How to Write a Screenplay

How to Write a Screenplay: A Beginner's Guide - Kindlepreneur

Writing a screenplay is not all that different from writing a novel. Okay, I lied. It's quite different. But it's still telling a story. And if you have a good grasp of basic storytelling fundamentals, you can certainly write a screenplay. Even if you don't, writing a screenplay is a great way to learn story structure! So read on as I discuss how to write a screenplay. 

In this article, you will learn:

  1. How screenplays differ from novels and short stories.
  2. Story structure and screenplay-writing resources. 
  3. Tips for writing your screenplay. 

Screenplay vs Novel

Most people have read a novel or two in their lives. Not everyone has read a screenplay. So thinking about screenplay writing framed in terms of novel writing is a good way to understand the basics of the craft.

Screenplays Leave Room for Collaboration 

For one, screenplays are just the first step in a long process that eventually culminates in a movie, a short film, or a TV show. When you write a novel, that's it. That's the product. It's not so with a film script. 

And it's vitally important to remember that a script is ultimately a visual medium. While the cardinal rule of novel writing is show, don't tell, it's exactly the opposite for script writing. You have to show the audience what's happening through visuals and dialogue, not through narrative prose.

If you're a novelist, getting into the tell, don't show headspace may be difficult at first. But, like anything, you'll get the hang of it with time.

Screenplays Need to Be Certain Lengths

Another big difference between novels and scripts is the page count. If you've ever seen one of your favorite books turned into movies, you'll notice that they generally have to cut out a lot of stuff. This is because movies have a pretty finite runtime, whereas books do not. 

Most screenplays are between 90 and 120 pages, coming in at about a minute per page.

There's also the matter of what tense to write a screenplay in. All screenplays are written in the present tense. While present-tense writing is becoming more common in contemporary fiction, it's still not nearly as common as the past tense. 

Then, of course, is the script format. There are certain rules to follow when formatting your script. But we'll get to that in good time. 

Keep these factors in mind as we go through the rest of this article.  

What to Do Before You Write a Screenplay

It can be tempting to just jump into writing a screenplay, but if you want to avoid making common mistakes, it's a good idea to learn a bit about screenplays. 

First of all, I suggest you read scripts. Read both scripts from your favorite movies and scripts for movies you've never seen. This can give you a great handle on what scripts look and feel like, as well as how they're formatted. 

A great source for downloading movie scripts is this article from the New York Film Academy

There are also some great books on screenwriting you can check out:

  • Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
  • Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman
  • Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee

How to Write a Screenplay: 7 Screenwriting Tips

The following tips can help you turn your screenplay idea into a finished script that you can shop around or enter in contests. 

Find the Core of Your Idea

While you don't have to have your entire idea fleshed out before you start putting words on your screen, you do need to have a general idea of what your movie will be about. And one of the best ways to do this is to craft a logline. 

A logline is a one-sentence description of your story, listing four things: the main character, the conflict (or inciting incident), the action, and the antagonist. 

There are different ways to put these elements together, but the main character should always be the focus. However, you don't need to include the character name. In fact, it's a good idea not to. Just describe the character briefly in the logline. 

Here are a couple of logline examples to get you started:

  • The Godfather – “The aging patriarch of an organized crime dynasty transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant son.”
  • The Help – “During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, an aspiring author decides to write a book detailing the African American maids’ point of view on the white families for whom they work.”
  • Don't Look Up – “Two low-level astronomers must go on a giant media tour to warn a complacent society of an approaching comet that will destroy planet Earth.”

Since these are short, it's a good idea to write several in different formats. If you have more than one idea for your story, try them out when writing your loglines to see which one sings. A good logline is one of many factors in selling a movie script.

Write an Outline

Not every screenwriter will write a screenplay outline before sitting down to write their script. But if you're just starting out and you've never written a script before, an outline can be very helpful. 

It can help you find your story without worrying about screenplay formatting, scene headings, or action lines (more on those later). Instead, you can focus on things like character development, stakes, and conflict. 

An outline can give you a solid foundation for turning your story idea into a polished screenplay at the end of the writing process. By using a tried-and-true story structure, you can ensure that your outline sticks closely to a proven plot structure. 

Your outline can be as detailed as you want it to be. It can also be in any format you like. You can put dialogue in it if you want, or you can focus more on the big plot points in the story. 

In fact, a common outlining technique among screenwriters is known as the beat sheet. Essentially a beat sheet is just a list of bullet points that briefly describe each plot point in the story. 

No matter how you do it, the important part is getting the major story beats down. You can always make tweaks later as you see fit. 

Work on Your Dialogue

As a writer, one of the most important aspects of your craft is character dialogue. This is important in novel writing, but it's arguably more important in screenwriting.

When writing a novel, you have the option to describe how your point of view character is feeling or what they're thinking. You have no such luxury in screenwriting. Instead, you have to focus on getting the characters' feelings across through dialogue (along with expression, body language, and their actions). 

The dialogue in a movie also has to feel real. Stilted dialogue is one of the best ways to ruin a good story. In fact, some agents will open a script and see how well the dialogue is written before looking at anything else. 

This means that each character should have their own voice, the dialogue should flow naturally (without all the uhs and ums people use in real life), and the dialogue should contain subtext. 

Dialogue that's too on the nose or that includes too much exposition will seem amateurish and can take what is otherwise a great screenplay down a notch. 

To learn how to write great dialogue, pay attention to how people speak and, of course, read scripts and watch movies while paying close attention to the dialogue. 

Stick to the Story

Now that we're getting close to getting your story in screenplay format, it's time to talk about what a spec script is. In short, there are two different kinds of scripts in the movie-making business: spect scripts and shooting scripts. Spec scripts are those written on speculation. If you haven't been hired by a studio to write a script, you're writing a spec script. 

A shooting script is one that includes filmmaking language like camera angles, editing notes, and other technical aspects that will be used to inform the actual production. 

So while you may have all the camera angles and edits in your head, leave them out of your spec script. Doing otherwise will immediately mark your script as that of an amateur and will likely be discarded as soon as it's opened. 

Just focus on writing the best story possible so you can sell your screenplay—unless of course you're going the DIY route and will direct the film yourself!

Get to Know Screenplay Terminology

While I'm going to recommend some screenwriting software to use as you write your screenplay, every aspiring screenwriter should be familiar with the common terminology used in scripts. Here are the terms you should know:

Scene Heading or Slugline – A scene heading is a one-sentence description of the time of day and location in which the scene takes place. Every scene heading should be in all caps and should go in order from general to specific. The standard is: INT/EXT, LOCATION, TIME OF DAY. An example of this would be a slugline that reads: INT.  POLICE STATION – INTERROGATION ROOM – NIGHT. 

Action Line – Action lines are short descriptions of any action taking place on screen. This means things that are seen and/or heard (not dialogue) should be included in action lines. 

Characters – When you first introduce a character in the screenplay, their entire name should be capitalized. Character names will always be completely capitalized over their dialogue as well.

Extension – An extension will come after a character's name to indicate if they're talking off-screen (O.S) or in voiceover (V.O.). 

Transition – You may be familiar with transitions such as “Cut to,” “Fade in,” or “Smash cut”. If you're writing a spec script, you shouldn't use these in your screenplay unless there's no other way to indicate what you want to say.  

Use Screenwriting Software

Thankfully you don't really need to know the exact formatting standards of a screenplay. If you use a screenwriting tool, you don't have to know how far from the left margin your character name should appear for lines of dialogue, or that page numbers only appear on the second page onward. 

While you can certainly learn the minutiae of screenplay formatting, you don't have to. (If you do want to, check out The Hollywood Standard by Christopher Riley—it’s a great book to have around for any screenwriter). Instead, you can use a tool to help you get your story into the proper format. These days, there are free versions of several different great screenwriting software tools

  • StudioBinder – Not a ton of free features, but a great place to start if you want to write your script for free and then see what other production tools they have on offer. 
  • Arc Studio Pro – Free version includes two full scripts with no limit on length. Also features some great organizational tools!

Final Draft is the biggest name, and they do offer a 30-day free trial. You can check that out here

All these tools are pretty easy to use. Whichever one you choose, you'll be able to write your story down without worrying about whether you're doing so in the correct screenplay format. You can just focus on the story!

Mind the White Space

As a general rule of thumb, keep white space in mind during the script-writing process—the more the better. Like bad dialogue, white space is something producers and agents look at—sometimes before even reading a word of the story. 

But why is ample white space important? Because large chunks of text in a screenplay is often a telltale sign of an amateur writer. Large blocks of text can indicate too much scene description, too much stage direction, or too much showing (and not enough telling).

If you can use one word instead of three in your action line, do it. You don't need to describe every scene in detail. Let the reader fill in the blanks. And when your successful screenplay gets sold, a whole team of other people will come in and help to literally fill in those blanks through cinematography, set decoration, costume design, direction, etc. 

A screenplay is the first important step in a collaborative creative project, and including white space on the page is a way to keep this in mind.

Proof of Concept: A Novel Idea

If you're an author, it would be worth it to test a proof of concept by writing and self-publishing your story as a novel. After all, many movies are based on existing intellectual property that has already proven popular among readers. 

But like writing a screenplay, it's not a good idea to go into indie publishing blind. You'll want to do some market research first to ensure that you give your novel the best chance of success. Widely popular novels have a better chance of getting noticed by agents and producers, after all.  

Positioning your book for success is the idea behind Publisher Rocket. This indie author tool pulls information directly from Amazon to give you an idea of what market segments are underserved. It can give you information on:

  • Competition – Find out what books are selling well and what categories are highly competitive. 
  • Keywords – Find phrases customers use when searching for stories like yours. Once you know, you can add phrases to your book's metadata during the publishing process. 
  • Categories – Find out which three categories are best for your novel.
  • Ad Keywords – Find out what ad phrases and keywords to use in your marketing campaigns. 

Check out Publisher Rocket here to learn more. 

How to Write a Screenplay: Cut to Black

A good screenplay is one that focuses on story, character, and conflict. It's very different from a short story or novel in that the idea is to tell, not show. Screenplays are written in the present tense and only feature a finite number of pages (unless you're a name in the business, it's unlikely you'll sell a script that's over 120 pages). 

However, despite these challenges—or perhaps because of them—screenwriting is a rewarding creative exercise and may just launch your career in the entertainment industry. 

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