A screenwriter, also known as a scriptwriter, crafts screenplays for television shows, films, video games, and other audiovisual media. Screenwriters are responsible for creating a story’s narrative, dialogue, and structure that will be visually enacted on screen.
Whether you work on TV shows, feature films, or video games, there are similar tasks all screenwriters must tackle. These include:
- Conceptualizing the Story: A screenwriter may develop original ideas or adapt stories from existing works such as novels, plays, or real-life events.
- Outlining the Plot: Before writing the script, screenwriters often outline the main plot points, character arcs, and scenes to ensure a coherent structure.
- Creating Characters: Screenwriters develop characters, giving them distinct personalities, backgrounds, and motivations that drive the story forward.
- Writing Dialogue: One of the critical elements of a screenplay is the dialogue. Screenwriters write the lines that characters will speak, ensuring the dialogue sounds natural and advances the story or develops the characters.
- Formatting the Script: Screenplays have a specific format that screenwriters must follow. This includes correctly placing scene headings, action descriptions, character names, and dialogue.
- Revising and Editing: Writing a screenplay is often a process of rewriting. Screenwriters revise their work based on their insights or feedback from others, such as producers, directors, or script consultants.
- Collaborating: Screenwriters frequently collaborate with directors, producers, and other writers to refine the screenplay and make it workable for production. This collaboration can involve significant changes to the script.
- Pitching: Screenwriters sometimes need to pitch their scripts to producers or studio executives to sell their screenplay or get a commission to write one.
- Research: For specific scripts, especially those based on historical events or specific topics, screenwriters need to research to ensure accuracy and authenticity.
- Understanding the Market: Successful screenwriters understand the market’s demands, including genre trends and audience preferences, and often tailor their work accordingly.
With that said, there are also some significant differences. After all, a feature film is limited to a couple of hours, whereas a television show might run for multiple seasons.
A video game can have various story arcs and endings to consider, and the plot might change due to the player’s choices.
Below, you can see the screenwriters’ main jobs and how writing for TV, movies, and video games differs.
The TV screenwriter’s job
TV screenwriters are responsible for crafting the stories and dialogue for television shows, with various roles within the industry.
The showrunner, often the show’s creator and executive producer, has the ultimate authority over story decisions. They oversee the writers’ room, where a team of writers collaborates on story arcs and episodes.
The showrunner may delegate responsibilities to co-executive producers, especially when they must be on set during filming.
The writers’ room is a collective of writers, managed by the showrunner, who work together to develop and write the show’s content.
Within the room are different levels of writers, including co-executive producers, supervising producers, producers, and co-producers, with varying degrees of responsibility and seniority.
These titles often correspond to both pay level and the additional responsibilities that may extend beyond writing, such as casting decisions.
At the beginning of their careers, writers typically hold titles such as staff writer, story editor, or executive story editor.
Staff writers are entry-level in the writers’ room, while story and executive story editors have advanced from staff writer positions.
These roles involve pitching and writing episodes, contributing to the creative process within the writers’ room.
How writing for TV differs from writing movie scripts and video games
Here, you can see how writing for TV differs from the other genres:
- Episodic Structure: TV screenwriters often write for shows with episodic formats, requiring multiple scripts for a series with ongoing storylines and character development.
- Writers’ Rooms: They typically work in writers’ rooms, collaborating with a team of writers to break stories and maintain continuity across episodes and seasons.
- Pacing and Commercial Breaks: TV scripts must account for commercial breaks and conform to specific act structures within broadcast time slots.
- Longer Character Arcs: Characters in TV shows are developed over a longer period, allowing for more gradual and nuanced growth.
- Production Involvement: TV writers may be involved in the production process, sometimes present on set, and may contribute to rewrites during shooting.
- Quick Turnaround: Television production schedules are often tight, requiring writers to produce content quickly and consistently.
Writing for feature films
A feature screenwriter, first and foremost, writes scripts for feature films.
In the film world, writers are often hired by pitching “their take” on an existing project a studio is developing.
Still, they can also sell their work through writing spec scripts and original pitches, though it is more complicated.
The business of being a feature screenwriter can be a confusing and winding road, but the critical landmarks are these:
- The Outline Phase: The process begins with an idea, which the screenwriter develops into a logline, treatment, or goes straight to drafting. However, outlining the story is often recommended. Screenwriters choose a story structure, commonly a three-act structure, and plan out the story beats using notecards, beat sheets, or treatments to map the narrative flow.
- The Writing Phase: With a solid outline, the screenwriter starts writing the first draft. It can be challenging to create something from nothing, and initial drafts may not be perfect. The aim is to complete the draft, even if it requires significant improvement.
- The Rewrite Phase: After completing the first draft, the screenwriter enters a phase of rewriting and revising, which can involve over a hundred revisions. The goal is to refine the script while retaining the original inspiration that sparked the story. Screenwriters are advised to have a specific plan for each revision and to make changes incrementally to understand what works and doesn’t.
Ultimately, a script is never truly finished—it reaches a final draft when the screenwriter decides to stop revising.
How writing feature films differs from writing TV shows and video games
Here, you can see how writing feature films from the other genres:
- Stand-Alone Story: A feature film script is usually a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end contained within a two-hour narrative arc.
- Individual Process: Unlike TV writers, film screenwriters may work alone or with a partner, and collaboration often occurs only with the director and producers during the script development phase.
- Pacing and Structure: Film scripts have a three-act structure (setup, confrontation, resolution) without the need to accommodate commercial breaks.
- Character Development: Characters must be fully developed within the limited timeframe of the film, requiring more immediate and impactful arcs.
- Less Direct Involvement: Screenwriters may have less influence over the final product once the script is sold or when production starts, as other writers often handle rewrites.
- Project Duration: Writing a feature can take years before it gets produced, if at all, and the screenwriter may move on to other projects once their script is completed.
Writing for video games
A screenwriter who works in video games, often referred to as a narrative designer or game writer, is responsible for crafting the story within the game.
This involves various tasks, which can differ depending on the studio’s size, the game’s complexity, and the narrative scope.
Here are some of the main tasks a video game screenwriter might be involved in:
- Story Development: Creating the overarching story for the game, including the setting, themes, character backstories, plot points, and the narrative arc. This is often done in collaboration with the game designers to ensure that the story and gameplay mechanics complement each other.
- Character Creation: Developing the characters, their motivations, personalities, and arcs. This can include writing detailed character bios that help voice actors, artists, and animators bring them to life.
- Dialogue Writing: Crafting the dialogue for characters, including main story dialogues, side quest dialogues, ambient chatter, and interactive dialogue trees that can affect the game’s outcome. Dialogue must often reflect the player’s choices and show different personality traits or levels of information based on the game’s progression.
- World-building: Contributing to creating the game’s world, which may include lore, history, factions, politics, and mythologies that make the game world feel rich and immersive.
- Script Writing: Writing the script for cutscenes or in-game events is similar to writing for film or television but often includes branching narratives or multiple outcomes.
- Narrative Integration: Working closely with game designers and programmers to integrate the narrative into the game, ensuring the story is conveyed through gameplay, environment, and level design.
- Documentation: Creating detailed narrative documents, such as story bibles, that outline the game’s narrative elements for other team members to reference.
- Editing and Revision: Revising and editing narrative content based on feedback from playtesters and other team members or to reflect changes in game design.
- Voice Direction: Sometimes, game writers are involved in the voice recording process, helping to direct actors to ensure they deliver lines in a way that fits the characters and scenes.
- Localization: Collaborating with localization teams to ensure the story and dialogues are accurately translated and culturally adapted for different regions.
- Quality Assurance: Participating in quality assurance testing to ensure the story elements work as intended and that there are no narrative inconsistencies or bugs.
- Marketing and PR: Assisting the marketing team by providing story insights, character information, or even writing marketing materials that help promote the game’s narrative aspects.
How writing video games differs from writing movie scripts and TV shows
The role of a screenwriter in video games can be quite comprehensive and requires a blend of creative writing, technical understanding, and collaborative skills to ensure that the story is seamlessly integrated into the interactive experience.
The technical aspects of writing for video games are one of the main areas where the job differs from writing for other genres – unless you’re a writer/director, of course, which might also require knowledge of things like camera angles and blocking.
Here, you can see how writing for video games differs from the other genres:
- Interactive Storytelling: Video game writers craft narratives adapting to player choices, requiring branching storylines and multiple endings.
- Gameplay Integration: They must integrate story elements with gameplay mechanics, ensuring that narrative and game design work together to create a cohesive experience.
- World-Building: Extensive world-building is often required, as games may feature expansive environments that players can explore.
- Character Interaction: Writing for games often involves creating dialogue and character interactions that can change based on player actions.
- Non-Linear Narratives: The non-linear nature of many games means writers must consider how story elements reveal themselves in a non-sequential manner.
- Collaborative Effort: Video game writers work closely with game designers, artists, and programmers to ensure the narrative is seamlessly integrated into the game’s mechanics.
- Continuous Content Creation: For games that receive ongoing updates, such as MMOs or live service games, writers may be required to create new content regularly to keep players engaged.
As you can see, screenwriters do much more than write dialogue and create characters. They are the masterminds of narrative, skillfully constructing the stories that capture audiences in television, movies, and video games.
Each platform requires specific skills—television writers focus on episodic storytelling and character development over long periods, movie writers concentrate on grand, complete stories, and video game writers craft interactive, branching tales.
Screenwriters must understand storytelling fundamentals and adapt to each format’s unique demands.
The storytelling principles stay the same across all media. Screenwriters must captivate their audience, create compelling characters, and keep a coherent plot, whether for TV, film, or digital games.
But if you’re good at adapting, moving from one medium to another is smooth, as you can rely on your creativity, flexibility, and deep knowledge of narrative structure.
I’ve focused on “the big three” genres for screenwriters in this article. But screenwriters’ skills go beyond entertainment.
In advertising fx, you can be tasked with writing commercials that connect with viewers emotionally and intellectually.
You can also bring your storytelling skills to comics and graphic novels, scripting the combination of text and imagery to produce engaging stories.
Screenwriters, the unsung heroes of the creative industry, use their keyboards to write the stories of our era.
You can’t produce a good TV show, feature film, or narrative-driven video game without one or more screenwriters.
End of story!