Hey newbies, welcome to the ultimate guide to writing a screenplay. Or for most of your first screenplay. In this post, you receive a collection of knowledge from me and others from across the internet, people such as David Mamet, Aaron Sorkin, John August, and Quinton Tarantino.
Through classes, expereince and trial and error, I took my first script from mediocre to highly rated amongst readers, and you can do it too.
I’m creating this guide to assist you in getting a jump start on your journey from idea to selling that script. This information that sometimes takes people years as it did me; you will get in a post. To be able to cut the clock in your career as well as talk circles around your friends and family about why a movie was good or bad.
In this post, you will learn:
The Prewriting Process
- Picking a topic
- How to test your idea
- Creating a logline
- Writing a script treatment
- Writing an outline
How to Write the First Draft
- Screenwriting software
- How to write an act
- How to write a scene
- How to write a beat
- How to write characters
- How to write dialogue
- How to write with images
- When to throw out your outline
How to Rewrite Your Script
- Where to get Feedback
- Why take brakes
Before You Write
Yes, there is a prewriting process. One mistake I made when learning how to write is just jumping into a screenplay and not knowing where I was going. Although I write like that now, it wasn’t beneficial when I just started. When I skipped this step, it cost me months in time fixing story mistakes that I could have avoided.
The prewriting process is essential because knowing some structure; in the beginning, will help you on those days when no creative juices are flowing. Trust me I’ve been there and if you have a map getting there becomes a little easier.
Almost every famous screenwriter preplans to some extent, and there are different ways of planning. Some writers start with research, some write out there acts ahead of time, but the point is all do.
Pick a Topic / Genre
For me, I enjoyed violent films, not gore but anything where the thought of violence occurring. Because of this, I was drawn to Tarantino’s work anOne of the most exciting parts of the prewriting is picking a topic to write about. Could also be called the genre or subject. Think about what interests you.
Most people I know already have an idea in their mind but if your stuck on this part think about what kind of movies you like — movies involving space, love, real life, fantasy, etc.
For me, I enjoyed violent films, not gore but anything where the thought of violence occurring. Because of this, I was drawn to Tarantino’s work and agreed with his philosophy that “violence can be poetic.” So the genre didn’t matter to me seeing as in my head anything can include violence. But you may be different.
Next, think about the genre.
What is a film Genre? A film Genre is a category based on similar engaging elements or emotional responses.
Listed below are the genres in film. Each film genre can partner with others. For example, you can write a “Crime Mystery” or a “Romantic Comedy.” I will also list some famous examples of each so you can better understand what they look like as finished works.
- Drama – Schindler’s List, 12 Years a Slave, There Will Be Blood
- Triller – Seven, Get Out, Prisoners, Arrival, Shutter Island
- Horror – The Shining, The Shining, Paranormal Activity
- Comedy – Bridesmaids, The Hangover,
- Romance – The Titanic, Silver Linings Playbook, Call Me by Your Name
- Western – Django Unchained, The Revenant
- Adventure – Jurassic World, Avatar
- Action – Mission Impossible, John Wick
- Crime – Pulp Fiction, Scarface, The Untouchables
- Fantasy – Harry Potter, Maleficent, Lord of the Rings
- Musical – LaLa Land, Les Misérables
- Spy – James Bond, The Kingsman
- Superhero – Wonderwomen, Incredibles
- Mystery – Memento, Sherlock Holmes
- exploitation – Grindhouse, Machete
- Sci-Fi – Star Wars
Can you write a screenplay without knowing precisely what you’re writing at first? Yes, you can. You can figure this out later if you choose. But knowing exactly where your film fits in the spectrum is essential for marketing and selling your script afterward.
What is a Story?
From this point, you should see a couple of vivid ideas in your head. But these ideas aren’t stories; they’re just images you’re excited to write. To fully make it a story, you have to fill out the details.
A story for a movie isn’t, “I want to write about bowling.” You only have a location and maybe some descriptions, not a story. To have a story, you need a set of characters reaching a goal with obstacles in the way of that goal.
Research is essential, especially if you are planning to do any film that has a real-world aspect to it. My first script Astronauts and Thieves was an action crime script that involved astronauts being the first and primary defense for the earth. What research could I have possibly done for something that hasn’t yet happened?
Well, what I didn’t know is NASA has special pens awarded to members who have been in space and who have just completed training. Details like this goes a long way to creating something that sticks and seems more relatable.
The closer your script is to real life, the more research is needed to keep audiences engaged. For example, if you’re writing a film about the president of the United States, you want more research about how the white house operates. If you do something like have 30 secret service agents guarding the president, you might be able to fool most people, but with a little research you will find out that at most times only two agents are guarding the president at any given time.
Now you might throw this out for a more of a dramatic screenplay, or you might keep it but knowing the truth would help defend your answer when talking ot producers.
If you’re writing The Lord of the Rings, for example, almost no research is needed, but creating a whole new world from scratch can be even more challenging. You will have to imagine all the rules for your world and make sure your audience understands them.
For example, did you know that James Cameron had a linguist create an entirely new language for the movie Avatar? The seems significantly harder than just researching some facts on the web. And yes this is an extreme example, but this movie did make 1 billion dollars.
Market Test Your Idea
Yes, you will have actually to talk to people for this section. But it’s not as bad as you think you can do this strictly online. Market testing your idea before you write it will ensure that people actually would watch it in the theatre or on Netflix. But I’ve laid out some rules for this so you can get the best results the fastest.
1.) Test your Idea with strangers only.
Might be a no brainer, but your friends and family will be biased towards your ideas unless you have friends that will tell you the truth stick with strangers. Why because they don’t have any reason to lie to you.
2.) Test there understanding.
Do they ask any questions afterward? Questions can be a sign that there interested or a sign that your pitch wasn’t good enough. You can typically tell by the question they ask. “Wow, what made you think of that idea?” is better than “Wait, but why would that happen?”
3.) Check there reaction.
So sometimes even strangers could try to spare your feelings, but the face and the body language will tell the whole truth. If their eyes glaze over and they have that I got to go vibe then maybe your idea isn’t worth exploring. Or maybe your pitch skills suck but after 100 of these interactions you will know the difference.
4.) Adjust the pitch or the plot.
After about 100 or so interactions, you can get a good idea if its time to change what you say or change the plot of the story. Whatever you do change one variable at a time so you can see the improvements or faults in your pitch or the story.
Market testing your idea online.
Twitter will give you faster results, but it won’t give you the expereince of pitching a film. People tend to use this method for the idea and face to face interactions for nailing the pitch. I suggest you do this face to face with people, especially if you plan to sell this to a studio and make some money. But if it’s just for fun, go ahead.
Create a logline
What is a logline? A logline is a 1-2 sentence summary of the story that provides the plot, characters, and conflict.
The purpose of a logline is to entice script readers, producers, and eventually a movie audience into buying into your film. The logline is the ultimate selling tool a screenwriter can have.
Confusing right? Not really let’s look at some examples of famous movies and their log lines so you can get an idea of how its suppose to sound.
Forest Gump 1994
Forrest Gump, while not intelligent, has accidentally been present at many historic moments, but his true love, Jenny Curran, eludes him.
The Hangover 2009
A Las Vegas-set comedy centered around three groomsmen who lose their about-to-be-wed buddy during their drunken misadventures then must retrace their steps to find him.
In the near future ravaged by drought and dirt storms, a group of space explorers travels through a wormhole to another galaxy to try and find a suitable new home for humankind.
Have you noticed a pattern? The steps to how most loglines are developed are listed below.
1.) Introduce the characters
You can name your characters in your logline, but people don’t remember names they remember characteristics. For example. “Forest Gump, while not intelligent” “A group of space explorers” ” Three Groomsmen” You know exactly who is in the film and can understand what they might be like from just a couple of words.
For my film Astronauts and thieves, I use “A hothead thief and his computer hacker accomplice.” The computer hacker is a trope, but because of that, you can kind of guess how he reacts just by the term computer hacker. “Hothead thief” lets you know this person is probably arrogant and reckless, creating a polar opposite idea of the two characters.
2.) Add the struggle
What’s the struggle well, to answer that you have to know your characters main challenge. For Forest Gump its the fact “his true love, Jenny Curran, eludes him.” For the hangover, its when they “lose their about-to-be-wed buddy during their drunken misadventures.” And finally for Interstellar its when they “try and find a suitable new home for humankind.”
Now for my films example. The struggle is when the two characters time travel and can’t find there way back. So the struggle would be for them ” to find there way back in time.”
3.) Raise the stakes
Stakes are a compelling story element that catches attention. In words, it adds urgency to the situation. It’s not necessary, but if your story calls for it, it can be a huge selling point. For example, Forest Gump doesn’t have any stakes per se, but that doesn’t make the movie terrible. The movie is better for it. But for a movie such as The Hangover, the stakes comes in when you find out his wedding is in a couple of days.
For my film, the stakes are raised when they have to find there way back in time “before time is changed forever.”
That’s the basic formula for any logline, but you don’t have to stick with the formula. A lot of people who catch interest present their story in an exciting way outside this box. For example:
She’s the perfect woman….until she has a drink.
Barbie goes to Harvard.
As long as you introduce the characters, add the struggle, and though words visualize the stakes, any word combination will do.
Write a Treatment
What is a film treatment? A Script Treatment is like an outline of your script to communicate the story, characters, and the plot. Think of this as a longer logline.
Screenwriters, when commissioned by a studio, get paid big bucks to write film treatments — $55,882 to be exact as of 2019. So knowing how to write one can earn you a good salary for the year.
The working parts of a film treatment are the following:
1.) A working title – A title that you hope the movies called.
2.) The writer’s name and contact information
3.) A logline
4.) An introduction to key characters
5.) Your act summaries
Act summaries are where you write out your story in detail. I like to think of the treatment as the cliff notes of your story.
It can also work as an outline of the events you will write in your first draft. One thing to remember when writing is most of the time you’re not just writing this for your comprehension of your idea, but a buying producer. So makes sure you remember to keep your story interesting by raising the stakes.
What are high stakes? High stakes in a script are when the importance of your character’s goal is increased.
For example, “Sarah, a young 20-something girl is about to introduce her dad to her first boyfriend.”
Alright, I do not see that movie unless it has some famous actors in it. Let’s add some higher stakes.
“Sarah, a young 20-something girl is about to introduce her dad to her first boyfriend. But what they both don’t know is shes already pregnant.”
Learn Script Writing Formatting
Script formatting seems to be a thing of the past; most scriptwriting software formats your script for you. But there are some things you should know before writing, so you understand what the program is doing. Take a look at the example below nicely exampled by Mario O. Moreno.
The final thing I must implore you to do before you start writing is read screenplays. You will save lightyears on learning how to format certain things as well as explain your ideas on paper.
Screenwriting is an art, and like art, there are many different ways to get across the same point. For example, some writers might write using more sound, and some might write large dialogue spots, which is breaking the known three-line dialogue rule. But if you write a speech like David Mamet I’m sure; no producer will mind.
Read screenplays of your favorite writers and some from writers you don’t know. Reading is the second fastest way you’re going to learn how to write a movie other than having Aaron Sorkin teaching you face to face.
Where do you get screenplays to read?
I get all my scripts from the same place IMSDB.com. This site has every major Hollywood movie you can think of. Unfortunately, I don’t see a complete list of independent films on the site. But I’m sure you have one or two lions gate movies you like.
The second place you can go and read screenplays is blcklst.com. This site is a place where screenwriters post their scripts in hopes a producer comes along to read and buy.
The site gives each script posted a grade out of ten. The higher the score, the better the site deems your script and the more likely you would get yours read and sold. A score of seven puts you in the conversation a score of 8,9 and ten with a little bit of hustle will make you 100k.
Take a look through the scripts here and read a score of 10 and a score of 7 to a score of 4 and after a while, you will see the story elements each one has and why they were graded higher. Also, the site puts out a list of the top unproduced great scripts. You can check that out as well.
Your First Draft
Now its time for your first draft. Take all the planning and learning you did in the preproduction process and put it to great use. The first draft is the most exciting for the first 40 pages or so. After that, you will see if you wanted to become a screenwriter or not.
Remember It’s essential to take breaks during this process to not burn yourself out. I’ve seen myself and others go long periods without writing because of burnout. The key here is to be consistent 5-10 pages a week is what I decided on. You might go farther than that but pace yourself.
A professional screenwriter writes the first draft in roughly 12 weeks so if you want to see what a professional pace looks like write your 90-120 page script in 84 days.
Take a look at professional screenwriter turned UCLA professor Richard Walter talk about your first draft.
The software you buy is not that important but if you want to know my advice on the best one.
But for the sake of the post, let’s list the software out on the market today.
Final draft – Draft is the most popular writing software used by 90% of the industry.
Fade in – seems to be the second choice.
WriterDuet – Comes with a mobile application so you can write on the go.
Trelby – A free open platform writing software.
If you’re undecided, please use Trelby it’s free, and it does all the basic things you need a scriptwriting software to do. I want you not to procrastinate and get started. But if you’re convinced you to need the very best check out Final Draft. It’s used by most for a reason.
How to Write an Act
What is an act in a screenplay? An act in a screenplay is a set of actions your characters take to accomplish their goal. When your primary protagonist shifts to a new strategy, you are now in a new act. For example, in The Matrix, when Neo chooses the red pill. The story is now shifts based on the choice of the main character throwing the story into act 2.
Most scripts and movies nowadays have three acts. They call the three-act structure.
This structure is typically written most by writers nowadays, but that doesn’t mean you have to follow suit. I’m really against following other peoples writing methods, but that doesn’t mean im against the three-act structure. I’m for anything that completes the story, whether that’s 3 acts, 4 acts, 5 acts, etc. But the purpose is for anyone most importantly newer writers, not ot get lost in your scriptwriting process.
How long is an act? An act usually is 30 pages long if you’re writing a 90 to a 120-page script which is the average length for most screenplays.
With that repeated, this doesn’t mean you can’t write a 150-page screenplay. It just means it better be good. Most people aren’t going to read your screenplay script that long.
In act 1, you need an inciting incident. What is an inciting incent? An inciting incident is a catalyst that starts the hero on their journey. For example, in The Matrix is when Neo Follows the white rabbit tattoo after a strange computer message tells him too.
Think about your characters and what will get them on the path. Sometimes the character decides. Sometimes a series of events. It doesn’t matter.
Now its time for the meat of an act which I like to call action-reaction. Your protagonist is trying to reach their goal, and something is standing in there way. They have to get that obstacle out of there way to get closer to there purpose.
For example, Neo is told by Morpheus that hes the one and must do a series of activities to get out of the matrix. These are the obstacles. One of them is when he was running out of his office away from Smith, the main villain.
Once your protagonist reaches his first objective, there is yet another one he must accomplish, which is the beginning of act two, and so on.
How to Write a Scene
What is a scene in a screenplay? A scene is a unit of an act that has events occur usually happening within one location. For example, When Morpheus and Neo are training, this is considered one scene.
As you can see from the video example once the point of the scene comes to an end, the scene ends, and most of the time, the location changes. So once Neo beat Morpheus in the fight, the scene ends. Do not keep your scene running longer than the objective of it.
Now let’s take a look at what that looks like on paper. Below is a video made by professional screenwriter John August.
Just like in the video example above start with the conflict. Conflict is the cornerstone to every Film and should be introduced to every scene. Now I’m not talking about run up and shoot conflict. Add friction between your characters in the scene. But remember it doesn’t always have to be dialogue; it can be tension you feel by the actions they take.
I wrote a complete article on how to write a scene in eight steps check it out below:
How to Write a Beat
What is a beat in a screenplay? A beat in a screenplay is the smallest action/reaction unit of a scene. For example, “Neo stands up and walks down the hall” that’s two beats.
Now there are three uses of the word beat in a screenplay to learn about them click here.
Beats are written in action lines, which are the lines before the dialogue. And there is no wrong way to write an action beat, but there are ways to write it better. Learning how to write better action lines will save space on your script and cut additional lines you didn’t need.
Take a look at the video example below.
How to Write Characters
You may already have those characters locked in your head, but how do you get what’s in your head out on paper? Just remember characters like people. What they do tells you more about someone than what they say. Think about what actions your character might take in certain situations. Each person is different, so each character must react differently.
When watching a two-hour film, you can make out the differences between the characters, but when those characters are on paper, the only way to differentiate them is by action. Think to yourself when writing:
- What is the nature/personality of my character?
- Why is my character doing this?
- Why is my character saying this?
I answer this question with every page I write to make sure my characters are always distinctly them at all times.
How to Write Dialogue
Dialogue is one of the most complicated subjects to cover because everyone wants there to sound good. And like the other subjects I’ve covered up to this point, there’s no definition of good dialogue.
It seems like everyone admires Arron Sorkin and Quintin Tarantino two people who I have referenced a lot through this post. But the truth is you don’t have to write sizzling dialogue to write a good script. But you do have to know a few fundamental rules of what not to do.
- Don’t write small talk
“Hi, how are you? Good, and you? Great.”
This speech only works if you the actions of the characters are showing some conflict like in the movie Brides Maids.
- Don’t write filler dialogue
“Well, you know, so, ok because, um, ahh.”
There is never a good time to write this. Let the actors do this they will naturally know where to put any filler language.
- Don’t write on the nose dialogue.
Speech that directly tells the audience what your characters intentions are. Very rarely do characters come out and say exactly how they feel and what they are going to do. Even in real life, people talk around meaning, and other people pick up on it just fine.
- Don’t write how people talk in real life.
A lot of newer screenwriters make this mistake. Most of the lines we remember in movies will never be said in real life, yet we remember those lines the most. If audiences wanted real-life dialogue, we would go to work and watch our coworkers talk about last Saturday. Now, of course, writers have lines from real life in their scripts, but they aren’t intentionally trying to write realistically. There is a balance.
How to Write with Images
Film is a visual medium, but all film starts with the script. So the question is, how do you show what’s happening without telling what’s happening?
One way is to pack your action lines with detail and keep it short at the same time. In other words, say a lot with a little. Take a look at the video example below to see how Gillian Flynn writer of the prized movie Gone Girl writes with images.
Throw out your outline
I know what your thinking.
“I did all that planning up to this point to throw it all away.”
Creating each plot of the story each act all laid out perfectly. What I learned from writing is you can do all the steps in the process above, but that doesn’t make a good screenplay that makes a generic one.
Most writers, after a certain point in there writing process, throw out there outline. Why? Because the characters or the story is calling them in another direction. So fare to this point, I’ve laid writing a script out very formulaic, but it’s still a creative field and the more creative you can tell a story, the better you will be.
Let the story tell itself.
How does a story tell itself? Well, when you begin writing your see what I mean. You will add certain scenes because it feels right or takes away specific ideas because the story is moving in a new direction.
It will take on a life of its own, but the one thing that’s holding you back is the outline you did in the prewriting process. But if you ever get stuck in your script, take a look back at that outline, it might shed some light on where you should be going next.
Let the characters tell you what they will do.
Characters take on a personality of there own after a while. You initially write what you believe them to be, but after a while, their actions will take on a life of there own. Let it happen, but don’t let it get out of control. Sometimes when your characters fully take over a script, you can end up writing 150 pages without ending the story.
When the story and its characters take over the script is what I like to call pure creativity. Don’t ignore it. It will set your screenplay apart from all the others out there.
When you finish your first draft, your masterpiece isn’t finished yet. Most likely, its a long way from being finished. But this isn’t because your a newer writer it’s just how it is. Every professional writer rewrites there scripts, and all of them get feedback before moving on to draft two.
Read your script out loud.
Reading your screenplay out loud will let you know off the bat what doesn’t sound right. Especially the dialogue. Professional screenwriter Max Landis reads all his scripts out loud, and he calls this process getting rid of the cringe. Sometimes when you write, things sound fantastic until you read them aloud and bring them to the light.
Its time to send your script out. You can send it to friends and family but just like in the market testing portion of this post they won’t be completely honest with you. And unless they are in the film industry, they will have no idea how to critique your writing correctly. For feedback, I would send it to professionals.
Scriptreader Pro is a site that has professional script readers with industry connections. So they will not only give you the right feedback for your second draft. They have the power to send it off to a producer that might be interested in buying your script.
Fiverr Script Readers
Believe it or not, Fiverr has everything. From people who will help you with your taxes and yes script readers. When I first started, I went to Fiverr and found people who worked in Hollywood reading scripts for production companies. And on the side, they read screenplays for extra money. They knew what story was and can give you professional advice for sometimes a fraction of the cost.
Whatever you decide to do, I recommend you get feedback from at least three people. Whether its three companies like Scriptreader Pro or a combination of freelancers and websites. The more, the better.
When feedback comes in remember, it’s not personal. They are trying to help you tell a better story. They will tell you the positives as well as the negatives. Including notes on:
And anything else you might agree to receive before sending them your script. But whatever you do don’t get emotional take the good with the bad to get better in draft 2.
Check for what all the feedback has in common. For example, if everyone likes your first act, don’t touch it. Let’s not work backward here. If everyone adores your choice in words, don’t overthink your dialogue when rewriting.
Many Drafts Later
After you get feedback, you will then create your second draft and send it for feedback once again to three new people. Repeating this process until the feedback your getting has more positives than negatives.
With that said, don’t ignore big negatives such as “the ending isn’t working.” Rewriting is a tedious process, but by the end of your 3rd to 6th draft of your first script, you will know to understand the process of screenwriting.
When writing, be aware of your will power threshold. Everyone is different. Some people can work on something for 5 hours straight. Some people can only hold still for an hour. Whatever yours is be aware of it and relax from your desk. Walk outside, see a movie, or whatever you have to do to recharge.
When you try to push too hard, sometimes you end up making more mistakes than progress. Misspelling comes more frequently; you start to rush through the end of sense just to say you’re done. But don’t worry if you can’t focus for long. Time yourself and every week and try to push 10 minutes past the time. And after a while, your tolerance for focusing will increase slowly.
Free Screenplay Templates
As promised below are some templates for writing your first script, including a short script template and feature template. Please download and use them if you get stuck in any part of the process above.