Award-Winning Screenwriter Sharon Wilharm Shows Us How It’s Done


Calling all screenwriters and screenwriters-in-the-making!

Innovative Editing is focused on your particular talent for once, no thanks to me. Since this art is far from my area of expertise, I asked Sharon Wilharm to step in with her impressive biography in screenplay creation and production.

As such, I’m going to let her take it away…

Free Scriptwriting Software!

You’ve got this great story idea. Everyone agrees it should be turned into a movie. The only problem is you don’t have a clue how to write a screenplay.

It’s an issue faced by every first-time screenwriter. We’ve all read books, poems, and even plays. But the average person has never read a screenplay. And if they have, it was probably a shooting script, which isn’t exactly the same thing.

So what do you do?

First, let me assure you, screenwriting is not nearly as scary as it initially seems. Thanks to modern software, all you need to know is the basics of screenwriting formatting to start turning your story idea into a screenplay. Free scriptwriting programs include Celtx and Writer Duet; the industry classic, Final Draft; and my personal favorite, Movie Magic Screenwriter.

Each allows you to create an industry-standard screenplay document.

Start With Your Scenes

Screenplays are told as a series of scenes, with each one taking place in a single location for a specific length of time. They should be short, jumping in at the last possible moment and jumping out just as quickly.

Each scene begins with a slug line that identifies:

  • Whether the scene takes place indoors (INT.) or outside (EXT.)

  • The location of the scene

  • The time of day (DAY or NIGHT).

As for the location specifically, keep it as simple as possible: something like “kitchen,” “office,” or “doctor’s office waiting room.”

Always remember that film is a visual medium, so the mantra for screenwriting is to “show not tell.” That’s why the scene description defines what the audience sees onscreen. This needs to be written in present tense using active rather than passive verbs. And instead of telling viewers who the characters are and what they’re thinking, it must show us through actions and visual clues.

The first scene is the most critical and must introduce the main character and her world. How do you that without getting inside her head like a novel can? Here’s an example:

You’re writing a love story with a single woman protagonist who lives alone and longs to be married. How can you show that?

What if you open with her on a downtown sidewalk looking at a jewelry store’s window-display of wedding rings? She stares at them, then holds her hand out in front of her, imagining one on her empty finger. Then, with a sigh, she continues on her way down the street.

Cut to the next scene, with her in a cramped kitchen opening a can of cat food. She sets it down next to a tired-looking tabby. As she absentmindedly pets it, she again stares at her bare finger.

Audience members can read her thoughts without a single word of dialogue.

Brevity Is the Soul of Scriptwriting Dialogue

Speaking of dialogue, keep it as minimal as possible. Tell the story as visually as you can, using dialogue only when necessary to supplement actions.

In addition, characters don’t need to talk in complete sentences. They don’t have to answer each other’s questions either. Sentence fragments are good. Saying one thing but talking about something different (subtext) is even better.

In order to sound real and flow well, you need to eliminate all but the most essential dialogue. So speeches should be no more than one to two sentences. It goes against what you’re used to, I know. But start watching quality movies, and you’ll see how little the characters actually say.

One Last Scriptwriting Angle to Consider…

A screenplay is simply much more succinct than other forms of writing. A feature-length script will range from 80 to 120 pages, with each page equal to a finished minute of the movie. Which means that every. Word. Counts.

As you write and edit, you’ll find you need to cut, cut, cut until only the very strongest words, images, and scenes remain. It’s that brevity that makes screenplays really sparkle.

Sharon Wilharm has written and directed seven feature films, including The Good Book, Flowers for Fannie, and Providence. Her films have won dozens of festival accolades, including four ICVM Crown Awards. She and her husband were awarded the “Shibboleth Award for Visionary Leadership in the Field of Christian Film Making” in 2016. And their intriguing latest film, Summer of ’67 (www.summerof67.com), a Vietnam War love story, releases to theaters November 2018.

Learn more about Sharon and what she does at www.sharonwilharm.com!script

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