Scriptwriting

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“I have a great idea for a film – where do I go from here?”

This is one of the most common questions that we get asked. Starting off as a writer in the film industry is tough, and advice can be hard to find. We hope to shed some light on the process below.

Honing Your Writing Skills

If you are at the idea stage and wish to write your screenplay yourself, you will need to learn about the craft of screenwriting. There are hundreds of publications on the subject, or you can choose to attend a screenwriting course at a university, college or tertiary institution.

Film-specific writing courses/online courses:

  • AUT University – Masters in Creative Writing for Screenwriters
  • International Institute of Modern Letters - MA in Creative Writing (scriptwriting)
  • Kathryn Burnett – Beginner’s Guide to Screenwriting Workshop
  • NZ Writers’ College – Scriptwriting
  • Script Factory Training Course
  • South Seas – Film & Television Diploma
  • The Film School – Introduction to Film and Television Production
  • Unitec – Bachelor of Performing and Screen Arts
  • University of Auckland – SCREEN 705
  • Victoria University of Wellington – FILM 305
  • Waiariki Institute of Technology – Writing the Screenplay
  • Whitireia Polytechnic - Diploma in Creative Writing

Getting Feedback/Support

Being open to feedback and constructive criticism on your work is one of the most difficult yet most important processes of screenwriting. Unfortunately, due to the number of applications we receive, we cannot accept unsolicited scripts. However, there are other ways to get feedback on your work and we strongly recommend you do so before applying for funding.

For example, the New Zealand Writers' Guild (NZWG) Reader’s Service is a reviewing service that provides professional, respectful and constructive feedback.  Furthermore, the NZWG offers virtual writers’ ‘huddles’ (NZWG Script Swap Virtual Writer Groups).  Through these virtual groups, participants are able to safely and securely provide each other with positive feedback on scripts, offer support and encouragement, and share in successes.  You can find links to the NZWG services below, along with other organisations that might be able to provide support:

  • NZWG Script Reader Service (NB: you must be a member to access this service)
  • NZWG Virtual Huddles (NB: you must be a member to access this service)
  • Script to Screen (Although Script to Screen don’t offer direct support – they often host networking events where you might meet other writers)
  • Scriptease

Common Story Problems

Here are a few common problems we come across on a regular basis when reading scripts. Before you submit your script as part of a funding application, take the time to ask yourself the following questions of your screenplay:

Who is the main character?

Every film is character-driven – even films that seem plot-driven are helmed by the main character (protagonist). Most successful screenplays are built around one character that the audience meets at the start of the film and who is clearly the person who already has, or is about to have, a problem that will drive the action of the film.
You can write a film with more than one main character, but be aware that this may dilute the emotional intensity of the film. If your film is multi-protagonist then what is giving it the unity it needs to feel like a film and not TV?

What is their journey?

In order to satisfy the audience, the main character should have a clear problem or a series of obstacles which they will struggle with throughout the film, and eventually overcome (or not).
The problem can be one that exists between the protagonist and another character, something in their world that they have to change or something about themselves that needs to change. Common problems include central characters who face too few obstacles, are passive, or have no clear motivation.

Are the "stakes" high enough?

In order for the central idea (the premise) of your film to be sufficiently compelling you must ensure there is as much at stake for the character and/or their world as possible. Once you have identified the character’s problem ask yourself what will happen if they don’t solve it; if the answer is “not that much” then the stakes aren’t high enough.
As the action develops make sure the obstacles confronting the character build so the hardest thing the character must do happens at the climax of the film.

Does the script have a consistent tone and genre?

Watch out for stories that start out as comedies and turn into dark moody dramas halfway through, and end as action thrillers. This is a sign that you’re unsure of who your audience is.

Have I really got inside my characters’ heads?

What is it that defines each of the main characters and how is this signalled to the audience? Are all the characters sufficiently different from each other? Don’t forget to introduce your main characters with more than just their name – give an indication of their age and appearance too.

Have I proofread my script?

Spelling and grammar mistakes detract from the story and make you seem unprofessional and careless.

Is the dialogue doing too much work?

Dialogue is notoriously difficult to get right. Remember this is a film and actions speak louder than words. You need to watch out for too much dialogue, or over-expositional dialogue (this is when the writer relies too heavily on the dialogue to tell the story).  Also beware of dialogue that is too obvious or “on the nose” by making use of subtext (easier said than done).

Is it credible?

The characters should make believable (‘real but unusual’) decisions – just like in real life.

Is it definitely a film?

Is your idea more suited to the stage, TV, radio or maybe a novel?
Are you trying to do the director’s job for them?

You don’t need to write camera directions – unless you are planning to direct it yourself. Even then, avoid extensive camera directions as they interrupt the flow of reading.

Copyright Questions

Can I write a script that is an adaptation?

Yes, but be aware that you will need to secure the rights if the original work is not out of copyright.

How can I copyright my idea?

Generally speaking, ideas cannot be protected by copyright – only the expression of those ideas in a certain form (e.g. notes, a treatment, script etc.) is protected by copyright.

How can I copyright my script?

In New Zealand (unlike, say, the US) there is no formal process for registration of copyright ownership of your work. Copyright automatically exists at the time of creation of the relevant work, for example, at the time you write the first treatment or script draft. However, you may wish to keep paper and electronic records of emails, correspondence, notes, treatments, previous drafts etc. relating to your script to help prove when copyright came into existence. You can also register your script with the NZ Writers Guild.

Legal Stuff

If you have a specific legal question regarding your screenplay, our Business Affairs team can put you in contact with entertainment lawyers who may be able to help you. Email businessaffairs@nzfilm.co.nz.

The New Zealand Writers’ Guild provides legal advice to its members free of charge. For information on this service, visit their Legal Advice page.

For general information on copyright laws and copyright protection, visit the NZFACT website, or The Copyright Council of New Zealand.