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Beginner’s Guide to Writing a Screenplay

If you’re looking to turn your creative idea into something that could be adapted into a play or movie, then you should consider screenwriting or movie scriptwriting.

In this article, I’ll tell you how to write a screenplay or a movie script, whichever name you choose to refer to it. This will include how to format a screenplay and the main elements of screenwriting.

What is a Screenplay?

A screenplay, also known as a movie script, is the written work used for a film, television show, or stage production. Generally speaking, a screenplay refers to the movie in a written format specifically used in the film industry and a script is a term used for theatre work. However, the two terms are interchangeable.

A screenplay is different from other writing, such as fiction novel writing, as movement, actions, and expressions are all denoted along with the dialogue. The scenes are also usually described in between dialogue in a way the camera would see them.

For example, you may see something written in a script like, “as the camera rises, we see a mob of women running towards us”. It describes how the viewer will see it on screen, rather than asking the reader to picture it in their head.

What are the Main Differences Between a Novel and a Screenplay?

  1. How Long it Is – This is one of the major differences between a screenplay vs. writing a novel. Writing prose is very detailed. It has to paint a picture for the reader and usually does that with many aesthetic details. When you write a screenplay, it’s important to ask yourself often if the story is visually adaptable to be on film. It can’t be too long. The average feature-length screenplay is around 120 pages, give or take. Therefore, you will have to accomplish character development, settings, plot points, and much more quickly.
  2. The Focus on Dialogue – Dialogue is central to screenplay writing. When you’re writing a novel, your character will be able to express internal thoughts. You’ll also be able to set the scene and describe it in detail. The opposite is actually needed in screenwriting. There is no internal dialogue and therefore the scene and the character’s feelings will have to come across in the form of actions or visible displays of emotions. A common trap most writers fall into is making their dialogue too “on the nose”. While sometimes it may go unnoticed in novels, within a screenplay that ends up on screen it stands out like a sore thumb and turns people off.
  3. Budget Constraints – When writing a novel, the sky is really the limit. You can send your characters anywhere and do whatever is needed to develop the plot. In contrast, when you write a screenplay, you must take budget constraints into consideration.  If there are a lot of special effects needed such as explosions, car crashes, robots, etc., it may lessen the chances of your screenplay being accepted. While it may be good, it will just read as being very expensive to a producer.
  4. Formatting Differences – Novels are usually written with or without an outline and as free-flow writing that is later edited. Screenplays are written in a tighter format. Generally, screenwriting software is used to make this process easier. However, keep reading below and we’ll explain how to format a screenplay.

Start With an Idea for Your Screenplay

A popular question most writers ask when starting out is “How do I come up with ideas for my story?”

Here’s a quick tip:

  1. Make a list of the movies you like the most.
  2. Maybe a list of your top ten of all time.
  3. Write them down and categorize them based on genre.
  4. Try to write a brief one or two sentence summary saying what each movie is about.

Now really think about why each of them are on that list. Remember which parts you liked the most and start writing down your own ideas. You can start small, like “A movie about a boy who sees ghosts.” or “A movie about the city’s most honest cop and how he became it’s worst villain.”

From there you build on that basic concept. Who is this boy? Who is this cop? What’s his story? Who or what is the villain? What is his overall goal? What stands in the way of his goals?

Alternatively you can read some of the best screenplays in Hollywood and watch the movies. Try to understand what made those movies work so well on paper and on the big screen.

When you can answer these types of basic questions with interesting answers you’ll find you have enough to get started writing your story.

Before you start the screenplay, write the logline

A log line is a brief one or two sentence summary of your story. Think of this as your elevator pitch whenever someone asks you what your movie is about. If a studio executive were to ask you to pitch your movie then the log line is what you would start with.

Aside from this being your elevator pitch, the main advantage of starting with your log line is that it will keep you on track while you’re writing your screenplay. The main thing you want to include in your log line is:

  1. Identifying who your protagonist is
  2. Defining what their goal is
  3. Identifying the antagonist or villain who stands in the way

I won’t go into details on how to write a log line because I’ve already made a blog post going in depth and written an e-book that dives even deeper. Check out those links in the description below.

If you’re unclear on the screenplay direction, write a story treatment

Think of a story treatment as your first sketch. They’re typically about two to five pages, but can be as long or as short as you want. The purpose is to just get your thoughts down on paper so you can establish how the events in your story will flow.

You can include snippets of dialogue if you come up with some key things you want to include in the story so you don’t forget, but keep in mind your focus is on just writing an overall summary of your movie. It’s not a scene-by-scene story summary you’re writing either. You’ll only focus on a few of your main characters and the key events that take place in your story.

Since all great screenplays have a beginning, a middle and an end — start by writing one page double spaced that focuses on each act. The first act you’ll focus on setting up the story, getting the audience’s attention and introducing your main characters.

The second act is the middle part and this is where you’ll complicate your protagonist’s situation and elevate all the conflict until it reaches a crisis point. Finally, in your third act you’ll focus on resolving the conflict and hopefully give us a satisfying ending.

Write an outline if you want to define specifics before writing

If you want to skip writing a treatment then you may want to consider writing an outline. An outline is where you can get into the specifics of what kind of scenes will happen at certain points of your story. Even though a screenplay is considered the blueprint of a movie before it’s produced, you can think of an outline as the blueprint of the screenplay.

Writing an outline can be as simple as just writing “Act 1” and a bulleted list of events that happen for each scene. Do the same for “Act 2” and “Act 3” and when you’re done you’ll have your outline.

This is a great way to have a bird’s eye view of each scene that happens in your story. An old tactic that’s still useful is writing each scene of your movie on index cards so you can easily move them around as you see fit.

Here’s how a typical screenplay may be structured. Consider thinking through these areas while writing your treatment or outline.

  1. Opening image – the first image we see when the movie starts. Sometimes it is symbolic of the theme or plot. Sometimes it’s just a cool opening scene. 
  2. Inciting Incident – usually happens around the 10 to 15 page mark. This is something that happens to your main hero that knocks his life out of whack in some way or changes the course of his life. In the movie War of the Worlds starring Tom Cruise this is the part of the movie where the the aliens make their introduction and begin killing everyone for the first time.
  3. Big Event or First Act Break – this is the part of the movie where the hero has to choose to accept a mission or has to make a huge choice for his or her life. Usually happens around the 25-30 page mark.
  4. Midpoint – this is what it sounds like. Usually at the 55-60 page mark and this is when the tables turn for your hero. If he’s been kicking butt and taking names up until this point then this is where he suffers a huge setback. If he’s been losing up until this point this could be where he comes up with a plan that will ultimately set him on the path to happiness.
  5. Climax – By now the hero has gathered all of his resources and puts his plan into action. Things get heated at this point. Whatever flaws your hero has started out with, this is the point where he has overcome them. If your hero was always afraid of heights, this may be the scene where he is fighting the antagonist on the roof of a skyscraper and it’s do or die.
  6. Resolution – this is where the hero gets to enjoy the fruits of his labor. Or maybe not if you have a not so happy ending. You want to leave the reader or viewer with a certain feeling and this is the final scene where you will do that.

How do you format a screenplay?

Formatting a screenplay isn’t difficult but it can seem a bit intimidating at first glance. Don’t worry though, just follow the general outline below to get started. Once you begin, you’ll find that it starts to become second nature.

Guide for Formatting a Screenplay:

  • Use Courier font set at size 12.
  • Set a 1.5-inch margin on the left side of the page.
  • Set a 1-inch margin on the right, top, and bottom of the page.
  • When writing, the dialogue block should start 2.5 inches from the left side of the page.
  • All character names should be written in capital letters and set 3.7 inches from the left side of the page.
  • The first page of your screenplay should not be numbered. The following pages should be numbered on the top right of the page with a 0.5-inch margin. The page numbers should be followed by a period, i.e., 1., 2., 3., etc.
  • Each page should have roughly 55 lines from start to finish.

Of course, if you just buy screenwriting software then you don’t have to worry about ANY of this because it’ll be formatted for you automatically.

What’s the best screenwriting software?

To be completely honest — whichever one you can afford that has the ability to convert your script to a pdf format. Seriously, nobody cares if you used Final Draft, Celtix, Movie Magic or whatever other software people debate about for hours on the writing forums. The only thing that matters is your story. If the story sucks — you’ll never even get to homebase where it’s a discussion.

I use Final Draft, only because it’s the first and only screenwriting software I have known. Sure, it’s considered industry standard and costs a bit more than the others out there, but you should really just get whatever fits your budget. I don’t even use half the features that come with the software (although I do love that you can create draggable index cards when creating a beat sheet).

If your screenplay ever gets optioned or purchased then producers most likely will want the Final Draft format. If you use something else up until a pending sale happens then you’ll be just fine and converting it over will be the least of your worries.

What are the main screenwriting elements?

The Scene Heading

Scene headings, also known as slug lines, explain the “when” and “where” to the reader. It is written all in capital letters and is included each time the story moves to a different place.

Example: EXT.  COFFEE SHOP –  NEW YORK –  MORNING

In the above example “EXT.” means it’s an exterior location. The next part describes the general location and the time of day.

From this scene heading we can conclude the camera is outside.

Also, never end a page using a scene heading. Make sure to move the heading to the next page.

Subheading

Subheadings, also called subheaders, are simply used to make the screenwriter’s life easier when a scene takes place all at one location. For example, if the scene were in just one house, it will become cumbersome to keep writing things like “MAGGIE’S HOUSE – EVENING”  and then “MAGGIE’S BEDROOM – EVENING” every time the characters move from one room to the next within the same location. Therefore, in scenes like this, subheadings are used.

Example: Simply write “BEDROOM”, “KITCHEN”, “BATHROOM”, etc. in place of the entire scene heading.

Writing Action Lines in Your Screenplay

Action lines follow the scene heading and set the scene for the reader. This should be as short and as concise as possible. The purpose of action lines are to show the actions happening in the scene, describe the location and also describe the characters when we first get introduced to them.

A great rule of thumb to keep in mind is that each action line represents a single camera shot. So unless you have a long drawn out action sequence, it’s better to keep them to no more than three to four lines at most.

Example: If the scene heading was the same as above, a busy New York coffee shop, the action lines could read as follows, “The camera pans down on Sarah who is trying to leave the shop in a hurry but bumps into a handsome man on her way out and drops her drink to the floor.”

Also, screenplays are written in present tense so you’ll want to avoid writing sentences like Corey is laying on the couch or Johnny is running in the park.

Instead, make sure to use more of an active voice in present tense such as Corey slumps over on the couch or Johnny sprints through the park. This will give the reader a more clear visual of the action that is taking place.

Character

When you introduce a character for the first time, you should write their name in capitals, reference their age, and explain some brief details about them and their personality in order to introduce them to the reader. This is usually done after the scene heading when a new character is presented.

Example: MICHAEL (32), disheveled clothes and messy hair. Looks tired and agitated. Has a cell phone in one hand and a newspaper in the other.

How to Write Dialogue

Dialogue is written underneath each character that is speaking it. It is the backbone of a screenplay and should take a lot of thought and consideration. Think about your character and how they are.

Imagine there were no character headings above the dialogue, would the reader be able to tell who was talking? Try to think about that as you’re writing. Each character should be unique and display their personality in their dialogue.

Using Parentheticals with Dialogue

Parentheticals with dialogue allow for an action to be written into the wording. Think about it as being used by the actor on how to read the dialogue.

Using parentheticals with dialogue can allow you to input small actions or change the mood of the scene with just a few words and without having to move to an action line.

Example: 

SARAH

(spills her coffee)

Well, that was the last thing I needed today!

(turns to Michael, sighs)

Wake me up when today is over.

Transitions

Transitions allow a writer to quickly move from one scene to another. They aren’t as common as they used to be but there are still two that are still often seen, these are “CUT TO:” and “FADE TO:”. This is just a direction for the visual transition of a scene.

Example: 

MAGGIE’S HOUSE – EVENING – BEDROOM

We open in a dark room, with only a lamp to light the bedside. Maggie sits in the dark, reading a mysterious book with no cover.

CUT TO:

MAGGIE’S HOUSE – EVENING – EXTERIOR

Insert

When you use the INSERT element (which is sometimes referred to as a CUTAWAY) it’s because you are trying to bring something small into full frame for the audience to see. You’ll use this when you are trying to highlight something of importance.

INT. SILVER PORSCHE – NIGHT

Sammy pulls over to the side of the dirt road. He struggles to pull himself together, until something in the passenger seat catches his attention — a cell phone that flashes.

INSERT – CELL PHONE that’s stained with blood and an incoming text from Martha.

He gazes down at his hands and sees — even more blood.

In the above scene we’re inside of a Porsche and when the character looks at his phone we get a clear look at his bloody cell phone and whoever it is texting him. We basically are seeing what he sees at this moment.

Shots & POV

Shots describe to a reader how the focal length has changed within a scene. This is most often used to denote a certain character’s point of view or a particular scene-setting.

This is one of those things where you should try to avoid as much as possible as a screenwriter, because it’s going to be up to the director and the director of photography to plan out how they want to shoot any given scene.

When it is used, it should be formatted as a subheading.

Example: 

MAGGIE’S HOUSE – EVENING – BEDROOM

We open in a dark room, with only a lamp to light the bedside. Maggie sits in the dark, reading a mysterious book with no cover.

MAGGIE’S POV

Maggie looks down at the worn pages of a photo album.

Other examples of shots are:

  • ANGLE ON
  • EXTREME CLOSE UP
  • PAN TO
  • CLOSE ON
  • AERIAL SHOT
  • PULL BACK
  • PULL FOCUS
  • PUSH IN
  • REVERSE ANGLE
  • PAN (UP, DOWN, LEFT, RIGHT)
  • ZOOM
  • TIGHT ON

How long should your screenplay be?

This is a common question and the common answer used to be that the industry standard was 120 pages in length. I personally never followed that rule because a lot of the genre scripts that I write always seem to be able to be done within 90-110 pages which seems to be the norm these days in the industry by a lot of execs.

Now of course you can go find examples of outliers who have sold screenplays much longer or much shorter than that, but there’s a reason why those examples aren’t considered the norm. Also if those scripts didn’t start out as specs then it’s apple and oranges anyway.

If Tarantino writes a screenplay with 140 pages and calls it Django, obviously that doesn’t benefit you in a debate about why you should be able to sell a 120 page screenplay based on whatever.

Typically when readers or execs see a script over 120 pages then their first impression is the writer may have an unfocused idea or simply doesn’t know how to tell an effective story under two hours.

Maybe the writer has completely overwritten the story. Or maybe the screenplay is one gigantic brain fart that the writer hasn’t bothered to have edited or done any additional drafts on in order to keep it as lean as possible.

The average audience member has a short attention span. Let’s just be honest. I will admit even I get impatient after a certain amount of time in the theater despite watching something that’s got me on the edge of my seat.

On the flip side, if your story is well under 90 pages then the first impression is that the story is thin. Maybe this writer isn’t seasoned enough to tell a complete story effectively.

Maybe this writer is just another “idea guy” who doesn’t know how to effectively flesh things out into a compelling story. Just like anything, first impressions matter. When someone flips through your screenplay to see how long or short it is these are the things they start to look for.

What you should focus on when writing your story is that you have told a very entertaining, intriguing or compelling story in the best way possible. If your page count comes up short then it’s possible you haven’t fleshed out the idea enough. Or, if you’ve overwritten your story then there’s probably a lot of places where you can cut the fat.

Focus on mastering the principles of dramatic writing and the basics as well. Things like knowing what types of things should happen within your given genre, pacing, story structure and dialogue will help you when it’s actually time to write FADE IN and FADE OUT.

How many minutes on screen does one page represent?

Have you ever wondered how the dialogue you read from a screenplay actually plays out when a movie star has to actually say and perform it?

The rule of thumb has always been “every page of a screenplay equates to one minute of screen time”, but it’s not a hard and fastened rule of course.

A lot depends on how an actor delivers the line in conjunction with whatever else is happening in the scene. There are beats between lines to adhere to, they also have to take into consideration the mood as well as whoever else is in that scene and how they deliver their lines as well.

Just because you have several paragraph blocks of dialogue on a page and YOU can read them out loud to yourself in under a minute doesn’t mean that’s how the director will get the best performance from that scene.

Protect your screenplay after you finish it

Once you’ve finished writing your screenplay make sure you legally protect it before sending it out to be read. For obvious reasons you’ll want to either copyright your script with the Library of Congress, register it with the WGA or both.

I made an entire video on this topic and you can see it here, but my advice is to skip the WGA registration and just copyright with the Library of Congress. If you want to know why then make sure to watch that video.

Jay

About Jay

Jay Carver is a screenwriter, director and producer. Through his production company J-Style Films, he has done work for companies such as Turner Broadcasting. In the past, he has worked with Hollywood actor Omari Hardwick and won several film festivals including "Best Director".

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