Film scripts are written to be produced as drama rather than read as literature.
Finished screenplays are a blueprint – a starting point in the production process rather than an end point in their own right.
Screenwriting is very technical and does not come naturally to anybody - it is a skill and craft that has to be acquired and developed. Fully formed screenplays do not fall onto the page following a burst of creativity – they must be developed and nurtured.
There are several important differences between writing for cinema and TV:
Cinematic experience: the way audiences watch films in the cinema is very different to the way audiences watch TV in the home
Scale: film stories tend to be on a larger scale than TV dramas in terms of ideas, visuals, emotions, and cost
Shelf life: great films tend to have a longer life than TV dramas
Storytelling: films tend to be more complex than TV drama in terms of the visual storytelling and narrative structure
Narrative scope: single dramas over 60 minutes tend not to fit into TV schedules, whereas feature-length films for cinema exhibition are rarely less than 90 minutes
International appeal: films need to appeal beyond the domestic market to an international audience
As a budding screenwriter, you should go to the cinema as often as possible and see films on the big screen for which they are intended. You should read as many screenplays as possible, and compare what you see on the page with what you see on the screen. It's worth reading about the industry in the trade magazines such as Variety, Broadcast, The Hollywood Reporter, and Screen International – don't be naïve about how the industry works, and the challenges that you face.
Many screenwriters start out by writing short films. Shorts are not only an important training ground, but are also useful as a calling card or showreel in the industry. Although money is rarely made from short films, there are various opportunities to produce and exhibit them, and they can prove a valuable tool in developing and promoting your talent.
Screenwriters can expect to do much more rewriting than original writing, and you should be prepared to engage with the invariably protracted process of developing a script and project. Good writers are never happy with what they've written and look to improve their work - it doesn't help to resist the development process by presuming that what they've written is great. There are almost never any completely valueless notes, even if you disagree with them and however badly expressed they may appear.
If you are commissioned, you will ultimately develop two crucial relationships: first, with the producer, who works to develop and promote the project; second, with the director, who takes creative control. Unless you have a directing or producing track-record, you should get used to the reality that other people will bring your script to life, and will bring their own vision, ideas, and experience to that life.
It is worth acquainting yourself with books on 'how to structure a screenplay'. But remember, it's like putting on a pair of glasses - they can help you see things more clearly, but they can't fix your eyesight. Use screenwriting guides as a box of tools rather than as a set of rules. There are no rules – only good practice.
Remember that the audience should be at the heart of what you do. Making films is hard; getting them distributed in cinemas is even harder; getting people to come and see them is even harder still. The industry invariably needs to feel it can sell a film to an audience in order to risk investing in it. You need to show the industry that there is a potential audience for your work.
Writing for the big screen is always difficult. Develop a thick skin. Be persistent. You don't have to agree with what directors, producers, development executives, or script readers say about your work – but you should take what they say on board since, in the end, they are the ones who might just decide to commission you.
Read this script from the BBC TV Drama archive.
Read this script from the BBC Radio Drama archive.
Conor McCormack and Matt Haynes