Writing a Screenplay: Tips and Tricks

You might think that writing a screenplay is easier than writing straight-up fiction or nonfiction. After all, you only have to worry about the dialogue, right?


Writing a screenplay has its own set of challenges: pacing, length constraints, using dialogue and silence to bring a character to life, thinking extremely visually, and so on. Here are a few tips for screenplay writing:

  • Each page equals roughly one minute of screen time.
  • A feature-length movie should have three acts: roughly 20 minutes, 60 minutes, 20 minutes. (There is debate as to whether this structure should always be applied, but if you are new at screenplays, definitely go this route.)
  • Important plot points should happen at the end of the first and second acts.
  • Formatting is critical, from font to margins to indents. Each formatting decision affects how the script is read and how long each page takes on screen, which is why there is a standard. Read books on formatting, and use screenplay software or styles in Word to keep it consistent. For instance, most people assume all character names are centered. Not so! They should be indented 2 inches with 1.5 inch margins.
  • Rather than relying solely on dialogue, also include gestures, facial expressions, and silence. Pay attention to the conversations of strangers when you’re out having coffee so that you can use the mannerisms.
  • Be sure to describe each character and each setting. Details like this are what bring the world you’re creating to life.

Writing screenplays is tough but fun. Give it a try, and tell us how it goes!

Travel Journals

In 2005, I spent most of a summer in Austria, taking a medieval lit course and a travel writing course. During the travel writing course, we each kept a journal that we not only wrote in but also pasted items in. Mine is full of ticket stubs from ballet performances, coasters from cool restaurants, and pamphlets from random tourist attractions. It is, hands down, my best souvenir. From our journals, we then built more polished pieces of writing.

Cortona, Italy, by Rachel Rosolina

In two and a half months, my husband and I will be trekking through Torres del Paine in Patagonia. A goal of mine is to record this trip in journal form. I love taking photos (ask anyone who has ever had to endure a hike with me), but I also want to remember the things photos can’t capture—the scent of the air, the feeling of sore muscles, the nooks and crannies I find in Punta Arenas or our eco camp. Journaling was a huge part of my childhood. In fact, I have nearly daily journal entries from the fall of 1993 through my high school graduation in 2002. I’ve slacked off in that area as an adult, and this seems to be the perfect time to jump-start it!

Here are some tips if you’d also like to begin travel writing:

  • go to the website Research where you’re going. Knowing a bit of history will not only give you more context while you’re there, but it will also help you frame the location in a better way.
  • navigate to these guys Pay attention to sensory details. As mentioned, photos only capture the visual. Describe the food, the sounds at night, the cadence of people’s speech—all the things that are easy to forget.
  • Include dialogue. Yes, this is a journal entry, but it’s also creative writing. This will help you later if you decide to take your travel journal and create a shaped piece out of it.
  • Note lessons learned. If you have any personal revelations while traveling—which traveling is great for—this is the place to record them. Try to capture not only the cause of the revelation but also the feeling of it. Again, noting it while it’s fresh will help you later on if you expand the journal into a more polished piece of writing.
  • Try not to judge your writing. See the journal not as a finished piece of work that has to be perfect, but rather the note-taking stage. In Europe, I found myself trying to sound too writerly when completing my daily journal entry, which just made it sound stilted. Allow yourself to play!
  • Most importantly, have fun! You are on an adventure! Soak up every moment of it!

Here is an example of travel writing—culled from a journal—about my trip to Australia and New Zealand in high school.

Are any of you planning adventures at the moment? Do you have any travel writing tips you’d like to share?

Also, don’t forget to write about your experiences with love for our Modern Love challenge! What we’ve already gotten in is amazing, and we can’t wait to share it.

Sources: The WriterWanderlustGlobeJotting

From the Pen of a President

John F. KennedyFebruary is chock-full of presidential celebrations. The 12th was Lincoln’s birthday. The 15th was President’s Day. Yesterday was Washington’s birthday.  Clearly these men have impacted politics and wider society with their decisions, but many have also recorded their wisdom in books.

Here are some notable presidential publications.

Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation by George Washington. Washington penned these 110 societal rules before he turned sixteen. He based them on rules of the French Jesuits in the 1500s. They include such gems as: Continue reading “From the Pen of a President”

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

blizzardAs I’m writing this, the east coast has just been pummeled by Winter Storm Jonas. According to the Weather Channel, New York is officially now the fifth state to record 30 inches or more of snow from this storm. Mount Mitchell, in North Carolina, has a record 66 inches of snow. While I stare out at my rainy neighborhood, friends are posting photos of soft white snow lumps where their cars used to be.

Weather is one of those small-talk subjects we fall back on if our conversation with an acquaintance is stalling, since it is a shared experience. In writing, discussing weather—especially storms—has become a red flag for melodrama and banality. Just as in the conversation with an acquaintance, it is often a crutch. Continue reading “It Was a Dark and Stormy Night”

Writing Pearl Harbor

USS Shaw explodes during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

December 14, 1941

Dear Mom and Family

Hi. I hope you people haven’t worried too much. I sent a telegram yesterday in hopes that you wouldn’t. I know you will understand how busy we’ve been, so excuse me for being so tardy with this first letter.

The attack on Pearl Harbor—seventy-four years ago today—was a turning point in U.S. history. At 7:48 a.m. Hawaiian time, hundreds of Japanese fighter planes, bombers, and torpedo planes launched from aircraft carriers. Eight Navy battleships were damaged, and four were sunk. Thousands of American troops were killed, and a thousand more were injured.

Corporal Henry G. Rieth was there that day, and we are fortunate to have a written record of his experiences, thanks to his letters back to his family in Boston. Obviously worried that his family wouldn’t know he’d survived, he went to great lengths to get his letters back to Boston.

I have already told you that I am O.K. in the telegram, which by the way I almost sent collect to convince you that it was me that sent it. They told me at the radio station that it would only take 24 hours at the most to reach you. I hope it did. I also sent a card the beginning of the week which you will probably receive last.

Patience was a necessary component of letter writing, as was caution. It was possible for the wrong party to intercept the message, so Rieth had to use restraint with his correspondence.

It’s pretty hard to write letters now because we have to be so carefull [sic] what we write, because it wouldn’t do to have mail containing anything which would harm us here get into the wrong hands. . . .

Our squadron can’t be written on either the envelope or the letter although we are the same outfit as No. 21. Our work is coming along swell the only difference is that now we are kept more busy, and now I have a ship of my own.

His letters give us a tiny window into what it was like that day and the days that followed—not only for the troops but also for the families begging for news of their loved ones.

I’ve had to stop writing this 3 times. Here it is Mon. night 8:30. Up since pretty early this morning and quite tired. The greater part of the afternoon I was working in the rear end of the ship I’m on, which for me is pretty close quarters and left me feeling sort of kinky. The boys are doing a swell job of it though and are really taking this whole affair in swell spirits.

Being able to see the handwriting on the page helps Rieth’s experiences—and the wider experiences of Americans in war time—come to life.

Explore a couple of Rieth’s letters here, courtesy of the National World War II Museum of New Orleans.

Clancy and the Search for the Mashed Potato


A dance party? Noooo!

Clancy loves his best friend Bernie but hates dance parties—he doesn’t know how to dance. So when Bernie invites Clancy to his dance party, Clancy braves the dangers outside his burrow and sets off on a quest to learn how to do the most popular dance, the Mashed Potato. Will he find a mashed potato and learn its dance? Or will he fail and have to disappoint his friend?

Today, I’m bragging on our very own Lesley Bolton. In addition to being awesome and working hard for Inkblot, she is also a newly minted children’s author! I asked her a few questions about her brand-new book, Clancy and the Search for the Mashed Potato.

Continue reading “Clancy and the Search for the Mashed Potato”

What Editing Should Be

reading sculptureAs a quick follow-up to the post on the magic of Maxwell Perkins, I want to share an article titled “The Better Angels of Our Writing” from The Chronicle of Higher Education. In it, Rachel Toor, associate professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University’s writing program, writes of two modern-day Maxwells: Carol Saller and Mary Norris.

Saller is best known for her work on Lingua Franca and the CMS Q&A (as well as the book  The Subversive Copy Editor), and Mary Norris is the author of  Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. These women are shining examples of what Maxwell Perkins showed us editing could be, what editing should be.

Instead of becoming nitpicking bullies who are offended by the mistakes of authors, editors should work to understand authors’ choices. After all, suggestions and corrections can be made without drawing blood. Author and editor must work together to achieve the mutual goal of a good book. As Toor notes, “Our duty is to the reader.” Editors should strive to be what Mary Norris describes as “a person who who can correct us, point out mistakes we all make, and manage not to make us feel bad, because . . .  [we make] the same mistakes.”

Toor reminds us that making art and making friends are not mutually exclusive.  After all, she says, “good copy editors see me not just for who I am but for who I want to be, and they help me get there.”


Maxwell Perkins: The Author’s Editor

Maxwell PerkinsWe live in a world of instant gratification. We can watch our choice of television shows whenever we feel like it, cue up the specific songs stuck in our heads, and order nearly anything on Amazon and receive it within two days. This instant world has had interesting effects on writing and editing. As soon as I finish this blog post, for example, I hit publish, and it will magically be ready for the world to see. There’s a word for this: disintermediation. It means skipping the middle man, or in the world of publishing, going straight from writing to the distributor and skipping the editorial steps completely.

Such massive changes in the creation and delivery of information makes me wonder what Maxwell Perkins would think. For those of you unfamiliar with Perkins (1884–1947), he is considered—according to Matthew Bruccoli—America’s most famous literary editor. While working at Charles Scribner’s Sons, he went against the grain of popular opinion and revolutionized American literature by discovering the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, and Ernest Hemingway.  Continue reading “Maxwell Perkins: The Author’s Editor”

Dash It All!

To folks outside the publishing industry, the various dash lengths available can be quite confusing. Hyphen, en dash, em dash . . . what’s the difference? And how do you get your keyboard to do that?

As Chicago Manual of Style 6.75 states, “Though many readers may not notice the differenceespecially between an en dash and a hyphencorrect use of the different types is a sign of editorial precision and care.” So let’s take a moment to look at each. Here are examples of all the dash lengths in relation to one another:


Continue reading “Dash It All!”

Writing an Essay

Tell It SlantIn 2009, I received my master of fine arts degree in creative nonfiction from West Virginia University. Through three years of workshops, I learned a lot about structure, audience, and craft. Despite these lessons, for me, one of the hardest parts of writing an essay has always been figuring out a topic. Or, to be honest, not giving up on the topic in the first three paragraphs.

A turning point in my schooling was a visit from the illustrious Brenda Miller, coauthor of Tell It Slant and author of Season of the Body, among other masterpieces. Reading these two very different books and working with her in a small group changed my approach to essay writing. Continue reading “Writing an Essay”