Writing an original screenplay is no easy task. Before you start writing your script, it’s important to understand the basics of screenplay formatting. It’s only when you’ve understood these basics that you can get onto showcasing your writing flair. Irrespective of how innovative your premise is, a studio executive wouldn’t bother reading your script if it isn’t presented in the standard format.
Keeping this in mind, this article is designed to simplify the basic rules of scriptwriting and let you in on ways to refine your finished script. So, what is a script? A script or a screenplay is a written document in which the movement, expressions, and dialogues of characters are narrated. They can either be an original piece of writing or an adaptation of an existing piece of literature.
A spec script or a speculative script is written for a reader, not a director. It’s what will be presented to a studio or a Hollywood executive and is created solely by the screenwriter. It does not generally include camera direction or any form of technical advice to the crew. When a spec script is green-lit, it is converted into a shooting script. It’ll now include title shots, credits, and camera directions/angles for the director to read and process. The scripts you’ll find online are mostly shooting scripts. So, be aware of that when you’re using them as a reference to write your own spec script.
Why do you need a script?
A script acts as a blueprint for any movie or TV show. It contains the complete story, describes all the action in the film, and more importantly, provides an account of all the characters. Technical crews will rely on the script for camera direction while the art direction team will look into the script to get an understanding of how a backdrop must be designed. Apart from the technical crew, actors are also heavily reliant on the script to get a feel of the character and to memorize their dialogues. So, a script is the beating heart of film production that ensures that all departments know what needs to be done.
Step-by-step guide to writing your first script
1. Pick a theme
A theme is a central concept that a film is constructed upon. It’s what the audiences ultimately remember a movie by. So, think of a basic theme before fleshing out an idea for a script. Once you’re locked in on a theme, it becomes easier to think of the different possibilities that are worth exploring. Good vs evil, coming-of-age, love, reason vs faith are some of the most classic examples. Here are some more examples of movie themes in popular films.
2. Write a logline
A logline attempts to provide an insight into your story/screenplay in less than 50 words. Remember, it should have an emotional hook for the reader. A logline primarily comprises four major elements: an interesting protagonist, an inciting accident, their aspirations, and the central conflict. A good logline should grab the attention of a reader and immerse them into the world of your creation. Try to avoid using the names of the characters, instead describe them. Lay out the storyline clearly, but avoid giving away spoilers.
Most screenwriting competitions that serve as a platform to propel your writing career require a logline to be submitted. A great logline will help you get noticed among thousands of entries, thus providing you a competitive edge. It’s also what agents would make use of to pitch your script to production companies.
3. Film treatment
The next step to writing your script is to write a film treatment. It’s essentially a document that presents the idea of your script in the format of a short story. A film treatment generally includes the most important details of your feature like title, logline, plot summary, and character descriptions. The idea behind a film treatment is twofold. On one hand, you as a screenwriter have a road map to building a story, on the other, executives and agents have something to gauge your script by and help it get financed.
While the plot may vary from one movie to another, the basic structure remains the same. The basic structure of a script includes a beginning, a middle, and an end with key moments interspersed between them. So, when you’re writing a script, try to keep this structure in mind. Have a clear understanding of how your script will read from start to finish. It’s completely fine to deviate from the conventional three-act structure that serves your story, but it might be easier to stick to it for, at least, your first attempt.
Once you have a clear idea of the structure of your script, start working on fleshing out characters. They need to be dynamic and must be trying to achieve a central goal throughout the movie. Next, construct an antagonist who will pose a threat to the protagonist in achieving their goal. This need not always be another person/character. It could be an idea or even an event. The conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist will form the core of your plot. Read writer-director Sudhish Kamath’s guide to creating compelling screen characters.
An outline lists down all the major elements in the film. It was initially done on paper, but screenwriters today make use of index cards to make it simpler to view the events. Write each individual event in short, concise sentences and stick the index card onto the wall. Manipulating each event and figuring out a chronological sequence becomes easier. This will help save time and prevent you from going back to a specific page to find out what happened to a specific narrative thread.
7. Camera Angles
Camera angles aren’t always necessary to be included but may be deemed important if they’re integral to a particular scene. For instance, setting up for a big reveal.
8. First draft
Armed with all this information, you’re now ready to start working on your first draft. Try to set yourself a deadline and log your daily progress in a script diary. Always write in the present tense and avoid editing too much while you’re writing. The idea is to pen down all your ideas, so let the ideas flow organically. Your final draft should be somewhere between 90-120 pages.
This is where you try to fit your ideas and thoughts into a predetermined script template. There are some basic rules of script formatting that you’ll need to keep in mind. They are:
- Font: 12-point Courier
- Margins: 1.5 inch on the left, 1-inch on the right, and 1-inch margin on the top and bottom
- Maximum number of lines on a single page: 55 lines
- Page numbers: mentioned on the top right corner with a 0.5-inch margin from the top of the page
- Character names: must be in uppercase letters
- Dialogue block: should begin 2.5 inches from the left side of the page
10. Screenwriting software
A screenwriting software automatically arranges your writing according to the accepted format. The use of such applications lets you focus more on the writing without having to worry about the cumbersome rules of formatting. Final Draft and Studiobinder are some of the examples of such screenwriting software programs. These programs are used by screenwriters across the globe.
What to do once you’ve finished writing your script?
Now that you have your script ready, it’s time to test the waters. Seek opinion from friends, family members or people you can trust to give you an unbiased, honest feedback. Ask them about what particular things in the script worked for them and try to identify why they might not have liked some of the other things.
Rewrite (if you need to)
You can also make use of script doctors to keep refining your script. Rewrite bits that you think need further revision. Be your own critic. Don’t be afraid or overwhelmed to rewrite. Remember, it gets you one step closer to turning your script into a film.
Submit to screenwriting contests
When you’re happy with the changes you’ve made, try submitting your script to screenwriting competitions. They happen throughout the year and help you assess where you stand as a screenwriter. Professionals who’ve worked in the industry for several years will be reading your script and giving you valuable feedback. Apart from all the cash prizes waiting to be won, they, more importantly, give you a chance to pitch your winning script to production companies. Winning a screenwriting competition also helps you to build a profile while increasing visibility.
Hopefully, we’ve answered some of your obvious questions such as ‘how to write a film script’ or ‘how long it might take to write one.’ The idea of putting together your first full-bound script might seem daunting at times, but the process becomes a lot simpler when you begin to understand the basics of screenwriting. The key to becoming a good screenwriter over time is to read as many screenplays as you can. Watching the movie after you’re done reading the script will give an insight into how words from a script transform into a shot on film. Books from accomplished screenwriters might also be a good place to start. Here are a few to help you get cracking:
- Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder
- Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee
- Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field
- Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman
- Screenwriters on Screenwriting: The Best in Business Discuss their Craft by Joel Engel
- From Script to Screen by Linda Seger