In a nutshell

  • Screenwriting requires adherence to rules and procedures despite being a creative medium.
  • Screenplays for film and television share the same formatting but follow different story structures.
  • The majority of screenplays follow a three-act structure that consists of the Setup, the Confrontation and the Resolution.

Let’s get one thing straight — writing a screenplay isn’t easy, even for seasoned professionals. Despite being a creative medium, there are a lot of rules and procedures you need to follow when screenwriting. Still, there’s no reason to believe you can’t write a good script. It’s possible. However, you must work through the process with deliberate execution and keep revising until your script becomes what you envision.

Here, we will run through all the steps of writing a screenplay. We’ll cover the basics and explore everything you need to know about the craft. We also dive into the various career paths available to you as a screenwriter.

Let’s begin.

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Screenwriting defined: Drafting the magic

Screenwriting is the act of writing a screenplay or script for either a film or a television show. 

Although screenplays for film and television share the same formatting, they follow different story structures. Film screenplays have a clear beginning, middle and end. TV show screenplays are episodic. Episodes have their own self-contained stories; all of them work to advance the overarching narrative. Although a standalone script for a television episode is typically shorter than a film screenplay, television shows often have more time to explore subplots and develop characters over time. Aside from film franchises, films build their characters and subplots within a single script.

The three-act structure

The majority of screenplays follow what’s known as a three-act structure. The three-act structure always consists of a beginning, middle, and end, or Act One, Act Two and Act Three. Let’s review each act.

Act One: The Setup

Act One is known as the setup. It includes exposition to establish where the story takes place and introduces the plot’s protagonist. Additionally, Act One contains the inciting incident or the call to action. This is what sets the plot into motion. For example, the inciting incident in “The Matrix” (1999) is when Morpheus offers Neo the blue or red pill: a choice to live in the real world or remain in a fake, content simulation. Act One should end with a major plot point leading into Act Two.

Act Two: The Confrontation

Act Two is by far the longest act out of the three. Here, Act Two contains the majority of what happens in the film. It contains most of the protagonist’s challenges throughout their character arc. There are various approaches you can take in Act Two; it all depends on your narrative. However, to ensure your screenplay is gripping, you must include setbacks for your protagonist to face. Whether they are victorious or not depends on you.

Referring back to “The Matrix,” the film’s Act Two starts after Neo decides to take the red pill and ends near the end of the film when the agents capture Morpheus and Neo chooses to attempt to rescue him.

Act Three: The Resolution

Act Three resolves the plot and delivers the payoff to the suspense Act Two builds. Often there is a pre-climax event to challenge the protagonist before a final confrontation resolves the story. Then, the protagonist’s story arc in the film is complete, having changed due to the trials they faced throughout the plot.

“The Matrix” teases the audience with a pre-climax by showing Neo shot and killed by Agent Smith. However, with Trinity’s expression of love, he accepts his destiny and rises to save the day. Act Three concludes with Neo explaining to the machines and the audience what the new world looks like to him.

Pacing

The duration of each act will vary depending on the running time of the screenplay. However, Act Two should take up most of the story — around 50-60 percent on average. Act One and Act Three should each form around 20 percent of your screenplay.

The process of screenwriting

Starting your screenplay

The earliest stage of screenwriting is initial brainstorming about what you want your screenplay to be about. At this point, you will likely just have a collection of themes, topics or events you want to form a narrative around.

Once you know what you want to write about, it’s time to make a logline. A logline describes your story in one to two sentences and entices people to learn more. As an exercise, try to write your logline in as few words as possible. The fewer words you use to describe your story, the more clearly you will understand your screenplay’s most important plot points.

Creating the characters

After the logline, it’s time to develop the story’s characters. At this stage, it’s common to have at least a few characters in mind. It’s here you want to flesh them out. Shape them to fulfill the story you defined in the logline and give them goals they want to achieve. Also, regardless of what kind of movie you’re trying to make, your characters need a conflict or challenge to overcome. Their goals and how they work towards them will give meaning to the plot. An uninteresting protagonist can undermine even the most compelling plot, so it’s crucial to craft well-rounded characters with clear goals and challenges to overcome.

Writing an outline

Next, we have the outline phase. Here, screenwriters will have a lot of ideas and need to fit them together to make a cohesive plotline. Writing an outline is similar to completing a puzzle mixed with other random puzzle pieces. You have all your ideas laid out, and you have to figure out which pieces fit together and set aside the ones that don’t work.

Your outline should break down every important plot point in the story. Furthermore, it should break them down in the order they appear in the storyline. This keeps things organized and easy to follow. Screenplay writers have to think about plot structure and pacing as well. Some decide to stick with the traditional three-act structure. However, some shake things up with their story structure. For beginners, we recommend sticking to a three-act structure because of its simplicity.

Making a treatment

Once the outline is written, it’s time to start filling in the details. While the outline summarizes the story, the treatment dives deeper. A treatment summarizes the plot, highlighting the most important information about the project, such as its title, character descriptions, and plot summary. It also includes the screenwriter’s logline. Essentially, treatments help the screenwriter determine if the narrative works before investing their time in writing the script. Studio executives and producers also look at treatments to decide if they want to finance the project.

Writing the first draft

Formatting

There is a standard format that all screenplays follow. Here’s a basic breakdown of the format you should follow when writing your script:

Font:

  • Use Courier font at size 12
  • Use single spacing

Margins:

  • Left side of the page: 1.5-inch margin
  • Right side of the page: 1-inch margin
  • Top of the page: 1-inch margin
  • Bottom of the page: 1-inch margin

Document setup:

  • Put the page numbers in the top right corner using a 0.5-inch margin
  • Do not number the first page

Elements:

Scene heading Scene headings indicate a change in location and time. Every single scene change needs to start with a scene heading. This makes scene changes clear to whoever reads the script.

To create a scene heading, begin the heading with prefixes like INT., EXT., and INT/EXT. Those abbreviations are short for “INTERIOR” and “EXTERIOR.” Screenwriters use these prefixes to indicate when the frame cuts to a different setting. Also, always capitalize scene heading prefixes.

For example, say you write a scene inside the Oval Office in the White House at night. You would write it as:

INT. WHITE HOUSE OVAL OFFICE – NIGHT

Subheader – Like scene headings, subheaders mark minor location changes. For example, if your characters walk out of their school library into the hallway.

Action – This section describes what is happening in the scene. Align action descriptions with your scene headings.

Character name – For dialogue, put the name of the character about to speak above their lines. You want to center character names on the page. If the character is speaking off-screen, you want to indicate that with (V.O.). This stands for voice-over.

So, in practice, say your main character, Emily is speaking on screen. You would write her name simply as: EMILY. If Emily is speaking off screen, you would write: EMILY (V.O.).

Dialogue – This is what a character is saying verbally. Position all dialogue boxes 2.5 inches from the left border.

Parenthetical – These are mini-scene descriptions written between a character’s name and their dialogue. Use these sparingly to describe important action or emotion that should accompany a piece of dialogue. Place parentheticals underneath character names.

Shot – The shot communicates what angle the camera’s at and if there’s any camera movement. Only include this information if it is vital to the meaning of the scene.

How long should it be?

The accepted rule is that one page of a screenplay equates to one minute of screen time. So, for a 90-minute feature film, screenwriters need to write 90 pages. In the case of television shows broadcast on cable, while the program runs for 60 minutes, the actual show is only 45 minutes once you account for commercials. So, in this case, you would write 45 pages.

Reviewing

After the first draft of the screenplay’s finished, we advise setting it aside. This allows you to clear your mind and come back with fresh eyes when reviewing. It’s easier to catch issues with a fresh perspective. And likely, there will be at least a few issues; it’s a first draft. Even professionals write multiple versions of their scripts. It’s part of the process.

The best way to review a screenplay is to first read it from start to finish without taking notes. This way, screenwriters get a feel for the pacing. Next, screenwriters should do another review and take notes before editing.

Rewrites and edits

This is when screenwriters revise to tighten up dialogue, fix pacing issues, or even rewrite the entire draft. There’s no set number for how many rewrites you should do. Often, the answer is as many rewrites as necessary.

Throughout the rewriting process, screenwriters review and rewrite their work multiple times. This is an effective practice to ensure the rewrites fix the issues found during the previous review. It’s also crucial to have others review the work and provide honest feedback.

Jobs in screenwriting

Most screenwriters will work as freelancers; however, some larger television shows employ writers as part of a writers’ room. This is a pool of writers who work collaboratively to develop screenplays for a television show.

Speculative screenwriting

Speculative screenwriters write a screenplay that they later hope to sell. They write what’s called a spec script, a script that the screenwriter wrote without being paid to do so.

Most aspiring screenwriters write spec scripts. However, unfortunately, very few spec scripts are actually bought by major film and television studios. This is why some filmmakers choose to create their films independently.

Commissioned screenwriting

Commissioned screenwriters are hired to write a screenplay. In this scenario, a production company will have a concept in mind and need a screenwriter to create the script.

Feature assignment

Feature assignments are similar to commissioned scripts; however, they give the screenwriter more freedom. Companies will commission a screenwriter to create the concept and write the script. Some will hire screenwriters to create a page-one rewrite, which means writing a brand-new draft. They may hire screenwriters to polish a screenplay as well.

Summing it all up

Writing a screenplay isn’t easy, but it can be quite rewarding to see what you wrote realized on the big screen. The best way to learn how to write a script is by doing it yourself. So, brainstorm some ideas and get to screenwriting.

Pete Tomkies is a freelance cinematographer and camera operator from Manchester, UK. He also produces and directs short films as Duck66 Films. Pete's latest short Once Bitten... won 15 awards and was selected for 105 film festivals around the world.