At Backstage, we like to encourage actors to go beyond the stage. Chances are you already know you want to be an actor—or at least work with and around them. Maybe you’re thinking about writing a screenplay, but don’t know where to start. Or you’re interested in following the steps of that producer you admire—but what are those steps? If you’re looking for a more hands-on approach to film, television, a web series, or even a theatrical production, here’s what you need to know. Combine any or all of these skills for the grand master title of “multi-hatted content producer.”
- Where do I begin?
- What kind of writing classes should I be taking? Do I need to be taking classes?
- What books can I read?
- Who are some greats I can study? What makes them so great?
- What are some ways I can develop my own process?
- Where should I look for feedback?
- How do I build an audience?
- How do I build a team?
- How can this help me with my acting?
Before you get into the nitty-gritty of what writing for film, TV, or theater even looks like, you should work on the ideas you have for these future scripts. Which means if you don’t have an idea, that’s where you should start!
Story ideas are conceived in different ways for everybody, but it all starts with thinking about what you’d like to write about in the first place. Once you plant that seed in your mind, you’ll start to draw inspiration from everything around you, including your own life. Think back on your childhood—your favorite memory or your worst memory could be the beginning of a story. Think about the people around you—is there someone you can totally see making a character out of?
If your own life or other’s lives aren’t inspiration enough, you can always do research. Maybe there’s a specific event or person in history that has always sparked your interest; maybe you really love a certain country and its culture. Begin researching these subjects and you might find that your story will start to develop itself just through the things you’re learning.
The best thing to do during this brainstorming process is make sure you write everything down. Even if the idea for a great conflict pops into your brain in the middle of the night—type it down on your phone! All your notes will come together into a draft later on. Now let’s get into specific mediums.
Writing for film is going to be different from writing for TV or theater for multiple reasons. Film writing focuses a lot on what you see, obviously, since you’re visually writing for a big screen—your narrative needs to unfold through a lot of events. Theater writing, on the other hand, is more focused on the narrative unfolding via dialogue—much of what is happening is in what’s being said. TV is a mix of both, since your characters and narrative have to develop much slower over several episodes. TV writing is all about breaking down a big story, as opposed to film, where that story begins and ends in one sitting.
In general, film scripts tend to be about 120 pages. Each page usually equals about one minute of screen time. Even if you think you’ll have a big action scene or smaller dialogue scenes, the timing should even out, give or take. Writing that many pages may seem daunting, so to make this easier, break down your story into three acts. A good rule: Devote 30 pages to Act 1, 60 pages to Act 2, and 30 pages to Act 3.
In the first 10 pages, you’ll want to establish your main character and their basic story. After that, delve into “the incident”—what is the main problem your character is going to attempt to resolve by the end of the script? By the end of Act 1, the main obstacles that will challenge your character’s goal should be established.
Act 2 is all about obstacles and disasters; this is where you flesh out the first plot twist, and then enter an even bigger one at the midpoint. Your action should continuously ascend until you reach a climax, which will bring you to the resolution in Act 3.
A TV script isn’t all too different from a movie script, but some of the biggest differences are length and act numbers, depending on if you’re writing an hourlong show or a 30-minute sitcom. An hourlong episode will vary between four to five acts, plus a teaser (a short opening introducing the characters), while a half-hour episode only has two acts and a cold open without a “teaser.”
You’ll still want to establish your characters and introduce conflict, but unlike a film script, the main problem in your TV script won’t be resolved by the end, since you’re going to be creating scripts for several episodes. However, smaller problems and plot twists you introduce can (and should!) be resolved by the end of a script if necessary.
If you want to write a web series, you’ll find that you can’t just take an idea you originally had for TV or film and chop it down. Web series episodes are quick—you need to catch your viewer’s attention within a few seconds and keep it there for the next few minutes of your episode. Keep in mind that your viewers are watching this from their laptops or phones! Your script needs to dive into the story right away. Always start with an engaging scene, and end somewhere that will make your viewers excited to watch the next episode. Your characters are more or less going to be the most important part about your script, so make sure they really come to life, are relatable, and keep your audience engaged. Create stories and personalities that people will want to keep up with.
All the goodies found in film and TV writing (plot, story, conflict, and resolution) are also essential to theater writing. A good play has solid exposition, rising action, and resolution development, so fleshing that all out before diving into writing is a smart way to start.
If you’re new to playwriting, you might want to consider starting with a one-act play so you don’t have to worry about intermission or length. One-act plays can vary in time, from 10 minutes to just over an hour. These plays are on the easier side when it comes to costume and set changes.
Most plays are two acts, which includes an intermission. With this kind of script, you’ll want to structure your plot around the intermission to keep your audience curious and in suspense. Though there’s no rule on how long each act should be, you should make sure the incident and conflict of the story happen in the first act. The second act should revolve around the tension of what happened in the first one, which should continue to rise until the climax of the play. As with film and TV scripts, you don’t have to have a happy ending, but make sure you relieve your audience of that tension by the end somehow.
Three-act plays require more experience to write (and to write well) but it can be done! Prepare to have more than one intermission in this structure, since you might have a two-hour play on your hands. Your exposition should take longer than usual (the entirety of the first act) in order to really set your audience up for the elaborate story they’re going to experience.
If you want to become a film, TV, or theater writer, there is no direct path—that means previous writing experience or a bachelor’s degree aren’t necessarily required, but can help a lot. If you go to college, you don’t have to major in something like playwriting, but it will give you the opportunity to take playwriting classes and other writing or English courses that will help you along the way. Any subject you’re interested in can develop your worldview, and in turn will help develop your writing and heighten your creativity. If college isn’t for you, consider searching for any film, TV, theater, or general writing workshops offered in your area.
If you don’t want to take classes at all, self-teaching is also an option. “Save the Cat!” by Blake Snyder is a best-seller and favorite for those interested in screenwriting. If you’ve got your eyes on Hollywood, “Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting” by Syd Field is another best-seller that “pinpoints the structural and stylistic elements essential to every good screenplay.”
For playwriting, “The Art of Dramatic Writing” by Lajos Egri is highly recommended if you want to learn the basic techniques successful playwrights often use. For something straightforward, simple, and quick, try out “Playwriting for Dummies” by Angelo Parra.
You’ll find this name on just about every “best screenwriter” list: Woody Allen. Not only are his films universally celebrated and admired—from “Annie Hall” to “Manhattan” to “Midnight in Paris,” but he’s a good example of a writer who also directs and stars in his own films.
Quentin Tarantino: If dialogue is your weak point, look to Tarantino’s scripts for help. He’s considered a master of dialogue due to his ability to escalate tense situations with only a few lines. His mixture of high- and lowbrow language is also fun to explore.
Nora Ephron: A former journalist turned into a witty, feel-good, and humorous scriptwriter, Ephron was known for those classic movies you watch when you’re having a bad day or stuck indoors because of the weather, including “When Harry Met Sally…,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” and “You’ve Got Mail.”
You may know Aaron Sorkin from some of his films like “The Social Network” and “A Few Good Men,” but he doubles as a TV writer you can study as well. He’s responsible for “The West Wing” and HBO’s “The Newsroom.” Sorkin excels in both his dialogue and monologues.
Shonda Rhimes: Best known for “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” Rhimes has built an empire from her shows, so you might learn a thing or two from her. We can’t wait to see what she does on Netflix.
Larry David: He wrote “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Need we say more?
There are so many great playwright one could study, it would take forever to list them all. Everybody knows the classics like Shakespeare and Anton Chekhov, but if you want a more modern approach, check out our list of six young playwrights every actor should know here.
The writing process can be a tough one; it might take a while before you figure out what works best for you in terms of developing your stories. Many writers turn to outlining. You can do this by focusing on the big parts of your script—the characters, story, plot, conflict, resolution—and bullet-pointing the main ideas you want to portray for each. Some people hate outlining and just jump right into writing. You might find you can’t jump into writing until you have a certain part of your story completely fleshed out, whether it’s the characters or the plot. Find what works for you by trying it all—outlining, drafting, jumping right in, stream of consciousness, or working on one part first. No process is better than the other!
You should look for feedback wherever you feel will be most constructive. Maybe you have a friend who’s a professional screenwriter or playwright; that might be a good place to start. Even friends who just write for a living could be helpful. You could go back to a workshop you attended during your drafting stages. Another option, if you’re writing a screenplay, is actually submitting it somewhere it could potentially get picked up. In submitting to somewhere like Amazon Studios, not only will your work get evaluated by Amazon, but you also have the option of making your script public in order to receive feedback from other writers.
The main stipulation for feedback is trust. Find someone whose taste and sensibility you trust to give you honest and constructive feedback.
Make sure you’re on every social media network! Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Snapchat—if it exists, make an account. “You need to be accessible, 24/7,” said Backstage Expert Erin Cronican in her advice to actors building an audience. The same applies if you’re trying to become a “multi-hatted content producer.” Blogging and social media are great ways to not only show everyone what you’re doing and create a fan base, but to connect and socialize with others who may be able to help your project.
Start off by figuring out who you need on your team. Do you need an agent or a manager? Do you need both? Will you hire a director or will you be the director? These questions are important to go through before saying yes to someone who is inquiring about working with you. Once you’ve decided on what roles you’re going to play and what roles you’re going to need filled, make sure you ask the tough questions during interviews. You want a strong, reliable team who will help make your vision become reality—so don’t be shy!
How will this not help you with your acting? Writing your own play or screenplay will help you see what goes into all the lines you’ve ever read and scenes you’ve acted in. As an actor, you might be overthinking the words your character says, but as a writer, you’ll realize not every word written will mean something. Little realizations like this will help your acting skills grow.
If you’re looking to have control over more than just the initial creation of your content, consider taking a seat at the helm. Here’s what you need to know.
Becoming a director could be a natural progression if you’re already an actor, like it was for filmmaker Amber Sealey. Going into directing means finally being able to create your own vision and see it through until the end—but that comes with a lot of responsibility. “The challenge of directing is that it’s a very lonely job. The decisions start and end with you. Even though you're collaborative, at the end of the day you have to think fast and have answers,” Sealy told Backstage. “You have to have a lot of patience, because the energy of the project rests on the shoulders of the captain.”
If you want to get the full immersion, look into schools that offer film production. A bachelor’s degree isn’t mandatory to become a director, but completing a degree program will help you delve into the technical, creative, and historical aspects of the job. It’s also a chance to get a lot of networking and personal shorts done.
Start working with a production crew—even if it’s as a production assistant. You might not see how getting coffee for the set and being in charge of various tasks will help you on your journey to directing, but it’s one way of getting your foot in the door. Plus, any kind of production experience is important.
Take advantage of your connections. Who do you already know that can help you take the next step? Or, who do you know that can introduce you to someone who can help you take the next step? Reach out to anyone you’ve collaborated with who can assist in reaching your goal.
When choosing what kind of camera you’d like to use, make sure that your decision isn’t only based on its technical capabilities. Think about the kind of stories you’re telling and what kind of camera would best represent them. For example, during the filming of “The Martian,” GoPro cameras were often used—not because of their capabilities, but because they told the story well.
The kinds of microphones you choose to work with are just as important as cameras. You’ll want to base your decision off what kind of scene you’re setting up. Is it an interview? Are there a lot of moving objects? Is it a documentary? All of these things will play out in the type of microphone pickup pattern you’ll want for your shorts. And remember, an audience can put up with bad picture, but bad sound is a cardinal sin that’s largely unforgivable. Even the found footage film that started it all, “The Blair Witch Project,” had good sound.
Before you choose your lighting, make sure you really familiarize yourself with the basics of set lighting. You’ll need to work around the Kelvin (K) scale, which is how light is measured, and what kind of light each measurement gives off, from 1900K to 10,000K. Tungsten bulbs, HMI lamps, fluorescent bulbs, and LED lights are the most commonly used on sets, and all have a different effect. Directors like Guillermo del Toro use light very specifically in their films. Figure out what you’re going for and find the light that complements it. No matter the budget you’re working on, unless you’re going for something highly stylized (think: “Citizen Kane” or “2001: A Space Odyssey”) natural light is almost always best. They don’t call it “the golden hour” for nothing.
As you start directing, you’ll get a taste of what it is other directors look for in their actors. By sitting in the director’s chair, you see the whole picture and what it means for directors to trust their actors in performing their vision. This will ultimately better your own acting skills.
Being at the helm of a film or TV production will also help you conceptualize a clear story structure and character development with your cast, as well a much deeper appreciation for the actor’s role and how it relates to the much larger machine.
At the core of this all sits one lesson: Trust your guts and instincts. When it comes to development, picking a team pre- and postproduction, and being on set, they’ll rarely lead you astray.