Screenwriting basics

No matter if Hollywood or German funding system – in the following I show you the most important techniques of screenwriting. Learn how to use the most important writing techniques for your own screenplays with the help of numerous practical examples.

Screenwriting is always the most difficult discipline for filmmakers. It is the first problem to solve, because without a script, none of the other trades can begin their work.

Screenwriting for beginners

A structured approach to screenwriting is an advantage. At the very beginning, the first thing is to find film ideas. The blank page can be quite intimidating. That’s why I recommend two creative exercises for beginners to loosen up and generate as many ideas as possible: brainstorming and loglining.

How beginners can best get started with screenwriting.

Creating raw material

"An invention does not consist in creating something out of nothing, but out of chaos."

First you should create as much raw material as possible. About the technique of Brainstorming you can give free rein to your ideas. Write down everything that comes to your mind. You are allowed to associate freely, completely without criticism or censorship:

  • Moments
  • Motives
  • Characters
  • Pictures
  • Topics
  • Snippets of dialogue
  • Scenes

From this chaos, from this hullabaloo without order, you can draw a lot later on. This is your personal raw material that you just let flow at this stage. Don’t put pressure on yourself. Write down everything without judging it. Everything should be written down on paper for later use. No one ever has to see these sheets except you. You still have all the freedom in the world.

Writing down script ideas

In the second step, things get more concrete: Write down the first film ideas you have in mind. Try to formulate at least 15-20 ideas as one-liners. It doesn’t matter if the sentences are a little longer at first. Again, the ideas just have to flow – criticism has no place here! As with brainstorming: Don’t judge anything, just hold on to everything. There are two types of one-liners, first the still raw film idea and second the perfected "logline" to sell your film material. In the beginning you are in a protected, creative space and should not think about selling anything yet. Only in this way can you work freely. Always remember that your one-liners don’t have to be perfect here yet. Once you have your ideas, you can get down to implementing them.

Script writing as a craft

Scripts are written for filming, much like plays for performance on a stage. They therefore demand a lot of imagination. When writing a screenplay, it is worthwhile to create an outline. With it, you always have a guideline to guide you and document your progress.

"Screenplays are more architecture than literature."

If you’re unsure about script formatting, I recommend you read a lot of scripts. German screenplays are now also available for download on the Internet. This is the quickest way to learn what technical possibilities there are and what you can use for your purposes. Beginning writers should definitely learn to get as many of their own ideas down on paper as possible before trying to put something into proper form.

Finding stories

The most important element in screenwriting is Goal of the main character. In a good movie story there is a clearly identifiable goal. It gives the thread of the plot and therefore must be strong enough to carry the film for 90 or 120 minutes. This goal becomes as strong as possible when your protagonist pursues it with burning passion. If you know what the most popular genres are, you already know the most popular destinations. Maybe there is no clear goal in your film idea at all. In this case, it will be very difficult to develop an exciting film plot out of it – perhaps you’d better devote yourself to another idea.

Finding the story. Photo: Bernd Hentschel

Creating film characters

At the center of every story are the characters. Movie characters are the engine that will drive the movie later on. The bridge between the main character and the film plot is the Character OrchestrationHow do the individual characters relate to each other, who works for whom and who changes sides?? Who is the antagonist, who are the allies?

Hans Rudiger Kucich as the main character in RABENSCHWARZ

"First figure out what your main character wants, then just follow it."

No matter whether you work from character driven or plot driven storytelling (character-driven or plot-driven storytelling), the characters are always the most important thing. In action-driven storytelling, you try to approach the characters from the outside, in character-driven storytelling from the inside.

"To find a character, look for something physical that is connected to their inner attitude."

Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. If you focus too much on the inner life of a character, the story loses external tension. If, on the other hand, you focus on the character’s actions, the story loses depth. If possible, one should try to unite both approaches with each other. Character and plot are ultimately two sides of the same coin and the main character is the key to the dramaturgy of the story.

If you know your movie characters, you can already think about the character’s performance.

Developing dramaturgy

One point that troubles many writers is the logic of the plot, or rather, the dreaded plot holes. This is not something to waste too much time on. On closer inspection, there will always be holes in the plot.

As long as the motivation of your characters is clear (why they want what and why now) and you make sure that the plot follows a causality (from A follows B, from B follows C), you are on the safe side. The key is to make the audience feel for the characters and not let them go until the end.

"If you limit coincidences to the back story, the work will impress, not distract"

Write scenes

Every good scene is a story in itself. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. Just like stories, the individual scenes of goals and the needs of the characters is determined. First of all, ask yourself who Main character of the scene is. This does not have to be the main character of the story, each scene can have a different one. What is the goal of your character? Who is your opponent? Does the character want to achieve her goal directly, or is she trying to manipulate the other characters without them knowing what she is really trying to do? What will the scene end with?? When you construct a scene, it’s enough to list the individual beats. You can achieve this even with purely functional dialogs, if that is easier for you. You can rewrite and improve the text at any time.

Writing dialogues

Writing good dialogue is the fine art of screenwriting. That’s because they can never stand on their own. Movie dialogues are always just the tip of the iceberg. If the characters, plot and theme of the film already don’t work – how should the dialog? The repartee between characters depends on everything else being well fleshed out beforehand.

"Nothing is deeper than German speech and nothing is shallower than German speech."

Hans Rudiger Kucich and Ute von Stockert in dialogue

A very weak dialogue already fails on the functional level, that is, the motives of the characters remain unclear. As a result, the viewer doesn’t know what the filmmakers are getting at. Mediocre dialogue may be functional, but it lacks the character of the speakers and thus seems very flat. If you want to know more about dialogues, I recommend you to take a cue from the master of film dialogue Quentin Tarantino.

Writing better dialogues explained by a concrete example.

Screenwriting in practice

The human brain is a fascinating tool. Again and again I meet authors who either creative writers or well-structured planners are. In both, the other hemisphere of the brain is more pronounced, and they usually want to learn from the Writing process the others do not know anything. In my opinion, however, when writing you should be complete brain so I would like to take a closer look at both sides of the issue.

In practice, every writer must find his or her own writing process. Screenwriting in particular is in the area of tension between strict rules and working freely. films have a very specific form, especially their length is regulated and often non-negotiable. On the other hand, the audience expects a creative revelation, something new, something original from a film. The fact that this is not a contradiction is due to the fact that the author develops within the scope of his possibilities.

Creative writing or thorough planning

Every writer has his own process in hand. To do this, he must always be able to rely on him, after all, results should come out in the end. Develop your expertise, write effectively, and produce quality results over and over again. Build one reliable writing process you can go through again and again. In all phases you will both creative techniques as well as analytical techniques use, even if you don’t realize it.

Your individual writing process

You work out many different ideas. The ideas just bubble up onto the page. This is the most important creative part of your work. From these ideas you choose one that seems promising to you. The Decision is not creative, even if you feel you are making it from your gut.

Next, explore this idea. For this you use creative writing techniques, to try out very different directions. You are completely free and unbound, and can discard the idea at any time. Without criticizing or judging yourself, you manage to write many pages that you can process later on.

Developing fabrics and capturing results

You realize that you really want to pursue this idea. Therefore you determine their potential and their weaknesses (for this you can write a short essay, for example). You know what your goal is: you absolutely want to write a screenplay. What steps you need to complete first? What are your milestones? Will you create a treatment right away or an expose first?? When is your deadline? How do you divide your time until the deadline?? What are the smaller steps in between? Make yourself a schedule with the most important dates. How do you record your progress?

Also you promote your creativity, by clarifying these issues:

  • Where are your writing rooms and what do they look like??
  • How do you get into the right writing mood again and again??
  • What writing exercises do you use to warm up?
  • What do you do when you have writer’s block?

When writing, you are constantly switching back and forth. The better your transitions work, the longer you’ll stay in the flow:

  • Create first scenes
  • Look for a story in these scenes
  • Create initial characters
  • Look for differences between these characters
  • Create possible themes
  • Decide on a theme and vary it based on the characters
  • Create the world of the story
  • Distinguish individual settings in this world from one another
  • Create possible symbols for the story
  • Choose symbols and develop them as the story progresses
  • Develop an initial plot outline (plotting the story)

Revise script drafts

Once you have your first draft of the script, it’s time to revise it. This step is massively underestimated by most screenwriters, because fundamentally revising a text doesn’t mean rewording its sentences – it’s no more than scratching the surface. Instead, the point is to improve its structure so that it can develop the greatest possible power. The best way to do this is to use a scene list, which is easy to rearrange. Structural feedback from a dramaturge is highly recommended in this step. Only when the structure of the script is right, and then the individual scenes, should you turn to your phrasing – and the dialogue, of course, at the very end.

You adjust your storyline until it’s at its most powerful. This is the most difficult step in writing. The point here is to revise the structure, not just make superficial changes. You will also be constantly switching between new ideas and the Evaluate these ideasSwitch back and forth.

In the final stages of the writing process Correct all mistakes. You can also talk about editing. This includes grammar, punctuation, spelling, or the like. I call this beauty correction. This work can be very satisfying because you already have a high-quality product and all you have to do is polish it. This makes you proud and frees you from the heavy burden you have been carrying all this time. When you get here, move on to the next project and your writing process can start all over again.

"If, while revising, solving one problem also solves another, you’re on the right track"

Feedback when writing a screenplay

No writer really works alone. At the desk, yes, but not throughout the writing process. Asking for feedback is important to improve your work and to cultivate your relationships with other writers. To do this, you need to know how to solicit feedback, from whom, and how to process it afterwards.

Best of all, other writers can Evaluate your work, Who work in similar genres. However, very few can give structural feedback. When you ask them for feedback, be specific and ask questions that really move you yourself. Try not to use feedback as ego gratification (along the lines of "you did a great job") under any circumstances. When you get feedback, you usually have to translate it first. As a rule of thumb, focus on what others perceive as a problem, but not on what they offer as a proposed solution. You can think about the suggestions and reflect, but the solution you should end up developing yourself.

The best screenwriting books

Are you looking for a suitable guide for your personal work? Not every screenwriting guide is for every screenwriter. As with all books, it depends on the expectations of the reader. A professional is looking for something different from a newcomer. A writer of film dramas is looking for something different from a writer of film comedies. If you’re hoping for a read that will help you write any kind of story you can think of, you’ll be quickly disappointed. However, if you know your specific problem, you are guaranteed to find a book that can help you.

In the video I show the biggest differences of well-known writing guides for beginners as well as professionals and present my top 5 for the film genres adventure, action, love, thriller and drama.

Many writing guides promise simple solutions.

The Screenwriting Advice Checklist:

  • Which medium to focus on?
  • Which genre is the focus?
  • Which theme or aspect is singled out (dialogues, subtext, serial writing)?
  • Is the guidebook simple or complex in structure?

If you can clarify these questions, you will definitely find suitable literature for you.
In general, I think it’s important to spread as widely as possible. Screenwriting literature is very diverse. Read guidebooks, just like scripts. A wonderful supplement is the German screenplay almanac "Scenario" (2006-2016), with workshop discussions and the respective winners of the German screenplay award.

What you should definitely consider: No matter who wrote the book, every statement and every piece of advice must be able to be questioned by you in principle. You should use the guides to gain insights for yourself, not to slavishly adhere to their every word. With this in mind, I hope you enjoy browsing, reading, and continuing your education!

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