How to Write a Script: A Screenwriting Step-by-Step for New Screenwriters - Careers in Film
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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:

  1. Learn and prepare
  2. Choose a theme
  3. Pick a genre
  4. Select a setting
  5. Create a compelling protagonist
  6. Include conflict
  7. Develop supporting characters
  8. Craft a logline
  9. Write a treatment
  10. Outline your script
  11. Set goals for yourself
  12. Revise your script
  13. Get feedback

As we dive into the essential elements of how to write a script, we’ll hear from Screenwriter Sharon Soboil (After We Fell, After Ever Happy, Love on the Air), Screenwriter Justin Malen (Yes Day, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Father Figures), and Director/Screenwriter Thomas Bezucha (The Good House, Let Him Go, The Family Stone, Big Eden) to get their thoughts on getting started out in the world of screenwriting.

Learn and Prepare

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.

How do you get started as a Screenwriter?

Sharon Soboil (After We Fell, After Ever Happy, Love on the Air)

I’ve been doing it for a long time. I have thoughts on how I would have done it differently. One of the things I would do is make a short, and I would try and get that short into festivals. You don’t have to spend a lot of money. I have some friends who have made shorts for $5,000 that were really successful in festivals and it made all the difference. They got their Agents, their Managers, and they got attention.

If you do make a short and it does start getting attention, I’d say hire a PR person if you have the money to do that. That can get you even more attention.

Write and write some more. All the time. The more you write, the more the muscle is exercised. And read every screenplay that you can. They’re all online now, so I would say whatever genre takes your fancy, go online and find those scripts and read twenty of them. You’ll see the same sort of first, second, third act structure, generally speaking. That’s really helpful with getting it inside your bones, if you will, on where those acts should fit and where those moments should fit.

Listen to the Scriptnotes podcast. I think they’re fantastic and they have such great information. 3rd and Fairfax is another podcast that’s really helpful. I would take classes from smart, well-connected people. Like if they’re the Showrunner that’s doing a four-week class or something, I would go to that class. That’s a connection.

In this industry, it’s ultimately all about your connections. The minute that somebody brings you under their wing and they start caring about you, you can keep in touch with them and it makes it easier later on when you’re in need of something.

Get a Script Coordinator job or a Writers Assistant job. That will put you in the room with Staff Writers on a show and you will pick up quickly how they break down the season, the episode, and the story. Too, you’ll understand getting notes, and how the whole show moves from development into production, editing, and the press and airing of the show. Especially if you have a kind Showrunner, they can include you in much of their process.

Finally, if you do have a social media presence, that seems to be attractive. It helps you potentially. If you don’t, who cares. But if you do, tell anybody and everybody to let them know you do. If you have 150,000 people that are following you, your Manager or Agent wants to know that.

It’s just writing; writing and knowing people. Getting to find your tribe.

Thomas Bezucha (The Good House, Let Him Go, The Family Stone, Big Eden)

I think you start by watching as many movies as you can and reading as many scripts as you can. I remember diving into Preston Sturges’ scripts. The thing that’s great is so much is available now that wasn’t back when I was that age. It’s interesting to see many different styles. Before you set out on a career, you need to learn. You need to verse yourself in the skill. There’s a format. Read and see as much as you can.

Watch films and read scripts that inspire you

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?

Read screenwriting books

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

Find a screenwriting software program

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!

Know your formatting terminology

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 Heading

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 Line

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.

Character

We need to know who’s talking, right? Hence, the inclusion of each character’s name above their dialogue.

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.

Parenthetical

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.

Transition

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.

Choose a Theme

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.

Pick a Genre

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.

Select a Setting

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.

How long does it take to write a screenplay?

Thomas Bezucha (The Good House, Let Him Go, The Family Stone, Big Eden)

I can only speak for myself. I spend much more time not writing than writing a screenplay. A lot of that is thinking. There’s a lot of procrastinating, but I do a lot of preparation.

I’m actually one of those people that does the cards. I have a card for every scene. I spread them all out on the floor of my apartment and I don’t proceed until I have a map of the entire road. You have to know where you’re starting and where you’re going to end. I definitely vary my route along the way, but I never start the car unless I know where I’m going.

Having said all that, it takes about 3 months. That’s for a first draft.

Sharon Soboil (After We Fell, After Ever Happy, Love on the Air)

It depends on who you are and where you are in your career. The people you’re talking to are probably in another job and doing this on the side until they can become a full-time Screenwriter. Generally speaking, if you sit down to write a page a day, you’re going to write two pages.

So, say you’re writing a pilot and it’s a drama: that’s 60 pages. If you’re writing two pages a day, then you’re gonna have a first draft in 30 days. That’s how I look at it.

Something I find about writing is that it really is a muscle. I came from a dance background when I was much younger. We did ballet every day whether we felt like it or not and honestly, that was so helpful with my writing career. I sit down to write whether I feel like it or not. No matter how you do it–if you’re writing something about your character or you’re writing a scene–you’re writing something that’s going to push that script forward.

Another thing I would say is: finish it. Just finish it. So often, Writers (especially younger Writers who I’ve mentored) don’t finish it. They’re in the middle and they start another one or they get busy, but they still want to be a Writer. You can’t do anything with an unfinished screenplay.

I think there are so many ways to go into the writing process. I’m a big treatment person. I write out as many pages as it takes, usually about ten, and write the whole story as a treatment.

Then I put that story into Final Draft. Then I go in and write the dialogue for those scenes. That’s been very effective for me. Because before I go in to write the dialogue, I’ve already sussed out the arcs and the characters and where it’s going to go and that kind of thing.

Everyone’s different. But the thing about the treatment is that it tells you the end, and that will allow you to get to the end.

No matter how long it took you [to write], if you take a week away, you’re going to thank yourself later. I know from years of experience doing this personally. I would be so excited that I finished a screenplay that I’d send it to everybody–Managers, Agents, and Producers. After a week I’d look at it again, see all these things I wanted to fix, and think: “Oh my God, I can’t believe I just did that.”

If you don’t look at it for a week, maybe even two, you’ll come back with fresh eyes and be able to find the issues that you couldn’t see when you were so madly in love with the fact that you wrote the end. It’s hard to do because you’re so excited. They’re waiting for it, everyone’s excited to see it. It’s not easy to do, but I’m always, always glad I did. There hasn’t been one time where I thought, “Oh, I could have sent that out.” Not once.

Create a Compelling Protagonist

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.

Include Conflict

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.

How do you write an opening scene in a movie?

Justin Malen (Yes Day, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Father Figures)

It really depends. There are times when I have a very clear idea of what the opening scene should be before I start writing–sometimes, it’s the first thing that pops into my head when I think of the premise. There are other times, though, where I work out the characters and basic plot/structure in general and then have to figure out what the best specific opening should be.

Obviously, you want that opening scene to be as captivating as possible–to really grab the reader (and, ultimately, the viewers)–and it also needs to establish the tone of the movie… but I’ve found it’s most helpful to just get something down and keep moving forward in the script. As I get further into the script, I get to know the story and my characters better, which frequently then helps me go back and either confirm that my opening works or rewrite it to what best serves the movie.

I just finished a script where–the whole time I was writing–I felt confident about the opening (because I thought it was strong comedically)… but then I got to the end and realized the main character would never have acted that way! I wound up changing it to something that I don’t think is quite as funny but works better for the movie overall. And maybe later on in the development process, I’ll find a way to amp up the comedy without compromising the character.

Thomas Bezucha (The Good House, Let Him Go, The Family Stone, Big Eden)

I definitely want something that, in a way, is going to be the whole movie in an image, or a counterpoint to a thing. I just did this Kevin Costner movie, Let Him Go, and started with this image of horses in a barn. It’s a morning scene, and I ended with the break of dawn at the end. You want to tie things in thematically. You have to think, what’s the image?

Go watch The Road Warrior; it has a spectacular first five minutes. You have no dialogue and you know exactly who that character is and what’s going on.

It’s interesting because it’s sort of an art form that’s all about economy. It’s conveying the most with the fewest amount of words.

Develop Supporting Characters

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.

Craft a Logline

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.

Write a Treatment

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.

What do you want people to know about getting started as a Writer?

Sharon Soboil (After We Fell, After Ever Happy, Love on the Air)

I would say this: get in a Writers’ group. Find people whose writing you love, because if you don’t, it’s hard to have them give you notes. Ultimately, find your tribe that you can go grow up with. The people you meet at the beginning of your career are the same people you’re going to know in twenty years who are making your movies. They really are.

The industry is very fluid. One day your best buddy that you were in a writing group with is a starving Screenwriter and the next thing you know, he’s the Head of Development over at Sony. And if he knows about your screenplay, he might tell somebody about your screenplay because he loved it when he was a Writer in a group. Really—that happens. Go find those people. Go get those connections.

When I say those connections, I don’t mean the head of a studio; they have their own connections and they have their own people that they met twenty years ago. You want the Assistants. You want the Junior Managers. Especially if you’re at the beginning of your career. You want those Writers that are on something, because they’re going to get you a job on their show. It really does happen that way. It’s who you know and timing and all that.

When you find those people that you’ll grow up with in the industry, you guys will all get each other jobs forever. It could be in ten years that it happens or it could be one year. Or you guys could just read each other’s material forever and at least help each other get to the next level. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve known for my whole career because we were in a Writers’ group together.

And don’t forget: writing is rewriting, so get used to it. And, if you do option or sell a script and they put on another Writer, don’t let that ruin you. Hopefully, they will do a good job of making it better. It happens A LOT. If you don’t lose it completely on the Producer for having it rewritten, they’ll use you again, or buy your next script. And, sometimes, bring your script back to you to fix from the last person who rewrote you. So, for you, go write something else.

Outline Your Script

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.

Use three-act structure

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.

Make sure each scene drives forward the plot

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.

Set Goals for Yourself

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.

How many pages a day?

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.

When do you want to finish by?

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.

Revise Your Script

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.

Get Feedback

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.

Conclusion

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.

Screenwriter/Director Thomas Bezucha and Kevin Costner
Thomas Bezucha

Thomas Bezucha recently adapted the neo-noir western Let Him Go, from the novel by Larry Watson. Bezucha also directed and produced the film which starred Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, and Lesley Manville for Focus Features.

Bezucha’s debut feature Big Eden, remains the most-honored film in the history of Gay and Lesbian Film Festivals and landed him on Variety’s list of 10 Screenwriters to Watch in 2000.

His follow-up, the hit holiday comedy The Family Stone, featured an ensemble cast led by Diane Keaton and also starred Rachel McAdams, Luke Wilson, Claire Danes, Dermot Mulroney, Craig T. Nelson, and earned Sarah Jessica Parker a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by a Female Lead in a Musical/Comedy in 2006.

Bezucha also directed Selena Gomez in Monte Carlo for 20th Century Fox and wrote the screenplays for The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, directed by Mike Newell and starring Lily James, and The Good House with Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline, which will be released in 2021 from Tribeca Films and Amblin Partners.

Prior to his career in film, Bezucha spent a decade in Creative Services at Polo/Ralph Lauren, setting visual direction for store and environment design worldwide.

Screenwriter Justin Malen
Justin Malen

JUSTIN MALEN is a comedy writer who recently wrote the 4-quadrant feature film YES DAY for Netflix, which he sold as a pitch based on the children’s book by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld. The film stars Jennifer Garner and Édgar Ramírez and will be released on March 12, 2021.

Justin previously served as an in-house writer for Illumination, working on several animated projects. Prior to that, he worked on CLIFFORD THE BIG RED DOG for Paramount Pictures and wrote a sequel to BAD TEACHER at Sony. His original spec BASTARDS was produced by Alcon Entertainment and Montecito Pictures. It was directed by Larry Sher and stars Owen Wilson, Ed Helms, J.K. Simmons, and Glenn Close, and was released by Warner Bros as FATHER FIGURES.

Previous to this, Justin co-wrote OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY for DreamWorks Studios, with Paramount Pictures releasing. It stars Jennifer Aniston, Olivia Munn, Jason Bateman, T.J. Miller, and Kate McKinnon, and was directed by Will Speck & Josh Gordon and produced by Scott Stuber & Film 360.

Screenwriter Sharon Soboil
Sharon Soboil

An award-winning screenwriter, her start into feature writing took her around the globe: The sex-trafficking story Catching India, for Jennifer Siebel Newsom; The Wine Revolt to Bordeaux; her period rom-com Of Corset’s Mine to England, with Jason Connery directing being shot Summer 2021.

Keeping her sane during the covid lockdown, she was tapped by Voltage Pictures to adapt the third and fourth bestselling YA novels, After We Fell and After Ever Happy for the After franchise. Her true story ROO!, about a girl and her dog, is being produced by Resonate and Metro Int’l. Her TV movie Love On The Air was Hallmark’s submission for the Emmy’s, and a Leo Award winner.

She has written several shows for Amazon, Disney, and Freeform. Her half-hour comedy series Harmful If Swallowed, about the pharma world, was bought by Participant Media. Her female-led drama series, HOT, is set up with Bronwyn Cornelius and Element 8 and she is developing the series SAVED with Kerry David, starring Sharon Leal. She has been brought on to develop the TV series based on the NY Times best-selling book series Marked Men.

She is one of 36 storytellers in the off-Broadway show Period Piece (streaming in April) a series of funny and moving stories about menstruation. Sharon is an active member of the Women’s Writer’s Guild Committee, and sits on the board of the Hollywood Women’s Film Festival. She is repped by Josh Kesselman at Thruline Entertainment.

  1. 1Script Reader Pro. "12 Best Screenwriting Books to Read in 2021". Script Reader Pro. published: 2 April 2020. retrieved on: 18 February 2021
  2. 2MasterClass. "10 Classic Movie Themes With Examples". MasterClass. published: 8 November 2020. retrieved on: 18 February 2021
  3. 3Lannom, SC. "Ultimate Guide to Movie Genres — 90+ Genre Examples for Film & TV". Studio Binder. published: 13 December 2020. retrieved on: 18 February 2021
  4. 4Renee, V.. "Setting: The Storytelling Potential of Film's (Often) Underappreciated Star Character". No Film School. published: 12 October 2015. retrieved on: 18 February 2021
  5. 5Miyamoto, Ken. "How to Create Cinematic Conflict in Your Screenplays". The Script Lab. published: 29 May 2018. retrieved on: 18 February 2021
  6. 6Kroll, Noam. "How to Write the Perfect Logline: And Why It’s As Important as Your Screenplay". Indie Wire. published: 18 February 2021. retrieved on: 6 January 2014
  7. 7Miyamoto, Ken. "21 Movie Treatments and Outlines That Every Screenwriter Should Read". Screen Craft. published: 14 October 2019. retrieved on: 18 February 2021
  8. 8Script Mag. "Goal Setting 101: Setting Writing Goals the S.M.A.R.T. Way". Script Mag. published: . retrieved on: 18 February 2021
  9. 9Jessup, Lee. "Getting Feedback on Your Screenplay or Pilot: Which Note to Take, and Which to Discard?". Lee Jessup Career Coaching. published: 18 February 2021. retrieved on: 2 February 2021
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