This post won’t just help you become a better screenwriter. It will show you techniques that will make you a better all-around writer, which in turn will make you a better overall storyteller.

I have never taken a formal screenwriting class. But I’ve taken plenty of courses in fiction writing and English literature, which have all helped me place in screenwriting contests and film festivals. Anyone trying to sell you on beat-by-beat screenwriting secrets that will help you get your script optioned is, well, either trying to sell you something or pushing the stale Hollywood formula into the atmosphere. Neither are good for creativity.

Your plot points should not happen on a specific page. They should happen where they need to, like in a novel. If you care about become a better storyteller, read on.

So, here are 5 ways that writing prose–be it fiction, academic writing, technical writing, whatever, will improve your screenwriting.

1. Technique and form

speaker at podium referencing smartphone and book

Adhering to certain guidelines while writing prose will force you to focus on the sound of your sentences. Read them aloud. Should you use a comma or a semicolon? A hyphen or a dash? What’s a formal fragment?

When I was in school, my professors advised using Hacker and Sommer’s Pocket Style Manual. It’s never steered me wrong, and it comes in handy when I can’t quite remember something.

Knowing all of these rules for writing great sentences will train you to hyper-focus on your words. If you can implement the intricacies of prose style rules, surely you can master the simple screenplay format.

Also, if you find an ironic mistake anywhere in this post, please contact us! I’m writing this at 6:00 AM after two cups of strong coffee. 😅

2. Atmosphere

close-up of bicycle wheel spokes

If you try to start learning writing solely through screenwriting resources, your scenes will lack emotion and depth. The screenplay format, as it’s taught, does not allow for detailed scene description. Scenes need to be dynamic, and the elements within them need to breathe. They’re not just stage directions, which is what a lot of amateur screenplays resemble. Setting must function as a character.

Here’s an exercise: sit somewhere with a notepad and a pen for an entire thirty minutes. Write every detail you can about the space. Sounds, designs on the walls and ceilings, what the people look like, how the area smells, everything. In thirty minutes, you will come up with details you would never otherwise notice about the space.

Now take these elements and write a one-page scene between two people, in prose format. Integrate the details in the writing to give your scene life. If a person buys a slice of pizza, focus on the smells, the grease that soaks through the paper plate, the cashier’s unibrow. That kind of stuff.

These are too many details for a produceable screenplay. But practicing writing detailed scenes in a format that allows and encourages you to do so will help you craft better screenplay scenes. Overwrite your scenes, and then pare them down. Short sentences. Details that enhance the setting.

3. Style

manual with many notes and bookmarks

Writing in a variety of styles will train your writing voice, giving your writing depth and style. If you write every day, you’ll hone your aptitude for how a sentence flows, how it sounds, what makes it pretty and powerful.

Perfecting this writing ability will make you versatile as writer, allowing you to write in several different screenplay genres. If you want to make money as an independent filmmaker, you need to be a dynamic storyteller who can do anything.

Knowing the screenplay format is great, but what if a client or producer asks you to produce a treatment? I’ve heard great ideas for scripts but terrible treatments. Buying screenwriting software will not help you develop a style. If you read Tarantino’s scripts, they read a bit like prose. But they still adhere to the screenplay format.

The key is to take your prose writing and adapt it to screenwriting in your head before it hits the page. This takes practice, so try writing out prose scenes and then converting them to screenplay scenes.

4. Dialogue

man and woman talk in coffee shop seen through window

People always struggle with dialogue. It’s something you need to hear. There are very specific rules for writing dialogue in advanced fiction writing, such as when to start a new paragraph for a new speaker, how often you need to identify your speakers by character names, and what kinds of words you should use, such as using “said” vs. “shouted.”

A common complaint of beginning screenwriters is that their characters all sound the same. In prose, unlike screenwriting, you don’t have a heading that says the characters’ names each times they have a line of dialogue. And writing “Jon said” each time after Jon said something would be incredibly repetitive:

“These eggs are really great,” said Jon.

“Yeah, but they have GMOs or some shit in them,” said Marty.

“Well, I don’t care about GMOS. I like good eggs,” said Jon.

“Don’t you care about the Earth? What the hell’s wrong with you, man?” said Marty.

“You’re going to yell at me for eating my breakfast? You drive a Hummer!” said Marty.

See what I mean? You don’t need the “said Marty” or “said Jon” each time, as there only exist two characters in this interaction. Once you remove the identifying names, you have to really make sure that the two characters have distinct voices.

For example, Marty curses and uses very casual language, whereas Jon’s dialogue is a bit more formal and stilted. Below you’ll see the same dialogue, but with the names removed.

“These eggs are really great,” said Jon.

“Yeah, but they have GMOs or some shit in them,” said Marty.

“Well, I don’t care about GMOS. I like good eggs.”

“Don’t you care about the Earth? What the hell’s wrong with you, man?”

“You’re going to yell at me for eating my breakfast? You drive a Hummer!”

Because of the difference in character voice, the reader can easily identify which speaker is which. You can also contribute to scene and setting by peppering in action sentences, something that will really improve your scripts. Dialogue, action, dialogue.

Prose will force you to do this as you introduce more characters. If there are three people, action will help identify which character is speaking, in addition to making the characters’ dialogue distinct. Let’s add Mary to the scene:

Mary, Jon, and Marty all sat around the formica countertop that crisp November morning, streaks of yellow sunlight painting their faces.

“These eggs are really great,” said Jon.

“Yeah, but they have GMOs or some shit in them,” said Marty.

“Well, I don’t care about GMOS. I like good eggs.”

“Don’t you care about the Earth? What the hell’s wrong with you, man?”

“Stop being an environmental nutcase for one minute, Marty.” Mary rolled her eyes.

“You’re going to yell at me for eating my breakfast? You drive a Hummer!”

5. Plot

man stands in street

Staring at the blank page stresses everyone out. Having to fill that page with a regimented screenplay format doesn’t make it any easier, especially to someone without a lot of training.

Prose allows you to write your paragraphs freely without having to worry about white space or whether you need to use a CUT TO:, an INT. KITCHEN — MORNING, or an INT. KITCHEN — CONTINUOUS header for your crosscutting or montage scenes. Trying to keep track of these rules can get confusing, especially when trying to build toward a plot.

Prose allows you to write your paragraphs based on the natural progression of your story and appearances of characters. If a new speaker enters, start a new paragraph. Start a new paragraph if there’s a change in setting. Start a new paragraph if you’ve been writing for two pages and the reader needs a break. It’s more fluid, allowing writers to focus on the story, not rules.

Mastering the art of prose fiction writing will make you grow as a storyteller. Writing stories for multiple mediums such as novels and films will help you identify which types of stories are best suited for the screen.

Once you identify a concept that can be well-told on the screen, get a chance to fund it with one of our sentence-based funding contests.

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