Whether it’s a movie, TV series, or video game, a screenplay is the blueprint for any kind of visual media. A good screenplay is readable, good enough to get producers and directors involved, but also flexible enough to make changes and work for multiple media. How to write a screenplay and film script is a complicated question, but if you follow these steps, you’ll be well on your way to crafting a compelling, visually rich, and engaging story.
- 1 Study popular films in your genre
- 2 Choose the genre you’re writing for
- 3 Break your script into acts and scene
- 4 Write your treatment
- 5 Develop your theme
- 6 Figure out the beats in your story
- 7 Identify your protagonist and your antagonist
- 8 Give each character a voice
- 9 Generate empathy for the protagonist
- 10 Plot the locations in your story
- 11 Make things happen
- 12 Join the Commaful Storytelling Community
Study popular films in your genre
The first step is research. Get familiar with the movies currently in your category, including successful ones. Watch them and read the scripts, and learn what makes them work. Deconstruct why they drew such an audience. Determine what kind of script you’d like to see written, and what kind of movie you’d like to see filmed. Make a list of comics and novels that influenced you early on in life, in terms of your film tastes. What sort of films would you like to see more of? Find films that feature similar plots and create screenplays for those story lines.
Another important aspect of writing a screenplay is getting to know the rules, the industry jargon, and following them exactly. Whether or not you’ll want your script to be presented as a dramatic short or an action packed full-length feature film, you’ll have to know the basics of film script development — because aspiring film scripts have to gain funding, for TV or the big screen, in order to succeed. The more your screenplay conforms to industry standards, the more likely you’ll be to find the financing and support that you need to turn your vision, and that of your creative team, into a motion picture.
Choose the genre you’re writing for
As with any writing task, understanding your audience is the focus of formidable screenplay writers. Your script needs to cater to the genre it’s going to be showcased in. If you’re writing a comedy, then it should appeal to people who enjoy comedy. If you’re writing a romance, make sure the target audience is interested in reading romance. Shooting for a specific genre is also an important step in adding specific tropes to your script. Try to stick to a certain rhythm when writing dialogue. You don’t have to break it up into three parts, but you should be aware of the common sizes of the speaker name, speech or action, and speech or action tags. Also be aware of how many characters are in the scene. Most scripts stick to two or three, so that there’s enough stage to dance on, but not so many that you’re unable to follow conversations.
Genre specific tropes also come into play, so be on the lookout for what the script is expected to include. If you’re writing a western, does it have to be taking place during any specific time period? Are there specific characters that come with the territory, such as an outlaw, a sheriff, or a prostitute? What about other recurring characters? You can get some good guidance for possible plot and conflict by skipping ahead to see what happens to those characters later in the script. Also, learn as much as you can about the setting of the script. If it takes place in some kind of fantasy world, read up on the magic creatures and weapons. If it takes place in a modern city, research cultural references and slang. Be sure you know exactly what the milieu of the film is.
Break your script into acts and scene
Reduce your story in bullet points and find out the essential parts to tell your history. The process of writing in script format is to construct the story around short summaries, or beats. In a scene, the script writer describes the character interaction and what happens. Because every action must have a consequence, this kind of narrative may feel like fireworks that burst all at once when they are read.
Remember that everything you write has to have a “need to believe”. When every scene has an equal importance, viewers will be confused about what to focus on. Although it may be natural that you are attached to every beat, try to avoid them taking the center of the scene. Develop a hook that will leave them wanting for more. The key to making a good hook is in the conflict. Consequences define the conflict and bring more information to each beat without boring your audience. A basic guide for screenplays is to immerse the audience without any empty spaces. Later, that’s why it’s so important to explore each beat.
Write your treatment
Especially for those with a story-telling background, writing an outline and script often feels like second nature. With practice, writers of all types can learn how to write a script fairly quickly. But the first step to writing your screenplay is creating a treatment. A treatment is like a blueprint to the film, a short summary of the action, scene by scene, that will help producers get the conversation started.
Treatments are a useful tool not only for transforming your idea into a tangible written object, but also for seeing how tense it comes across in writing. How does it read on a professional level, and does it lead a reader to think it would be a fun, entertaining film? By reading and comparing treatments from similar genres and films, you’ll gain experience, and your treatment will undoubtedly improve.
Develop your theme
Decide on the theme and plot. Your film won’t be up to scratch if you don’t know exactly what you’re trying to say to your audience, so take some time to sit with pen and paper, and answer some questions about your story. What’s the basic story about? What do you want the audience to take away from the film? Even if you hate coming up with titles, pantser, or plotter, this is absolutely not the time to try inventing techniques or genres that don’t fit — coming up with the wrong theme can lead to potentially serious problems later on. Read around you genre and try to pinpoint the most consistent and compelling ideas – once you have those, there’ll be a lot less guesswork in terms of how to actually develop your theme.
If you’ve settled on a theme by now, whether your film is a thriller, comedy, biopic, or any other genre, take a look at films in the genre that have been successful in the past. Pay attention to plot — are there overarching concepts or settings that have turned out popular? You can be absolutely sure that they’ll be useful to you. No two stories are alike, but you’ll definitely get some inspiration and guidance. In addition, many successful writers build on themes other writers have explored before them. However, it’s the difference that makes a script unique, so if you do end up using a topic that’s been done before, change it up as much as you can — nobody wants to be predictable.
Figure out the beats in your story
Remember that a screenplay isn’t like a novel. You’re not telling the story to a reader — you’re telling it to a director and a crew of actors, and there are certain formal elements of prose that don’t work on the screen. Deciding how you’re going to tell your story is one of the more important decisions you’ll make as you write your script. Before anything, take the time you need to consider what kind of story you’re trying to tell. Will the story be focused on action? Like the Lord of the Rings? Or is it a story of internal conflict, like Mad Max? List out the major characters and all of their goals. This will help you as you create the characters on the page. Make a list of all of the scenes you’ll need and what actions, if any, are vital to each scene. Once you have an idea of your overall story structure, you can use it to create a more detailed outline. You can start with a beat sheet like this one. One of the benefits of starting with an outline is that it will help you organize your story so you can determine where the beginning, the middle, and the end are. This is also a good time to make a list of everything you need for your screenplay, and then make a list of everyone you know who might be able to help you with any of these needs so you can ask them for contacts and other help.
The next step will vary depending on what you’re starting with. It might be a story you just want to tell — perhaps one that’s been rattling around in your head for months. Maybe you’re a fan of a story that already exists and you want to adapt into a new medium. Or you might have a story planted in mind that you want to turn into a film. Or, if you’re feeling novel, maybe you just have a good plot and a string of trouble for your protagonist, but no real story yet. The first thing you’ll want to do in whatever situation you find yourself is to plot your movie. Some people like to plot or write a certain number of beats on their yellow notepads. Another option is to write four cards for every scene you plan on going. You can then arrange them in a structure that makes sense to you. Whatever material you use to help you plot your story, it’s usually a good idea to create a character profile for each of your main characters. This will help you make sure that each character is three-dimensional. And once you have the five W’s and the H for each character, write something interesting about them on a Post-it note. This will help you remember to include an arc for them in your screenplay, which is vital to the overall structure of the film just like how it is to a story. Also in the parameters of this step, but not necessarily limited to this step, is thinking about your characters’ names.
Identify your protagonist and your antagonist
Typically, the protagonist is the character who undergoes a change in the story. They’re the one who experiences the greatest transformation by the end of the story, and they should also have a specific goal they’re trying to achieve in the story. The antagonist represents the opposite of the protagonist. If your protagonist is trying to lose weight, for example, then their antagonist is going to be the cobbler who fills their sleeve with extra butter. You can also imagine an antagonist as the obstacle that stands in the protagonist’s way.
Give each character a voice
Whether you’re writing a screenplay or a film script, your main character should leap off the page — in fiction as in life. And the best way to ensure your characters don’t blend together is to truly develop them. This means treating each one like a real person with true emotion. This means using character names most of the time and avoiding generic descriptions where possible. It means feeling what your characters feel. And it means including them in every scene, constantly.
Think of all the incredible dialogue and funny lines in your favorite films. Meanwhile, tv shows often keep their best lines in the writer’s room. Your characters need to stand apart and define the show or film. Creating distinct speech patterns for each of your characters is a great way to ensure they become central to the piece. And, as with the quirky supporting roles or cameos in your favorite movies, you can make your screenplay more entertaining by making your characters as distinct and memorable as possible.
Generate empathy for the protagonist
At the heart of any effective screenplay is understanding and generating empathy for the protagonist. While there are exceptions based on plot, the audience must always understand the goal of the protagonist and his or her obstacles — particularly if they’re trying to empathize. With conflict, as Aristotle used the Greek term, pathos, comes that basic empathetic response. Without a goal and obstacle, as they say in Hollywood, “There’s no movie.” You may not have to adhere only to Aristotle’s teachings, but you will need to consider your audience when you are dealing with a protagonist. As a writer you can develop a single character into a protagonist, or certain characters into one protagonist.
If you ask a large group of writers “how do you create empathy?”, a large variety of non-working, non-tested responses will result, which demonstrates that screenwriting is not a science or an art alone, but an interaction of the two. As such, if you ask Aristotle for an answer, he may say that he believes pathos is created by certain objects in the environment, and can come from muses or gods, depending on the plot. Others will say that they believe the emotional elements of a story, or the individual experiences of a writer are what generate empathy for the audience. There is no consensus on the best way to do it-perhaps there is no way. The asking of questions and taking your time are vital-this will help the next step.
Plot the locations in your story
One of the most important things about how to write a screenplay is to keep your plot and character arcs in mind when choosing locations. Try to combine internal and external tensions into scenes, and if you want to increase tension, show characters being faced with their deepest fears. Look at films to see effective locations, and make sure that your settings are described in detail, especially ones that are integral to your plot and characters.
Another thing to consider when you’re writing a screenplay, or writing how to write a screenplay is to make sure that your scenes have the right balance of tension, conflict, and action at certain points. In order to do this, you’re going to have to think about what kinds of things jump out at your readers and make them want to keep reading, which will also help you make the production process easier on directors and actors. Or on you if you’re also directing and starring in your own work.
Make things happen
At the heart of any great screenplay is a good plot, and a good plot depends both on the characters and the “chain of actions and reactions” that each character undertakes. You can begin creating your chain of actions and reactions by asking yourself, “What does every character at the beginning of my story want?” From there, figure out what they will try for, what happens as a result of their actions, and what they do next. The chain of actions and reactions should lead to a logical conclusion, and this is where your screenplay bridges the gap between one action and the next. Suspense relieves tension, makes readers less likely to put down your script, and keeps them feeling involved with the story.
Once you have the major events of your story mapped out, you need to think about the questions you want your script to answer. Does your film need to document a procedure? Does your plot depend on suspense, romance, intrigue, or melancholy? Do you need to cast a wide net to appeal to many sorts of people, or are you going to narrow the perspective on your film to a specific character or mood? Once you’ve got a few potential angles down — a wonderful scene that introduces your character, perhaps, or a funny interaction — consider how you might get there thematically.
In the end, success rests on you. You can have a brilliant idea for a movie script, but without writing it, it’s nothing. But as hard as the process may be, developing your talent is an ongoing project — an exhausting process of making mistakes, learning from them, and following your goals until you make your life’s work the best it can be. You may need to experiment with different genres until you find one that suits you. Slowly but surely, you’ll learn everything you need to know. The key is to work as hard as you can, treat each step along the way as an education, and have fun along the way. Soon enough, you’ll have experiences and stories to share — and a film ready to go and premiere.
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