You’ve been accepted into film school! There are lots of clichés and expectations around what you can expect, but only a small percentage of them are true. It’s tempting to want to throw yourself into epic projects all at once, but you have to start small.
Film school isn’t just about nurturing talent and creativity, but about learning specific craft and skills. It’s easy to think that the writing part will be the easiest. After all, if you’re in film school, you already love to tell stories. But as a screenwriting teacher, I can tell you that your first screenwriting class may not be exactly what you expect. Here’s what you should know going in.
1. Formatting is important.
There’s a pretty decent chance that your introductory screenwriting course will spend more time than you think you need talking about how to properly format a screenplay. You’ll discuss margin sizes, how to do parenthetical directions, and the difference between a voiceover and an off-screen tag. Does it really matter? Yes! Here’s why.
Film school is all about getting you ready for a career and in the real world. Professionals reading your scripts are looking for any reason to throw it in the “no” pile. Not because they’re vicious, cruel overlords looking to stamp on your creativity, but because they’re exhausted, overwhelmed human beings who can’t afford to spend much time on a script unless it catches their eye. The fastest way to not even get a reader past the first page or two is to mess up the formatting. That tells a reader that you either don’t know how to follow professional norms, which are easily researchable even if you haven’t gone to film school, or that you didn’t bother. Neither makes a great impression.
2. Start with the story.
An excellent screenplay isn’t just about the visuals or the concept. It’s about the story. In particular, it’s about articulating who these characters are and why we should care about them. Plan on doing a lot of non-script work in your screenwriting classes, possibly even before you actually tackle scripts themselves.
A good screenwriting class will focus first on the fundamentals of storytelling before starting to talk about the specifics of writing for the big or small screen. Again, it’s easy to feel impatient, but the story elements are the most important part.
3. Structure matters.
I get it. Your script idea will break all the known boundaries of films that have come before it. It doesn’t need structure because it’s doing something different. Great. Awesome. But there’s something you should know: If you don’t know what you’re doing structurally, your experiment will fail. Expect your first forays into screenwriting during film school to be heavily structure-focused and take what you can from it, knowing that you’re laying the foundation for great stories to come. This is a huge reason you probably won’t be writing actual screenplays at first, just scenes. Learning the structure in pieces first is super important.
What a lot of my students are often surprised by is how strictly structured a lot of movies are. As an introductory screenwriting student, you’ll probably be introduced to some form of the three-act structure, which is crucial no matter what kind of movie you write. Take it from someone who’s been there: Even if you want to write a screenplay that totally blows up the rules, those rules will still help you write it.
4. Dialogue is key.
If there’s one thing other than the structure that you should learn from early film school, it’s the importance of dialogue. Where prose fiction can rely on descriptions and inner thoughts to convey meaning, scripts are light on the description and heavy on the dialogue, which means you need to master the art of saying a lot when you’re only saying a little.
Sometimes, you’ll find you have a natural knack for dialogue that just needs polishing, but most people need to work a little harder than that. If your classes don’t involve a lot of script reading, then do it on your own. Examine how words appear on the page versus how they sound onscreen. You may or may not get a crash course in dialogue during your earliest days of film school, but it’s a skill that you can’t afford to overlook.
Film school is an exciting journey and it’s amazing to get to work on your creative projects. Even when you’re first starting out and are focused heavily on the craft and technique of it all, remember to take the time to breathe and just let the story and creativity flow. It’s that combination of well-honed technique and your own unique creative perspective that will help you shine, both in school and beyond!
*This post was originally published on April 23, 2019. It has since been updated.
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