5 Basic Pro Tips on Writing Screenplays


by Kate Maruyama

20 years in the film industry, my biggest takeaway is that you should be writing the script that you want to see. It sounds simplistic, but with dozens of scriptwriting books out there guaranteeing a mathematical approach to a surefire hit, I can tell you that an original script is the only way through your jaded gatekeepers.

I was raised on movies and books. My dad taught film at Wesleyan University before VHS was around, so rather than count on the one or two movies shown on the Sunday Matinee on television, I was exposed to all movies always. Fred and Ginger, Gene Kelley, the Marx Brothers, Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Gary Cooper, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford traipsed through my living room on a pop up silver screen on a stand as the 16mm projector clickwhirred sprockets along and Frankenstein, Dracula and the Invisible Man joined the parade. We also had a Saturday ritual of going to any movie that was out, good or bad, sometimes terrible. Hunkered down with junior mints and popcorn—popped at home and smuggled in enormously embarrassing but tasty and greasy paper bags, I saw the seventies unspool, Star Wars, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Grease, Superman, Dog Day Afternoon, All the President’s Men. As I got older I was allowed to watch the movies unfurling for my dad’s classes, or the Wesleyan’s film series, Ford, Coppola, Hitchcock, Capra, Donen, Cukor, Frankenheimer. As a college student I moved onto Spike Lee, Jonathan Demme, John Waters. I became a student of auteurs and camera angles, scenes told in dialogue, scenes unfolded in imagery.

Sometime in college, scrambling for what to do with my life, I realized that film was a language I already spoke because I was raised in it, versed in it. So in the early nineties I moved out to Los Angeles to give it a whirl and I started writing screenplays immediately. But, as I needed to make an immediate living, I started working at The William Morris Agency as an Assistant. I then moved to Jon Peters Entertainment to work on the Warner Bros lot and later to Universal to work for Sylvester Stallone, which seemed an odd fit, but taught me more than any industry job I’d held yet. I learned more than I knew I could about screenwriting from the work I was doing in development. I started recognizing the scripts that caught the imagination, saw the scripts that went on to get made, the scripts that, despite being interesting, would never sell. By the time I was a junior executive, I had read and covered thousands of scripts, given notes on what would make them stronger, gotten inside scenes to see how they tick and given pointers to shore them up. There was so much to learn even in writing coverages, which is where you summarize a script into a page and a half. There’s something about how a summary cracks along that lets you know if the script has done its job.

The gatekeepers of Hollywood, the ones who decide if your script meets the eyes of a producer or executive or an actor, they are all people who read thousands of scripts for a living. And they are tired. And they have seen it all. They are looking for something new, different and engaging. And they are often an underpaid assistant or an intern looking for that original piece to bring to their boss.

Here are some takeaways from reading two decades’ worth of scripts. Some simple things that can make or break the read of a script.

1. Format is everything. Your script is going to be read by someone who reads scripts for a living–which means dozens of them a week. You need them to see your words and your characters, your scenes and your world. Because I promise you, if your font is weird, or you’re being creative with your page layout, or you add pictures, they have taken points off your script before reading the first line. You can find screenplay formatting and free software to write with here: https://www.celtx.com/

2. Your first ten pages need to sing. Your reader, having ten more scripts to get to, needs to be sucked into scene in those first ten pages. They need to feel firmly anchored in your character, the scenario and what’s happening to them. If it’s an action movie, it’s generally a seat-gripping action scene. If it’s a romantic comedy, it’s usually funny, engaging and showing your character in full. If it’s an independent movie, it may be simpler, but it is always engaging: sometimes a quiet scene where you find your character doing something curious, sometimes it is a pickle they find themselves in later in the story, but it is always, always a good read. If you have spent ten pages simply on ambience, setting, or putting together a situation, you have lost your reader already and trust me, they have other scripts to move onto.

And on that note, skip the epigraphs. A famous author’s quote is not going to help your screenplay if it’s already good and will only emphasize what’s not working in a screenplay that isn’t cracking along.

3. Curb your descriptive language: Beyond creating tension in a scene or physically describing action, keep your descriptive language to yourself. I can’t tell you how many times, as a jaded script reader, my eyes rolled to the ceiling as a writer waxed rhapsodic for paragraphs about a farm, the light against the eaves, the fireflies, the flock of birds. Little visual signposts are lovely if kept to a brief sentence or two. What you are there to describe is the scene itself. Give us the time of day and the light, perhaps, a nod to what sort of evening it is and go with your characters and where they are in the scene, what they are doing with their bodies. Give your reader characters, scene and dialogue that they want to get into. Give the scene purpose from its first breaths.

4. Don’t physically describe your characters. This is a weird one and counterintuitive to any writer. But the truth is, your characters, beyond age and stature, and perhaps the way they hold themselves or their station in life need no further physical details. Think of your characters as indelible personalities imprinted on a blank canvas. Any producer, executive and (if all goes well) actor wants to project someone specific on that character and wants to do it all the way through. If you describe your heroine’s “blonde hair falls in her face” you’ve just lost five brunette actresses or actresses of different races and the potential for your script seeing the light of day has gone down exponentially.

5. Don’t write to the market. This also may seem counterintuitive, but please, for the sake of your precious time and the effort of the writing itself, take heed. I always heard it, what types of scripts are “hot,” from when I started, “People are buying cop dramas now” to later when I was writing “People are buying sex thrillers now.” As a reader, I would suddenly get an onslaught of one kind of script and by the time they got to us, that description of “what’s hot” was passe. It was while I was reading my 50th crappy cop drama that I read THE MATRIX, which flipped my lid. It was when I was reading my 70th sexy thriller that quiet, character driven independent films started breaking through. You don’t know the market and the people who put these buzzwords out there don’t either. Write the script that is the movie you want to see. Write the story that has captured your imagination, that you can see in your head. Write the script that is different. Because the most magical words in any scriptreader’s vocabulary is, “I haven’t seen this before.”

If you want to jump start your script idea, the one that’s been nagging at you to get it written, the one that you can’t get out of your head, you can get a good head start in my class, which starts Monday November 25: “Laying Down the Tracks: Jump Start Your Screenplay in Four Short Weeks.” The class is online and can be taken at any time of the day or night. All you need is access to a computer!

Kate Maruyama’s twenty years in the film industry started when she was an agency assistant at William Morris, where she learned the ins and outs, from contracts to deals, indie movies to studios films, indie releases to negative pickup. She moved on to Jon Peters Entertainment where she worked as a development assistant, developing pitches, giving notes on screenplays and finally was Director of Development at Sylvester Stallone’s company White Eagle at Universal where she worked with writers and executives developing pitches and screenplays for production. She was a script consultant for Demarest Films and for Village Roadshow Pictures for ten years. She then quit to write and learned the other side of the screenwriting world, with a number of scripts in development and had one screenplay produced. She has consulted on numerous screenplays since and has a knack for developing them into the type of material producers and actors are looking for.

Her first novel Harrowgate was published by 47North and she appears in numerous print and online journals as well as in anthologies.

Kate holds an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles in fiction where she is adjunct faculty in the BA program and Affiliate faculty in the MFA program. She teaches with Writing Workshops Los Angeles and is part of the team behind Antioch’s inspiration2publication program.