How to Write a Script for a Movie: Script Writing Basics

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How to Write a Script for a Movie: Script Writing Basics

Author: Anna Keizer

Date: May 6, 2020

Reads: 224


Anna Keizer is a Los Angeles-based Screenwriter and filmmaker. She has been writing for film and television for 15 years. She holds a B.A. in Film/Video from Columbia College Chicago and an M.A. in Film Studies from Chapman University. She has been an Academy Nicholl Fellowships Quarterfinalist and an Austin Film Festival Script Competition Second Rounder.
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How to write a script for a movie isn’t exactly a paint-by-numbers proposition.

Yes, much of the craft can be learned through the following guidelines and built upon with books and classes. But it’s important to keep in mind that how to write a script for a movie is equal parts technical and creative. So while vital to master the steps below, Writers should always be finding ways to nourish their creative side as well.

That might all sound a bit intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. Because once a Writer locks down those first steps to how to write a script for a movie, they can actually find more freedom to let their imagination flow, which will only help them create a more compelling screenplay. So let’s get to it, shall we?

You need to know the following elements of how to write a script for a movie before you start:

  • Scene headings
  • Action lines
  • Character names
  • Dialogue
  • Character
  • Setting
  • Plot
  • Conflict/resolution

Script Formatting Basics

Take a look at any screenplay and it quickly becomes clear that scripts come with a formatting all their own. But why can’t they just be written like a novel or magazine article? Well, unlike those other mediums, a script is not the end goal. In fact, it’s only the beginning of what that intended final medium will be: a film. And for that reason, how to write a script for a movie comes with a few absolute elements.

Scene Heading

Scene heading in a screenplay

Where are we? When are we? These are the questions that must be immediately answered at the top of each scene1. Hence, scene headings. Written in caps, the scene heading explains if the action and/or dialogue between characters takes place outside or inside, the specific location, and the general time of day.

Here’s another example: EXT. AMITY ISLAND BEACH – DAY.

Action Line

Once the scene heading is listed, typically following it is an action line or two2. Action lines provide a brief overview of what is actually going on in the scene, such as “Brody scans the water for signs of trouble.”

What cannot be emphasized enough is that action lines are not meant to be used to inform the reader about a character’s internal emotional state or to relay copious amounts of exposition. That information should be presented organically through a character’s dialogue or action. So keep it short and grounded in the scene

Character Name

Okay, this one seems pretty self-explanatory, right? Well, surprise! Things aren’t always what they seem. Writers should take a bit of time to reflect on how they name their characters for the following reason: A reader going through the script for the first time isn’t as close to the characters as the writer. For instance, a writer might think it’s clever to have two characters who are twins be named Mark and Mike.

Or maybe they want to be more mysterious and call their characters by their job like Delivery Man or Nurse. But here’s the thing… What a Writer doesn’t want to do is confuse—or worse, frustrate—their reader. In an industry where an Agent, Manager, executive or anyone else reading a script is looking for a reason to toss it aside, don’t have that reason be complicated or muddled names3.

Dialogue

Example of dialogue formatting in a screenplay

“May the Force be with you.” “There’s no place like home.” I’m king of the world!” There’s no denying that great dialogue can elevate a film and make it memorable for generations to come. That’s a lot of pressure on a Writer, eh?

But here’s a little trick to creating those one-liners that people will quote: Don’t think about trying to write an awesome line. Instead, think of the character saying it. All dialogue should be authentic to the character speaking that line. When a writer puts in the time and energy to create dynamic and dimensional characters, memorable and effective dialogue will more easily flow4.

Another tip to make sure the dialogue is doing its job… Read the script without the character names. Why? Because even without that identifying piece of information, it should be clear who is saying a particular line of dialogue.

Story Essentials

All right, time to dive into story essentials! Because when it comes to how to write a script for a movie, there’s no future movie if there’s no story now. And there’s the rub. It’s not easy to create a story. If it was, everyone would be a Screenwriter! What Writers do is an incredible undertaking, a true labor of love. Having the following elements nailed down before sitting down to write, though, can make the process a lot easier.

Character

A rule of thumb when creating characters: Think critically about why a reader or audience would want to invest in their journey for two hours. Seriously. It’s easy for Writers to fall in love with their characters. Not so much for the random Producer or Executive who sits down with a script after a long day at work.

That’s doesn’t mean that those characters need to be likable. Just look at The Joker from The Dark Knight or Darth Vader from Star Wars. They’re not anything close to a hero, yet they’re fascinating to watch.

Writer and filmmaker Tim O’Leary notes, “A great plot is worthless if the audience doesn’t care about who the plot is affecting, so really doing your character work is paramount. Plot beats are easy to swap out depending on the needs of your story, but writing gripping, realistic characters is a lot more complex and nuanced.”

Setting

Continuing with our example, both the Joker and Darth Vader exist in alternate worlds. That makes sense for their particular stories. But there’s a reason why Darth Vader wouldn’t be using the Force in Gotham and why the Joker wouldn’t be causing chaos on Tatooine.

Setting can play an absolutely integral role in how to write a script for a movie. Gone with the Wind. The Shining. Fargo. All films with wildly different stories, yet they have one thing in common… Settings that not only support but also make possible their narratives. So when choosing a setting for a script, make it count!

Plot

One oversight some Writers make is that they become so invested in creating interesting characters that they forget about plot5. Something needs to happen. Evolution has to take place. As with every other facet of how to write a script for a movie, though, the narrative doesn’t have to come with huge shifts.

Not every story needs to be Independence Day, where the fate of the world is at stake. Films like The Conversation or The Wrestler are much subtler in nature, but the plot is just as compelling.

Conflict/Resolution

Some creatives really struggle with this aspect of how to write a script for a movie. Often it comes from liking their characters too much. Like a beloved friend or family member, it pains them to see their characters struggle. But it’s only through that struggle that the character can grow, change, and feel satisfaction from the resolution6.

That’s not to say that every story should have a happy ending. By all accounts, The Empire Strikes Back has many loose ends and anything but a happy ending, yet many still consider it the best of the original trilogy.

Other Script Tips

Script formatting? Check. Story essentials? Check, check. We’ve covered a fair amount of ground, but alas, the learning never ends when it comes to how to write a script for a movie. Case in point, the following questions often asked by emerging Writers…

How many pages is a script for a movie?

Great question. Truth be told, there’s no magic number for the length of a script. That being said, most scripts are between 90 and 120 pages. We’re going to let you in on a little secret, though: Less often is more. Let’s put it to you this way… It’s late, but a Producer decides to read one more script before they go to bed. Do you think they’re going to choose the 135-page script or the 96-page one?

How long is a script for a 90-minute movie?

Give or take, one page of a script is typically equal to one minute of screen time.

How much can you sell a movie script for?

Ah ha! That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? Just like virtually any other part of the script-writing process, there’s no one answer. However, if a Writer belongs to the Writer’s Guild of America, certain guidelines do exist.

One term Writers should become familiar with is “scale,” which means the base payment required to be paid to a WGA Writer depending on the type of material that is sold, which could be an idea, treatment, outline, screenplay, etc. Currently, the scale price of an original screenplay purchase is $48,819, which includes both the first and final draft of the script7.

While we’ve only touched on how to write a script for a movie, these initial guidelines can put an emerging Writer on the path to becoming a skilled storyteller. By embracing the elements that make screenwriting its own unique medium, a Writer can more quickly get under their belt the skills needed to continue evolving their craft and get noticed by others in the industry.

Says Writer Alex Heller, “Writers write. If you want to be a Writer you just have to write. Having an ‘idea for a thing’ isn’t enough. Sit down and write it out.”

And there you have it. When it comes to how to write a script for a movie, practice makes perfect. So what are you waiting for? Go out and write that next great script!

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References

  1. 1Miyamoto, Ken. "Screenwriting Basics: The Keys to Writing Correct Scene Headings". Screen Craft. published: 22 July 2018. retrieved on: 6 May 2020
  2. 2Peditto, Paul. "SCRIPT GODS MUST DIE: ActionLineapalooza! - Writing Action Lines". Script Mag. published: 4 October 2017. retrieved on: 6 May 2020
  3. 3Milly, Jenna. " 5 Super Useful Ways to Name Characters in Your Screenplay". Screenwriting Magazine. published: 29 November 2016. retrieved on: 6 May 2020
  4. 4Script Reader Pro Staff. "Script Dialogue Should Be More Than 'Just Talking'". Script Reader Pro. published: 27 September 2018. retrieved on: 6 May 2020
  5. 5Staff. "Screenwriting 101: The Relationship Between Plot, Character and Story". The Script Lab. published: 25 September 2017. retrieved on: 6 May 2020
  6. 6Littman, Evan. "3 Ways to Use Conflict to Amp Up Your Script". No Film School. published: 18 June 2019. retrieved on: 6 May 2020
  7. 7Writers Guild of America. "Schedule of Minimums". Writers Guild of America. published: 2017. retrieved on: 6 May 2020
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