How to Write a Screenplay
Of all the different jobs, positions, titles one can hold in the world of movie-making, none may be as key as a screenwriter. After all, with no screenplay or script, producers, directors, cast, and crew won’t have much to do. Even reality shows need to have something written for hosts to talk about before, during, and after the action in a house, beach, or sound stage comes to an end.
Being a screenwriter can also be a pretty tough career choice. The competition is high, rejection is common, and rewrites after rewrites can be spiritually draining for some. However, with the right outlook, plenty of hard work, perseverance, and a little something called talent, screenwriters can go on to have successful Hollywood careers and even use their success as screenwriters to help launch carers as producers or directors.
Great screenplays require great ideas and those don’t just fall out of the sky. Even adapted works like books short stories need to be reimagined for the screen in order to capture an audience’s attention. As the old adage goes, there are only seven plotlines in the word of storytelling – how is your story going to offer something new?
Are you bringing a certain experience to the screen that’s unfamiliar to moviegoers? Are you taking an existing genre and turning it on its head? The boy meets girl theme has been used to death. What can you do differently there? Or, are you the one to bring it back to life with some previously unseen perspective or treatment?
Beyond that, there are aspects of a screenplay which must be included, no matter if it’s a 3-minute animated short or a 3-hour epic:
- A three-act arc – Is the opening intriguing, the conflict believable, and resolution satisfying? If your story misses any of these aspects, you’ll lose your audience.
- Character Development – Movies are literally shot in 3D today, make sure your main characters have more than just one dimension. Write for an audience who will implicitly ask: Why should we care about any of this?
- Genre/Theme – Know the difference. Themes are the plots (good vs. evil, a triumph over adversity) and genres are how you can recognize the plot (Comedy, Drama, Thriller).
- Actions/Descriptions – Did the car blow up? Did the gate rattle? Did the crowd chant? Action on the page clearly states the visible action and vital sounds which place on the screen.
- Dialogue – Not everyone can write dialogue like Quentin Tarantino. No matter your personal style, make sure your characters talk like actual people. Unless they’re aliens. If they’re somehow unconventional in their speech, make sure this character trait is fully developed in your script, lest it may appear like sloppy writing or a half-baked idea.
Of course, there’s more to writing hilarious heroes and vile villains which seem to leap off of the pages of your script. But before we get ahead of ourselves, bear in mind that when writing for Hollywood i.e. the film industry, it’s of crucial importance that you utilize and adhere to proper screenplay format. Otherwise, that labor of love could end up doing little more than lining wastebaskets.
Just when you thought the days of book reports and proper formatting were over, your desire to be a screenwriter pulls you back in. The difference is if you mess up a title page in high school you might drop a grade. Goof up the format when presenting a screenplay, it might get thrown away before anyone at the production company or agency you’ve submitted to gets to page one.
Without sounding too snarky, in an industry that does quite well with sequels, prequels, and reboots, conformity matters when it comes to screenplays. Industry standards for scripts have been developed for a century and any deviation from those standards is like fingernails down a chalkboard to the average industry reader.
Everything from the correct font, font size, margins, and indents must be used if a screenwriter wants to be taken seriously. Without following these basic formats, you’ll look like a newbie that doesn’t know how Hollywood works or, worse yet, a writer that can’t be bothered with details.
How to format a scene heading, dialogue, and additional key details which comprise the setting of a scene all need to look just right. Luckily, there are several screenplay templates to work with online as well as books that cover technical aspects of a screenplay. Learn it, love it, live it.
Why so rigid? Because it works. Professional screenwriters adhere to these standards because they let producers know roughly how long the movie will be. That is, one page of a screenplay roughly equals one minute of screen time – a 90-page screenplay will run about 90 minutes. There are other slight differences on page to screen running time depending on whether your script is for a drama, comedy, thriller, etcetera.
Knowing and mastering screenplay format is very important when you start your career. Once established, you may be able to deviate from the norm. By that time, however, the format will be so ingrained in the brain, you may not be able to write a screenplay any other way.
Other Types of Written Material
The goal of most screenwriters is to get their screenplay optioned and eventually made into a movie. However, there are several other options for writers to get their ideas into the hands of the decision-makers.
The precursor for many full-fledged screenplays, spec scripts are unsolicited works that are written with the hopes of finding a buyer. Some of the most iconic movies, such as Basic Instinct, Jurassic Park, and Thelma & Louise, were based on spec scripts. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck won an Oscar for Good Will Hunting, which started out as a spec.
Other specs, such as Eurotrip and Mozart and The Whale garnered million-dollar paydays but were hardly successful as feature films. Honestly – have you ever heard of Mozart and the Whale? The movie made under $100,000 at the box office, but the writer (Ron Bass) walked away with a $2.75 million check.
Spec scripts differ from screenplays in that they focus on the story, the dialogue, and the action. Lighting direction, camera angles, and other directions are purposely omitted. Once purchased, a more developed screenplay will be produced, a director hired, and so on.
Even shorter than spec scripts, treatments are written to give a broad overview of an idea. Technically speaking, treatments are easier to write because they don’t have to have all of the formattings of other works. When you write a treatment, paint a picture, establish three acts, and nail the final scene in around 10 pages.
Written in the present tense, treatments allow agents, assistants, directors, or producers to pick up the work and immediately understand what the story is about. You want to get your plot points covered, but you don’t want to get into the weeds, either. Most treatments have very few (if any) lines of dialogue.
The purpose of a treatment is to gauge interest in a particular story. If left on a bus, how many people would read it all the way through? Or are you finding people not even making it past the first few pages? It’s better you know now than spending a year writing 120 pages which will likely go nowhere.
The outline is usually the final step before going into full screenplay mode. Think of it as the most detailed table of contents you’ve ever seen. Acts are clearly defined, dialogue described, and action scripted in such a way that leaves little to the imagination.
So why not just write the screenplay instead? An outline allows you to make changes on the fly without having to write entire scenes over. If you change your mind halfway through the second act, an outline makes it easier to make necessary changes on the first act.
However, this is much more involved than the outlines you did in high school with Roman numerals and capital letters. Film outlines can be up to 50 pages, depending on the content. This is the roadmap to your screenplay – you don’t want to leave out anything important.
Treatments, spec scripts, outlines, and the eventual screenplay sounds like a lot of writing, doesn’t it? You’re right, it is. But remember – thousands of writers are working to be one of the hundred or so movies which get made in a given year. Likely, they’re all getting the same online advice you are, using the same templates you are, working on the same screenwriting software you are.
Give yourself an edge with the Film Connection for screenwriting workshop.
Learn, Talk, Write with a Professional
Film Connection will give you a unique start to your screenwriting career. We pair you remotely with a mentor, a writer, producer, or script doctor. Make the most of your time with this one-on-one learning experience. Meeting weekly over the phone, a screenwriting mentor will talk with you about how to get started, review your work, and keep driving you forward.
We offer several advantages over traditional four-year universities and expensive film school programs. Our programs are designed to make things easier for you. The workshops last from six to nine months long, cost a fraction of the average four-year tuition, and allow you to stay put in your city or town of residence. Mentors work with your schedule, not the other way around. You can get going now at learning how to write as a professional screenwriter with Film Connection.
It’s not by any means an easy ride. Learning about the classics, the components which make up a story, and how to write different genres, themes, and characters on a weekly basis means you’ll need to be on top of your game. Coughing up a few lines of dialogue won’t cut it at Film Connection.
Once your screenplay is ready, we’ll even help you learn how to connect with an agent, teach you how to sell a script, and even help you get membership in the Writers Guild of America (and let you know why that’s so important). You’ll work hard for us, we’ll work hard for you, and together we could make something special.
The first step is applying to Film Connection today.