How to write a script is far more than just coming up with a story idea and putting it to paper.
To have a screenplay that’s ready to be read by others—and hopefully produced!—it’s vital to understand and follow the steps that come between that million-dollar idea and its realization as a feature-length script.
The process of turning a story idea into a 100-page screenplay is one that takes time, effort, and planning, and to be honest, it’s an undertaking by which even the most veteran Screenwriters can feel overwhelmed. But when you break it down like we have below, you’ll immediately put yourself in a better position for scriptwriting success!
This is how to write a script:
- Learn and prepare
- Choose a theme
- Pick a genre
- Select a setting
- Create a compelling protagonist
- Include conflict
- Develop supporting characters
- Craft a logline
- Write a treatment
- Outline your script
- Set goals for yourself
- Revise your script
- Get feedback
Screenwriting is a craft. And just like any other skill set, how to write a script requires education and preparation.
Whether you gain that learning through an institution like a film school or entirely on your own, it’s key that you understand what makes for a good script and the tools required to help it come to life.
If you want to write a screenplay, hopefully that means you love movies! Maybe there’s even a particular film or two that sparked the idea of writing your own.
Watch them again, but this time with a critical eye. Even better, if you can get your hands on the scripts of those films, analyze them from FADE IN to FADE OUT. Why do they work? What do you notice about the dialogue, the conflict, the characters?
If you’re learning how to write a script in school, you might be assigned to read a screenwriting book or two. If not, it becomes all the more important that you seek out these resources to learn from the experts on what makes for a great script.
Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field and Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee are two great reads that have been universally acclaimed for their content and advice for Screenwriters both new and old.1
A script has a format all its own that is markedly different from that of a novel or other prose type of writing. For this reason, don’t make it harder on yourself by trying to format your screenplay through non-scripting programs like Word or Pages.
Instead, use software made for Screenwriters. Final Draft is hugely popular in the screenwriting world, but it’s hardly the only option. Celtx, Writer Duet, Highland, Fade In, and Movie Magic Screenwriter are just a few alternatives. You can also get the down-low on all things formatting by reading our Screenplay Format Made Simple article!
Even with screenwriting software freshly installed on your computer, knowing what all those different elements on your screen are for is critical to how to write a script. Some of the most common scripting elements include:
Scene headings, or slug lines, are used to introduce each new scene. They include whether the scene takes place inside or outside, the location, and the time of day.
Action lines help to convey any information that cannot be stated through dialogue. That being said, action lines should mostly comprise of exactly that: action. Refrain except where absolutely necessary from explaining too much exposition or character emotion in action lines.
We need to know who’s talking, right? Hence, the inclusion of each character’s name above their dialogue.
Sounds simple enough. Dialogue refers to the element of any script where a character is speaking to another character or to themselves or even the audience via voiceover.
However, overly wordy or bland dialogue can be the death of any script. Make sure each line has meaning and could only be said by the character saying it.
A Writer at times may want to include a parenthetical, a direction stated immediately beneath a character’s name. While occasionally vital to conveying the tone of the dialogue, parentheticals should be used sparingly, as the dialogue itself should be clear enough to denote tone on its own.
What Writer doesn’t love writing FADE OUT? It comes at the end of every feature screenplay, and it also happens to be an example of a transition. Outside of FADE IN and FADE OUT, however, use transitions sparingly as well, as they typically stand in for editing cues, which is beyond the realm of the Writer.
What do you want to say through your screenplay?
Do you believe that love conquers all? Good always prevails over evil? There’s no place like home?
Sure, a script should have an interesting setting, compelling protagonist, and dynamic conflict–as we’re about to explain!–but it always begins with the theme revealed through these elements2.
Some Writers recoil from the idea of writing for a particular genre. But just how easy do you think it would be to convince a Producer or Development Executive that you have the next big sci-fi romantic horror dramedy based on a true story?
The point being, it’s okay to write within a genre. Especially as an emerging Screenwriter, it can be quite beneficial, as genre denotes certain elements inherent to how to write a script3.
Romances have love stories. Horror films have monsters. By choosing a genre, it can give a Writer a much-needed framework for how to structure their narrative, which is a good thing.
Where in the world, real or otherwise, does your story take place? Creating a fully dimensional and detailed setting is absolutely fundamental to how to write a script4.
Think about it this way… When someone tells you that they’re going on a trip, what’s the first question you ask? “Where are you going?” The reason being that before you can ask why they’re going or what they intend to do, you need to know where in the world they’ll be.
With just the mention of Oz, Amity Beach, or Wakanda, many people can immediately draw up from memory these incredible and indelible worlds. But most fans of The Wizard of Oz, Jaws, and Black Panther love these films not just because of where they’re set.
They love them because of Dorothy, Brody, and T’Challa. The steps of how to write a script would be meaningless without creating a compelling protagonist because it is that very person who keeps audiences invested.
Dorothy and the Wicked Witch of the West. Brody and the shark. T’Challa and Erik Killmonger. What makes the journey of a protagonist compelling is watching them overcome opposition to achieve their goals. Conflict–whether in the form of a person, animal, natural disaster, internal struggle, or otherwise–is critical to a great story5.
How interesting would it be if Dorothy just took a nice walk with her new friends to Oz? Or if that summer at Amity Beach was uneventful with no unexpected apex predators on the loose? Not much of a story, right?
Though throwing obstacles at your protagonist might feel downright cruel towards this character you’ve created and love, it’s necessary for a captivating and ultimately satisfying narrative.
Continuing with our cinematic examples, would The Wizard of Oz be as entertaining without the Scarecrow, Tin Man, or Cowardly Lion? Would Jaws be as engaging without Quint and Hooper? Or would Black Panther be as thrilling without Nakia, Okoye, or Shuri?
A great script doesn’t necessarily need to include a huge ensemble cast, but no matter how many supporting characters you have, make sure they are as vibrant and dimensional as the central protagonist.
You have a poignant theme, a dynamic setting, a compelling protagonist, great conflict, and colorful supporting characters. Now it’s time to fit all that into a single sentence logline. Sounds impossible, but at the root of every successful script is a logline that can faithfully represent it.
Plus, what happens when that fateful day arrives of someone wanting to hear about your screenplay? What if it happens at a coffee shop, an elevator, or another impromptu location? You can’t retell your entire script–there’s no time. That’s why a logline6 is essential to whittling down your screenplay to a single sentence.
While a screenplay is not prose, could the story of it make sense in prose form? As you follow the steps of how to write a script, it’s easy to lose track of the fact that at its core, your screenplay is a story. Writing a treatment can help you pinpoint if that story is working on the most basic level.
A treatment is exactly what we just mentioned: a prose retelling of your script7. The length can vary from only a few pages to a few dozen. But having this document is vital for two reasons.
One, it can help you identify where parts of your story may be lagging or not fitting into the rest of the narrative. And two, it’s a hugely important document to have on hand if someone wants to know more about your screenplay but is not willing to read the entire script just yet.
Attempting to write a script that may end up being between 90 and 120 pages is no small feat. And while all those screenwriting elements like your setting and characters and conflict might feel vivid and fresh in your mind right now, that might not always be the case.
Plus, even the most accomplished Writers can forget story details or get sidetracked before even hitting page 50. And that’s where an outline comes in.
An outline is first and foremost a textual blueprint of how you want your story to unfold, and that blueprint comes to life through a three-act structure. Three-act structure is the industry standard because it works.
The first act introduces the setting, the characters–and most importantly–the conflict. Act two comprises of the protagonist attempting to achieve a particular goal only to have that conflict get in the way of it. And act three shows the protagonist either succeeding or failing in their goal and the outcome that follows.
Within the three-act structure are the individual scenes that make up a script. While many scenes can be funny, sentimental, terrifying, or otherwise entertaining, a key question to ask is whether or not every single scene is moving the story forward.
If a scene does not help in telling the greater story, it’s not fulfilling its purpose.
Writing a script can be incredibly exciting and fulfilling–but it’s also hard work. And sometimes life can get in the way of it. That’s why like any other endeavor, goals must be set to ensure that you do eventually get to FADE OUT.
Consistency is key when it comes to screenwriting8. That doesn’t necessarily mean getting pages written every single day, but then it’s up to you to decide what that goal is by another metric.
If you can’t write every day because of work, family, or school, then how many pages can you complete in a week? In a month?
Trying to hold yourself to a standard you cannot keep will eventually result in frustration and the possibility of giving up altogether, but creating a realistic page-writing goal is not only vital to actually completing a script but also key to keeping you motivated to do it.
Some Writers claim that they can punch out an entire script in just a weekend. If that’s true, good for them! But that doesn’t mean you’re not a proficient Screenwriter if it takes you several weeks or months to finish your own work.
Again, what is important is setting a deadline for completing your script that is realistic–and then sticking to it.
One of the best feelings as a Writer is finally finishing a script. When that happens, acknowledge that incredible accomplishment… But realize that you’re not done just yet. In fact, as the saying goes, writing is rewriting.
Revisions aren’t just a recommended step of how to write a script–they’re essential to it. No matter how many screenplays you’ve written or times your films have been produced, no first draft is a final draft.
Even if you have to put your initial draft away for a while, which is generally advised so that you can come back to it with fresh eyes, know that revising a script is part of crafting a stellar screenplay.
Writing a script can feel incredibly insular at times. And while no one can write that screenplay for you, a few trusted individuals can prove integral to making it better. Remember, you don’t have to get feedback from everyone from your mother to your neighbor to your best friend.
In fact, it’s probably better not to ask those so close to you that they may not be candid for fear of hurting your feelings. But in finding a handful of reliable and honest individuals with knowledge of the craft, you can get valuable feedback on what to improve within your script9.
Sitting down to create a screenplay can be a truly thrilling moment. But without having in hand the proper steps of how to write a script, it can quickly become a confusing, frustrating, and disheartening experience. By not just accepting but rather embracing the process of it, it can become a far more satisfying undertaking with ultimately greater results.