When it comes to how to write a script, the truth is that it involves a combination of knowing the rules and possessing the intangibles.
What’s an intangible? Namely, the Writer’s voice. That special something that sets a Writer apart from the thousands of others trying to do the same thing — break into the industry. Unfortunately, voice can’t be taught.
The good news? A Writer can always learn the rules to writing a solid script, and once those rules are mastered, it will allow for that voice to shine through. For a Writer trying to get into entertainment, it’s crucial to understand scriptwriting fundamentals to demonstrate not only basic writing competence but also the aptitude to become a professional Screenwriter.
In this discussion of how to write a script, we’ll cover:
- Script formatting
- Story premise
- Character development
- Plot development
- Script dialogue
- Production probability
- Story marketability
What some aspiring Writers might not realize is that there is a standard way to write a script. Among those rules is using 12 pt. Courier font. Not New Times Roman. Not 16 pt. Not anything else based on the hope that it’ll make the writing “stand out.” It might, but if anything, it’ll indicate to the reader that the Writer isn’t well-versed enough to use the most widely accepted formatting elements.
Why should it matter to the Writer what the reader thinks? Because their script might be going into the hands of a reader for a contest, fellowship program or production company with the ability to push it towards a win or greater recognition. And while it’s possible that the inherent script idea is the next big thing, that reader may never know it because they’ll stop reading ten pages in. Why would they stop? Because the lack of proper formatting makes them believe that the Writer is an amateur.
The upside is that it’s incredibly easy for aspiring Writers to use proper script formatting. The most popular software — Final Draft, Movie Magic Screenwriter, Fade In and Celtx Plus among them — provide prompts throughout the screenwriting process, making it simple and straightforward for Writers to format correctly.
A woman finds out that she only has months to live. A man discovers that his wife is living a secret life. A couple kept apart by interfering families or war are at last reunited. Any of these stories sound familiar? That’s because they are. And as an aspiring Writer, it’s essential to rise above those common tropes when writing a script to bring something fresh to the page.
Of course, there’s the common adage that all the great stories have already been told. And while there’s truth in that saying, that doesn’t mean Writers should be complacent about coming up with a premise that hasn’t been seen before.
An aspiring Writer might be able to script a perfectly acceptable tale of love and loss, but as well-written as it might be, if the hook is something seen before, the chances of having that script stand out in a stack of other stories is low. So for someone learning how to write a script, chief among the objectives should be having a novel concept.
Most scripts follow a central protagonist. Sometimes several. Whether the story focuses on a single person or has an ensemble of characters, a reader wants to see them go on a journey — possibly a literal one — but always an emotional one. Who that protagonist is on page ninety should not be the person the reader is introduced to on page one.
Writers also often fall into the trap of having things happen to the protagonist, which makes them passive — and static. Whether a Writer is just starting out or has been in the business for decades, having an active character who is constantly changing and developing is critical for a successful and ultimately satisfying story.
Writers who have achieved success may very well be afforded the space to experiment with character and story. But for the aspiring Writer, it’s important to be continually moving the story forward to keep the reader on their toes and unaware of what is coming next in the script. Nothing will kill a reader’s interest more quickly than a predictable — or worse — dragging plot.
That is why a Writer must have a solid story structure. What is the inciting incident? What are the major plot points? How do they organically bring the protagonist to an unexpected ending? It all sounds simple enough, but in many cases, Writers can forget these scriptwriting basics and end up with a static character study or sequences of dialogue that do nothing to create a piece with rising tension that builds to a compelling climax and gratifying resolution.
Writing experts often emphasize coming into a scene as late as possible and leaving it as early as possible. This bit of advice is useful not only to keep the story moving but also to help Writers avoid the trap of excessive dialogue.
Dialogue is difficult to do successfully. While it’s important to maintain a tone of realism, in many cases, what characters say to each other in film or television should not reflect real life. Why? Because dialogue must both convey information that moves the story along and be entertaining to the audience. And frequently, what people say to each other on a day-to-day basis doesn’t have nearly the entertainment value that script dialogue should. So for Writers, it’s about striking a balance between keeping audiences interested in what the characters are saying and being able to naturally convey information through that dialogue.
Understanding when to say versus show information is another skill that many Writers have to develop over the course of their careers. A common refrain is to stay away from making dialogue too “pipey.” Meaning, avoid espousing too much exposition through the use of dialogue. This mistake abounds in scripts — and even in produced films and television shows. For example, a type of pipey dialogue is when one character tells another character that they’re siblings, revealing information solely for the sake of the audience when those characters would realistically never need to remind each other of their relationship. It’s up to the Writer to find another more organic and subtle way to show the dynamic of one character to another rather than having them reveal it through clunky dialogue.
Aspiring Writers can show their voice and talent through their spec scripts, and in many cases, those scripts will be used only as writing samples. But the prospect of actually selling a script is always there, which is why Writers may want to consider production probability when they put pen to paper. For instance, let’s say a Writer is interested in science fiction films, which often rely more heavily on production design, costuming and visual effects to help sell the world in which the characters live. Those elements all add up to a more potentially expensive film. And for a Writer who is intent on actually selling that script, it may hinder their chances of doing so because of the higher price tag.
That being said, Writers should always pursue the genre that they are most passionate about, as long as they understand the potential limitations that production probability can present. Equally important is understanding the implications of writing a script — even as a sample — of an existing intellectual property that’s not owned by the Writer. While a Writer might be a fan of franchises like Star Wars, Harry Potter or Marvel and consider themselves expert enough to write a story within those worlds, a word of caution… While that script may be able to serve as a sample, the individual into whose hands that script falls might decide against even reading it for fear of liability issues. It’s an interesting contrast to television where writing spec scripts for existing shows is accepted within the industry, though those scripts are used solely as writing samples and not intended for purchase. But as for feature films, unless the existing property is public domain or has been bought by the Writer, it’s usually a better bet to write an original story, whether as a writing sample or potential sale.
In a room of twenty Writers, there are bound to be twenty different opinions about what is considered a marketable film, which is why aspiring Writers are typically encouraged not to chase market trends. It’s akin to trying to capture lightning in a bottle. Also, by the time a Writer completes and polishes a script enough to send it out and get it into the hands of an Executive, Producer or Agent who can help in making it, it’s entirely possible that a particular trend is no longer popular.
So what’s a Writer to do? The simple answer is to write what is inherently interesting to them. If they find a story that they’re passionate about, odds are someone else will think so as well. And more importantly, that passion will shine through in their work much more than a script written only with the hope that it might capitalize on a current trend.
The recommendations on how to write a script are just that —suggestions to help aspiring Writers get their work noticed by having in place the most basic of tenets in their scripts. But as with any art form, screenwriting and television writing are highly subjective. While making sure that the script follows proper formatting rules and shows clear character and plot development can certainly help a Writer’s voice better shine through, it’s still up to the Writer to ultimately decide what those elements mean for them and their work. It can take years or even decades of practice to hone those skillsets, but with dedication and tenacity, that voice can and will get the attention it deserves.