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How To Keep Your Screenwriting Skills Sharp

By Rich Dalmas for the Christian Entertainment Guild

Screenwriting gurus often repeat the mantra, “If you want to be a better writer, you must write every day.” 


I’m not against this idea, especially if you are trying to complete a script.  But I like what Dr. Stephen R. Covey, author of Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, said:


“We must never become too busy sawing to take time to sharpen the saw.”  Why? Because if you use a saw continually, it will eventually become dull, and the work will get harder.   


Well, no writer wants that. So, what can a screenwriter do to stay sharp and keep from their saw from becoming dull?



1.  READ SCREENWRITING BOOKS. Okay, maybe you’ve read Save the Cat, but have you read John Truby’s, The Anatomy of Story? Or The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri?  The Nutshell Technique by Jill Chamberlain?  And if you really have some time on your hands, have a crack at Story by Robert McKee.


Or my two favorite, must-read, rewrite books, by Linda Seger and By William M. Akers.There are dozens more!


Reading screenwriting books gives us new techniques to apply when we are actually pounding out a screenplay.


2.  TAKE A SCREENWRITING CLASS.  I analyzed plays in grad school and learned a lot about how story works.  And I did have a kind director reading my scripts and giving vital - and sometimes painful - input. The point is, I had teachers. Teachers who shared invaluable information with me and made me accountable to do the work. This kind of feedback as well as a new class can be extremely informative and motivating.


If you’ve already taken a class, take another one with a different instructor.Get someone else’s take on screenwriting.CEG offers screenwriting classes as well as privates or CEG Services development with a Christian worldview with instructors who will care and understand why you’re writing a faith-based film. And you’ll get to know other writers with similar visions to your own. CEG Writers Program  CEG Services            


3.  LISTEN TO SCREENWRITING PODCASTS: Podcasts can be so inspiring and fun! And you’ll definitely pick up new skills and get inside information.  ScriptNotes with John August and Craig Mazin is the most listened to. These seasoned veterans are great, but a word of caution, their language can be a bit salty.


4.  ANALYZE MOVIES YOU LOVE. Do you know why you love the movies you love? Have you studied them? This has been an obsession of mine for years.   How did the stories pull you in? How did they raise the stakes? Did you ever catch yourself leaning forward to the edge of your seat? What made that happen?  What made you laugh? Why do the jokes work?  How were they set up? What made you cry? Did they surprise you with twists and turns?   


Just one example is when I saw the family movie with Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg (a Christmas movie). Now this film is not ever going to win an Oscar, but it’s right in the genre I often write in. - I could even see how they were setting me up – and I still cried. I watched that movie over and over to understand all the different kind of jokes they used to keep me laughing. And how they masterfully pulled at my heart strings.


5.  READ SCREENPLAYS.  I’m always amazed when I meet aspiring screenwriters who have never read a screenplay.  This was a huge part of my self-education.  I learned to write action scenes by reading Tony Gilroy’s Bourne Identity script. The script for the film Deadpool (which I’ve never seen) was some of the clearest, easy to visualize action I had ever read.  It was invaluable because I was writing a super-hero pilot and needed help!


Every year, you can download Oscar-nominated screenplays. Read first and then compare to what’s on screen when you watch the movie. Or the other way around.


NOTE: Don’t imitate the writer’s formats.Often they use “block writing”, meaning long paragraphs over two lines long. They can do this because they have already broken into Hollywood.Stick to spec script guidelines.And sometimes the scripts are with numbers on the left and lots of camera directions. Don’t do this.


You can view some scripts and TV show bibles at CEG's Writers Resourcers


6.  JOIN OR CREATE A WRITERS GROUP.  Read each other’s work – 10 pages is the standard. Give positive feedback and constructive criticism.  Listen when your work is reviewed. Learn to embrace input. Make changes where necessary.


I have been in several screenwriting groups over the years and led two during the pandemic. I love them!I’m inspired by and learn from other writers and my scripts always get better when “new eyes” on them. The Christian Entertainment Guild offers free community groups for screenwriters both online and in person. You can register for CEG’s Virtual Writers Room or in person CEG Westlake where I am currently leading. CEG Registration


7.  READ ARTICLES AT SCREENWRITING BLOGS AND WEBSITES.  I do this way too much. But this is where I learned about what script readers love and hate when they read a spec script for a producer or for a contest. 


8.  WATCH YOUTUBE VIDEOS ABOUT SCREENWRITING.  Tired of reading? YouTube is a free resource we all should be taking advantage of on a regular basis.  Just go youtube and type in “screenwriting” and you’ll be amazed at how much you can learn from this endless free stream of free advice. 


Here’s just one video from the filmmaking videos on Youtube that changed my comedy writing. I incorporated what I learned into my dramedy and won my first screenplay contest.  Youtube Take note that this is not a Christian website.


I hope this was helpful.

Now go. Learn. Apply. Grow. Sharpen!  Change your writing and change the world!


Rich Dalmas currently teaches screenwriting with the Christian Entertainment Guild and is also a part of their CEG Services team where he gives script consultations, evaluation and is the CEG Development Team.

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