How to Prepare Creative Writing in Film and Theatre Studies: All You Need to Know

Writing guide
Posted on August 26, 2021

Creative writing refers to any writing assignment that is primarily focused on creativity, expression and narrative rather than transfer of information, persuasion or research. However, it would be wrong to limit it to fiction, like some students do. It can also be poetry or even nonfiction and journalism – e.g., biographies and feature stories belong here as well, because they focus on narrative and character development (even though the characters in question are real people). This is the primary requirement – if a text is narrative or poetic in nature, it can be considered creative writing.

This is why it constitutes such an important part of any film and theatre studies course, as after finishing one you are supposed to acquire screenwriting and playwriting skills. In addition, it explores crucial interrelations between writing, film and theatre and teaches you to look for non-standard approaches to even the most mundane topics. Whether you decide to pursue a creative career in filmmaking and theatre or keep your interest in this discipline purely academic, it will make you a better writer.

However, if you do not have prior experience with this sort of work, creative writing can pose a significant problem. Even if you used to shine at it in high school, you cannot hope to just continue in the same fashion in college – the requirements for university writing are significantly higher, and results expected of you are more complex. In this guide you will find everything to start producing your own college-level creative writing without spending months practicing.

How to Prepare Creative Writing in Film and Theatre Studies: Before You Start

1. Pick a Topic/Concept

In film and theatre studies, creative writing usually takes form of screenplays, play scripts and parts thereof. Your professor is unlikely to give you complete freedom of the subject matter – usually you will receive some more or less specific guidelines (e.g., an instruction to use a specific trope or plot device, or a specific general theme to cover). However, beyond that you can expect to be free to write about whatever you choose.
Choosing a topic for a narrative piece of writing is different from doing it for a nonfiction text, but there are similarities.

  • Study the professor’s assignment. If you know your limitations (length of the script, suggested audience, specific instructions you have to follow, etc.), you better understand what to write about;
  • Study the professor’s assignment. If you know your limitations (length of the script, suggested audience, specific instructions you have to follow, etc.), you better understand what to write about;
  • Think of what you know about. One of the best ways to find a compelling topic or concept for a creative writing text is to choose something you are well acquainted with while others may be not. E.g., if you code for a hobby, you may write about the life of programmers from the inside. If you visited some exotic locale, you can make it the setting of your play, etc.;
  • Talk to your professor once you have a few suggestions for topics/concepts. Do not ask him/her to give you a topic – instead say that you have some ideas but want to clarify if they are suitable;

Narrow down the topic. Creative writing, just like any other kind of writing, is best when it is focused, so make sure you have a clear vision of the main idea and primary plot points before you even start planning.

Here are some examples of viable script topics/concepts:

  • Family Reunion after 10 Years;
  • Two Former Classmates Meet at a Job Interview;
  • Adding an Original Scene to a Familiar Movie;
  • A Non-Standard Character Introduction Scene;
  • A One-Sided Telephone Conversation;
  • An Expressive Scene without Dialogue.

2. Create Your Characters

You may start with plot outline and introduce the characters that fit it or first design the characters and let the plot form around them – there is no single surefire approach to creative writing. The only certain thing is that it is a good idea to decide who your characters are before you start writing per se.

The optimal number of characters depends on the size of the script. Most of your assignments will probably be rather short, so do not go overboard here. If there are too many characters, the audience will not have enough time to familiarize with them, leading to confusion. Limit this number to four for relatively short scripts.
To better understand how to characterize a character though dialogue and behavior, create a “dossier” on each of them, containing such information as:

  • Name;
  • Age;
  • Social and economic status;
  • Where does the character come from, how he/she was brought up;
  • General personality outline;
  • Mood at the moment of the scene;
  • Relations with other characters;
  • Any other relevant details.

3. Design Relationships and Conflict

Any piece of fiction, and especially a script, is built around the conflict that arises from the relationships between the characters. To relate this situation realistically and persuasively, you have to first construct it for yourself. Answer the following questions:

  • Who are the characters and how are they related to each other?
  • What does each of them want?
  • What prevents them from getting what they want?
  • How do their wishes clash with each other?
  • What do they want from each other?

Answering these questions allows you to get a general outline of the story and understand how to move it forward.

4. Write a Synopsis

Synopsis is the story boiled down to its essentials, told in the order in which you will present it to the audience. You may have written synopses of books by other authors – it is the same, only now you write one for a script that does not yet exist. Include all the significant plot points and even individual phrases that you consider important enough. After that, you simply have to flesh it out.

How to Prepare Creative Writing in Film and Theatre Studies: Writing Tips

1. Focus on Self-Expression

While most other types of writing you are going to deal with in college teach you to compose texts following strict rules of language, composition, formatting and so on, creative writing is a notable exception. It is not called “creative” writing for nothing. While you have to follow the rules of grammar, spelling and structure in general, you can sidestep or even outright break them if it is necessary for your creative endeavor. The purpose of creative writing is not to follow a formula, but to express your thoughts, ideas, feelings or emotions. There is no pre-determined ideal way to do it – if you can find an effective way to convey what you want to say by doing something you are normally discouraged to do in academic writing, by all means do it. For example, typically you should not use slang or jargon in your writing, but it if helps you outline specific features of a character, you are free to do it.

2. Understand the Specifics of Script Writing

Creative writing in film and theatre studies primarily exists in the form of a script (screenplay). It is quite different both from typical academic writing and other types of narrative texts, as it should not be perceived as an independent work, but as a set of directions for a performance on stage, television or film. In other words, reading it is not a preferred way of consuming this sort of content.

Scripts consist of three major components:

  • Dialogue – words pronounced by the characters;
  • Stage directions – descriptions of how the stage should look and change from scene to scene;
  • Instructions to the actors and the director – any specific actions that the actors and the director should carry out.

That is all – differently from other types of fiction writing, you cannot rely on your own descriptions, excursions into the characters’ inner thoughts and so on. You have to express everything only through the words characters say and a few additional cues.

3. Make Dialogue Sound Realistic

Dialogues in modern fiction are much closer to the real speech as we hear it every day than they used to be in the past (one rarely encounters characters communicating in speeches consisting of multiple uninterrupted compound sentences). However, speech used by characters in most books is still very different from the way people talk in real life. It is usually devoid of ellipses and uses complete sentences and grammar structures more often than not.

The dialogues in film and play scripts are much closer to colloquial speech, to no small degree because actors can rely on multiple additional ways of expression, unavailable for non-drama fiction, including facial expressions, subtle pauses, rising and lowering of the tone, gestures etc. Make full use of it. Do not be afraid to use incomplete sentences in dialogues and in general let your characters speak and behave the way people speak in real life.

4. Pay Attention to the Opening

The first and the last few lines of your script are its most important parts. The opening is crucial because it is the first thing the audience sees and hears. You introduce your characters and both the situation and yourself through what they say and how they behave. Over the first few minutes of the script, the audience is going to form an impression that will be hard to sway, no matter how brilliant the rest of the play is.

Make a list of questions about what you want from the opening, e.g.:

  • Are important character traits obvious from the very beginning?
  • Is the audience likely to catch on the underlying situation without further explanation?
  • Do you make sufficient hints at the reveals that will become important in the conclusion?
  • Do you start on an intriguing note and drive the audience’s interest?

5. Pay Attention to the Ending

The conclusion is important because it creates the impression with which the audience parts with your work. It should set a proper mood, direct the audience’s thoughts in the direction you want.

Compile a list similar to the one you made for the opening:

  • Do you drive your point home effectively?
  • Does your script end on a strong note?
  • Can you add or remove something to make it more expressive?

How to Prepare Creative Writing in Film and Theatre Studies: Winding Down

1. Read It Aloud

Dialogues in scripts are supposed to be said aloud, and the best way to check if they sound natural is to actually do it. Either read the text aloud yourself or ask somebody to do it while you listen. Be honest with yourself: does it sound realistic? Can you imagine real people talking like this in a similar situation? Ask your friends for opinions and suggestions.

2. Check the Format

Scripts are written in a rather formalized manner, and failure to comply with it can get you a lower grade. Some of the requirements are common, but you may find additional instructions in the professor’s assignment, so make sure you follow them.

For example, when somebody comes to the stage or leaves it, you have to denote this event by “enter X” and “exit X”. The name of a character who is currently speaking (as well as in stage directions) are usually written in capitals. Stage directions are put into brackets.

3. Be Ready to Write More than One Draft

The first draft of any script is rarely worthy of submission. Chances are, halfway through you will notice that some elements need altering, and to do so you have to change fragments that are related to them, or even restructure the entire thing. It is normal – it is hard to envision everything from the outset, so do not be afraid to rewrite huge parts of your script.

4. Proofread

Do not rely on automatic spellcheckers – they can help you only with the most basic mistakes and can even suggest that you correct sentences and words that have nothing wrong with them. Ask somebody you trust to proofread the text for you or hire a professional to do this job. Just make sure the proofreader understands the difference between genuine mistakes and idiosyncrasies of style that are necessary to express the nature of a character.

There is no single foolproof way to write a creative writing assignment in film and theatre studies – it is creative writing, after all, and it is judged not by how well you follow the rules but by how original and interesting your script is. However, following these tips will help you deal with the technical stuff and focus on unleashing your creativity – so make sure you use them for your next assignment!

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