Sneak Peek: What Makes a Great Screenwriter

By: Taylor Gaines

Guess what? We’ve got another sneak peek for you on the AtlanticTeen blog! Today, I want to reveal an excerpt from the first chapter of my upcoming book, “So You Want to Write a Screenplay: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing for Film, Video, and Television.” In this chapter, we talk about some of the qualities that make a good screenwriter.


Let’s take a look at some of the skills that go into being a successful screenwriter.


Why are we here? What is our life’s purpose? What is true love? These are the kinds of questions that float through the heads of screenwriters. They are just people searching for answers to life’s questions.

It might help to be someone who thinks about things in a curious way, too. Wait, why aren’t we allowed to chew gum in class? Do I really have to ask my teacher to use the restroom? Why can’t we use our phones in class? If you are constantly questioning things, you might just be a writer.

ASK THE EXPERT: “If it can be written, or thought, it can be filmed.” –Stanley Kubrick, filmmaker and 13-time Academy Award nominee

Research skills

Thanks to the Internet, audiences can check the accuracy of even the smallest fact in your movie. This makes it harder and harder to get viewers to suspend disbelief and go on your film’s journey. Your ability to research online, in books, and through other critical fact-finding sources will help you a great deal as a writer in avoiding these mistakes.


Your character cannot just have a dog. Your character has to have a golden retriever named Skippy. Details are critical to making your story pop, and you’ll find that the most successful screenwriters are very detail-oriented. For images to resonate with people, they have to be as specific as possible. The saying “show don’t tell” is a good one to remember as you write.

Let’s say that one of your main character’s traits is that he is nervous around others. Don’t simply say, “He walked around nervously.” Use your character’s actions to show the nerves. For example, “He pulled at his shirt constantly; he kept his hands in his pockets; he kept playing with his hair.” Don’t be afraid to get creative and specific.

ASK THE EXPERT: “Making people believe the unbelievable is no trick; it’s work…Belief and reader absorption come in the details: An overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood can stand for everything.” –Stephen King, author whose books have inspired many movies and television shows


When you are writing a movie, you have to question what is and what isn’t necessary for the story to ensure it has as little fat on it as possible. Is there anything worse than a bad movie that’s also way too long? Screenwriters have to work in a more confined space than, say, a novelist. Extra words have no place in a script.


As a writer, you have to learn how to swallow your pride. In trying to sell a script and get a movie made, you will have to learn how to accept feedback in order to make your script stronger. This may mean an entire re-write, cutting certain scenes, or changing characters. This can be a hard thing to adjust to, but it’s the nature of being a writer.

ASK THE EXPERT: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” –Elmore Leonard, author whose books have inspired many movies and television shows


Writing and rewriting your script can be a tedious and lonely process. Even once you finish your script, there is a lot of work to be done in researching agents, preparing treatments and manuscripts, entering contests, and working on marketing tools like short films and websites. Are you prepared for all of the hard work?


In the movies, the final vision is often credited to the director. It’s impossible to make a film without a screenwriter, though. A good screenwriter needs to be able to craft a vivid image and strong characters. This might mean crafting detailed backgrounds and biographies for characters, even if that information doesn’t make it into the script. Some writers sketch out floor plans of characters’ homes and main locations in the script to help them better visualize things.

As you work on your craft, you will see these skills continue to develop and improve. You will grow more and more comfortable with the writing process. You will also discover many other qualities that can assist you in your writing. This is by no means an exclusive list.

Writing Commitment

Don’t let yourself mythologize writers. Even successful ones have times where they struggle to write. It’s not a magical process where shooting stars come out of your fingers and you type up an entirely beautiful and elegant script on the first try.

You probably know someone who walks around claiming they are writing a screenplay with no evidence that they are actually doing so. Many people fall in love with the idea and never get around to executing it.

One of the reasons it’s difficult to finish a screenplay is because it can be hard to stay focused and committed when your work is not producing the same results every day. If you’re working out, for example, that’s easy. You run on the treadmill for 30 minutes, and you burn a certain amount of calories. With writing, be warned: Results may vary.

One day, you may write 1,500 words in an hour. The next, you might get inspired and write 3,000. Then writer’s block may hit, and you’ll only write 500 words the next day. It’s easy to get frustrated by this fluctuating output and want to quit.

The more you sit down and write, though, the more consistent you’ll get. Just stay committed. Sit down for a set amount of time every day and get it done.

Get inspired

Writers should always be writing. As you go about your day, you should be thinking about your screenplay. Let it soak into every part of your life. You’ll find that things that happen in your daily life make their way into your script or inspire parts of it.

One thing you could try is keeping a notebook with you at all times in case inspiration strikes. Having one or two sentences or ideas written down can help you avoid writer’s block and keep your flow going. If you don’t feel like going old school with a handheld notebook, use the notepad function on your phone to serve the same purpose.

Don’t get lonely

It can be really hard to make yourself sit down in a quiet place to write every day when your friends are busy having fun. Being alone might be necessary for you to do productive writing, but it does not have to be a completely solitary experience.

Try building a network of writer friends so that you have someone who will read your work and give you honest feedback. If you feel like you are drowning in a project, it can be very helpful to have someone not involved with it give you some perspective.

If you are enrolled in a creative writing class, there will most likely be times when you can get critiqued on your work. Most writing classes do a dedicated workshop for the students — you might be able to pass around your tentative first draft there. If not, you can always email teachers and ask for advice: “Would you be willing to take a look at this draft, and if not, could you possibly point me to someone that could? Perhaps a writing group exists that I don’t know about?”

Even asking a friend or parent who doesn’t seem interested in moviemaking can be useful. It helps to know what an average person thinks of your story as well. Stories are the way humans interact, so they are bound to have some thoughts (though you might not want to listen to all of them).

Stay strong

At the beginning, you may be very excited about working on your script. You’ll tell everyone you know about it and think about it constantly. As the process begins to require more time and effort, though, you may struggle to stay focused. The writing may begin to feel like a slog. At this critical moment, you have to push through and keep working.

Writing cannot just be a hobby or something you do in your spare time. It has to become a habit. If it’s not part of your daily routine to sit down and write, you will probably struggle to get your screenplay done. Tell your family and friends not to disturb you during your writing time. Download a program like Freedom or Write or Die that will block Internet use when you’re supposed to be writing. Focus.

Remember to check out my upcoming book, “So You Want to Write a Screenplay: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing for Film, Video, and Television,” available to pre-order on Amazon very soon.

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