Writing a screenplay is an extremely rewarding process, but it’s not an easy task. It takes a serious amount of time and dedication to develop a good screenplay, and if your goal is to sell it, completing a first draft is only the beginning. You’ll have to refine the story, often with several more drafts, get an agent, submit your script to studios and producers, and have someone like it enough to risk a substantial amount of money to buy it. Unless, of course, you’re planning to finance and produce it yourself.
Each year, the major Hollywood studios purchase a combined 100-200 original screenplays. When you consider that somewhere between 25,000 and 50,000 new screenplays are registered with the WGA every year, it’s easy to see how difficult the task actually is. But, don’t be discouraged. Most people don’t invest enough time learning how to develop a good screenplay; they just try and write one. By dedicating yourself to the craft, your screenplays will start out well ahead of the pack. There are a few steps to follow when developing and writing your screenplay. Remember, though, there are no real rules, so they can happen in any order, or not at all. It’s up to the story, and ultimately you.
Step 1: Craft a Logline
A logline is a brief summary of your story, usually no more than a single sentence, that describes the protagonists and their goal, as well as the antagonists and their conflict. The protagonist is the hero/main character of the story, while the antagonist is the villain/bad guy/opposing force. The goal of a logline is to convey both the premise of your story and its emotional undertones. What is the story about? What is the style? How does it feel?
In the old days, the logline was printed on the spine of the screenplay. This allowed producers to get a quick feel for the story, so they could decide whether to invest the time into reading it or not. Today, the logline serves the same purpose, although it’s usually communicated verbally, or included with a treatment.
Step 2: Write a Treatment
A treatment is a longer 2-5 page summary that includes the title of your screenplay, the logline, a list of main characters, and a short synopsis. Like loglines, treatments are mostly used for marketing purposes. A producer may read a treatment first before deciding if the script is worth their time.
The synopsis should highlight the main beats and turning points of your story. Anyone who reads it should get a very good idea of the story, the characters, and the style. They should learn enough to feel empathy for the characters and want to follow them on their journey to see how it plays out. Writing a treatment also gives you the opportunity to view your story as a whole and see how it reads on the page, and it can help you understand what’s working versus what needs work before you dive into the details of writing each scene. Since your treatment will be used to market your screenplay, be sure to include your name and contact info, too.
Step 3: Develop Your Characters
Think about the story you want to tell. What’s it about? Do you know the theme yet? Create characters who will contrast the central question, and who will have to undergo a major transformation to answer it. There are plenty of character profile worksheets online that can be helpful in bringing your characters personalities to life. Two that I’ve found to be helpful are here and here.
The most important thing when developing your characters is that you make them empathetic and interesting. Even the bad guy should have a reason he’s bad, although it may be unjustified.
Step 4: Plot and Outline
Break your story down into its narrative-arc components and map out every scene beat by beat. I know a number of writers who use flash cards or notebooks for this. Personally, I use Trello for outlining my screenplays. I create a board for each script, then I make a list for each of the narrative-arc components, with a card for each scene. On each card, I make a checklist of the story beats and write notes about the characters or plot.
Do whatever works for you. The goal is to plot out your story. The more detailed you make your outline, the less time you’ll waste down the road. As you plot, keep in mind that tension drives a story. Building and releasing tension is key to keeping the audience engaged and driving the story forward. When hope is faced with fear, tension is created. This is what forces the hero to change.
Step 5: Write a First Draft
Using your outline as a map, write your script scene by scene, including the dialogue and descriptive action. The first ten pages of a screenplay are the most critical. A reader or producer usually has a ton of scripts flying across their desk and they don’t have time to read them all. They’ll give a screenplay ten pages to pull them in. If the script has interesting characters and the proper structure elements, they’ll likely continue reading. If not, it’s going in the trash.
The screenplay is a unique format of writing. While it’s true that there are a number of elements common to any story regardless of medium, screenwriting is different in that every word of descriptive action must be written in present tense and describe something the audience can see or hear.
Although typewriters and word processors work just fine, I suggest investing in software that will do the formatting for you. Hollywood follows a fairly strict format when it comes to screenplays. While this can cause quite a bit of confusion, it was more of a problem in the past. Modern screenwriting software makes it a very easy process. The most commonly used apps include Final Draft, Movie Magic Screenwriter, and Adobe Story.
Don’t stop and go back to fix dialogue or update action description until you’ve written the screenplay all the way through. Then you can go back through it, tear it apart, and rebuild it. Don’t be too self-critical during the first draft. Just write.
Step 6: Step Back and Take a Break
Once you finish a first draft, it’s a great idea to relax a bit and take your mind off of it. That way when you finally do come back to it, you can read it with a fresh set of eyes.
Step 7: Rewrite
Now that you have a completed draft, you have a much better picture of your story as a whole. Go back and refine the action, tighten the dialogue, and edit the script. Chances are you will have to do this more than once. When creating a final version, using more white space on your pages is better. It’s easier to read and seems quicker to get through. When a producer has to read multiple scripts a day, it’s discouraging to see a script filled with pages of dense action description and long monologues.
Overall, writing a screenplay is a difficult task — one that takes sacrifice and a dedication to the craft. In the end, it’s a rewarding process, in which you get to create characters and watch them come to life as they make choices to navigate the obstacle course you’ve placed before them. Take some time to study the craft, and your script will be done in no time.
For more in-depth tips on learning to write a screenplay, there are a handful of books considered by most industry professionals to be must-reads for any aspiring screenwriter. Each one offers valuable insight into a different aspect of developing a story, creating interesting characters, and crafting a thoughtfully motivated screenplay. These include Screenplay by Syd Field, Story by Robert McKee, The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri, and Save the Cat by Blake Snyder.