Guide for Aspiring Screenwriters Part I: Story Matters Most When Writing a Screenplay!

Tom Cruise JJ Abrams Mission Impossible

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Actors like Tom Cruise bring characters to life on the silver screen with intensity, dedication and creativity, but the magic always begins with the story. Screenwriters, the folks who develop stories into the screenplays and scripts that take our imaginations to new heights, are the source for all the great movies and films we as fans enjoy. It’s no wonder thousands of folks from around the world aspire to write their own screenplay or teleplay and get their story into theaters or on television. Tom himself participates in the writing process – having written the story for his latest movie, Mission Impossible 4, with producer J.J. Abrams (seen in the above photo on the right), and for one of his classics, Days of Thunder.

With so many people looking to have their voice heard in both the film and television industries, the competition to take a story from idea to script to production is a competitive one. Seriously competitive. However, it’s totally possible to live the dream as a successful screenwriter or television writer. All you need is some good ideas, an understanding of how a story is told, and the fortitude to work at your script. With hard work and persistence, you too can have your script make it to the big or small screen! If anyone can do it, we know it’s the ultimate movie fans reading here right now.

So, in the spirit of our guide for filmmakers, the team at TomCruise.com gathered resources for the aspiring screenwriter! Here you can find a wealth of information to get started on the road to making your screenplay a finished work of art ready for the silver screen. In this post you can find resources for screenwriters including books, magazines, contests, festivals, fellowships and schools.

While similar, writing for film and television were different enough that we’ve separated the resources for screen and television writers into two posts! We start today with screenwriting for cinema, and will move onto writing for television for our next post. For those aspiring for a career in either medium, you’re in luck! We have you covered on all fronts. Writers looking to break into TV, stay tuned for part 2!

The story. It’s the most important part of any movie or television series. It’s where all the other great performances and art springs from. It’s what captivates audiences and keeps people the world over hungry for more! We’re sure with these tools, you can make your story the one that people come back to see again and again.

Take a look below and explore the many resources we’ve made available for the budding screen scribes! With some help, we know your creations will be up on the marquee of theaters soon.

SCREENWRITING

The art and science of writing a screenplay for a feature film is something that comes easy to a select few, but normally requires a ton of dedication to master. Thankfully, there’s a ton of resources through books, fellowships and schooling that can guide the budding wordsmith from newbie to screenwriting expert! From the arc of conflict in a script to writing natural dialogue to how a script should be formatted, you can find virtually everything you need to know through the information below. All you need to supply is the irresistible story, and you’re on your way!

BOOKS & MAGAZINES

Most good writers, screenwriters included, will need to also be good readers. There are a wealth of resources for screenwriters in books and manuals to give an overview of how to become a good visual and cinematic storyteller. We’ve collected some of the most authoritative manuals  used consistently as by screenwriters ranging from the most seasoned to the greenest rookies.

screenplay syd field

Considered among the sacred texts of aspiring screenwriters,  Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting; A Step-By-Step Guide from Concept to Finished Script by Syd Field is certainly a must read for anyone looking to write a screenplay the film community will take seriously. Considered a “guru” of screenwriters, the book teaches script fundamentals such as the three-act structure, the language of visual storytelling, how to work in collaboration, and what to do after your script is complete to get it sold. Basically, it’s one of the best places to start to know the language of screenwriting and start your journey. Field teaches screenwriting at some of the schools we’ll discuss later, like USC and Harvard.

McKee Story

Another “guru” of screenwriting, Robert McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting is also considered a necessary textbook for the aspiring screenwriter. Also a USC professor, McKee mentored 26 Academy Award winning and 126 Emmy winning writers through his world famous writers Story Seminar. His book distills the principles of the seminar down to a manual for aspiring writers to follow. He emphasizes the shaping of story, character development and the arc of conflict and resolution first popularized in ancient Greece by Aristotle! Now that’s authoratative ;)

McKee appears in popular culture through a depiction of his seminar in the Spike Jonze film, Adaptation.

Trottier Screenwriters Bible

Billed as a “five-in-one” guide to writing a sellable script,  The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script by David Trottier earned praise from readers looking for a no-nonsense practical guide to getting a script purchased for production. The five elements the book looks to cover includes a screenwriting guide, a script workbook, a formatting guide based on industry standards, a guide to writing speculative (spec) scripts for television, a marketing guide to get a script noticed in the modern filmmaking community and, finally, an index of resources and contacts. That sounds pretty exhaustive!

Lerch 500 Ways

One of the major obstacles in the studio system to getting a script to the next level is getting through the first gatekeeper at an agency or production company: the dreaded script-reader. Thankfully experienced professional script reader Jennifer Lerch wrote 500 Ways to Beat the Hollywood Script Reader: Writing the Screenplay the Reader Will Recommend. This resource is to guide your script past the initial, and steep, barrier to entry before moving on to producers and agents for real consideration to be made.

save-the-cat

Another book from a scriptwriting master, Save the Cat! The Last Book On Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need! by the late Blake Snyder has inspired a small legion of screenwriters since it’s publication in 2005. Recommended by commenter Tom Bennett (@twbennett), this tome puts great emphasis on the structure of a screenplay through the use of a granular “beat sheet” or outline. It is currently the top-rated book on screenplays for Amazon.com. Prior to passing away in 2009, Snyder taught at UCLA, Chapman University, and Vanderbilt University.

45-Master-Characters

Also on recommendation from Tom Bennett, the examination of character archetypes in 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters by Victoria Schmidt is also a newer but widely popular resource for storytellers. While not specifically meant for screenwriters, 45 Master Characters provides a background to classic character tropes screenwriters may use as raw material to build believable scripts. By examining the ancient foundation of character development, Schmidt gives screenwriters aprimer on how to build depth into their screenplays.

Script Magazine

An industry standard periodical, Script Magazine is a good resource for news about script writing, learning about film industry contacts and keeping up with trends in production. For any writer looking to make Hollywood their career, it naturally makes sense to keep informed of what the screenwriting community is up to!

creative screenwriting magazine

Another hugely influential periodical for screenwriters both aspiring and working in the industry is the monthly, Creative Screenwriting. Called the “best screenwriting magazine” by the Los Angeles Times, Creative Screenwriting offers up  interviews with top screenwriters as well as a bevy of tips, advice and ways to contact folks in the industry. The magazine also hosts a Screenwriting Expo, with over 100 educational panels, and the AAA Screenwriting Contest with a $10,000 cash grand prize! Another popular feature is the magazine’s podcast, featuring talks with veteran writers such as Mike Mills, Mark Frost, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and David Elliot.

BLOGS

While books and periodicals are obvious starting points, staying up to date through daily advice from experienced screenwriters on their blogs is another resource to consider while developing your story. These blogs not only dispense helpful advice, tips and ways to avoid traps, but also have giant indexes of links to other online resources for the nascent screenwriter to explore.

john august blog

The most authoritative voice regarding screenwriting in the blogosphere has to be John August’s blog. A veteran screenwriter with credits including Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Big Fish, August has compiled an extensive archive of advice about the art of the screenplay since launching the site in 2003. A graduate of the Peter Stark School at USC, August includes articles on the basics of screenwriting, how to navigate the studio system in Hollywood, and financial concerns of writers.

Screenwriter Iowa Blog

For a more off-beat look at writing, the Screenwriting from Iowa blog provides screenwriters with a slightly removed take from the Hollywood norm. Scott Smith blogs about how people outside of Los Angeles can have their stories told and sold for production in TinselTown. It’s inspiring for those of us around the world who aspire to Hollywood magic without having to live in Hollywood itself.

ONLINE RESOURCES

Some other key resources for filmmakers exist on the Internet, while not in blog or publication form. Chief among these comes from one of our authors of screenwriting guides.

Robert McKee Story Seminar

The resources page at Robert McKee’s website provides an astonishing wealth of information for the aspiring screenwriter looking to research the craft and art of the screenplay on the Web. With links to dozens of sites covering the gamut of screenwriting questions and needs, the would-be writer can be well on their way to learning the fundamentals of producing a polished script.

Screenwriting U Hal Croasum

The professional advise and training offered by the Screenwriting U – both as an online news source for screenwriters and a professional school with online classes – gives the aspiring writers the opportunity to learn more about their craft regardless of where they live in the world. On a tip from screenwriter Tim Elliot in our comments, we’re happy to include this means for new screenwriters to get off the ground and create a filmmaking enterprise wherever they may live. From our look at the site, Screenwriting U founder and head instructor Hal Croasmun dispenses the sound advice that Tim calls, “the ‘Save The Cat’ for the next decade”; a nod to Blake Snyder’s influential courses on screenwriting.

CONTESTS

Once you’ve written a script, how do you get agencies and production studios to read it? One of the major routes for the striving screenwriters to propel their unsigned script to cinema stardom would have to be the competitions and contests at film festivals and online. Here’s a list of some of the more reputable and major competitions that can earn your completed script the notice it needs to get greenlit for production!

Slamdance Film Festival

The Slamdance Film Festival runs in conjunction with it’s more famous cousin, the Sundance Film Festival, in Park City, Utah. While not as prestigious as Sundance, the Slamdance festival for years has piggy-backed on the success of the larger fest to earn independent screenwriters and filmmakers acclaim not normally found at a smaller festival. One of the major components of Slamdance is the screenwriting contest, which stays open not only for feature-length (90 minutes or more) scripts, but also for shorts, television scripts, and genre scripts like horror or comedy.

austin film fest

As we noted in the earlier post for filmmakers and directors, the Austin Film Festival is a major resource for upcoming cineastes. In addition to the directing prizes in the Young Filmmakers Program, the festival hosts a well-known screenplay contest. With huge resources put forward to launching the careers of young filmmakers, this festival is one of the premiere venues in the country for the passionate writer looking to strike out on a life in cinema!

GS New Logo

For screenwriters on the East Coast, the Gotham Screen Film Festival Screenplay Contest also provides an open forum for those looking for a break into the filmmaking game. With a specialty in the cutting edge and genre cinema, the lovers of the darker subject matter are open to vie for a $2,500 prize. In addition, all finalist have the opportunity for an excerpt of their work to be performed by live actors at the festival!

Zoetrope Screenwriting Contest 2010

As we also wrote in the filmmakers post for directors, the American Zoetrope Screenplay Contest judged by famed film director Francis Ford Copolla is among the most prestigious screenwriting contests in the country. Known for hosting filmmakers with an independent streak and literary bend, Zoetrope gave birth to independent classics such as The Conversation and Apocalypse Now. The contest includes a membership to the Zoetrope Digital Studio, which helps screenwriters through workshops and critiques of writing to make scripts stronger.

SCREENWRITING FELLOWSHIPS

For more advanced screenwriters, taking the step to gaining a fellowship can boost a a passion for writing from hobby to career. These awards typically include a substantial cash prize to finance further writing, contacts in the industry, and often the opportunity to move a speculative script into production.

nicholl fellowships AMPASThe Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the people behind the Academy Awards!) offers such a fellowship for screenwriters looking to take their career to the next level. The Don and Gee Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting are given up to five writers each year, including a $30,000 prize for writers who have earned less than $5,000 previously for screenwriting work.

SCHOOLS

Screenwriting is blessedly the one aspect of filmmaking that doesn’t necessarily require skills specific to the job. Successful screenwriters come from remarkably varied educational backgrounds. The most important aspect is the ability to see or tell a story in a manner both familiar and fresh. That’s the magic!

However, most screenwriters typically have an education and life experience to draw from in order to find these stories. And some schools with strong traditions of excellence in the cinematic arts have produced more successful writers with award-winning screenplays than others. Below is a short list of some of these schools with their most recognizable alumni attached. Those who have collaborated with Tom Cruise will be bolded on the list. All awards listed are for original screenplays, with nominations designated with (N):

There you have it screenwriting hopefuls! Using the resources above, you should be able to start your march to crafting a compelling and captivating screenplay. Not only that, but get it sold and produced for all the world to enjoy! We can’t wait to see you do it.

Remember to stay tuned for the second part of the screenwriters posts, with specific resources for the writers looking to break into the world of television. It promises to be a good one!

Tom Cruise and film aficionados can follow the conversation day and night on our Facebook and Twitter pages. We always look forward to hearing from you!

LEGAL DISCLAIMER:  The books, publications, blogs, contests, festivals, fellowships and schools referenced on this page DO NOT come with any implied or explicit endorsement from Tom Cruise, TomCruise.com or its representatives. This resource article DOES NOT constitute a solicitation for  story, concept, or idea submission. Do NOT post any story, concept, or idea to the comment section of this page, nor via TomCruise.com form, email or any other manner of communication to TomCruise.com or it’s representatives. The presence and sole purpose of any and all user comment posts added to this page by TomCruise.com site visitors is to allow site visitor expression and are absolutely not a request for story, concept or idea submission. Any idea/stories or concepts submitted here against this policy will be summarily ignored and deleted by the TomCruise.com team. Site visitors post comments on this page voluntarily and at their own risk and TomCruise.com assumes no responsibility for providing visitor comment post confidentiality.”
  • http://www.twitter.com/isaelfernando10 Isael Fernando

    A great actor, great man, a great human being, a great example, a great father named Tom Cruise.

  • http://twitter.com/ashleywerner ashley

    oh my gosh, that picture could make any girl melt! :) U guys look great! Fabulous blog, toooooonnnnssss of awesome info in it to help everyone out! Thank you so much! I’ve always wanted to be an actress and it’s only natural to love writing and directing too! :) I guess if ur gonna dive in, might as well make it into the deep end! xoAsh

  • http://www.seansshack.com sean ryan

    Excellent Blog. Well done.

    I have a high concept action, thriller, sci-fi feature script and have spent eight years perfecting my craft and I found this blog useful.

    Can we have a part 2 or 3 with hints of getting it read/submitted, as I find this part the hardest. Unless you have contacts, it appears to be an “impossible mission” to get the script onto the right desks.

  • http://twitter.com/twbennett Tom Bennett

    Great article, lots of excellent resources. However, there are two extremely good books that I feel are missing from this list:

    “Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder. I’ve found that as a book by a very successful writer, the approach and techniques described not only help you write a more compelling story, but help you develop a more organized approach and get some validation of your pitch BEFORE investing the time in the script. It’s a great look inside the mind and process of a working, successful Hollywood writer. I think it’s actually the best or one of the best selling books on the topic.

    “45 Master Characters” by Victoria Schmidt. Really helps a writer understand the essence of the different character archetypes, what they are, how to use them etc.. Helps incredibly with understanding characters and character development.

    Enjoy,
    Tom

  • Carol Saiz

    I know that the SCREENWRITERS BIBLE IS ESSENTIAL FOR USING THE CORRECT STRUCTURE! If you read these books your screenplay is also a work of screen writing art. Even well known and successful screenwriters write screenplays that are incorrectly formatted and “sloppy”. You should be the best in our field as long as you are doing all of this work, right?

  • vijay mcschwarzer

    sir this is vijay from India!I am very good screen writer,wrote lots
    and can you plese guide me to outshow my talents.

  • mangal raj

    now i know why i am fans of tom cruise
    thnxxxxxxxxxxxxxx cruise

  • http://www.adrenuscraton.com AdrenusCraton

    Great blog. Thanks for the link via Twitter! Gotta love Robert McKee – especially his take on the auteur theory… In the art world, it’s like telling the gallery director to organize AND promote an exhibition of blank canvases. He’s brilliant and spot on. :)

    By the way, keep your eyes open for a new short film “Mamitas” directed by Nicholas Ozeki. It looks like a big winner ;)

  • http://www.unknownscreenwriter.com Unknown Screenwriter
  • http://www.keepwriting.com Dave Trottier

    Just so you all know, there is a new fifth edition of The Screenwriter’s Bible.

  • Carolina Gómez

    I had a dream when i was 19 years old, 2 months later became reality, now I’m 37 and I wrote in paper my dream. Since I had that dream, Im sure that it can be a great Short Cut, an independent one. Im not a film maker or anything like that, but I’m covinced that if you or your team see the story it could be, it could be a great thing.

    Open your eyes…
    carolina.

  • Blog Admin

    Hi Gus,

    Thanks for the link to the blog! We always appreciate the help. Best.

    Team TomCruise.com

  • http://www.newyorkpodcafe.com Carmen Goldberg

    Thanks for this amazing blog! I am writing a screen play myself. This is fabulous.

  • Alexandra

    Thank you very much for this information. In it very interesting for me and it is just in time. Please be so kind to inform, how do you choose the screen play for you film? Do you work with unknown writers? Do you work with the foreign writers?

  • Julie N

    Hi. Im from New Zealand and as you can imagine the film and t.v industry is limited but there are still opportunities available, its just a matter of searching them out. I studied and magored in this area a fews year ago and due to unpredictable circumstances I could not compete this course and still now hold some regret as I was doing what I loved, what I’d dreamt about since I was young and I was doing well (top of the class :)). Now years later I still write I still dream of it becoming more than words on paper, of characters coming to life, or seeing my imagination a reality via the screen, and hearing and seeing the audiences reactions of their own perspecitive and feelings developed by something I’ve written. I have no idea where to start or how to start so thankyou for this information. Im of to find these books and read.

  • Tim Elliott

    Great article but who could compile a list of the top 60 resources these days without placing Hal Croasmun at screenwritingU.com.
    Seriously, anyone involved with Hal or who heard him at the Screenwriting Expo recently will understand he and his teachings are the “Save The Cat” of the next ten years ( and I’m a huge STC disciple).

    Tim

  • Vladimir Brodsky

    Mily Priteli Tome jsme zajedno dobry film zacina vimyslenim dobreho pribehu a od toho se vsechno odviji a ve finale ten dej a pribeh musi zaujmout divaky.To je to o co preci Vsem jde.Vas Pritel Vladimir Brodsky…!!!:-)

  • http://www.cyber-trek.com Christy Bryan

    Hi, there, Tom! How’s the shooting going?

  • http://www.cindycarroll.com/blog Cindy Carroll

    I agree with Tim. And I’m glad to see ScreenwritingU in the list now. Hal and his classes at ScreenwritingU are amazing. I’ve learned so much about story and screenwriting from them. He teaches you how to write a screenplay people will want to read.

  • http://wix.com/foreverimagesfotos/foreverimagesfotos Joe Smith

    Big thanks for including ScreenwritingU.
    Hal is amazing and what he dispenses will change the way you write forever.
    Kudos!!

  • Jackie Wolf-Enrione

    Your advise to screenwriters is amazing. I’m a journalist. I spent months researching resources how to write a screenplay. Many of these resources are available riGht here. Was inspired last January when I bumped into an actor doing a shoot in my village to pick up an unfinished novel bsed on an event in my life. Been trying to write this for 10 years. I took a minor character and made him my Lede. Thanks to Syd Fields book, the story wrote itself.
    Am making latest revisions to my high concept political thriller. What happens when
    a terrorist attack occurss on our soil, and the government finds it inconvenient and decides to cover it up.
    Looking to your site to help me get my script ready for a reading in a few weeks. Thanks for the information. You are truly a researcher’s dream.

  • Jackie Wolf-Enrione

    PS: Just want to shout out to Hal and Screenwriter’s U. Very informative and supportive.

  • http://writerofscreen.tumblr.com/ Germaine de Pibrac James

    ScreenwritingU is cool. I like that they’re doing a free class Philosophy of a Great Screenwriter because how you approach your career matters as much as your writing! No wonder 3500 people are already signed up- who wouldn’t want to learn a philosophy to naturally move you to A list!

  • http://www.facebook.com/JamesPKelly.writer James Kelly

    Thank you for posting this resource! I’ve benefited from Hal Croasmun’s Screenwriting U. Likewise, Chris Soth’s “Million Dollar Screenwriting, the mini-movie method” help me to grasp the dynamics needed to transfer a novel into visual entertainment that rivets the mind and emotions.

  • Jasoncruise6r71

    Jason Cruise Willing To Learn more About Screen Writing How To be Succesfull in The Movie Industry Thanks Cousin Tom cruise

  • Jasoncruise6r71

    Jason Cruise Willing To Learn more About Screen Writing How To be Succesfull in The Movie Industry Thanks Cousin Tom cruise

  • Chris

    Instensity. That seems to be my name, too.

  • Bernice policastro

    Thank You Tom, thank’s so many times.  I purchased these and other books not all yet, but working on it.

    They have taught me so much, didn’t know which way to go till I saw your website, had the motivation and the inspiration just needed the nut’s and bolt’s.  Think I found that here.
    Writing a wonderful screenplay, trust me, I know it will be great, not becauce I am writing it but because I will be creating actual live characters real and imagined scene’s and real and imagined characters.  Working on character formulation right now, personalities, how they fit together in the story , the conflict between them. The story..part real, part imagination but none the less imaginative and interesting and suspenseful, with intreigue, sex, murder,  compassion, passion, suspence, but a story of light and hope, and more, a roller coaster of emotions twist’s and turns.  Next will be the dialogue.  Then come the grueling but satisfying process of putting it all together and getting it read.

    Thank you again, Bernice
    http://www.starlyrics.biz

  • janis lafreniere

    i’ll get to kinkos that guide printed out, and start writing my screenplay again. it’s been in my head for 20 now. I have lots of other ideas for remakes too that no one else has thought of. 

  • janis lafreniere

    I appreciate the help, I’ve never known how to go about trying to do this.

  • Lani Kidman

    Hello
    Life can seem stranger than fiction and can be the most inspiring source.  I’ve often imagined writing into a screen play on the most awesome experiences I’ve had in life that reflect the revelations of human nature.  Thank you for doing the work and offering these books and tips that encourage the screen writer to come forth.  

  • Sandi

    Thanks for the posting this about Screenwriting U.  I’ve gone through their Pro Series, and it was the most amazing class I’ve ever taken.  It totally elevated my writing skills to levels I never imagined.  Now, I’m getting requests from top agents to read my scripts. 

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