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Tips for screenplay composition and editing

Here are a few priceless tips for first-time screenplay writers. These tips are courtesy of, who offer expert editing services for all genres of fiction as well as academic work.

Nobody is going to sink millions into making your screenplay - so write a low-budget script

There is a purely logical reason for this. First, the more logistically complex a movie is, a) the larger the investment required for making a viable production of the manuscript OR b) the less effectively the manuscript will be transformed into an actual movie. However, most importantly, without a reputation for creating potentially profitable screenplays, investors will never be confident enough to stump up the necessary funding. It is probably not a good idea to write a screenplay full of explosions/monsters/obscure settings (particularly busy public settings). Just imagine for a moment the cost involved in producing a two-minute conversation between characters strolling through a mall (permission from the mall/clearance of the mall/engaging hordes of extras/getting the necessary footage in a very limited time window/all the regular costs of production).

Let the story develop naturally from your characters

Edward Burns: My stuff is low concept. Usually character driven, and usually born out of a type of character I either know or come across that I get excited about exploring who they are, and a lot of times where they come from. So I try and look at environment, their community, their family, and they are mostly born out of that. Periodically I’ve tried to find a little bit of a plot just to drive the story forward in order to explore who these people are.

Obviously, the above Burns quote is a little subjective/biased, but it is widely accepted that character is an essential (if not sufficient) ingredient of success. I’m sure you’d struggle to think of a captivating mainstream movie that doesn’t establish an emotional link between audience and protagonist(s) within the first 5–10 minutes; this link should be carefully established and then nurtured if the plot is to engage the audience effectively.

Find an empty niche and fill it

Carmel Winters: At the low budget end I was working on, something had to be utterly like itself, and not like anything else. So for me the starting point is the medium… I do not write something just because it’s a good idea. I used to. And I have really confident scripts in my back pocket that I probably won’t pursue. Because they are just not specific enough. And now I’m looking for that. I’m looking for something that has to be written, and that no one else is going to write it. If I’m halfway through something and I think that someone else could write it better, I really would rather they did it.

This applies to action/adventure screenplays particularly. If you have chosen a target market that is already well exploited and has established writers, directors, and producers dominating the scene, don’t start to write unless you know you can bring something genuinely fresh to the table.

Be prepared to lose control of how the project evolves

Baddiel: If you write a novel, you have complete control. It’s a very pure form of self-expression on some level. Whereas the minute you write a screenplay, basically you’re saying that this is the template for something that loads of other people are going to change and make happen in ways that might not be exactly how you envisioned it. Which is weird because writing is such a controlled thing to do. It’s a weird thing to be writing and think that the future is going to put this into something else.

Arguably, more than any other medium, screenplays are subject to change and evolution as they progress as projects culminating in the production of a movie. Always have in mind that you are going to have to have your vision compromised by the people you involve in your project... Choose them wisely.

Start with a focus and allow elaborations to grow organically

Carmel Winters: I find the writing is so much better when I start with some pragmatic, lovely fences and restrictions. I mean, you can write anything. I love stories, characters… My head is full of them. So to peg myself down and fence myself in makes everything much more pressurized. It wouldn’t work the same if I had something where I had to trim its fingers and take a little bit of its head off. I have to start with an idea that’s going to thrive in those conditions.

All in all, the most valuable advice is to not rush headlong into writing a manuscript. If you actually want to succeed in having a screenplay made, you absolutely need to focus on identifying a market niche and a basic framework before going forward.

Finally, the best tip of all: Try the Totaleditors manuscript and book editing services to develop your work or simply give it the final polish before you begin your marketing efforts.

Good luck!