Screenwriting is one of the newest forms of writing. It remains one of the least explored areas of writing, and starting a script can be daunting for novice writers. The following is a step-by-step guide to each stage of the script writing process.
Before actually beginning your screenplay, determine the vital elements of the story. These are some tools to help refine your idea:
- Hook: A catchphrase that captures the vital essence of your story in roughly six words. Think of what would look good on a movie poster. The hook for Inception (2010) was “Your Mind is the Scene of the Crime.”
- Logline: A brief description of your story. Include the “who, what, when and where” of the story. One sentence is ideal, but be sure to use no more than three sentences. The logline for Edward Scissorhands (1990), for example, was: A suburban mother brings home a freaky young man who has scissors instead of hands.
- Premise: A premise goes a step beyond a logline. It describes a specific story that includes character and conflict.
- One Sheet: As the name suggests, this is a one-page (single spaced) summary of your script. A one sheet includes three elements: a logline (see above), a hook, and a synopsis. The logline is a brief description of the story, usually 1-2 sentences. The hook is the core concept of the film that will grab the audience’s attention; it should be no longer than one sentence. The synopsis is a three-paragraph summary of the major events that happen during the film.
- Treatment: A treatment is the final stage before beginning to outline your script, and it incorporates many of the prior elements. The treatment helps producers picture what the finished film will look like. A typical treatment includes a title, the writer’s contact information, a logline, a character list, a description of the setting, and a synopsis. Depending on the level of detail, a treatment can range from as short as five pages to as long as 20. Click here to view a treatment for an obscure sci-fi film.
A treatment is broken into five sections:
- Heading: The heading includes identifying information such as the project’s title, the writer’s name (or pen name/pseudonym), contact information, and, if the script has been registered with the Writers Guild of America (WGA), the WGA registration number.
- Logline: See definition above.
- Character List: A list of all of the major characters in the story. This can include the protagonist, the antagonist, and any supporting characters. For each entry, type the character’s name in ALL CAPS and provide a brief description – age, appearance, and defining character traits (“short fuse temper,” “childlike curiosity”, “graceful, regal bearing”, etc.).
- Setting: A two-paragraph description of who the story involves, what the story is about, when and where the story takes place, and why the story deserves to be told.
- Synopsis: A prose description of what happens in the story, from opening title to end credits.
After developing your story and characters, it is useful to outline each part of your script. Outlining makes it easier to look at the entire story and ensure that it flows smoothly.
- Film vs Television: Although they share some elements, film and television scripts are organized differently. Feature-length films are traditionally divided into three acts, and television episodes usually are split into five or six.
- Story building blocks: The smallest units of storytelling are “beats.” A beat denotes any event that occurs or any action a character takes. Beats combine to make scenes, scenes to make sequences, and sequences to make acts.
Make sure that each unit of your story, from scenes to acts, follows the pattern of:
- conflict (obstacle for the protagonist)
- complication (increasing attempts to overcome the obstacle), and
- resolution/twist (succeeding/failing to overcome said obstacle).
Make the outline as simple or detailed as you feel it should be. At the bare minimum, an outline should include the major beats for every act of the story.
All screenplays are written in a specific format. There are numerous software packages that will handle the formatting for you, and screenplay templates are available for download online. The industry standard software is Final Draft, but there are also free-to-use screenwriting programs, such as Celtx, available online.
- Slugline: A slugline provides information on when and where a scene takes place. It is composed of three parts: INT/EXT, location, and time of day. INT/EXT explains whether the scene takes place inside or outside. Writers typically use “DAY” or “NIGHT” for time of day, but more specific times such as “DAWN” or “DUSK” are also used sparingly. Sluglines are always written in ALL CAPS.
- Action Description: These paragraphs describe what the audience will see onscreen during a given scene.
- Do not include camera directions such as “pan left” or “zoom in.” Unless you are also directing the film, such decisions are left to the production team.
- Maintain present tense when writing action description.
- Avoid flat verbs like “thinks” or “seems,” and find external actions to express a character’s internal feelings. For example, instead of writing that a character “feels nervous,” you could say that he “shakes visibly.”
- Certain words, such as sound effects or important props, should be capitalized. Be sure to add frequent paragraph breaks and avoid large blocks of text; this makes it easier for the reader to follow along.
- Parentheticals: If a character is meant to say a line a certain way, or is performing an action while speaking his/her lines, include this information in parentheses directly below the character’s name. Use these sparingly; actors usually like to make their own choices as to how to deliver their lines.
- Transitions: In order to provide specific instructions to the film’s editor, include transitions in the right hand margin. These include editing-specific terminology such as FADE TO BLACK, DISSOLVE TO, CUT TO, etc. Like sluglines, transitions are always written in ALL CAPS. It is customary to begin scripts with FADE IN, and to end them with FADE OUT.
- Click here to view an example of a page written in typical screenplay format.
After You Write
Once the script is complete, your work has just begun. Here are some tips on how to improve a script once it is finished.
- Proofreading: Review the script for spelling and grammatical errors. Screenwriting is a competitive industry, and readers are constantly looking for excuses to not read any of the numerous scripts that end up on their desks. Scripts with too many errors may get tossed aside.
- Receiving Feedback: After proofreading, have someone else look over the script. A fresh pair of eyes may catch mistakes or identify plot holes (story elements that don’t add up) that you missed. Readers serve as your “practice audience,” and their reactions indicate how a real audience will receive your story.
You may ask your peers to give feedback on specific aspects of your script. Here are some example questions:
- “Is this a believable plot development?”
- “Does it make sense for the main character to react this way in this situation?”
- “Does the dialogue in this argument scene sound authentic?”
This is the most overlooked part of the writing process. Once your entire story is on the page, use these guidelines to help your script reach its maximum potential.
- Incorporating Notes: When receiving feedback from your peers, consider which suggestions will help you tell the story you want to tell. Some notes may fit better than others.
- Prepare for Multiple Drafts: The first draft often serves as a trial run for your story. Use subsequent drafts to improve on elements of your story and incorporate notes from your instructor and/or classmates.
Resources for Screenwriters
Here are some more resources for screenwriting:
- Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder
- Your Screenplay Sucks! by William A Akers
- Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee