How to Write a Movie Script: The Basics of This Storytelling Craft
Every Screenwriter asks the question of how to write a movie script at some point in their careers. Because the truth is that there is no one tried-and-true formula that will work every time for every Writer.
Yes, there is a specific format for screenplays, as we will discuss. And yes, there’s even a three-act structure that most script experts recommend following when writing a screenplay. But how to write a movie script also involves individual voice, imagination, and innovation, which is why even the most practiced Screenwriters may question themselves from time to time.
The good news is that by learning the basics of this storytelling craft, such as format and story structure, an aspiring Screenwriter can immediately put themselves in a better position to get their work noticed and career ignited. And that’s exactly what we will explain how to do!
In our discussion of how to write a movie script, we’ll cover:
- Knowing the difference between a movie script and other storytelling mediums
- Movie script formatting
- Three act structure
- Creating conflict
Movie Script vs. Other Storytelling Mediums
But first, what exactly is a movie script?1 Plenty of people have heard the term thrown around in conversation, but why do screenplays exist? Especially when so many films are made from existing intellectual property such as graphic novels, books, and even newspaper articles, why aren’t those storytelling mediums used for making a movie?
Well, let’s take a look at one of the most successful adaptations in cinema—that of the Harry Potter books. As a whole, the series clocks in just under 20 hours of viewing time. Consider then just how long the films would be if the source material, which between all the books is approximately 4,000 pages, had been used instead of a script that hovers around 120 pages per movie. How to write a movie script is critical, as in many cases the source material needs to be condensed to fit the length of a film.2 Alternately, a 500-word newspaper article might make a great jumping-off point for a film, but it’s hardly enough material to sustain a two-hour movie. However, that’s when the talent of a Screenwriter can be utilized by fleshing out that article and making it an interesting story for the screen.
But even in the absence of source material, a screenplay is fundamental to the filmmaking process. Just as Architects require blueprints for the construction of a building, so too do filmmakers need scripts to create a film. As we’re about to dive into, a movie script entails very specific formatting that can not only describe for a reader what is happening in the story but also reveal to a Director, Cinematographer or other entertainment professional the key elements necessary for it to be made into a movie.
Movie Script Formatting & Its Importance
A movie script is unlike any other type of storytelling format, as it is meant to be both understood via the written word and ultimately translated into the visual and audio medium of film. For those reasons, the way in which a screenplay is written is extremely specific with clearly defined elements, such as scene headings, action lines, and dialogue.3These are just a few of the most common script elements, but make no mistake, anyone intent on becoming a Screenwriter should take the time and energy to learn thoroughly what each element is and how it should be used in a screenplay. For now, it’s important to simply take note that these elements constitute the foundation of how to write a movie script.
A brief explanation of why these elements are necessary breaks down to this: Each succinctly tells the reader what is happening in a particular scene, and for the filmmakers who intend to turn the screenplay into a movie, what they need to assemble to make it happen. For instance, an opening scene heading can let a reader or filmmaker know that they’re at the Corleone compound as opposed to anywhere else fictionalized or in real life. The following action line might then indicate that there’s a conversation taking place between Vito Corleone and another man. Finally, the initial line of dialogue, “I believe in America,” sets up in a significant way one of the major themes of the story and film.
For a Screenwriter, having depth of understanding as it regards screenplay formatting serves two purposes. First, as mentioned above, correct formatting allows anyone reading or working from the screenplay to understand the story and how it can transition to the screen.4 Says Screenwriter Sara Strange, “The Writer’s main goal is to create a fluid reading experience. When you veer too far from proper/expected format, you create roadblocks/speed bumps for the reader that distract them from what’s truly important: the story.”
Second, though this may be considered a less tangible benefit, it demonstrates to others that the Screenwriter is of a professional caliber and knows how to write for the medium. For example, if a Manager, Agent, Producer or Executive comes across a script full of confusing scene headings, wordy action lines or dialogue attributed to the wrong character—it happens!—it can be the difference between wanting to move forward with the Writer or script and passing on it no matter how great the story. In short, Writers should understand the importance of a good first impression, and solid script formatting can go a long way towards it.
As Screenwriter Courtney Suttle emphasizes, “Every Studio Exec, Agent, Literary Manager, Script Reader, Producer, Director, etc. has hundreds of scripts sitting on their desk at any given time and they are looking for any excuse to make that pile smaller. Improper, sloppy formatting provides an immediate excuse to toss the script directly into the pass pile. Don’t be that Writer.”
The Three Acts of Movie Script Story Structure
Beyond the more technical aspects of how to write a movie script, Writers must also always be striving towards creating the best story possible—and there are many ways to do it. We’ve already mentioned theme. There’s also character arc. Conflict. Emotional weight. Plot progression. All these elements and more can support an interesting and dynamic story, but all of them typically reveal themselves within the three-act structure.
Three-act structure. Again, it’s a term used quite often in the entertainment world, but why is it so important for a screenplay?5 On how to approach the three-act structure, Suttle notes, “Keep it simple, as every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. That’s your three-act formula. My job as a Writer is to provide the reader with the motivation to keep turning the page no matter which act they’re in.” But how exactly to keep the reader turning those pages?
Let’s use The Godfather again as an example. How interesting would it be if the story was just that a young man takes over the family business from his father? We go from point A to point B with no conflict, thematic value or character development. But imagine instead that the story was the following: A young man wanting to escape the violent lifestyle that has allowed his father to become a wealthy and influential mafia figure ends up taking it over from him after the father is on the receiving end of an attempted hit and his older brother the victim of a successful one. Now that’s a story! Not to mention the assassination of his first wife and the execution-style hits on his many rivals that set him up as the unopposed mafia head.
At its core, a three-act structure provides the foundation for a writer to create a story filled with conflict that keeps the reader or viewer intrigued, as well as giving the characters within the story the chance to make decisions or be on the receiving end of others’ actions that inform their character growth for better or for worse. Or as Strange succinctly explains, “I’m old school and like the general 1) put your character up a tree; 2) throw rocks at them; 3) get them out of the tree structure.”
As with script formatting, it’s essential that aspiring Screenwriters continue to nurture their expertise by learning all they can about three-act structure, including the rare instances in which they may break the rules! But the reason why three-act structure has such a stronghold in screenwriting is that it works. The first act provides the inciting incident which gives a reason as to why we’re following this story now and continues with the first major plot point. Moving into the second, the conflict should build, though the protagonist may experience the occasional “victory” along the way to keep the plot moving in a surprising and interesting way. With the second major plot point, we enter the third act, which is where the climax of the story will take place, as well as the resolution.
Scripts are often referred to as blueprints because the similarities between them are so strong. Within a blueprint, you might have designations for plumbing, electricity, insulation and more alongside the actual building plans. In the same way, a screenplay encompasses many elements, correct script formatting and three-act structure among them.
While it can initially feel overwhelming to the Writer just starting out, the craft of screenplay writing can be so much more than a head-scratching proposition. Instead, it can be a great opportunity to connect with audiences around the globe and make them laugh, cry, shriek or even reconsider their deep-seated beliefs through a captivating story. With passion, patience, and practice, the opportunity exists for all Writers to have the chance to enjoy this experience and further their craft of how to write a movie script.
- 1. "What Is a Screenplay?". Screenwriting.io.. published: . retrieved on: 15 November 2019
- 2Haber, Joel. "Script Classics: Adapting to the Adaptation Process". Writer’s Digest. published: 22 January 2018. retrieved on: 15 November 2019
- 3Renee, V. "Learn Script Formatting (& Why Screenplay Format Matters)". No Film School. published: 24 September 2017. retrieved on: 15 November 2019
- 4Miyamoto, Ken. "Does Correct Screenplay Format REALLY Matter". Screencraft. published: 23 July 2018. retrieved on: 15 November 2019
- 5Moura, Gabe. "The Three-Act Structure". The Elements of Cinema. published: 1 June 2014. retrieved on: 15 November 2019