How To Write A Movie Script: All You Need To Know About Writing Your First Screenplay


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 must take to write your first screenplay.

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 not on assignment. A writer will write the script to try 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. 

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 for 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 script, but stay away from this practice if you plan only to write it.

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. StudioBinder, Fade In, and Movie Magic Screenwriter are a few paid options.

Learn more about alternative professional screenwriting software here.

Check out free screenwriting software in this article.

All of this software has functions built in to format your screenplay easily. You can also write your screenplay in a word processor, which will be much more complicated. 

Step 1: Idea

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 who 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. 

For another example, I wrote a short film about a father’s struggles with his adopted son of another ethnicity. This idea arose after my girlfriend asked me if I would adopt a child. 

As you can see, ideas can come from anywhere. The idea doesn’t necessarily have to be movie-worthy right at the beginning.

Let the ideas come to you

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, many movie ideas come from watching other movies or TV, going on walks, or even in the shower.

You might also like What is a Bottle Episode in Television?

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 into more 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 researching after you have devised an idea for your film.

Research can be a little bit of an abstract term. There are many different avenues you can take to do research.

Study other movies

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 I did not want to make a traditional gambling movie like the ones I had seen, so 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.

Here is a list of some of the best films to watch to learn filmmaking on your own.

Study essential elements that appear in the film

I already had a history of playing casino games. However, I did not play much Texas Hold’em poker then.

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.

Utilize personal experiences and emotions.

I also drew a lot of inspiration from my personal experiences. A lot of the characters were based on people that I knew.

Many of the characters’ emotions or actions were based on personal feelings of mine or that of some other people I’ve come across.

Take your time – but not unlimited time!

There is no right or wrong way to do research. Some ideas may take little research, or more complex ideas may take more research. 

This may seem simple, 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.

I will note that my first script took a long time because I spent too much time researching and developing the story. Setting boundaries for yourself is important; otherwise, it may become overwhelming.

I have found that setting deadlines for myself has made the process much easier.

As 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, but I highly recommend completing all of these pieces. 


I believe coming up with the story’s structure 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.

These books have the same general goal but take different paths 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 better understand how most screenplays are structured. 

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. 


You can start developing your characters before coming up with a structure. I usually don’t, but an argument must be made for doing this first. We have a fantastic article here about how to create compelling characters. 

You will likely try to base many of your characters on people you know.

This is fine, but remember that everything in your screenplay needs to progress the story forward.

I will base certain traits of a person on my characters instead of making them a carbon copy of that person.

I based a piece of myself on many of the characters of Cashing Out instead of 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 and Story

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.

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.

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 commit crimes until he was 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.

The 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. 

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 must write a couple of 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 you avoid writer’s block.

Pro Tip: Each script page roughly equates 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.

You can read more on script length and different sequences here.

The best thing to do from here is to write as much as possible without giving it too much thought.

Giving it too much thought can make you feel overwhelmed if you get stuck in a particular area.

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 finishing your story with all of the plot points, story elements, etc., 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 include elements from a beat sheet I created myself.

I throw away my beat sheet once the first draft is complete. I will look deeper into the story, theme, and characters in the revisions to make everything richer.

Seek feedback from peers

I will also send my script to colleagues for feedback. I have a group of people I trust heavily, and I value their opinions.

I would recommend finding people in your life that you trust, and that can give you valuable feedback.

This may take some time, so don’t worry if you don’t find trusted colleagues immediately. 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 disagree with their feedback.

However, they could bring up problems in your script that must 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 keep working on it until you are forced to shoot it, sell it, or tire of 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. You will likely be unable to sell your script independently, but that shouldn’t discourage you from writing.


This is a big guide; I can honestly say I 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 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 Srednoselac

    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.

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