7 Steps to Writing Your Screenplay
1. Choosing a Story
Most professional writers I know have a surplus of ideas. Because of this they tend to think little of them. But choosing a good concept is, in many ways, the most important step of all, assuming you follow through on all the others. You want a concept which, when described, suggests the story to follow. It should excite you and make you think about various scenes you will write. If you are excited by the concept, if you can see the story unfolding in your mind’s eye, then there is a good chance others will also be excited by the concept.
Writers plan in different ways, and some don’t plan at all. You will eventually find what best works for you, and it may not be a detailed outline (I don’t outline myself, though I do keep a notebook handy in which to jot down important information as the writing progresses, so that I won’t have to flip back through my pages to rediscover necessary details), but if you’re first starting out, I suggest some sort of written plan. It might be a bullet-pointed sheet of paper with the major story beats on it; it might be a couple dozen index cards thumbtacked to the wall above your desk. Either way, I think it’s a good idea to have a roadmap handy so that you do not get lost on the way and take unnecessary detours, for those detours will eventually have to be cut from your screenplay, which means the time spent on them was time wasted, no matter how beautiful the scenery.
3. Familiarizing Yourself With the Medium
Once you have some sort of plan, you’re ready to begin writing—so long as you’re familiar with screenplay format and structure. If you’ve watched a lot of movies—and I assume you have—you probably have some instinctual grasp of story structure, but formatting is a different matter. If you don’t know how to format a script, I suggest reading a few, and not the ones published in book form you can find at your local Barnes & Noble. Websites such as www.simplyscripts.com have actual drafts of screenplays available, and these are what you will want to reference. Ignore the transcripts; they are useless. You also may want to download dedicated screenwriting software. I banged out my first script on a typewriter (I’ve been writing for a long time) and my second in a Word document, formatting as I went, but I don’t recommend either of these approaches. I now use Final Draft, but this might be an expense you can’t afford. If so, there are free programs available, including Celtx and Page 2 stage. Download one of these and play with its features so that you know what you’re doing. You do not want a program designed to help you to interrupt your flow simply because you don’t know how to utilize it.
This is, of course, the heart of the job, and if you’ve planned well it should go rather smoothly. Once you begin a project, I think it’s important to write every day until it’s finished. If you write a thousand words a day, about five pages, you will be finished in less than a month. This, to me, is a perfectly reasonable goal. If you, however, are a slower writer, try to at least finish one page a day. This will give you a full-length screenplay in a little over three months. The point here is to get the story down on paper.
Remember to write only what will appear in the film. Screenplays are not the place for internal monologues. If you can’t see it or hear it, it doesn’t belong. This may seem elementary, but I have read many scripts that include unfilmable material. What you want is a movie on the page, nothing more and nothing less.
I suggest at least three passes. The first is for story and character. You now know where the drama lies. Milk that drama as much as you can. Cut scenes that do not push the story forward or reveal character, and if the scene does only one of those things, try to make it do more, combing scenes where necessary. Be brutal. Once the story is where you want it to be, go through the script again for dialogue. Read it aloud and where it sounds unnatural, rewrite it. It doesn’t need to be grammatical; it needs to be human. People do not speak in complete sentences. They use contractions and say “ain’t.” They do not explain things that everyone in the room already knows. The third pass is for spelling and grammar. You do not want a poorly-worded sentence or a spelling error to pull the reader from your story. You want every reader to fall into it completely, and this will only happen if you eliminate the errors that will remind them that they are, in fact, reading something that someone else wrote.
Once your script is where you want it to be, it is time to send out query letters. I suggest first writing a template. It should read something like this:
Dear Mr. Warden,
I recently completed a screenplay called A Penny for Your Thoughts about a successful businessman who inadvertently sells his thoughts for a penny to a fellow he meets in a bar. As he loses his memory and the man who purchased his thoughts takes over his life, he must race against time to find the penny, which he left at the bar, and buy back his thoughts before he loses himself completely.
This is my first feature-length screenplay. However, I minored in Film at California State University, Long Beach, have attended one of Robert McKee’s conferences, and have published short stories in Weird Tales and Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine.
Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience.
Ryan David Jahn
Once you have a template, go to the WGA website and find their list of signatory agencies. These are the folks to whom you want to submit. But before you send off your letter, you should do some legwork. Find out which agents represent writers who are doing similar stuff to you, and use that knowledge to personalize each letter you submit. If the agents you reach understand you are not blindly sending out letters, if they understand you are submitting to them for a reason beyond the fact that they are agents, if they understand that you know something about them, they are much more likely to at least consider your letter.
7. Doing it All Again
Once you complete that last step, you begin again immediately, because, above all, writers write.← Back to Blog
17 Responses to “7 Steps to Writing Your Screenplay”
thanks.please come back with more tips asap.
Meja Tyehimba Says:
Great article, I will be sure to share with my writing friends. Thanks.
Andrew Gregory Says:
This is a big help! #4 confuses me, however. I’ve seen many scripts with things that do not get film, such as narration, used heavily in films like The Shawshank Redemption. Are there exceptions to the ‘write only what will appear in the film’ rule?
“write what will appear” doesn’t mean just the visuals – it means the sights AND sounds. So narration IS ok (provided it’s not abused, anyway).
The author is referring to the tendency writers have to put “background info” into their action lines, or to say exactly what a character is thinking. For instance, you wouldn’t just have Andy sitting in his car at the beginning and an action line saying “Andy’s wife is cheating on him and he’s thinking about blowing her brains out”. Instead, the film SHOWS Andy’s wife with her lover, and Andy intoxicated and miserable.
Andrew Gregory Says:
Ahh, much clearer now! I appreciate the reply ^_^
Thank you for the information!
Thanks for the info. You do not mention the use of treatments. Is this on purpose. I find them to be really quite good to let you know where you want to go and it can change before you have to deal with the screenplay formatting, etc. LMA
Gary Geyer Says:
I have completed a screenplay pretty much following the advice you have given. The part I am having difficulty with is #6: Querying. My screenplay is a family adventure that requires animation/cgi. The major studios that produce these kinds of films (Disney, Dreamworks, for example) do not accept unsolicited query letters nor do the agents who represent the screenwriters who these studios hire. I have entered my screenplay in several competitions but I could use some advice on how to get “solicited.” Thanks.
Jon Raymond Says:
I doubt you can make headway unless you win a high profile screenplay contest. Even then, it’s unlikely, especially in today’s economy, where the $10M film of a few years ago now has to be budgeted at $5M. A first time writer should probably look at budgets less than $1M and even better, less than $500K. That way you have a chance to attract first time or emerging producers and directors looking for scripts. Studios won’t bother. You have to realize any given agent or reader gets hundreds of submissions every week. What makes you stand out? Something like 50,000 scripts are submitted annually.
Shelve this one. Then write something for a low budget. Come back to this later when you have had some success.
Gary Geyer Says:
I appreciate your response. I’ve read many books and articles such as yours that give all sorts of advice: Mostly encouraging but not realistic. The advice you gave me in your response makes sense. I wish someone would have given it to me before I spent months (years?) writing and re-writing my big budget blockbuster. It’shard enough having a screenplay rejected but even harder having nobody taking the time to read it. It would be nice if the big agents, producers and studios had someone or two on staff that did nothing else but at least read queries, if not scripts. Thank you,
Wait…you’re thinking about a major film production. I started out making short films. Anyway try seeing if some small film groups, like some on YouTube, to check your work out. There are a lot of talented people out there, that I have discovered, that only need to be led. Also a lot of people don’t have good stories to back up their talent so things turn out bad. Check out blender.org and go to the forum section and see if you can’t get a group to help out with your story. That’s what I would do.
Quote: “the only difference between the master and the apprentice, is that the master has failed more times than the apprentice has ever tried.” Forgot who wrote it.
My company is looking for log lines of any genre (of scripts that have been copyrighted only). Please send your log lines to email@example.com. Please do not send your log line as an attachment or send a sript. We will not open your email if a script or attachment is sent.
Jorge Prieto Says:
Thanks BlueCat for all your tips, lessons on the process of screenwriting. I saw your podcast on sellingyourscreenplay.com and it was also very helpful. I can’t wait to meet you. I had my first script SHARED SCARS evaluated by you some time ago and your advice was very helpful. Thnaks a milion for ALL that you do.
Frank Friedlander Says:
One thing that I disagree with is overwriting. I know it’s one of the main snafus in writing of any sort, especially screenplays, but here’s my preferred tactic. Think of it as playing with Legos. Regardless of your particular variety, dump the entire bucket. You’re not going to use every block, but it’s good to know what’s available as you begin to build.
As you piece together the individual components of your project, and decide exactly what it is that you’re making, you’ll realize that certain parts, though great on their own, simply don’t fit in with this particular project. This isn’t to say that you break it down; just put it to the side. Because you never know when it could come in handy for your next. Why? Because the creation process in its own should be something you look forward to, not something you clock in for. And like every other craft, the more you do, the better you get.
I know that some kids prefer the sets that are packaged and intended for something specific, but but then you’re kind of taking what should be fun and turning it into work. And let’s face it, if you think you’re going to feed a family and paying the bills by playing with Legos, you’d best be able to build a house out of them.
Hello, thanks for these tips. I have a question, is it safe to share your script with all these writers without worrying if someone else would copy it some how or take some ideas out of it? How can I protect my script before i send it out? I’m not saying my scripts are great that would make people do that. But it’s worth asking. Thank
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William Skovlund Says:
Thank you so much for writing this article!