How to Write a Movie

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(Updated Sept. 14, 2022)

Writing for movies is a specialized skill—it differs greatly from “normal” writing (i.e. writing a novel). Books and movies both start with a story idea and depending on the kind of book, there should be a three-act arc. From there, however, the process of how to write a movie is vastly different from writing a book.

Unless you’ve been contracted to write a screenplay by a director, producer, or movie studio, there are a few steps you can take before starting a screenplay in earnest. Essentially, you’ll start with a short explanation of your idea (loglines) and then add more detail in subsequent works (synopsis, treatments).

These efforts will help you expand that idea into a feature film. It will help organize your thoughts, give you opportunities to make small edits or wholesale changes, and can even help secure financing for your movie before you’ve written one page of a script.

How to Write a Movie: Loglines

Assuming you already have an idea for a movie, your next step should be to carefully craft a logline. The logline is a very brief (25 words or less as made famous in The Player) summary that describes the central conflict of your story, introduces the characters, and hooks the reader. Here are a couple of logline examples—can you tell which movies they describe?

Logline One: The lives of two mob hit men, a boxer, a gangster’s wife, and a pair of diner bandits intertwine in four tales of violence and redemption.

Logline Two: The aging patriarch of an organized crime dynasty transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant son.

A logline is a valuable tool in selling your idea. It’s essentially an elevator pitch for your movie. In the two examples used above, the first is for Pulp Fiction and the second is for The Godfather. You want your logline to excite a producer enough to ask for a synopsis or a treatment of your idea.

How to Write a Movie Synopsis

A synopsis is a one to three-page document that summarizes your plot, highlights your main characters, and describes what happens to them during your story. It’s best when it emphasizes the conflicts and resolutions as it unveils the plot. A synopsis can also help organize your movie idea, although it can be written after you’ve already completed your screenplay.

A synopsis is also a way to get some copyright protection for your story idea before you’ve actually written your screenplay (you can’t copyright an idea.) Make sure to include your movie title and your contact information on your synopsis. Most of all, make sure your synopsis does not deviate from your logline.

Writing a Treatment of Your Movie

Your next step in writing a movie is to create a treatment for your idea. A treatment can be thought of like a screenplay for a silent movie—in other words, it is a step-by-step, scene-by-scene breakdown that describes the action that takes place on the screen but contains no dialogue. Treatments for feature films usually run between 10 and 40 pages.

Not only does a treatment tell the story, but it also states how the story unfolds by going into the nuts and bolts of how your narrative is to be presented on screen. This is where the writer’s vision is unveiled—the structure, the tone, the pacing, the characters, and their roles all need to be fleshed out in the treatment. A treatment offers far more copyright protection of your original idea than a synopsis.

As an aspiring screenwriter, the treatment can be an effective bridge between the idea/synopsis and the final screenplay. Since the treatment breaks down your story into a scene-by-scene format, it gives you, the screenwriter, an opportunity to tinker with the structure before it gets locked in with dialogue. There are a few things to consider when creating your treatment:

  1. Write in the present tense. It should come across as if it were narrating your story in real-time.
  2. Each scene should have a slug—INT or EXT, location and time of day.
  3. Only write about that which can be shown on screen. In other words, don’t write about a character’s thoughts.
  4. Do include emotions as these can be shown on the screen.
  5. Be detailed when it comes to describing physical actions.
  6. Include a description of the information the dialogue will convey in each scene.
  7. Make sure you haven’t strayed from your logline.

Begin Writing Your Movie

Your penultimate step is to write your screenplay. Depending on how thorough you made your treatment this could be as simple as adding dialogue to the treatment or as complex as adding slugs and additional details to every scene. You’ll want to make sure you have everything in proper screenplay format, that spelling and punctuation are spot on, and that you copyright it as soon as you are finished.

When you write a movie script, there is a very specific format you must follow if you want to be taken seriously. Just like the essay you had to write in 11th grade English class, margins, scene headings, page numbers, and even font size must be followed. Fortunately for you, there are several screenwriting software options online for you to follow.

Scriptwriting is both art and craft. Create a plan or schedule that you adhere to. You should use self-imposed deadlines in all phases of the process from logline to final screenplay. You should plan on doing multiple rewrites if necessary, to ensure that your final screenplay matches your initial logline and eliminate things that do not move the story along or are extraneous to the logline.

The goal is to write the best screenplay you are capable of, not the best screenplay you can write in 100 hours. If it takes two years, it takes two years. The final step is selling your screenplay and having it made into a film. This should always be your goal. While all of this can sound straightforward and easy to do, it’s not. It’s something that repetition will help you improve and expert guidance can be invaluable.

Learn How to Write a Movie With a Professional

The Film Connection Screenwriting Workshop pairs you with a professional screenwriter via live, one-on-one remote sessions where you learn how to write like a professional screenwriter by being trained by one. We give you the rules, tricks, and tips for writing a Killer Script from someone who’s already making a living in the field.

Not only will the workshop help you as you write your own screenplay, but it will also open your eyes to the practices and principles that professional screenwriters use. Why move to Los Angeles to attend a “name” school for four years when you can have a finished screenplay in less than a year?

Additionally, the Film Connection can help you prepare for, and set up, a pitch meeting to sell your finished screenplay. If you’re looking to master the art of writing a screenplay, the best thing you can do is write as much as possible. But we’ll give you the tools to take that great idea and start writing a screenplay that gets read.

 

Ron Peterson’s insights on effective screenwriting.

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