On Wednesday night, I led a screenwriting workshop for the Carnegie Mellon University Film Club and wanted to share some of the materials that I brought to the group.

Basic Screenplay Format

The WritersStore.com offers this sample screenplay for spec scripts, or scripts that are written on “speculation” to be sold to a film production company. A shooting script is a version of this script that includes production information (ie. scene numbers) and camera angles.

If a person is going to self-produce a screenplay, it’s not strictly necessary to write in spec script format, but I find it’s easier to convey information to collaborators (and also to attract collaborators) if the script is in the standard format. After all, the screenplay is a blueprint for the production that is going to happen and if the starting document is clear then the filming process will benefit.

Screenplay Structures

There are a lot of ideas about what makes a film great and no one structure applies to all effective films. However, I find it useful to keep in mind the common ingredients for an effective screenplay. I refer to them when I’m outlining my script and when I’m not sure why the script isn’t working for readers.

This diagram provides a visual description of the Three-Act Structure featuring the various points that the Hero’s Journey travels in a typical western screenplay. I particularly love this diagram because a lot of resources explain the same elements of the Three-Act Structure using different terms and this diagram blends them all together in one helpful visual.

Although controversial, I also included Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet which offers a page by page breakdown of where elements of many successful screenplays typically appear. This structure doesn’t apply to all great scripts, and critics complain that it makes storytelling too cookie-cutter, but I think this is an extremely helpful tool for writers who have written a script but can’t quite pinpoint why a certain scene isn’t landing with readers or why a certain character isn’t having the impact they want. I also found this calculator that translates the number of pages of your script into the beats so you can use this as a diagnostic tool. Again, these aren’t “rules” that scripts must follow, but they can help diagnose problems that might be hard for a writer who is very close to a script to recognize.

Writing for Horror

The workshop offered a special emphasis on writing for horror, because the CMU Film Club is creating short films with a Halloween theme. I am not a big horror writer–in fact, I’m kind of a chicken when it comes to watching scary movies–but I dug up some helpful information.

Tips for Writing Horror:

  • If the film isn’t scaring you as the writer, then it may not be powerful enough to work on audiences.
  • Horror films and jokes have a lot in common: they have a set-up, they answer a question, and they deliver a punch-line or a twist at the end. Make sure that punch-line lands.
  • Show don’t tell: horror is a visual art.
  • Horror is not always concerned with why or how a monster or metaphysical entity does something, but it’s very concerned with what is happening.

Henrik Holmberg offered some helpful tips for writing horror and I found this blog by Chuck Wendig to be very useful.

Sample Short Horror Films:

The best way to learn to write horror is to watch other films and read scripts. Compare how The Offering delivers on world-building, suspense, character-building and relationships to how La Boca Del Leon tells its story. Were both films equally surprising? Which elements helped or hindered these stories?