The five hardest scriptwriting lessons to learn
In this article, writer and NCW Academy tutor Molly Naylor shares five aspects of scriptwriting that she found the trickiest to absorb early in her writing journey.
Writing the script isn’t the work

It’s so tempting, after coming up with an idea, to immediately sit down and start to write. Dialogue flows… images spill out… writing is happening! I’m doing it mum! But so often in this case, we get to page 30 (or 20, or 10) and we lose momentum. That’s because the real work is in the planning. With scriptwriting, beautiful sentences and witty dialogue matter far less than action and consequence. Scenes are units of action that build to create story. Everything happens for a reason. Before opening my script software, I’ll have been working for weeks on planning documents, character profiles, story arcs and structure.


Presentation is essential

By the time you’ve planned your story, it’s understandable that you might be eager to crack on and not worry about what it looks like on the page. But learning how to navigate the software and use the correct formatting is an essential step. TV and film scripts follow a strict, industry-standard formula. Radio and theatre are a little less prescriptive but there’s still a standard to adhere to. If your script doesn’t look professional, people won’t read it. The best way to learn the language of scriptwriting (which is totally different to other forms of creative writing) is by reading other scripts, playing with the formatting software, Googling specific questions (‘how do I write a montage sequence?’) and watching YouTube tutorials.


Conflict doesn’t mean conflict

Anyone studying scriptwriting will be familiar with the idea that most scenes should involve conflict. What is less frequently stated is that conflict doesn’t have to mean a verbal or physical altercation. Conflict can be subtle, internal or psychological. A character can be in conflict with an earlier version of themselves, or perhaps there’s conflict between two people that’s expressed non-verbally, via sub-text. It doesn’t matter how the conflict is expressed as long as it exists in some form and contributes to a character not getting what they want or need. Nice, happy, friendly scenes where everyone gets what they want are just not interesting.


Character trumps theme

When pitching ideas, people often try to sell it by leading with theme. ‘It’s about mental health’ or ‘it’s about ambition’ are good details to include in a synopsis, but don’t mean anything without character. Ultimately, we’re going to engage with a story to see what the character does next. Theme might draw an audience in, but it can’t sustain a story. We need to prove that we have developed an engaging enough character, which means a character with a clear motivation and interesting flaws.


If you can’t summarise it, it means it probably won’t work

Pitching, synopsising and summarising our script story ideas is a tricky but essential part of the process, not just in selling it but in stress-testing it. Ultimately, we should be able to clearly state who it’s about, what they’re trying to achieve, and what they learn or experience by achieving (or failing to achieve) it. If we can’t do that, it means those vital points haven’t been addressed and will need working through before we move forward.


Molly is an NCW Academy online course tutor. We have courses in writing fiction, crime fiction, memoirs, scripts, romantic fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry. Find out more →


Molly Naylor is an award-winning writer and performer. She is the co-creator and writer of Sky One comedy After Hours. Her plays have been toured nationally and broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Her third poetry collection Whatever You’ve Got is published by Bad Betty Press. She wrote and performed the acclaimed solo spoken-word shows Stop Trying To Be FantasticWhenever I Get Blown Up I Think Of You and My Robot Heart. Her first graphic novel Lights, Planets, People! won the Broken Frontier award for best graphic novel. Her first feature film is in development.

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