How To Write Scripts

The quest to write "The Great American Script" is one shared by thousands of writers. If you're one of them, and are looking to break into scriptwriting, you have a lot of work ahead of you. Scriptwriting--for stage, film, or TV--is a difficult craft. But, with a few basics, you can begin the process. You will probably find it difficult but very rewarding.

  1. Decide what kind of script you want to write. There are many kinds of scripts out there. You want to write a movie? You're looking to write a screenplay. Love theater? You're probably interested in writing a stage play. A TV junkie? You're likely trying to come up with a teleplay. All of these forms have a lot in common. Each form also has some very specific and unique characteristics. So, your first scriptwriting duty is to figure out which type of script you'd like to write (to begin with--many writers do all three...).
  2. Learn the basics of your form. It is impossible in one article to really lay out all the basics of screenwriting, playwrighting, and television writing. Suffice it to say, each form takes a little getting used to and each form has it's own "essentials." I would suggest anyone who wants to begin any type of script writing consult an expert in the field--whether through a how-to book, a workshop or a class (you need not get a degree in scriptwriting; one class should give you a good look).

    Of course, anytime you purchase a book or enroll in a class or workshop, employ the "buyer beware" mindset. A lot of people out there know how much other people want to break into scriptwriting and take full advantage trying to sell you "secrets of the trade" sure to "get you in the door." In my opinion, there are no secrets that are going to get any writer in any door. People break in for all kinds of crazy and random reasons. The one thing you want to worry about at the start is writing the best possible script you can. So, if the book or class looks to be selling any golden tickets, save your $14.95.

    On the other hand, don't dismiss all you can learn from a good expert, teacher, or mentor. There are definitely people out there--some of them unproduced, some of them quite accomplished--who have a lot to offer. I have teachers whose words of wisdom I still reflect on every time I start on (or get stuck in) a new project. Choose your teacher wisely. Look for people who will read your work and give you personal feedback. Look for people who have some kind of scriptwriting background, be it professional or academic. Look for classes and books that emphasize the basics--finding ideas, developing story and conflict, and developing character. Finding the right screenwriting resources can be a tough task, like finding a teacher or "how to" book in any subject. But when you find the right one, you've hit the jackpot.

    As for whether some "rules" taught by teachers or books are too constricting, I'm a big believer in learning the rules before you try to break them, walking before you try to breakdance. And often, the "rules" are more like laws of nature--things that you really just need to have to make a script work.

    Also, read many samples of the form you wish to write in. In other words, read scripts like the one you wish to write or by writers you admire. This is often the best way to figure out how scripts are put together, maybe noticing basic things you might not have even considered, like how long a script should even be. Your average 120-minute screenplay, for example, will be 120 pages long. Your average TV drama teleplay may be 44-50 pages long, not 60. Stageplays can range from the very short (ten pages) to 120 pages and several acts. Just be careful in the case of reading produced works as the script you read may be a "shooting" copy and not a draft straight from the mind of the writer(s).

  3. Develop your idea into a real story. One of the first things writers learn is that not every idea or character is a "story." To translate an idea into a story, consider how it can be phrased in terms of "Character overcoming obstacles in pursuit of a goal." If you look at most great plays, movies, and TV shows, that is always the core. Hamlet wants to avenge his father; Dorothy wants to get back to Kansas, Jack Bauer wants to stop the world from blowing up. The first step to really getting your idea cranked out, unless it's something more experimental (which I don't recommend on the first try) is to figure out who your main character is, what he wants, and what stands in his way. That's your story. Stick to it.
  4. Brainstorm and organize your ideas. Once you have your basic story idea, you're going to need to spend some serious time developing it even more. You need to know who your characters are, where the story begins, where it ends, and what happens in between. In other words, you need to figure out everything that's going on in your script. Some people do this as they write the actual script. I used to. But then, time and again, I came out of the experience stalled, with a big ugly mess of incomplete rough draft. Why? Because I tried to take a trip somewhere without any kind of road map. Not everyone needs an elaborate multi-step outline to get through a script; sometimes all you need is a notebook of scribbled thoughts and a general "what happens when" list. But I highly, highly, HIGHLY recommend that new scriptwriters plan and outline some before they begin to draft.
  5. Draft. Eventually, though, planning time is over and you have to face the monster. Nah, it's not a monster; it's your script! So get in there and write it. Following what you've learned from studying and reading scripts in your form of choice, write the heck out of your idea. Get to that last page--don't rush, but don't keep stopping and hesitating on the first act, either--and feel the sweet release of finishing a whole script. Then buckle up because no one ever stops after a first draft.

    To help with formatting, consider using a produced script as your guide or consider investing in Final Draft to format for you. (A word to the wise--you may want to see if you really like scriptwriting before investing in expensive software.)

  6. Consult a second set of eyes. You may spend a month on your first draft. You may spend longer. But chances are, once you're done, you won't be able to see it straight because you're too close to it. Or maybe your eyes are just bloodshot from all the writing! In either case, it's never a good idea to write in a vacuum. Find a trusted fellow writer, teacher, or professional consultant who will be able to give you an honest impression of the first draft. Ask for honesty. Accept criticism with an open mind. You may not agree with everything that's said, but see how a second set of eyes can make your second draft better.
  7. Revise. Once you have some time between you and your script, and you have had a second person (or several) whom you trust give you some honest feedback, it's time to get back in the trenches. It's a tough part of writing, the revising part. But it is necessary. And there's a lot of reward to be found in fine-tuning your work, getting rid of excess content, creating scenes or even characters that take your story to the famous "next level." Embrace rewriting as a reality of writing and dig in.
  8. Protect your work. Once you have a finished script you may want to register it with the WGA (Writer's Guild of America). This is a safeguard that offers proof your work existed at a certain time. Most people never have their ideas or scripts "ripped off" but this can help make sure your work is protected.


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