How to Write a Script for Film
Let’s do a quick rundown of the differences between screenplays and scripts (although they are generally regarded as one and the same). Screenplays are always written for the screen, such as a movie, television, or the computer, tablet, or smartphone. A script, on the other hand, can be for all of the above as well as a play or radio program.
Side Note: Scriptwriter or script writer is too vague a term. This could reference website developers, software engineers, or anyone else that works with lines of code for a living. So we’ll stick with screenwriters or the term “writing a movie” or “writing a film script.”
Other than that, there aren’t too many differences between writing a screenplay or a script. The formats are the same (margins, font type, and size, scene headings, etc.) but the pacing will be different between a film and a television show. A script also refers to what actors work off of to learn their dialogue.
Formatting: How to Format a Script?
Something else to think about when writing your film script – follow the well-established screenplay formats by using screenwriting software. Sticking to the standard format helps producers/directors know how long a movie will be: One page equals roughly one minute. If your screenplay comes in at 120 pages, a two-hour movie may be pushing the limits for an aspiring screenwriter.
Another rule of film script format is the three-act story structure. In most cases, Act I is 25% of the action, Act II is 50%, and Act III is the remaining 25%. Hour-long television shows usually have five acts but are also more dependent on dialogue. Still follow the one-page, one-minute rule. Note: comedy tends to move slightly faster, as does action, due to their faster pacing whereas drama tends to conform tightly to the one page/minute metric.
Opening: How to Open a Screenplay?
A film may have a shocking revelation at the end that has everyone talking for weeks after seeing it. Giving away these types of endings has even become part of our everyday slang – spoiler alert! But if the first act doesn’t draw people in, they’ll probably never make it to that final scene.
The first act has a lot of the heavy lifting of the movie. Most films are between 90-110 minutes long, including the credits. Which means you have around 25 pages to get everything in motion. Setting the scene, introducing characters, and drawing the audience in.
A professional screenwriter is certain to convey to the audience who their main and supporting characters are, and largely what they’re about in Act 1. Leave something behind for that second act to help develop your characters and to show them in a stage of transformation. This is where film scripts tend to use exposition to tease out little bits of the lead’s backstory.
There’s a scene in Thank You For Smoking where tobacco executive Nick Naylor is talking with a film producer, Jeff Megall. Naylor wants to get ”heroes” smoking again but the current health concerns of it give Megall pause. They settle on a sci-fi movie that takes place entirely on a space station.
Naylor: But wouldn’t they blow up in an all oxygen environment?
Megall: Probably. But… it’s an easy fix. One line of dialogue. “Thank God we invented the… you know… whatever… device.”
Just like that, no more exploding space stations. This is a small example from a fake movie that was never made, but a few lines of text can go a long way to explaining the backstory or personal information of the main characters. So don’t be in a rush to data dump right away. Besides, you need room to set up the second act.
The Best Written Film Scripts Keep It Going
After some explosive detail is revealed or some other inciting incident brings the first act to a close, it’s time to fill the void that happens before the final act. There’s a little more elbow room to work with but use this time wisely.
Character development, rising tensions, flashbacks, and more exposition is needed during the second act to keep audiences interested in your story. This is usually where the training montage happens. It’s when Rocky Balboa pounds on a side of beef, Daniel LaRusso trains for the All Valley Karate tournament, and where Doctor Strange learns to use his inner mind.
There isn’t always a training montage of course. In The Crying Game, the second act involves growing hostilities between the British and IRA operatives while two main characters begin to fall in love. In Locke, the main character spends most of the movie in his car, the second act filled with managing three very different circumstances.
The Payoff: How to End a Movie Script?
The third act is all about bringing the story home. Tying up loose ends, resolving issues, big gunfights, and explosions – whatever needs to be done to bring it all to a satisfying conclusion. As important as it was to set up the movie, the ending is the last thing people will see before leaving the theater and that climax is the last thing they’re going to feel, so make that payoff matter.
What did you leave them with? A sheriff riding off into the sunset, the first kiss of two main characters after a long journey, or the final goodbye between two lovers? In Pulp Fiction, the movie ended with Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta leaving a greasy spoon. But that wasn’t the end of the story.
This happens when Bruce Willis takes off down the road on a motorcycle with Maria de Medeiros sitting behind him. When that happens in the movie, there are still a few storylines to get through, including the Bonnie Situation and the final scene, which was also the opening scene.
Quentin Tarantino does a masterful job of jumbling the acts, chopping his movies into little bits, and then rearranging them in a very particular way. Leaping between past and present tense as he does, you’re never quite sure where you are. But it’s an enjoyable ride.
That jumping around is often imitated now, but success is rarely replicated. Christopher Nolan’s Memento flipped the script entirely (pun intended) by showing the end of the story first and writing the movie in reverse order. Whatever your style, just make sure when the credits roll, you haven’t left the audience with a bunch of questions.
Fill in the Holes with the Pros
After all, not every movie gets a sequel. However, you could start working on the prequel to your story of success. We’ve talked about writing formats and the three-act structure, but there’s much more to learn about when improving your experience writing a film script.
With The Film Connection Screenwriting Workshop, you’ll meet remotely with a professional screenwriter or script reader to fine-tune your voice. Adeptly writing action lines and lines of dialogue, learning the differences between theme and genre, and how to produce spec scripts, film outlines, and treatments.
Meeting with your mentor twice a week to review your progress and discuss the next steps, the Film Connection experience is much less time-consuming than—and a fraction of the cost—of a 4-year film school. You won’t need to move hundreds or thousands of miles away to do it, either.
We have mentors all over the country, but you’ll be using phone conversations, email, and even streaming video to meet. Talking twice a week, discussions also include how to find an agent, sign up for the WGA, and pitching your film script to movie studios or production companies.
Have a story or two bouncing around that brain of yours? Let Film Connection help you get from concept to completion with direct one-on-one instruction from a pro. Apply today for the Film Connection Film Institute.