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Writing a screenplay often elicits equal parts excitement and apprehension.

You have this great idea that you want to share with the world, but… you also have no idea how to translate that idea into a 100-page script.

Even screenwriting greats like Aaron Sorkin or Nora Ephron were once novices, so there’s no shame in just starting out. And unlike Mr. Sorkin or Ms. Ephron, you have in front of you our comprehensive breakdown of exactly how to write a screenplay.

Not to mention, the real-world insights and advice of working Screenwriter Richard Wenk who has among his credits the scripts for 16 Blocks, The Expendables 2, The Equalizer, and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back.

Creative projects are all too frequently described as undertakings in which you only need to be inspired to do well, but the truth is that there’s very much a process involved with how to write a screenplay.

Let’s dive in and explore that process, shall we?

Here are ten steps in how to write a script:

  1. Get motivated
  2. Choose your screenwriting software
  3. Plan out story beats and story structure
  4. Build interesting characters
  5. Think visually
  6. Write a first draft
  7. Take a break
  8. Get started on edits
  9. Ask for feedback
  10. Rewrite some more

1. Get Motivated

Who doesn’t secretly wish they could be standing on the podium when watching the Olympics? Or perhaps play the guitar like Hendrix after watching old footage of him? Same goes with writing a screenplay. Look to the best to learn and find your own artistic path.

The following are some ideas on how to get inspired.

How do you start writing a screenplay?

Richard Wenk (The Equalizer Franchise, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, Kraven the Hunter)

I like to read a bunch of screenplays and watch a bunch of those movies. I think the way I learned to write screenplays was by reading many of them. You can find them online. They’re all different in terms of writing styles and in terms of craft. But all successful screenplays have the same sort of benchmarks, which are good structure, compelling characters, and many twists, turns, and surprises to keep the reader turning the page.

Because screenplays are documents that are sort of blueprints for a movie, they can sometimes be hard to read. They aren’t like novels, plays, or things that flow. They’re broken up by sluglines, pieces of dialog, and descriptions of things that you have to imagine in your head. So when I found ones that were easier to read, I sort of adapted that style of writing. Writing visceral descriptions that are short and make people understand things quickly and vividly is something you learn over time–by doing it a lot and by reading a lot.

Read great scripts.

As they say, “It all starts on the page,” which is why you should be looking at as many of them as you can prior to starting on your own screenplay.

Great scripts will not only creatively inspire you to write one of your own, but also help you understand the more technical elements like dialogue and action lines that made these scripts gripping well before they were made into films.

Watch compelling movies.

A lot of emphasis is put on the need for scripts to be great before production begins. Makes sense. But a script–even a fantastic one!–is only a precursor to what it’s ultimately supposed to be: a movie.

So it’s just as important for emerging Screenwriters to watch compelling movies to better understand how a written story can make for a visually enthralling experience. When possible, Writers should read the script and watch the film version of a story to see how it translates from screenplay to screen.

2. Choose Your Screenwriting Software

Once you’re ready to tackle your own script, it’s time to move on to the next step of how to write a screenplay–choosing your screenwriting software.

From reading other scripts, you likely have already figured out that screenplays come with a format all their own. They’re not poems. They’re not prose. They’re not newspaper articles or novels.

All of this is to say that you definitely need a screenwriting software program to help you properly format your script. With that said, it’s important to keep in mind a few essential elements when it comes to screenwriting software:

Try out different options.

Picking a screenwriting software program is a lot like dating. That means you probably won’t end up with the first one that interests you. The great thing is that you don’t have to either!

Many software programs offer some kind of free trial period, so explore your options before settling with the one that you feel is most intuitive and in line with how you create.

Master formatting on your own.

We’re really lucky. Just forty years ago, there was no such thing as software programs of any kind. That meant Screenwriters were forced to punch out their scripts via typewriter and be ever vigilant about making sure they were formatting them correctly.

Nowadays, screenwriting software does most of the work for us. That’s awesome, but it’s just as important as it ever was to understand the function of each screenwriting element so that you are making purposeful decisions with each scene heading, action line, and parenthetical used in your screenplays.

3. Plan Out Story Beats and Story Structure

Don’t make screenwriting any harder on yourself than it needs to be… Before you sit down to write “FADE IN,” make sure you’ve done the preliminary work.

Every Screenwriter will have their own preferred method when it comes to beat sheets, outlines, and the like, but there’s a wide consensus that having something is infinitely preferable to sitting down to a blinking cursor with no story map. That means outlining how each scene in a script should go.

A few tips:

Make each scene count.

Every scene in a screenplay should either inform the characters or progress the plot. Ideally, it should do both.

Keep the audience on their toes.

A scene where two characters are just enjoying a nice cup of coffee together is… well… boring. Stories and screenplays are about conflict, which is why every scene should have some element of tension.

What kind of education is needed to become a Screenwriter?

Richard Wenk (The Equalizer Franchise, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, Kraven the Hunter)

I read a lot. When I was younger, I read novels. Charles Dickens, the Russian novels, I read Elmore Leonard novels. I read a lot, and that helps you understand storytelling.

One of the things that’s often lacking, even in good screenplays, is the ability to tell a story. People can write scenes, they can have ideas, they can have a character they like, but trying to tell that in a story that lasts 100 pages is not easy. The more stories you know, the more stories you like, the more things that you’ve already read and seen–that will make you write something newer and fresher. So that’s number one. Just read a lot.

Two: Watch a lot of movies. Movies you like. Movies that work for you. Movies that surprise you, make you emotional. Watch movies that don’t work and identify why that is. That’s very important because they all started with a screenplay. Somebody wrote them.

So, find what movies you like and see why they work. You don’t need to go to school for it. You have all the tools online, on YouTube, in the movie theaters, and on streaming services to watch and read. It’s all about just learning how to tell a story.

4. Build Interesting Characters

Traveling through time. Overcoming an alien attack. Surviving a volcanic eruption. They’re all intriguing concepts, but without equally intriguing characters that experience those circumstances, your screenplay will fall flat.

Whether we love them, hate them, identify with them, or wish to be like them, crafting strong characters is a must when it comes to how to write a screenplay.


Whose journey will an audience be following? This is your protagonist, but don’t let the title fool you. “Pro” does not mean perfect. In fact, that would make for a very boring central character. Instead, explore their flaws–especially if those flaws obstruct their goal or want–which is a key element of a compelling protagonist.


Who is getting in the way of the protagonist’s goal? This is your antagonist, but don’t limit yourself to strictly human characters. Yes, an antagonist can be a person like Biff from Back to the Future, Hans Gruber from Die Hard, or Margaret White from Carrie, but it doesn’t have to be.

It can be another species like an alien or giant shark. It can be a force of nature like a volcano or hurricane. But whatever it is, make sure they have their own reasons for existing beyond just making things harder for the protagonist. A great villain is a person or thing that doesn’t think they’re bad at all.

Supporting characters

Some stories are so streamlined that you really do have just the protagonist and antagonist. But in most cases, you’re going to have a cast beyond these two characters. If so, make them just as dimensional and necessary to the story as those other key figures. While, yes, supporting characters are there to support the central storyline, they should also have lives, wants, and flaws of their own.

No matter if we’re talking about the protagonist, antagonist, or supporting characters, it’s imperative that every single person in your script have a distinct voice. So much so that you would still know who’s speaking if you took away the character names above the dialogue.

Just like the people in your own life have distinct personalities and ways of moving through the world, so too should the characters you’re creating for your script.

5. Think Visually

We already mentioned that writing a screenplay is unlike any other type of writing. In particular, it’s important to keep in mind that a screenplay is not–and we repeat, is not–a novel that might become a movie.

That means keeping descriptions clean and concise. It’s your job as the Screenwriter to tell just enough for a reader to be able to visualize that world. Should your script get produced, it’ll be up to the Director, Cinematographer, Production Designer, Art Director, and multiple other people to fill in the details.

6. Write a First Draft

All right, you did your research. You mapped out the trajectory of your story. You developed nuanced and detailed characters. Now it’s time to get down to the business of actually writing your script.

Here’s the thing… It will probably be bad. Maybe mediocre. But certainly not great. And that’s okay! It’s just a first draft. So ease up on having too high expectations of yourself or your script. Just write. Write through your doubts. Write through your second guesses. Just get it on the page. We’ll make it a masterpiece later.

How do you know if a screenplay is good?

Richard Wenk (The Equalizer Franchise, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, Kraven the Hunter)

What I do now (and I don’t think it’s possible for younger Screenwriters) is I have certain people I trust that have read other screenplays and made other movies. I send [my screenplay] to three or four people that I trust and they read it. If I get two or three of the same comments about it, I know that they’re probably on to something and I need to address that.

I think you just have to start to slowly–and this is very important: slowly–show it to people that have some connection to the business, even if it’s just a parent or a friend of a friend, who can give you honest feedback. “I read it. I liked it. I was confused. It felt long. I didn’t understand,” or, “I was so excited when that happened.” All those things are very important.

The other way to do it is to just compare it to a movie, a story, or a screen story that you have seen before in the same genre, whether it’s a caper movie, a thriller, or a horror movie, and just look at why that’s successful, or why that worked for you, and ask yourself does yours have those elements in it, too?

Ultimately, you know a screenplay is good if, as you’re reading it, you want to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next. If it keeps you engaged, if the characters act in real, truthful ways, and the story keeps you guessing, wanting to know what’s going to happen next, it’s more than likely a good screenplay.

7. Take a Break

Once you get that first draft out, stop working on your script. Not forever because it certainly will need more work, but at the very least, take off a few days, weeks, or even months. Breathe. Watch more movies and read more screenplays. Maybe brainstorm your next idea. Then come back to your script with fresh eyes.

8. Get Started on Edits

It’s such an overused phrase, but it’s still entirely true: “Writing is rewriting.” We’re going to take that clump of clay that is called a first draft and make it into a beautiful work of art. But it will take time and lots of edits.

The good news is that if you’ve taken a sufficient beak from that first draft, you’ll immediately see many of the flaws that need to be addressed and can knock them out accordingly.

How you go about making edits is largely up to you. Some Screenwriters focus on a single element and do a “character pass” where they focus only on fixing what’s not working about their protagonist, antagonist, or supporting characters or a similar kind of pass with dialogue or action lines.

Others just go page by page to strengthen, tweak, or delete whatever’s not working on it. It’s up to you, just as long as you do it.

9. Ask for Feedback

Once you feel like you’ve put in the work and have crafted a strong script, it’s time to see if others feel the same way. Yes, we know that handing off your script to someone else for feedback is a very scary proposition, but it’s also a very necessary part of how to write a screenplay.

You don’t have to share your work with everyone. In fact, we’d recommend against it.

Instead, choose just a few people who meet the following criteria:

  1. They understand the specific nuances of how to write a screenplay. In other words, not your mom (probably).
  2. They’ll give you honest feedback. While it would feel really nice to have someone tell you that your script is perfect in every way and ready to be made into a movie, that’s probably not the case. So find someone who will tell you the truth about what needs additional work.

If you have specific questions that you’d like your reader to pay particular attention to, let them know. That being said, if you trust their opinion, it’s likely that they’ll bring to your attention weak elements that you didn’t even notice. And that’s exactly why we ask for feedback on our scripts!

How can Writers get their screenplays noticed by decision-makers?

Richard Wenk (The Equalizer Franchise, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, Kraven the Hunter)

This is a tough one. Not many people like to read unsolicited screenplays. That’s always been the thing you have to overcome. But my Manager does read them sometimes, based on the note and letter that is attached to it. So, if you can, write a rooted, smart, very short note explaining what it is and why you think it’s valuable and something they should read.

This is one other piece of advice I would give: write something commercial. By that, I mean something someone would write a check for, buy a ticket for, or spend money on. That gets read faster than your story about growing up in South Carolina or your summer there, right? It may be beautiful and great, but it will be harder to find its way to people. But if you wrote a movie that says–I’ll give you one of mine–“this guy has to go sixteen blocks in ninety minutes,” people understand that it’s a thriller. That’s the poster. People react to things that sound like they could be good and sellable.

I remember reading Thelma & Louise by Callie Khouri. That was her first screenplay, and it was hardly in screenplay format. It was obviously someone who hadn’t written a screenplay before, but it was very compelling and it found its way to Ridley Scott. I was working with him, and I read it, and I was compelled by it. So, movies or screenplays that are smaller can still be successful.

The first screenplay that I wrote was based on a poster that a famous Producer showed me and said, “I need a movie to go with this poster.” That was Roger Corman, and he’s famous for one-liner kinds of things that can sell. This was called Vamp, and he just said, “If you could write a movie with strippers, college kids, and vampires in it, you can direct it.”

And that was it: that was the conceit of the movie. It was a horror movie. I decided to make it take place in less than twenty-four hours, so it was all compressed. I came up with a couple of things and then I wrote it. But it was a very commercial sort of approach. It had humor in it, it had scares in it, and it had a title that they could market. So I was actually given that.

If I was just starting out, I would look around at the landscape. I would look at movies that are getting made and that are being received, and I’d start to think about what my story is that could fall into that. It’s a much faster way to get a movie to someone like my Agent who will read something and go, “You know what? I’m gonna give it to my Assistant to read.” Usually, they send them back, but when they see something that has potential: “Wow. That’s really smart. That could be really good. That shows talent and ability. Why don’t you read that and let me know how that is?”

And then what happens is they read it and go, “It’s really good. Maybe we should call that person. We should have a conversation.” It goes from there. It’s a networking business. Somebody knows somebody who knows somebody, and if your screenplay is good, it will eventually get to the right person.

10. Rewrite Some More

After you’ve put so much work into your script, the idea of making yet more edits might sound a wee bit demoralizing. But especially when you have others telling you that certain elements aren’t working for them, you owe it to them, yourself, and your story to address those issues.

That doesn’t mean you have to take every single note you get. But if you have two or more people flagging the same problem, take it seriously.

Think about it this way… You’re likely going to have only one chance to make an impression on that Manager, Agent, or Producer who has expressed an interest in your script. So it has to be as perfect as possible.

In addition to addressing notes you’re given, look at your script with your own critical eye. Are there scenes, characters, or lines of dialogue that you don’t need? Get rid of them! Another common saying in screenwriting? “Sometimes you have to kill your darlings.” It can be a heartbreaking experience, but ultimately it’s for the greater good of the story.

Anything else you think aspiring Screenwriters need to know about?

Richard Wenk (The Equalizer Franchise, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, Kraven the Hunter)

There are two scripts: the one that you write and the one that they make. And make no mistake, they’re different. And I don’t mean different so much in content but in style.

You start with “INT. HOUSE – DAY.” I don’t use those anymore because that’s hard to read. People read them all the time, and they see the same house in their heads all the time. I would suggest that you find a way to tell your story where people are imagining it in their heads. For example, I just finished a movie, and the first line was, “We’re not in Kansas anymore. We are in a….” and all of a sudden, you’re reading it and it all flows together. There are many screenplays around that do it, and they do it well.

William Goldman’s book Adventures in the Screen Trade is like a bible for Screenwriters. It still holds up. His screenplay style is very famous and very readable. So I would start with that book because it gives you a pretty good sense of the business. His famous quote is, “Nobody knows anything,” which is true. If they knew how to make a hit movie, they would be making it. And he wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride, Marathon Man, and All the President’s Men, so he’s a very successful Screenwriter. And he’s also written some not-so-great things, right? It’s a book that tells you how to navigate and how to think as a Writer of movies, and that’s an important thing.

People always think their story is compelling, and when you compare it to say, I don’t know, Slumdog Millionaire or something, someone else’s story, it’s not. So I think that you really have to be realistic. It’s a business. It’s called show business. I learned early on that I have to write something that someone is willing to spend money on. And people forget that.

Somebody’s gonna write a check to buy it. Someone’s gonna write a check to cast it, make it. There are gonna be millions of dollars spent on your script. So you need to think, “Why would they?” People forget that. And then you can go write your personal screenplay; you can write a smaller movie when you become successful and you’ve got a movie made already, you know?

People want to know what your next movie is. You’ll find a Director who wants to work with you. It’s a very interesting push-pull and give and take. But if you’re starting out and you want to get your foot in the door, people are looking for things to make, not to develop.

Closing Thoughts

Learning how to write a screenplay is an involved undertaking, but one that can help you realize your creative vision. And with practice, you’ll find a rhythm that works for you.

While not an easy task, by fully investing in the process of writing a screenplay, you’ll come out on the other side with a wholly unique work that hopefully will be shared, appreciated, and enjoyed one day by others as a film or TV show.

Screenwriter/Producer Richard Wenk
Richard Wenk

Richard Wenk is an American Screenwriter and Producer best known for THE EQUALIZER franchise.

Born in Metuchen, New Jersey, Wenk developed an interest in film while in high school after being introduced to the vibrant revival house scene in New York City. He went on to pursue a degree in film studies at New York University, and began landing production jobs shortly after graduation.

He wrote and directed his first film, the horror classic VAMP, starring Grace Jones. Next Wenk wrote, directed, and produced the romantic comedy JUST THE TICKET starring Andy Garcia and Andie MacDowell. Richard Donner made Wenk’s thriller 16 BLOCKS with star Bruce Willis. The success of that film was followed by a string of big-budget films, such as the Jason Statham-led remake of THE MECHANIC. The following year, Wenk was tapped to pen THE EXPENDABLES 2, the successful follow-up to Sylvester Stallone actioner. Wenk wrote and produced THE EQUALIZER and EQUALIZER 2 starring Denzel Washington and has finished the screenplay for THE EQUALIZER 3 slated to shoot next spring in Italy. Additional Writer and Producer credits include JACK REACHER 2 starring Tom Cruise and MAGNIFICENT SEVEN starring Denzel Washington. Wenk has also penned the upcoming Marvel movie KRAVEN THE HUNTER for Sony Pictures and the thriller FAST CHARLIE starring Pierce Brosnan and Morgan Freeman directed by Phillip Noyce.

Wenk has also created the upcoming TV series VANISHING ACT for Amazon.

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