How to Write a Screenplay

See your screenplay on the silver screen

A film reel is rolling across a white background. Trailing behind it is a colorful film strip that shows images from a screenplay.
Screenplays add a visual dimension
to story telling, but they can be complicated
to write. Let our editors help with these tips.

Writing a screenplay, in many ways, is like writing a novel or short story: it requires careful planning to develop the central characters, themes, conflicts, plot devices, and eventual plot resolution. The major difference, of course, is that the story must be shown through action and dialogue, rather than simply told through narration. Remember, film is a visual medium and your screenplay should reflect that.

Study the pros so that you're in the know

Whether you're interested in writing books, magazine articles, or Oscar movies, the most important first step is to read or watch the work of professionals to see how they do it. If you're interested in writing a romantic comedy, then we recommend watching movies like When Harry Met Sally or Notting Hill. If you're interested in drama, try movies like Schindler's List, Casablanca, or The Godfather. If you're trying to write a character drama, watch On Golden Pond or Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The key point is to watch some of the greatest movies of all time until you know the characters, scenes, and plot devices inside and out. This will allow you to recognize and incorporate some of the same techniques into your own budding work of art.

Format your screenplay for a good first impression

To ensure your screenplay doesn't get tossed in the garbage bin before your work is even read, you could try purchasing a screenwriting software program that will do all the necessary formatting for you. Remember that screenplays are written in 12-point Courier New and centered on the page. The following is a good example:

Jerry

Isn't that the car I sold him yesterday?

Leanne

No, you sold him the blue one.

Get into the heads of your characters

You should focus on pre-writing. Avoid creating the plot and dialogue as you go along: no one will be interested in a rambling, disjointed script. You must know your characters' likes, dislikes, personality traits, and worst secrets; creating a character sketch of your main characters will help ensure you know your leads well. You should also know the ending of your movie before you begin writing. The basic structure of any compelling story has three parts: namely, a beginning, a middle, and an end. Not clear enough? The beginning should establish the main characters and their situations, the middle should involve the characters struggling against a conflict in order to achieve a goal, and the end should be about the resolution of the conflict.

Make every scene count

While writing, remember that every scene must advance the plot (or sub-plot) of your film in some way. Use every scene to show something important about the characters, create conflict, or provide a critical flashback. If your scenes are irrelevant to the plot, they will bore the audience. Aim for a total screenplay length of approximately 100 pages.

You must also categorize your movie at the outset. Is it a comedy or a drama? Is it action, horror, or a documentary? Who is your target audience? What themes will you address? A movie with an ambiguous and indefinable plot will not get noticed.

For each scene, briefly identify the location, setting, and approximate time of day in the Scene Heading, also known as the slugline. Use the acronyms "Int." to refer to an interior location, and "Ext." when referring to an exterior location. For example:

INT. KITCHEN - MORNING

EXT. HAWAIIAN BEACH - SUNSET

INT. OFFICE - NIGHT

Detailed information about the angle and duration of shots is unnecessary. Remember, you are the screenwriter, not the director.

When briefly describing action that is important to a scene (i.e., a car crashing, a character entering), always use the active voice and present tense. For example, "A car crashes into a lamppost" instead of "A car was crashed into a lamppost."

Keep your thoughts flowing

During the script writing process, it's important to stay motivated even when you feel you are stuck. You can always edit your work later: the important thing is to get your ideas on paper. To do this, we suggest making an editorial calendar: set specific goals, such as "I will write five well-crafted pages per day" or "I will finish part one this week and part two next week." This will help keep you on track. Also, remember that writing a screenplay takes time and practice. Don't expect your first screenplay to win an Oscar.

Editing is key when writing a successful screenplay

Once you've finished your preliminary script, give it to a few friends or family members whose judgment you trust. Ask for their feedback or suggestions. Be your own critic: put the screenplay aside for a few days and then come back to it with fresh eyes. Make revisions or deletions or completely rework the entire script. And remember, if you need some constructive and professional feedback, send your screenplay to our script editors.

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