Writing a Screenplay: How To Write a Script

Get Tips to Become a Screenwriter

Got the perfect idea for the next blockbuster film, quirky independent release or something in between? How do you take an idea and turn it into a screenplay? For a basic overview, read on!

It's not brain surgery, and these aren't revolutionary ideas -- just basics of dramatic and film storytelling that teachers and writers have been passing along to each other for years and years. Before you know it, you'll have a screenplay done and be passing along this info to someone else! 

  1. Find a story: character, goal, and conflict. I encounter a lot of people who tell me they have a great idea for a movie: their workplace, their grandmother's life story, their trip across Europe. The truth is, not every anecdote or event is a "story" in the sense it can be turned into a movie (or play, or novel, or short story). Writing a screenplay is a detailed process.

    The center of all dramatic storytelling is conflict. If you have an idea, frame it in terms of "character, goal, conflict." For example, "John (character) wants to be a pilot (goal) but has to overcome a fear of flying, parental disapproval and not having a plane (conflict)." Just about every great movie can be broken down into those three components; without them, you don't have a movie, or a story -- you just have a bunch of events.

    You'll also want to spend some time figuring out what's at stake for your character. The more he or she stands to lose, appropriate for the story's "universe," the more the audience will care about the outcome.

  2. Learn about three-act structure. Almost every great movie or screenplay format is set up in a what's called a "three act structure" -- basically, these are parameters representing the natural progress of a story: beginning (act 1), middle (act 2), and end (act 3).

    The typical two-hour (120 page) screenplay has a 30-page/30-minute first act where the character and his universe are established, a 60-minute/60-page second act where the character fights his obstacles trying to reach that goal, and a 
    30-page/30-minute final act where the final conflict is faced and the character achieves (or doesn't achieve) his goal. These page counts are only approximate, but, the point is, you don't want to spend half your screen time "setting up" then five minutes fighting obstacles then 60 minutes wrapping things up.

    The time-tested three-act structure will keep you from being too slow and running out of story. It's not a "formula"; it's more like a law of nature. I recommend Syd Field's book SCREENPLAY, which is the definitive source on three-act structure.

  3. Learn about plotpoints. Part of Syd Field's three-act structure includes the concept of plotpoints. They're sort of universally used by screenwriters to keep the story focused, moving and well paced. Basically, a plotpoint is a big event that spins the action into a dramatic new direction.

    There are two plotpoints in the average screenplay: one that takes you into Act 1 and one that takes you into Act 3. Usually the first one gets the character moving toward the main goal; for example, in Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts accepts Richard Gere's long-term job offer. The second plotpoint usually introduces the biggest conflict yet -- spinning the main character's quest into a bigger, new direction.

    For instance, if you think of Star Wars, the goal is to "defeat the empire." The second plotpoint, coming after the princess is saved is to "destroy the Death Star" - the final big conflict in pursuit of the overall goal.

    In the middle of Act 2 there's usually a "midpoint," which is similar to the plotpoint but less significant. For instance, in Back to the Future, you might consider the midpoint to be when Doc discovers the way to get Marty back to the 1980s. It gives the story a big push in a new direction. Again, Syd Field's book is a great reference that almost all screenwriting students use when they're learning.

  4. Learn to show, not tell. One of the mistakes new screenwriters make is to put everything that's in their character's head on the page. The art of screenwriting is to find ways to tell your story visually, using images. Instead of writing "He really, really loves her..." you'd write "The whole time Mary speaks, John, across the room, is staring at her." Learning to write visually isn't easy, but it's necessary. The best way to learn is to study scripts for movies that have made it to the big screen. Look at how the screenwriters have put the words on the page in such a way that the director and actors can create the image you see.
  5. Learn about dramatic arc. Dramatic arc is that concept we all learn in high school literature class: action rises in a story until it hits its boiling point (or denouement, if you want to get fancy), and then the action falls and the story resolves itself. That's the track you want to travel in your own writing. No one wants to see the same guy run into the same tree the same way over and over again. We want action that rises and moves toward some big moment. You will want to structure your screenplay with dramatic arc in mind: Every conflict should be more significant than the one before it.
  6. Structure and outline, keeping what you've learned in mind. Once you have studied three-act structure, plotpoints and dramatic arc, once you have your main character and his goal, and once you've brainstormed the horrible obstacles that will keep him fighting to the finish line, figure out how to structure your screenplay accordingly.

    Keep your first, second and third acts in proper proportion. What are your first and second plotpoints? What is your climactic moment? Are all your conflicts getting more and more intense? Are you filling the movie with images that tell your story? I always advise that proper planning prevents totally screwing up your first draft and highly recommend spending serious time in the important outlining and prewriting stages.

  7. Pick up the basics of formatting or get a program that does it for you. Some beginning writers get tripped up with formatting. For some reason, they seem to think that the biggest challenge to writing film is putting everything in the right place. I wish!

    This format does have a lot of little rules that people will nitpick about. The best advice I can give you is to look at a copy of a script from a favorite movie and see how everything is lined up on the page. Syd Field's book will also help you with that. You will see variations on many things, while other elements (where to place dialogue and scene directions) are universally held.

    My top suggestions are: Avoid using camera directions or official jargon -- let the director figure that out -- and be consistent within your script (don't do something one way then later another way). Remember, the goal is readability as much as anything else -- if one way of formatting makes the script easier to read than another, go with the form that's easier on the eyes.

  8. Dig in! Eventually, there's a point where you have to go from picking up the basics to putting those basics into practice. So, don't forget to actually write! Write every day if you can. Write even when it's tough. And be ready to revise, because, as they say, "writing is rewriting." Or, as Ernest Hemingway once said, "The first draft of anything is sh#t." Keep at it, have fun, and good luck! 

Now get out there and start your new career as a screenwriter!


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