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A screenplay is arguably the most important tool in filmmaking. There is no movie or television show without a script or screenplay.
A screenplay serves as the blueprint for the entire project. It shows the director the story being told, the actors what lines to say or actions to do, or the art department the world in which the story takes place.
In this article, I will explain some of the steps you will need to take in order to write your first screenplay.
As a general note, this is how I personally complete my own screenplays. I think it’s important to find your own style that works for you, so don’t take this article as the only way to complete a screenplay. I’m going to break this down into six steps that you can easily follow.
First, let’s learn about the two types of scripts you will encounter.
Spec Script Vs. Shooting Script
There are two main types of screenplays or scripts that you should familiarize yourself with before beginning.
A spec script, or speculative script, is an original script written by a screenwriter that is not on assignment. A writer will write the script with the intention of trying to sell it to a major studio.
A shooting script is a script that is ready for production. It will include cast credits, camera directions, actor directions, etc. A spec script will generally not include these unless you are a highly established writer in the industry.
I wanted to point this out because most scripts you will find online for Hollywood films are shooting scripts. I highly recommend searching for scripts of your favorite movies as part of the research process.
Check out this article here for some sources. However, you generally should not be writing your scripts in the shooting script format. You can get away with it if you intend to shoot your own script but stay away from this practice if you plan to only write the script.
Formatting and screenwriting software
We’re not going to get deep into how to format a script. I would recommend purchasing the book The Hollywood Standard. This is a complete guide for formatting your screenplay. We also have an article here discussing screenplay formatting.
I would also recommend writing your screenplay in a screenwriting app. The industry-standard screenwriting software is Final Draft.
The software is pricey, so there are alternative options as well. A few paid options are StudioBinder, Fade In, and Movie Magic Screenwriter. Learn more about alternative professional screenwriting software here.
A popular free app is Celtx. Check out more free screenwriting software in this article.
All of this software has functions built in to easily format your screenplay. You can also write your screenplay in a word processor, but it will be much more complicated.
Step 1: Idea
Personally, I feel coming up with an idea is the most important first step in this process. The idea doesn’t have to be fully fleshed out, but you should have something in mind to get you started.
For example, my first feature film Cashing Out is about a group of people that rob unsuspecting poker players.
The idea first sprung on me while I played a lot of blackjack tournaments in my early twenties. I knew I wanted to write a movie about the gambling world, so that’s where I started.
Another example, I wrote a short film about a father’s struggles with his adopted son of another ethnicity. This idea came about after my girlfriend asked me if I would ever adopt a child.
As you can see, ideas can literally come from anywhere. The idea doesn’t necessarily have to be movie-worthy right at the beginning.
One of the best methods for coming up with ideas is letting the ideas come to you. This can be difficult to do because it may feel unproductive to do nothing, but doing nothing can be one of the best methods. You should always be thinking about ideas, so that’s the work in itself.
For me, a lot of movie ideas come from watching other movies or tv, going on walks, or even in the shower.
I can’t say I’ve ever come up with an idea during a set time while I was trying to think of ideas. Check out this article here that goes more in-depth about coming up with screenplay ideas.
Step 2: Research
A common activity in the business world is “R and D,” or Research and Development. The same can be applied to writing your screenplay.
You should begin doing research after you have come up with an idea for your film. I’m going to use my feature film Cashing Out as the main example for the rest of this article.
Research can be a little bit of an abstract term. There are many different avenues you can take to do research.
One of the first things I do is watch other films or read other screenplays that could be similar to the screenplay I am trying to write.
For example, Cashing Out is primarily a movie about gambling, so I watched other gambling movies such as Rounders, 21, etc.
I knew that I did not want to make a traditional gambling movie like the ones I had seen, so that’s when I introduced the crime aspect. I studied other films like The Town, Gone Girl, and other modern crime thrillers that I enjoyed at the time.
I already had a history of playing casino games, however, I did not play a lot of Texas Hold’em poker at the time. I had to learn more about the game and how realistic it could be to rob a home poker game. Fortunately, I found this was a fairly common scenario.
I also drew a lot of inspiration from my personal experiences. A lot of the characters were based on people that I knew. A lot of the emotions or actions of the characters were based on personal feelings of mine or that of some other people I’ve come across.
This may seem like this was a simple process, but my first screenplay nearly took me four years to complete.
It generally shouldn’t take you this long, but that should show you that it can take a lot of time to complete research. There is no right or wrong way to do research. Some ideas may take little research, or more complex ideas may take more research.
One thing I will note, my first script took a long time because I spent too much time researching and developing the story. It’s important to set boundaries for yourself otherwise it may become overwhelming.
I have found that setting deadlines for myself have made the process much easier. As I mentioned earlier, Cashing Out took me around four years to complete, but I wrote my second feature screenplay in less than a year. I was able to accomplish this by using those mentioned practices.
Step 3: Development
Developing the screenplay may be the most difficult part of this entire process. I find this area to be much more difficult than actually writing the screenplay itself.
This is where you will start to craft the story, develop the characters, etc. You can complete this step in any order you would like, but I highly recommend completing all of these pieces.
In my opinion, coming up with the structure of the story is the most important step of the development process. There are hundreds of books on screenplay plot and structure, such as Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, Save the Cat, and Story.
All of these books have the same general goal, but with a different path to achieve that goal. There are also methods not written in books, such as Dan Harmon’s Story Circle. You can learn more about that in this article here.
I recommend reading some of these books as it will help you get a better understanding of how most screenplays are structured.
Personally, I use the Save the Cat method the most. I like this method because it is very easy to follow, and there are a lot of examples of this method used in major movies.
This method, along with most methods from other screenwriting books, is criticized a lot because of its formulaic approach. These critics are correct to some degree, but there is a case to be made about the importance of using structure.
Think of a story like a house. Most houses are built with the same structure. It has a foundation, a frame, walls, rooms, etc. Almost every house is built in the same fashion.
However, a house becomes a home once a person moves in and makes it their own. They decorate the house with items they personally like, or with sentimental items that bring them memories.
Your screenplay will be very generic if it’s only like every other house, but it will become more fleshed out if you treat it like a home.
That is the approach I take when using the Save the Cat method. I will use this structure to get the story started, but later on, I throw out the method completely. I find it’s a lot easier to find your story once you have something mapped out on paper.
You may find that this is a terrible approach and you want to do something different. A lot of people like writing scenes on notecards until they have a complete story, forgoing structure altogether, or some other method.
This is completely up to you, but I wanted to show how one of these methods can work with the right approach.
You can start developing your characters before coming up with a structure. I usually don’t, but there is an argument to be made for doing this first. We have a fantastic article here about how to create compelling characters.
You will likely try to base a lot of your characters on people you know. This is fine, but remember that everything in your screenplay needs to progress the story forward.
I personally will base certain traits of a person on my characters as opposed to making them a carbon copy of that person. I based a piece of myself on a lot of the characters of Cashing Out as opposed to putting all of myself in the main character.
I wouldn’t worry too much about how dimensional your characters are at the beginning of this process. Your characters can develop over time.
You may not even know who your characters are until you complete your first or second draft of the screenplay. This is the beauty of completing multiple revisions of the screenplay over time.
Plot, story, and theme
A lot of your plot will be developed during the structure portion of this process. The plot consists of all of the actions that drive the story forward. The plot is usually easy to explain in one sentence.
Check out our in-depth article on movie plots (including examples) here.
For example, the plot of the horror movie Halloween is when a masked serial killer kills teenagers on Halloween night. From there, the rest of the plot points are pretty easy to point out.
Check out the 50 best horror movies here.
We know that there will be several events taking place where Michael Myers commits a bunch of murders and someone will try to stop him.
However, the story goes a little bit more in-depth. The story will include the characters, their relationships, specific events, messages, or themes.
Check out our article on how to come up with good plot ideas for your next feature or short film here.
Going back to the house analogy, think of the story as the personal decorations of the house. Everything that happens in the story should drive the plot forward. If this is not done, it can create an uncomfortable or confusing reading experience.
For example, it wouldn’t make sense for Michael Myers to quit committing murders midway through Halloween. The movie would essentially feel like it was over because we as an audience were promised that he would be committing crimes until he is stopped at the end of the film.
See more about the differences between horror and thriller genres here.
Theme will be a big part of your story. The theme is one of the more misunderstood aspects of writing a story but is arguably one of the most important.
Theme is essentially the main idea that drives the story and plot forward. You can have several themes within a story, but every moment that happens should center around it.
An easy way to think about theme in its simplest form is to compare it to a child’s birthday party. A lot of kids will want a birthday party with superhero decorations, such as Batman.
The child’s parents wouldn’t buy decorations for Barbie because Barbie doesn’t fit the Batman theme. The same rules can be applied to a theme within a story.
One franchise that conveys its theme heavily is the Fast and Furious movies. Family is one of the central themes in those movies, and I believe that is one of the reasons it is so popular.
One of the themes in Cashing Out is feeling trapped in your situation. All of the characters in the movie have some sort of situation they feel trapped in and want to break free.
You can have multiple themes within your script, but it will feel more well-defined if you have one central theme. You may also not know your theme right in the beginning. That’s okay! Sometimes you need to write a couple drafts to figure it out.
Step 4: Writing the first draft
Writing the first draft of your script can feel like the most difficult part of this process. This is why I recommend doing the preparation mentioned in the previous sections above. These notes will give you confidence and help avoid writer’s block.
The best thing to do from here is to write as much as you can without giving it too much thought. Giving it too much thought can lead to you feeling overwhelmed if you get stuck in a particular area.
Each page of a script will roughly equate to one minute of screen time. This will help create a goal of where you should aim with your story.
For example, most horror films are within the 80 to 90-minute range, therefore you should aim for an 80 to 90-page script. These numbers are not set in stone, so you don’t need to treat that as a hard number.
Another great tip is to set small goals for yourself. For example, you may want to set a page goal weekly, such as trying to write 10-20 pages per week.
Don’t worry too much about writing a great screenplay on the first draft. Focus on trying to finish your story with all of the plot points, story elements, etc. that you wrote out during the planning phase.
Step 5: Revise, revise, revise
This section is the most important of this entire article. Revising your screenplay is a must. It’s not uncommon for Hollywood writers to rewrite their screenplays 20 to 30 times before the film goes into production.
Your screenplay likely won’t go through that many revisions, but it’s important to see how many drafts a screenplay will go through until it’s right.
I mentioned before that I am a big fan of the Beat Sheet method from Save the Cat. My first draft will consist of the elements from a beat sheet that I created myself.
I throw away my beat sheet once the first draft is complete. The revisions are where I will look deeper into the story, theme, and characters to make everything richer.
I will also send my script to colleagues for feedback. I have a group of people that I trust heavily and value their opinions. I would recommend finding people in your life that you trust that can give you valuable feedback.
This may take some time, so don’t worry if you don’t find trusted colleagues right away. Once I have their notes, I will make revisions based on their recommendations. This is not to say I will make changes solely based on their feedback. You may not agree with their feedback.
However, they could bring up problems in your script that need to be addressed. It will be up to you to find a creative solution to those problems.
Step 6: Once your screenplay is finished
How do you know when your screenplay is finished? You don’t. You will likely always keep working on it until you are forced to shoot it, sell it, or simply are tired of it. Or as they say in the music business, you never finish a song – you just give up on it.
There is no right or wrong answer to this question. It’s up to you to decide when it is complete.
What should you do once your script is finished? Again, there is no right or wrong answer. You can submit it to screenplay contests, try to shoot the script yourself, or start on the next script.
Selling a script isn’t simple. One of the best ways to get discovered is to submit your script to screenplay contests. Here’s an article explaining how to sell your screenplay.
You might also consider copyrighting your script. Here’s an article explaining how and why to do that.
You can find plenty of these on a platform like FilmFreeway. It’s unlikely you will be able to sell your script on your own, but that shouldn’t discourage you from writing.
This is a big guide, and I can honestly say that I still only scratched the surface. Remember that the most important step in writing a screenplay is just beginning.
That is a cliché, but it’s the honest truth. That blank page is extremely scary. Take your time and try to do some prep work beforehand. This will help with any roadblocks you may run into while writing.
Alex is a certified Adobe Premiere Pro video editor and independent filmmaker in the US. He is most known for writing, directing, and editing his debut feature film, Cashing Out, which has won multiple awards at film festivals across the US. Currently, Alex is the owner of AWS FILMS and works as a freelance video editor for several large companies and content creators.