How to Write a Screenplay for a Movie
Most of us, at some point in our lives, have had at least a kernel of a movie idea. Even something as simple as, “Hey, you know what would make a good movie?” Maybe you even started writing a screenplay before abandoning it after five pages because your idea wasn’t really an idea (or you had no idea what you were doing).
There’s a lot that goes into writing a screenplay for a movie, including treatments and outlines. It can take as little as a few days (Sylvester Stallone wrote Rocky in less than a week and won an Oscar for it) or a decade (that’s how long it took Christopher Nolan to write Inception). There are a lot of variables that go into writing a screenplay for a movie.
There is no set amount of time to write a movie screenplay or even the length of a screenplay. But there are standards that should be followed when it’s time to fire up the ol’ laptop and get to writing. There are pretty rigid industry-standard script formats to follow–formats that have been part of the movie-making business for decades.
The Importance of a Screenplay for a Movie
Writing a screenplay is arguably the most important job in filmmaking. How do you cast, direct, or shoot a movie without first writing down all three acts, dialogue, character descriptions, and almost everything else that appears on the screen?
Of course, there will always be rewrites, changes to dialogue, or even entire scenes left on the cutting room floor. But without a screenplay in place first, none of that would ever take place. Even documentaries and reality TV shows have some kind of direction in place before shooting begins.
But it’s a very crowded field. Even with Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and other streaming services creating their own movies, only a few hundred movies get made each year. According to the Writers Guild of America, nearly 50,000 scripts are submitted every year. That’s a lot of unproduced comedy, drama, dramedy, and other genres of film that never get made.
How to Write a Screenplay for a Movie
First things first: what is the movie going to be about? Is it going to be a coming-of-age movie a la Juno or Ladybird, an underdog sports movie like The Blindside, or a science-fiction blockbuster like Avatar? You’ll also need to understand how a teenage romp, a sports movie, and an alien movie can all have different genres while still supporting the same theme.
Genres are how the story is delivered, whether it’s a drama, thriller, or comedy, while themes are the plot of the movie. It’s been said there are really only seven basic plots, from the Voyage to the Quest to Overcoming the Monster. Once you figure out your genre, that will help shape your screenplay.
Let’s look at “the voyage” as a theme and how different plots can affect the story. Superbad (comedy), 1917 (action), and Memento (thriller). All three movies follow the main character or characters moving from one point to the other in wildly different scenarios.
Necessities for Writing a Screenplay for a Movie
When writing a screenplay for a movie, there should be three very distinct acts. You need to set up the film, give the protagonist (or anti-hero) some conflict to overcome, and then wrap it up nice and neat–or extremely messy–at the end. Miss any of those elements and you could leave your audiences confused, uninterested, or looking for more.
Even those old five-minute cartoons follow this basic setup, and so should you. The screenplay doesn’t necessarily need to be written in that order of course, or any particular order at all. Think of Pulp Fiction: There were several first, second, and third acts in the film. It’s your job to bring them all together.
Depending on the film, you can give your main characters an immediate baseline personality. In School of Rock, Jack Black is introduced as the ultimate slob, a no-talent bum that sleeps too late, mooches off his friends, and irritates everyone else. The rest of the movie is spent giving him direction and developing his character.
Or you could spend time explaining why your main character is the way they are through flashbacks or developing a backstory that slowly unfurls throughout the movie. Even if the characters end the movie in the same place they began, you’ll need to give them the tools to survive that second act.
So much of your character development can be achieved through dialogue. Do they use swear words as nouns, verbs, adjectives, or as every other part of a sentence? Or do they abhor such language? When you’re trying to figure out how to write a screenplay for a movie, how your characters speak plays a big part in their development.
But it can’t be forced–make sure it’s believable. Maybe your character drops the f-bomb in every conversation, except when they talk with their mother. Or maybe they learned it from their mother. But they wouldn’t talk that way when delivering a message to the supreme court, board meeting, or other proper settings.
Transitions and Actions and Descriptions, Oh My!
If your character hits a home run to win the World Series or saves a cat from a burning building, make sure to explain the action that’s happening. Well-written action lines–it’s the bottom of the ninth in game seven or the villain set the fire–are a way to keep the film moving forward.
Are your story beats or transitions choppy intentionally or do scenes move seamlessly from one to the other? It’s important to stay consistent throughout your screenplay. A period piece set in the 18th century probably won’t have too many herky-jerky transitions between scenes.
Feature Film Screenplay Formats
While the movie industry may be considered a bastion of creativity (aside from sequels, prequels, and reboots of course), when learning how to write a screenplay, it’s vitally important to learn screenplay formats. Even font type and size can play a role in whether or not your screenplay is even read by production companies, directors, and other decision-makers.
Fortunately for you, there are several screenwriting software templates available for you to follow. From using a 12-point courier to ensuring your left margins are set 1.5 inches to ensuring your title page is centered, these seemingly minor requirements play an important role.
Yes, it seems unnecessarily rigid, but there is a good reason: consistency. The courier font looks the same on any platform and has been in use almost as long as the first typewriters. The spacing of the 12-point type also, remarkably, lets the reader know how long the move may be.
Each page roughly translates to one minute of screen time–so if a screenplay is 120 pages, you’re looking at a two-hour movie. Those margins? That’s so the screenplay can be bound on the left-hand side and the words can still be read with ease. Scene headings, dialogue, and even the time of day of a scene all follow formats to make the screenplay easier to read.
Everything is the way it is for a specific purpose. Whether it’s a spec script, a commissioned screenplay, a final draft, a shooting script, or even an outline, following these little formatting quirks will get you through the first round of vetting. Because if you don’t, your screenplay may head straight for the recycling bin.