How to Write a Screenplay

Learning how to write a screenplay can be a daunting task. There are a large number of protocols to follow, not to mention trying to create a compelling narrative that’s likely to get turned into a motion picture. While this article won’t tell you every step involved in writing a film script, it will set you on the path and arm you with some reliable advice. With a little hard work and lots of luck, your next stop will be a red carpet in Hollywood.

Types of Scripts

Since you’re learning how to write a screenplay, a good starting point is to learn the various types of scripts.

  • Spec Script – Also known as a Submission Script, this is a screenplay that’s written with the hope that it will be purchased or optioned eventually. If you’re writing a screenplay for the first time, you’ll definitely be doing a Spec Script.
  • Commissioned Screenplay – When a writer is hired to write a specific work for the screen, this is known as a Commissioned Screenplay.
  • Shooting Script – Also known as a Production Draft, this is a script that’s been purchased and put through a series of rewrites. In this script, all the shots and scenes are numbered, and they’re broken down into the components needed to film them. This allows the order of filming to be arranged in a way that makes the most efficient use of cast, crew, sets, etc.

Before Writing a Screenplay

Before writing a screenplay, here are a few things you may want to consider:

  • Read Screenplays – To get an idea of how the written word translates to the big screen, it’s a good idea to read the work of other screenwriters. You can read as few or many as you like, but it’s a good idea to expose yourself to as many ideas as possible. You can either purchase individual scripts or view them for free at sites such as ScreenWriterCenter and Drew’s Script-O-Rama.
  • Take Classes – If you’ve never written a screenplay before, it would be worth your time (and money) to take a course in the subject. Any university with a film department should offer such a class, and it will allow you to become familiar with the fundamentals. Some classes may also require you to write a script as one of the requirements, which can be an excellent motivational tool for those less-than-focused screenwriters out there.
  • Learn Proper Formatting – Besides creativity, one of the most important elements of learning how to write a screenplay is knowing the proper formatting. It’s not as simple as opening up Microsoft Works and typing away. There are a number of industry standards for screenplays, and many agents or studios will ignore it if proper formatting isn’t followed. You can find specific instruction on the Internet or in books such as “Screenwriting for Dummies,” “Screenplay,” and “How Not to Write a Screenplay.” Below, I’ve included a few of the most common requirements (there are many more).
  • Formatting Requirements – A traditional screenplay is written on 3-hole punched paper measuring 8 1/2″ by 11″. Courier 12 font is normally used, and the top and bottom margins range from .5″ to 1″. The left margin measures between 1.2″ and 1.6″ (allowing for brads to be inserted), and the right margin is between .5″ and 1″. Dialogue margins are indented 2.5″ from the left, and 2.0″ to 2.5″ on the right. Dialogue is usually 30 to 35 spaces at the maximum. In the header of the upper right hand corner, a sequential number will appear on each page (except for the first page).

The average script is between 95 and 125 pages, and one page written in Courier 12 font equals roughly one minute of screen time. Dramatic scripts tend to be longer, while comedies and action films are usually shorter. Keep length in mind when writing your script, as some producers won’t bother to read one that’s considered too long. 125 pages is pushing it, as most modern Hollywood scripts are around 114 pages. The shorter the film, the more showings per day can be worked in at theaters.

While keeping up with all these rules can be a major pain, there is some good news: screenwriting software is available that instantly formats your script by industry standards.

Screenwriting Software

The following are some of the best examples of screenwriting software currently on the market:

  • Montage Software (Mac only)
  • Final Draft (Mac or PC – One of the default applications used by Hollywood screenwriters)
  • Storyist (for Mac)
  • Celtx (available on the Internet for free in Mac and PC formats)
  • Adobe Story
  • BPC-Screenplay
  • FiveSprockets (offered for free online)
  • Movie Magic Screenwriter (Mac or PC – One of the default applications used by Hollywood screenwriters)
  • Movie Outline (Mac and PC)
  • Page 2 Stage
  • Plot Builder
  • Screenwriting Pro
  • ScriptBuddy
  • Scripped

Screenwriting Tips

The following are screenwriting tips to keep in mind both during and after the writing process.

  • Think Original – Try to come up with a script idea that hasn’t already been done 50 times. A fresh screenplay can often enhance your chances of someone in the industry wanting to read it.
  • Set a Schedule – No matter what, set a goal to write for a certain amount of time each day. The screenwriting process can be an exhausting one, so it’s important to keep yourself motivated and never give up.
  • The Importance of Dialogue – Great dialogue (and actors) can turn an average screenplay into a work of art. Pay special attention to your film’s dialogue, even if the focus is more on action or horror. If you’re unsure of how it will translate to the screen, you can always hire professional actors to read your script aloud (known as a “reading”). This will quickly give you an idea of what needs work.
  • Rewrites – Nobody writes a script worthy of an Oscar on their first try. That’s why editing is so important. Read and re-read your script, looking for any dialogue or action that doesn’t drive the film forward in a meaningful way. When you find such an example, cut it from the script with extreme prejudice.
  • Heroes Need Villains – Whether your character is fighting Asian mummies or cancer, it’s important to make the enemy seem as capable as possible. What’s a hero without a great villain?
  • Shot Selection – While a screenwriter will need to include shots in their script, don’t go overboard. You’ll need to mention a shot occasionally in order to direct the eye of the audience, but leave the rest of that up to the director.

  • Active Voice – The actions as described in your script should always take place in the present tense, not the past. Use the active voice.
  • Proofread – Before you even think about submitting your script, make sure it’s free from all grammatical errors and misspellings. It’s also a good idea to get someone else to proofread your screenplay.

Register Your Work

Once you’ve completed your screenplay, be sure to register your work. This may not keep someone from stealing it, but it will give you a chance to sue them successfully. While a copyright begins the moment your create a piece of art, that won’t do you much good in court.

The first option is to register your script with the Writer’s Guild of America. It’s quick and easy, although the registration will expire more quickly than you might imagine.

The second option is to copyright your screenplay with the Library of Congress. This is a more involved (and slightly more expensive) process, but the copyright on your work will be valid for decades to come.

Write a Treatment

In many cases, producers will ask for a treatment of your script. This is an abbreviated version of your script that allows them to determine if they want to read the actual product. A treatment includes the title, logline, and synopsis.

  • Title – Try to come up with a title that makes the audience want to know more. Simple is better.
  • Logline – A one or two sentence pitch that describes the basic premise of your script. This is what producers will usually read first, so make it as compelling as possible.
  • Synopsis – This should run between three and seven pages long and outline the script’s most important plot points. The film’s three primary acts will be discussed, and an overview of all the major characters will be given.

As I mentioned in the very first sentence, it’s a daunting task to write a Hollywood script. With so many rules–and the odds working against you–it’s a miracle that anyone ever sells a script in Hollywood. But they do, and thousands of serious spec scripts get written each year with the hopes of becoming the next Juno, Hurt Locker, or Little Miss Sunshine. So hone your skills, put on a fresh pot of coffee, and refuse to stop until you’ve made your own indelible mark on the industry.

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