Make a big difference to The Big Idea.

Help us tell the most creative stories.

Become a supporter

Got a great idea and don’t know how to start writing?

Photo by Simson Petrol on Unsplash
Ace screenwriter, script advisor and educator Kathryn Burnett schools you up on nailing your script.


Screenwriting: such an exciting and glamorous gig.  There you are sitting on your laptop tinkering away on dialogue that is going to SLAY ‘em. You do lunch in awesome restaurants and have inspiring meetings with incredible people who LOVE your work. Right? Sure, sure. Believe what you like.

In truth, things are a little less romantic. I love writing for the screen. But as someone who also teaches screenwriting, I’ve got eight tips here that you won’t find in the text books:

Thing #1Enjoy rewriting stuff

Like other forms of writing, screenwriting tends to be done in solitude. This means you’ll need to be self-motivated and develop a strategy for dealing with procrastination and doubt when it inevitably arrives.  And you’ll spend a lot of time alone because you’ll be rewriting constantly. This is true for beginners and professionals alike. Writing a feature screenplay is more of a marathon than a sprint.

Thing #2 - Read screenplays

Holy hell people – this is a no-brainer. If I was about to start writing haiku the first thing I would do is check out some haiku in order to understand the form and structure of said verse.  Reading screenplays is a FREE and easy way to get a sense of how screenplays look and feel. You’ll also develop an understanding of how screenplay formatting works and see how a screenwriter puts words on the page in order to convey what we see or hear.  Which leads me to Thing number 3…

Thing #3 - Screenwriting is a visual art

Writing dialogue is fun – I get it!  But there’s more to a screenplay than people talking.  Much more. Screenplays support the inherently visual medium of film, so we tell our stories in pictures. Get your head around writing images and human actions: the stuff we can see. And because a screenplay is a story it needs an engaging plot. If you’re smart you’ll work that part out before you jump in and start writing your scenes.

If collaborating with others and getting your work critiqued is your idea of a bad time, then you're better off to stick with the novel.

Tip: An excellent way to cut back on extraneous dialogue is to read your screenplay out loud – that makes it obvious when your characters are rambling. Better yet, look for places in the screenplay where you can replace characters’ dialogue with visible actions. She doesn’t ask for the money: she snatches the wallet.

Thing #4 - Think and act collaboratively

When you’re writing a novel, poem or short story it’s just you calling the shots. It’s all about you, and maybe an editor or assessor further down the track. But a screenplay requires the involvement of others, often from the get-go, and all the way down the line. Which means lots of other people are going to be involved in delivering your baby: producers, directors, often actors, and many more. 

It also means you probably won’t direct your first screenplay. Sometimes it happens, usually not, unless you already have some director cred behind or you’re planning to self -fund/self-produce. If collaborating with others and getting your work critiqued is your idea of a bad time, then you're better off to stick with the novel.

Ideas can’t be copyrighted.  But a piece of work can.

Thing #5 - Everyone thinks what you do is easy

I think this happens for two reasons. First, screenwriting is something usually done alone – so people (including industry people) just don’t see the amount of work that goes on.  In fact, most people don’t see the screenplay at all. Most people just see the shiny, finished product. PLUS to the casual observer most films and TV programmes can look a lot like people talking to each other so all you did was make up some dialogue for the actors – right? Wrong!  (See Thing #2)

Thing #6 - It’s not easy

As with most things in life, it takes time to become competent at screenwriting, and longer to get good.  Talent always comes in handy but it takes time and practice to master the craft. There is one way - and only one way - to get that practice: start writing. Don’t expect to get it right first time but persevere.  Also, get advice from people who have more experience than you, and learn to learn from your mistakes.

Screenplay format ... is something you have to know.  But truly, this is the least of your worries.

Thing #7 – Don’t worry about people stealing your work

Ideas can’t be copyrighted.  But a piece of work can. The copyright is automatically yours once you write your screenplay. It’s possible that someone could steal your idea but they can’t steal your work and content. And in order to see your story become a film or TV series – you have to put your work into the world. If this issue causes you anxiety jump on the Google machine: there are thousands and thousands of people posting their film ideas online all the time.  As a learned friend said to me: the best way to stop worrying about having your film idea pinched is to have more than one film idea.

Thing #8 - Don’t be afraid of screenplay format

This is something you have to know.  But truly, this is the least of your worries. Screenplay format is the easiest part of screenwriting to learn. Google free screenwriting software and download the various free trials on offer and discover how simple it is to use.  Do you need to use screenwriting software? No. But why, for the love of God, would you put yourself through the pain of not using it? Unless you enjoy spending hours of laborious formatting when you could be playing with kittens or eating cake.

If these tips helped you on a project, you should see what Kathryn’s like face to face. Fortunately, you can do just that at her popular Beginner’s Guide to Screenwriting Workshop  coming up on 15 & 16th September.

Kathryn is an award-winning screenwriter, playwright, script development consultant and workshop facilitator who has worked in film and television for over 20 years.



Get the pulse of the Aotearoa creative community with The Lowdown - we look at what Level 2 changes really mean, who's advocating for the arts and celebrate the latest success stories.
Get some timely advice from creative mentoring service Toipoto's guest speaker Ramon Narayan on how to lighten your load in these heavy times.
The Big Idea speaks to leading arts career mentors to get a gauge on what the creative community is crying out for during these raised alert levels.
Everyone’s already experienced their own crash course in lockdown 101. Here’s your refresher with everything a creative needs to know at their fingertips, from links to inspiration.