How to write a movie script.
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“A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.”
A movie script consists of three things:
- A story idea.
- A structure.
- Captured in the industry standard format.
The Story Idea.
All movie scripts start here. The Film Connection, an immersive film school, says the number one thing they hear from prospective students is “I have an idea for a movie.” Indeed, who among us hasn’t had an idea for a movie?
The mistake most novice screenwriters make is they try too hard—they have unnecessary characters and plot lines resulting in a complicated mess. Script consultant Michale Hauge describes a good story is one that “…you can describe in in TWO SENTENCES, with a single hero who encounters a specific problem and then has a simple, clearly defined goal with lots of obstacles to achieving it.”
Instead of thinking more is better, remember less is best.
Remember, a movie script is just a form of storytelling. When we talk with our friends or co-workers or school mates, we are all story telling in some form or other as we describe what our day was like. A good exercise to develop your story telling abilities is to spend some time each evening recounting the stories you shared that day and find that two sentence description mentioned above and think of ways you could have told the story better. Like any craft, your ability as a story teller will improve with practice.
Commonly Used Movie Structures.
All movies have a structure and shorn down to their basic elements they all have a beginning, middle and an end. As Jean-Luc Goddard said, how we present these three elements on the screen is not necessarily done sequentially. There are many ways to tell the same story—there is no right way or wrong way to present a story. Here are a few of the many story structures used for movies you’ve probably seen.
Classic Three-Act Structure.
Act One is the set-up, Act Two reveals the conflict, and Act Three provides the resolution. In this structure, every scene is a necessary progression to the next. Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Die Hard and a guy named Shakespeare all used this structure.
Stories are presented in a single, uninterrupted stream. There are no breaks, no jumps backwards or forwards in time, and every moment matters. United 93 , My Dinner with Andre and the television series, 24 all used this structure.
Originating in Russia, Fabula is the meat of the story, syuzhet the narration and how it is used to organize the story. Its form often presents the end first, then takes the audience on a journey on how we got there. Fight Club, Casino, Forrest Gump, American Beauty, Goodfellas and Citizen Kane all used this structure.
This structure was one of the many contributions of Akira Kurosawa and gets its name from his classic Rashomon. In this structure, the same story is told over and over through the eyes of different characters. It brings home the point that there are different sides to every story.
In this structure, the story is told through backwards, forwards and sideways jumps in time. Stories told in a non-linear manner challenge the validity of the characters’ memories. Movies that used the non-linear structure include Pulp Fiction, Annie Hall and Reservoir Dogs.
A good exercise to undertake would be to take your story idea and re-tell it using three or four of the above structures until you get comfortable with one or more of the structures on your path to finding your story telling voice.
Film Industry Script Format.
A movie script is more than just a story; it is a technical document which means it requires industry standard formatting requirements. Unlike novels, things cannot be left to the reader’s imagination and so must include basic information as to settings, time of day and other necessities for the script to be broken down and budgeted. To do this a basic industry format has been develop that ranges from what font (Courier) and how big it is (12 point), to margins, number of lines and line spacing, page numbering, ad infinitum. There are many guides to proper screenwriting formatting as well as software programs that simplify the process of converting story to screenplay. The important thing to remember is that until your story is in screenplay format you won’t have anything to submit.
The last step in writing a script for a movie is to protect yourself and your script before you submit it and to prepare it for submission.
- Register your script with the U.S. Copyright office and The Writer’s Guild of America.
- Prepare cover letter with your contact information, a logline (one or two sentence story description) and a synopsis (one page or less that tells the story and sketches the characters) in present tense, third person.
- NOTE: The synopsis is a critical element of your script presentation and much more involved than space allows for in this article. Often it is the only thing read from the mountain of scripts that producers receive. Additionally, synopsis can be pitched without a screenplay attached.
- Submit your script. To get your script in front of a producer is not easy. The fast track is to find a reputable agent who has relationships with producers and get them to take a look at yours. You can also enter screenwriting contests and competitions. You should devote time to both online and in-person networking. Look into a school like the Film Connection—their screenwriting program works with industry professionals and can get you and your script into a pitch meeting where you present your script to producers with the power to say yes.
- Keep at it. Writing a script for a movie is a long journey from the “I have an idea for a movie” to getting the green light for your script to be made into a movie. It’s a story that has a beginning (the I have an idea phase), a middle (writing, structuring and formatting that idea into a script), and an end (a yet to be determined happy—sold my script or sad—I give up–ending). Good luck!
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