I started reworking my 2nd mystery, Firebug, into a screenplay. Initially I am changing over to present tense and cutting out unnecessary verbiage. Once I do all that, then I’ll have to look at what’s left with an I to cutting or cutting back. Now, as promised, here is the second installment of my interview with Shannon.
What are some tips to help improve a writer’s screenwriting?
The first is to accept that novels and screenplays are two completely different things. Screenplays have a set format that is the standard industry wide. If you want to be taken seriously as a screenwriter and don’t want to film your script yourself, it is imperative that you use the proper formatting.
There are many different screenwriting programs out there that will handle the formatting for you. Final Draft (www.finaldraft.com) is the most popular however it’s expensive. I personally use Celtx (www.celtx.com). It can handle formatting for screenplays, stage plays, audio plays, and even comic books. It formats perfectly. If you decide to produce your screenplay yourself, it even allows you to track all aspects of a production from start to finish. Best of all, it’s free!
A word of caution, though: Just because you’re using a software, it doesn’t mean the onus isn’t on you to understand how to use the many screenwriting elements correctly. No amount of proper formatting will save you if you don’t know how to use Flashbacks, Voice Overs, Parentheticals, etc … correctly.
Perhaps the biggest tip I can give any screenwriter is to know where you’re going before you even begin. Take the time to create an outline of your main plot and all your subplots. The best way I’ve come across of doing this is to use scene cards. A scene card can be an index card, a piece of paper, or even a page in a notebook or Word document. These are such wonderful tools, I’ve even taken to using them in my novels as well as my screenplays.
This is what one of my scene cards for my screenplay ‘Sisterhood of the Sword’ looks like:
Location – Tavern
Time of Day – Night
Characters – Maria, Catarina, Nohemi, Villagers
Description/Goal of the Scene –
The Villagers have assembled to attempt to figure out what to do. Maria is adamant about standing and fighting. Catarina wants the women to pack up and run. Nohemi isn’t certain what to do but she knows they need to do something. Through a passionate speech, Maria manages to sway the Villagers and Nohemi to her point of view. Catarina leaves the meeting, upset that no one saw her point of view and worried about the women.
Important Dialogue (optional) –
Catarina-“Maria, you have nothing to lose.”
Maria-“I have nothing to lose? How can you say I have nothing to lose? I have everything to lose! My honor, my dignity, my life…I stand to lose it all, just like the rest of you. True, I am a widow and I have no children. But that doesn’t make me any less of a woman! My farm, my life is here, in this village…just like all of you. We all have everything to lose. And that, that is why we must stand and fight.”
Villagers: *mutter amongst themselves, nodding, agreeing with Maria*
Nohemi: “She’s right. Maria is right. We have to stay and fight.”
Catarina: “Nohemi, how can you say that? What do you know of war?”
Nohemi: “I know the day after I was wed my husband was called off to fight in one. I know one is coming to me. That is really all I need to know. Whether I like it or not, whether I know anything about it or not, war is coming for me…and the rest of us. I know I need to do something. I know that I am choosing to fight because I believe what little I have is worth fighting for.”
Catarina-“You are all crazy. None of you have any idea what you are getting yourselves into.”
Here’s the actual scene I wrote based off the above scene card:
INT. TAVERN – NIGHT
The tavern is small and homey looking. A bar is at the back
of the room. Mismatched tables and chairs are spaced
throughout the room.
The Villagers are crowded into the small space. Every chair
is filled. Women stand against the walls. THE TAVERN
KEEPER’S WIFE moves through the crowd, filling up mugs from
The air is tense. The Villagers mutter amongst
themselves. Maria sits at the bar, looking
morose. Catarina comforts Nohemi as best as she can at a
table in the corner.
INEZ stands up from her seat. Inez is a young woman, in her
mid 20s. She has a fair complexion with blond hair and
What are we going to do?
Inez’s question causes some of the other Villagers to speak
up, asking the same thing. Maria turns from the bar to face
the rest of the room.
TAVERN KEEPER’S WIFE
What can we do? Our husbands are
The Villagers mutter nervously amongst themselves.
I’ll tell you what we can do. We
can run, that’s what.
Some of the Villagers nod and mumble in agreement.
Maria speaks from where she sits at the bar. Her voice is
quiet, but it cuts through the room, silencing it.
We can fight.
Catarina looks up in alarm.
What? Are you mad?
Maria stands up.
Hell yes, I’m mad! My sister was
That’s not what I meant.
I know what you meant,
Catarina. My answer is still the
same. We need to fight.
Catarina stands. The Villagers watch the two uneasily.
We need to run. Pack up what we
can, burn the rest, and run. We
can head to the coast; to our
husbands. From there we can tell
the King what’s going on.
Some of the Villagers nod their approval. Others look
What if these men pursue us? What
then? Your father said they were
coming for revenge. We know what
they’ve been doing to villages they
have no real grudge
against. There’s no telling what
they will do to us. We have to
make a stand. We have to
fight. It’s the only choice we
Maria, you have nothing to lose.
How can you say that? I have
everything to lose! My honor, my
dignity, my life… I stand to lose
it all, just like the rest of
you. I may be a childless widow
but that doesn’t make me any less
of a woman! My farm, my life is
here, in this village… just like
all of you. We all have everything
to lose. And that, that is why we
must stand and fight.
The Villagers mutter amongst themselves. They nod in
agreement with Maria.
Nohemi speaks up quietly from where she’s seated near
She’s right. Maria is right. We
have to stay and fight.
Nohemi, how can you say that? What
do you know of war?
Nohemi stands. She looks Catarina in the eye.
I know the day after I was wed my
husband was called off to fight in
one. I know one is coming for
me. That is all I really need to
know. Whether I like it or not,
whether I know anything about it or
not, war is coming for me… and
for the rest of us. I know I need
to do something. I know that I’m
choosing to fight because I believe
what little I have is worth
More and more of the Villagers nod in agreement with Maria
and Nohemi. Catarina looks around the room in complete
You are all crazy. None of you
have any idea what you are getting
Be that as it may. We still
believe we need to make a stand and
Catarina casts one more look around the room before simply
shaking her head. Pushing through the crowd, she heads for
the door to the tavern.
From this you can see how the scene card gave me an excellent starting off point. I knew what I needed to accomplish in the scene before I even began it and was able to flesh it out from there as I wrote.
The average – screenplay will have anywhere from 45 to 55 scene cards. I find it’s best to start with around 50, just in case you think of any scenes as you’re writing that need to be added or moved around to make the plot and pacing of the screenplay flow better.