Screenwriting, Part Two (Craft)

by Alex Sokoloff


I hear a lot of people say that screenwriting is a harder form than novels. This perplexes me. It’s definitely a more restrictive form than novels, and you really have to KNOW your story – you can’t throw dazzling and evocative prose at the reader to cover up the fact that your story doesn’t actually end – but I think it’s much harder to write a good novel.

What I think is, people are intimidated by the form because they’re just not used to reading it. Think about it. We’ve been reading books since we were four or five years old. We (well, the people reading this blog, anyway!) have read not just thousands of books, but probably into the ten thousands. Okay, I’m wretched with math, but I don’t think that’s an unreasonable figure for this crowd. We’re voracious.

And how many screenplays have you all read?

Exactly my point.

That’s why starting as a story analyst is such good training for a screenwriter. You read dozens of scripts a week. You absorb the form through osmosis.

So if you want to be a screenwriter, start reading scripts. Tons of them. And start doing the same kind of analysis that you do as a novelist. Barry Eisler does a great motivational seminar on writing – well, I’m sure he does any number of them, but in the one I saw he really, really emphasized the point that writers are primarily self-taught: they have to be constantly reading and analyzing what other writers do to make a story work.


(remember, the writers don’t get any money from these sites, so if you enjoy a script, why not write to the writer and let her or him know it?)…g/home.cfm…ndex.shtml ( Enter Keywords: movie scripts online.)


Unfortunately there’s not one book I can really recommend on film writing, but it is useful to read Syd Field’s SCREENPLAY. It’s groaningly simplistic, but it will teach you very general basic movie structure and teach you how to work by putting your scenes on index cards, which is a great method of developing a story, especially a movie.

Christopher Vogler’s THE WRITER’S JOURNEY is also worth reading. I’m sure other screenwriters here have useful suggestions, but I’ve read a lot of the how-to books and have really never have found anything like a definitive text on the craft.


The best screenwriting course I’ve ever come across is John Truby’s Story Structure class, which you can get in its entirety on DVD or CD online: (The master class is the one called “Great Screenwriting”).

It’s not cheap but I don’t think there’s a film school in the entire country that is as good.

I do recommend taking classes, but I don’t recommend paying too much for them. Some of the people teaching out there don’t have any experience whatsoever in the business, so go to the first class, see if you think you can actually learn something from either the teacher or the other students, and if not, opt out.


After you have at least read SCREENPLAY I would recommend that you take 10 movies you love in the genre that you want to work in and watch each one – first all the way through, then again, this time starting and stopping so you can write down every scene and what happens in it. Then look at your scene outline and identify the three acts and the turning points, or climaxes, of each. Then see if you can identify the 8 sequences that make up the movie (almost every movie at least roughly follows an 8 sequence structure – each sequence being 10-15 minutes long. The first act has two sequences, the second act, four, and the last act two shorter ones, or one continuous sequence and a capper. Do that with 10 movies in a row and, again, you will have gone through better writing training than most film schools will put you through.


Here’s a crash course in script format: pick a movie you particularly like and would like to have written, get yourself a copy of the script, and type the whole script from beginning to end, in the same screenplay format the script is in. That exercise will teach you what you need to know about script formatting and pacing.


High concept is a whole other column! But if you can tell your story in one line (this is called a LOGLINE) and everyone who hears it can see exactly what the movie is, that’s high concept. (Name this movie: A shark terrorizes a beach town during high tourist season).

One of the best classes I ever took on screenwriting was SOLELY on premise. Every week we had to come up with three loglines for movie ideas and stand up and read them aloud to the class. We each put a dollar into a pot and the class voted on the best premise of the night, and the winner got the pot. It was highly motivating – I made my first “screenwriting” money that way and I learned worlds about what a premise should be.

I highly recommend you try the same exercise – make yourself come up with three story ideas a week, and try to make some of them high concept. You’ll be training yourself to think in terms of big story ideas – extremely useful for novelists, as well.

And now go here and read this essay on “Mental Real Estate” on

It’s vitally important if you want to work in Hollywood that you understand what a premise and what a high concept premise is, and that article does a great job of explaining it. Then take some time (got a few years?) and explore the rest of the site. It’s a free mini-film school by two of the best in the business – Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott.

And for television:

So I guess I will be continuing this series next week! Yes, yes, I’ll post a list of the questions I’ve gotten so far with answers, and I’m very pleased to announce that Paul Guyot will be back to guest blog about the TV side of the business, to further everyone’s educations in his inimitable – uh – style. Tune in next Saturday.

So again – ask away.

(Part One of this series is here.)

20 thoughts on “Screenwriting, Part Two (Craft)

  1. billie

    Alex, this is a great series. I took a short walk on the screenwriting path right after graduate school, when my best friend lived in H’wood and the apt. above hers suddenly became available. I figured it was the perfect time to give it a shot. I got as far as getting my foot in the door to being a story analyst. And reading those very books you rec. and watching tons of movies and analyzing their structure with friends actually in the business.

    I have three screenplays and a couple of TV pilots stashed in a file cabinet as a result. One of the TV pilots actually preceded by several years a show that became incredibly successful. When I looked back at the notes I’d made, I’d wanted to pitch it to the very guy that ended up producing the show that made it. But I had no “ins” to those folks when I initially wrote the thing – just the ideas and the ability to do good research about who might be interested.

    And the gumption to try a form that was very alien to my writing style. I often think it would be a good exercise to write my novels as screenplays just to get the structure set up – I haven’t tried it yet b/c I’m wary of interrupting the novel process flow.

    Anyway, it is fun reading this series and realizing I was doing the right things until my biological clock kicked in big time while in LA and I decided to move back east!

    If you ever get tapped to teach a class at the local universities, let me know!!

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Yeah, Billie, you were doing all the right things, and you’re making exactly the point I’m trying to get across with this series. There really is a pretty standard road to a screenwriting career, and if you have talent and drive and you follow the road, you can have that career. It’s not magic, or rocket science! So I’m hoping I’m demystifying it at least a bit, for those who have always wondered.

  3. Naomi

    So enjoying the series, Alex. I’m a native Angeleno, but this world is so foreign to me (and yes, my brother was even in special effects for movies–different world from screenwriting and all the high-powered networking).

    Hey, I wanted to also point readers to Nichelle Tramble’s Tramblings blog. A mystery writer, she’s been working on a new TV show based on some of James Patterson’s books:

  4. billie

    Oh, and Alex, a question: did you find that networking was a big piece of the process? I did not get very far along the path, but even the short distance I managed, it became clear that getting out and talking/hanging/brainstorming with other people in the business netted huge results that were often unexpected and quite out of the blue.

    Examples: early on I met someone who had worked on a ton of movies and had a wealth of old scripts he let me have to read/study.

    I started talking up my desire to do freelance story analyst work, and several months later got a call to plug in on the overflow for an analyst who worked for a big studio.

    I started getting calls about interviewing for assistant to producers’ positions before the current assistants even gave notice. That kind of thing. It became clear to me that being there and being in that vast network, even w/o a single screenplay completed, was starting to put some pieces in place for the future.

    I had no real credentials but being present and offering to step in at the very bottom rung yielded quick step-ups to better things.

    There was the usual serendipity and synchronicity (I was house-sitting for a producer and took a call from Kevin Costner one time – ended up talking to him for awhile about a script. Richard Dreyfuss came to my yard sale and I got to talk to him. That kind of thing. It made it feel like anything was possible b/c there were all sorts of little chances to leap on, in very manageable ways) that is everywhere in life, but you’re right – it wasn’t magic. It took the same stubborn persistence and also passion for the medium that gets novel writers published!

  5. Louise Ure

    Good Kind Christ, Ms. X. This series is a Masters Class all by itself!

    Thanks for sharing your boundless knowledge.

    I’m going to try that “three loglines” game. It’s good practice.

  6. Allison Brennan

    Hi Alex! Wonderful blog, and I enjoyed that article you linked to.

    I think most writers have wanted to write a screenplay, including yours truly, but I think I’d much rather have a talented screenwriter (read: someone with huge credits) create a screenplay from one of my books. 🙂

    I have a problem analyzing stories. I can’t imagine watching a movie over and over and breaking it down into its key components. It’s why I have a problem listening to how people plot out their novels, character arcs, etc. My eyes glaze, my heart palpitates, and I think, “OMG, I’m doing it all wrong.” Fortunately, there are as many different processes as their are writers, and I hope to remain blissfully ignorant of how it all works for as long as possible.

    I wholeheartedly agree that we are readers first, and by absorbing thousands of books, I think we intuitively “get” storytelling. I love your idea of reading screenplays–I’d never thought of it from that way before. Going to check some out . . .

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Billie, yes, networking was a huge part of the process, but it’s also completely easy – just living your life in LA is networking. Your neighbors are in the business. The people you work out with at the gym are in the business. The parents at your kid’s preschool are in the business. It’s an industry town, and you meet people who can help you just by breathing.

  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Yeah, Louise, the logline game is fun and profitable. 😉

    Dusty, I HAVE taught. I mean, I was teaching locked up teenage boys, but that was teaching… something….

    Actually it’s amazing to me how many offers I’ve been getting to teach. I’m especially looking forward to two workshops I’m doing in New Orleans in the spring – this one is going to be fantastic:

  9. Mike MacLean

    Hey Alex,

    Great job, as usual. This is really helpful.

    A workshop in New Orleans??? What a great idea. Is it anywhere near the Quarter or the garden district? I love that town. To see the Big Easy again while learning about writing all day, I wish it were in the cards for me.

    I actually had a question about last week’s post. You mentioned that as a screenwriter it is possible to keep the novel rights to your script, even as you sell or option off your story to a studio (am I misquoting you here?) My question is this; does your novel then become less attractive to agents and publishers because someone already owns the movie rights? Or would the novel become more attractive because if your script were produced it’d be free advertising for the book? Anyone with insight can chime in here.

    Many thanks,


  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Mike, I’m too new to publishing to speak from that end – maybe someone else can. And I am not a lawyer and this is a complicated kind of contract you’d be talking about, but I do know that there could be complications iin the scenario you describe from the Hollywood side, because the once you’ve sold a script the only unencumbered part (in terms of your separated right to do the novel of the story) is the original script, not any subsequent rewrites. (An option lets you keep more rights under a WGA contract). Plus there might be restrictions in your contract on when you could sell the novel if the script is in active development, or in production.

    In other words, you need a good entertainment attorney to try to get you what you want to accomplish into your contract before you sell the rights – and be sure you know what you’re getting into.

  11. Candace Salima

    Being one who has written screenplays AND books. One is not necessarily harder than the other, simply a different format. It usually takes me about ten pages, which end up deleted, before I fully transfer from one style to other.


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