for your script, step two applies to your screenwriting.

2. Draw A Storyboard Mountain


Your Main Shape

Once you have selected your source and idea, draw a mountain. Yes, a mountain. 

Think of your script as a journey--because it is one!

You have your main character, who is usually presented with a problem in the beginning:

...Marred for life

...Got struck and is now void of all sense

...Needs to find out the secret behind a sudden and mysterious death

...Has been locked into a tower from infancy and now wants to see the world

..Is stuck making muffins from broccoli: you name it! There is always a problem or challenge.

Your character is challenged to overcome his problem, which is what is commonly called the plot. You now need to divide your story into three sections: exposure, climax, and resolution.

The first quarter of the movie is dedicated to exposure. This is the part where you meet the character, find out his greatest flaw, his greatest fear, or any other background which may be important later.

The middle half, the climax, is when the problem reaches its highest peak and the character must either overcome it or resign himself to it. This part should be able to stand alone.

The ending quarter is the resolution, when you put the audience back on the ground, resting assured that the ending was satisfying. This is where the problem is solved.

The Supporting Bumps

Inside of the main mountain are smaller hills. These are the various other problems and their solutions found throughout the story. Draw these inside of your main mountain.

Penciling-in each of these hills, the event which is its focus will help remind you later while you are writing.

Some Examples

So let's say your movie is an hour long. You are going to want to have 15 minutes of exposure, 30 minutes of the climax, and 15 minutes of the resolution. Make sense?


Now for a movie example of how this is used. Think of Tangled. In the beginning, Eugene tells the story of Rapunzel's early life. Then you have the song where she explains how she feels about being locked up. 

You meet Eugene and he is obsessed with looking good all the time! You have already met Mother Gothel and know she is the epitome of vanity and selfishness. This we call: exposure.


Next, comes the climax. This escalates with Rapunzel asking to go see the floating lights. She is refused. She makes her own plans. Falls in love. The hero leaves. Rapunzel finds out who she is. Eugene dies. Mother Gothel dies. All very thrilling!


Now the resolution: Rapunzel saves Eugene. She is reunited with her family. They get married--happy, happy, happy! The audience is given the sense of, The story is told. You may return to your own lives now.

Underlying Bumps

The underlying bumps would be when Rapunzel resolves to go without Mother Gothel, when they escape the "Snugly Duckling" situation, when her dream comes true, and when she realizes who she is. 

These all have their own problems and solutions which support the main mountain. Although these are of lesser importance, they still add to the overall quality of the storytelling.

3. Start Screenwriting


Decide the genre of your film. Is it a comedy? Historic film? Adventure? Romance? Tragedy? Once you have decided the genre, try to think of your genre and resolution while you are screenwriting. 

Don't forget to refer back to your mountain. Although the mountain is a good guide, it is just that--a guide.

If you think something that you didn't think of before simply has to be in the film, add it.

If something in your bump is not quite fitting, delete it.

You never know in the beginning what actual events will appear while writing or which ones will remain in the finished script. When writing Grisly Grisell, Mary and I really hacked and added until we found a story we could easily tell. 

Yes, we had to say "Good bye" to some characters and suffer the pain that always comes with leaving friends behind, but our story was stronger for it. Some of the other characters were altered to be more dramatic or to take up the places left by the deleted characters.

Know Your Actors

Another great tool which will be a tremendous help before you sit down to your script is knowing your actors. Many hard-to-deliver and understand lines can be avoided this way.

There are some scenes in Max & Carlota that I wrote especially for particular actors. Like the Napoleon III scenes for Jonah Lawrence. It is crucial that actors understand what they are saying. 

If they don't understand their lines, you can rest assured that your audience will not either. I have noticed that there are many places in The Pirates of the Caribbean where Johnny Depp's lines would be very hard to understand if he delivered them differently, but he understands them and delivers them in a way that the audience cannot but help understand. Even though they are weirdly phrased. Savvy?

A great way to get to know your actors--that is if they are not all your friends--is to host an acting guild! This is a relaxed get-together where you and your actors practice different acting techniques. Read our become an actor page for ideas for hosting an acting guild.

4. Write The Skeleton

The next step to screenwriting is to write the skeleton of your story. This is more for original stories and events from history. Write a very rough idea of what your movie is going to look like. It doesn't have to be long; it doesn't have to be interesting. It could be an outline.

Read through it and make sure that all your important points are there. Make sure that it follows your mountain. Are you really passionate enough about the story to turn it into an interesting movie? If you scrap it now, you haven't lost much.

5. Flesh It Out

Once you are sure you want to keep going, move to your screenwriting software for some scripting. I use FinalDraft

It comes all ready to start rock'n!

It has memory of characters, so that you don't have to type them in every time. Overall this is a great program if you really want to be serious about moviemaking. It saves time, frustration, and I am still finding features that make me love it more and more!

Recently I found a feature that has reports for characters, locations, and scenes in the "Tools" section. These reports have really helped with planning our shot list and shoot days!

Keep Your Characters Distinct

Begin to flesh out your story. Keep in mind that all your characters need to be distinct. Knowing who your actors will be is a tremendous help to you because you don't tend to make real people all the same. You will probably unconsciously draw in the actor's personality which is bound to be different from all the other actors.

An easy way to keep characters distinct is to find one flaw and one virtue that is going to be that character's virtue and flaw. If it is a main character, he usually conquers this flaw with the virtue.

This technique will keep you from blending all the characters into one person. 

For example: In Aladdin, Aladdin's greatest flaw is the pretension he is playing. He loves Jasmine, but has to live the lie in order to marry her. He is willing to do anything to do that.

His greatest virtue is, in a way, honesty. In the end, he is willing to say that he messed up and walk away from all he had been working for. Even freeing the genie when he could have gotten it all back.

This honesty wins the Sultan's respect, making Aladdin winning what he wanted all along. Win-win. The audience is happy and you have a winner!

Keep With The Mountain

Follow your outline and mountain to write the story. Think of movies you've seen for ideas on how to present dialogue. No character ever says, "Hey, my name is Michael. Here is my life story..."

Instead, the most important characters' background is presented during your exposure period. It is not all told in one sitting, sometimes it is the mystery the movie is based on.

In The King's Speech, for example, the audience spends the entire movie piecing together Bertie's childhood. 

Another thing is, if the character's background is not important, don't include it. Nobody really knows where Aragorn has been the first twenty-five years of his life and no one cares. It just isn't important.

Be careful with your climax, you want the audience to be at this part blankly pushing more popcorn in their mouths without leisure time to take their eyes off the screen. This is where they are totally arrested with the story and need the solution soon.

While screenwriting, don't go plummeting from your climax to the resolution. Remember you have a quarter of the movie to wind down. And don't forget to let your audience know that this is the wind down. You can feel when a movie is near ending because everything is calming down a little and all the loose strings are coming to an artistic bow.

Give this sense to your audience by ending the climax and working slowly through the resolution. Don't sum up the movie in the last two minutes.

6. Format A Strong Beginning And Ending

The Beginning

Your beginning is supposed to sell the movie. You don’t want the audience to watch the first fifteen minutes, yawn and then wander into the kitchen to see if there are any scraps of food.

You want their attention captured so that thinking about a little snacky-snack is out of the question. 

Making a movie is a bit like taking someone on a hot air balloon ride. They agree to go for pleasure, granted that you bring them back down to earth in a reasonable amount of time and after you have fulfilled any prior promises as to what they will see.

The Ending

When you make a movie, you take your audience on a journey. This could be...

...exciting, romantic, tragic or even comical, but this adventure always ends by letting the audience go.

At the end, they can go back to life without feeling a sense of incompletion. This is an essential part of your movie: the ending.

Your movie can end in a variety of ways. There's the:

  • "Aww! That was a cute movie!"
  • What Mary calls the "hole in your heart" ending
  • Or the inspiring ending. 

Whatever you do, choose one and stick with it. Don't try to combine them.

Pick your ending emotion and present it in the most creative and simple way possible. Although this may seem to be mostly the actors' and cinematographer's job, the screenwriting can do much to illicit the right feeling for the cast and crew to do their part to the fullest.

7. Have It Reviewed

You don't need a whole bunch of consultants. Just three: one for grammar, a priest, and a detached friend.

For us, DaMomma is our grammar reader. She is very good at seeing the things that are written wrong as well as catching any story elements that needs more or less explaining.

When I say "a detached friend," I mean someone detached from the story. This is a person who will tell you what things are unnecessary and what doesn't make sense.

After writing your screenplay and reading the script twice, you are really attached and everything is necessary and makes sense because you wrote it. That is why you need someone who will be honest and has no loyalty to the story to analyze it for you.

This is the truly pruning part about screenwriting:

Prune, prune, prune until it is perfect!

This may seem like it takes a lot of time, and it does, but you will end up with a strong story that is worth telling.

Happy screenwriting!

With all this advice, you may feel even more overwhelmed than ever, but don't get low. Screenwriting is fun once you get started. Dare I say, it's almost addicting. Once you get going, all you will want to do is work on it and get 'er done.

Happy screenwriting!

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