Screenplay Writing: From Story Idea to First Draft
Screenplay writing is far more than simply typing out a 100-page (give or take) script.
Before a Writer is ready to begin with “FADE IN,” they have much to consider, not the least of which is what is the story? Why does it need to be told? And who will want to see it? That’s why screenplay writing goes beyond the actual writing of it. While there’s no one-size-fits-all template that works for every Writer, with each new foray into creating a script, they should consider what steps will help them craft the tightest and most riveting story.
The following breaks down some of the more common phases of getting from idea to finished screenplay.
We’ll discuss these elements of screenplay writing:
- Starting from an original idea
- Doing an adaptation
- Learning script formatting
- Choosing between software options
- Understanding screenplay elements
- Using a beat sheet
- Outlining story
- Creating a treatment
- Writing the first draft
Finding the Story
Screenplay writing is a commitment. Sure, every once in a while a story surfaces of how a Screenwriter finished their script over a single weekend, but those instances are far and few between. In most cases, it takes weeks, months or — yes — even years for a Writer to finally get to “FADE OUT” or “THE END.” Given the time, energy and emotion put into this work, it’s essential that the Writer truly love their idea, as they’ll be with it for some time.
There’s the old adage of there being no such thing as an original story. And there’s a lot of truth to it. Pick a script — produced or not — and odds are similarities can be found in another work. That being said, original ideas in screenplay writing still exist and many Screenwriters choose to write a story sourced from their own imagination, especially when it comes to spec scripts.1
Why pursue an original idea? For one, there’s no need to get the rights to the material. It’s already in the writer’s mind. Two, there’s creative freedom in writing something purely invented by the Writer. Screenwriter Kelly Kurowski notes, “When they say write what you know, it’s true. I draw from personal experience or things that I’m interested in. I like to write things that I would watch and try to come up with original ideas. When an idea does pop up, write it down right away! I keep a notebook full of ideas.”
However, the current popular trend in filmmaking today is using existing IP — or intellectual property. That means taking material from books, stage plays, newspaper articles, graphic novels or really any other medium and using it as the source for screenplay writing. But Writers should be cautious when using existing IP — in particular for spec scripts.2
For one, the Writer should obtain the rights to the material before moving forward with writing the screenplay. To do otherwise might mean significant legal obstacles in the future should a Producer or executive be interested in the material. Two, for world-renowned IP such as Star Wars, The Avengers or other global franchises, Writers should strongly consider whether it’s worth their time and energy to write a script based on such material, as odds strongly favor it only ever being viable as a writing sample.
Learning Script Formatting
Screenplay writing is essentially telling a story, but that story has a format entirely unlike any other. So for someone just setting out on writing their very first script, it’s critical that they understand this unique style.
A huge perk for Screenwriters is that they have multiple software options to help them learn screenplay formatting. And while some Writers may choose to purchase certain industry powerhouses such as Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter, they certainly can opt for free alternatives like Highland or StudioBinder.3 The only recommendation is to not attempt recreating a script template through a program like Word or Pages. Odds are it will not look as professional as using actual scriptwriting software, and moreover, it will likely become a tedious process trying to make sure it is formatted correctly.
For a Screenwriter just starting out, having script software is helpful but hardly a catchall for understanding screenplay format. Although essentially every program intuitively guides the writing process, Screenwriters should thoroughly understand how each screenplay element works to create a cohesive story. Whether that education comes through classes, books or other self-taught methods, having that foundation of knowledge will go a long way towards a more organic writing process once it’s time to start typing.
Fleshing Out the Narrative
We’ve got an idea and we’ve got the tools to write the story. Great. Now what? While in theory, any Writer can just sit down and start typing out their script, the reality is that the finished product may not be as strong due to lack of preparation. That’s why many Writers — even those who have been professionally writing for decades — map out how they want to tell the story with tools such as a beat sheet, outline or treatment.
As with any writing document, the details of how a beat sheet is created can vary from Writer to Writer. But in general, a beat sheet is a brief, action-by-action breakdown of what occurs in the screenplay4. It’s also typically the most concise of any preparatory materials, so a beat sheet can work well for Writers who may otherwise have difficulty fleshing out their story ahead of putting it into screenplay form.
An outline also breaks down what happens in a script, but there’s usually more information giving context to that action such as location, time and even bits of dialogue. Depending on how detailed a Writer wants to get, an outline can be anywhere from a few pages to several dozen. This particular document can also be quite helpful in allowing the Writer to easily and quickly move around sections of plot when revising to tighten the story.
For some Writers, it’s helpful to write a present-tense retelling of the story in prose form. Hence, the treatment.5 Treatments can provide a roadmap for Writers before they dive into screenplay writing, as well as offer outside individuals a look into what the script will be about. For instance, a Manager, Agent or executive commonly will ask to read the treatment, which often is less than 10 pages, before committing to reading a script 10 times the length. So it can be in a Writer’s best interest to have a treatment for reasons besides the actual writing process.
In some cases, a Writer might even decide to pursue all three avenues. Screenwriter Corrie Shatto describes her prep process: “I’ll start with a ton of options for key story elements… Then I’ll mix and match the best ideas on index cards until some of them click. I massage a few different paths into a few different beat sheets, eventually morphing what works into outlines and treatments. Forcing myself to constantly iterate on an idea helps me refine it and come up with even better ones.”
Writing the First Draft
The idea has been formed, the formatting has been learned and the details of the story have been fleshed out. Now it’s time to write! First drafts can be intimidating, but it’s important to remember that a first draft isn’t supposed to be a perfect draft. Rewrites and revisions will happen, so Writers should give themselves space to make peace with wonky dialogue or ineloquent action lines. They can always come back to those areas and edit. What’s most important is just finishing the initial screenplay writing process.
Writing a vomit draft may sound like a rather crude process, but the sentiment behind the term is simply to get out the story onto paper or the computer screen.6 Too much hesitation or second-guessing the first time around can cripple the goal of completing the screenplay, so just let it all out! Says Shatto on what she does to get out that first draft, “I set a time limit. Then I sit down and pound the whole thing out in a few hours. It helps me keep moving forward without getting caught up in the details.”
Screenwriter Jenn Monteagudo agrees: “Writing is easier when you’re against the clock because it’s a reminder that this (mostly) painful process will soon end. So I just write. Without judgment, without editing, not worrying if my characters sound like grunting Neanderthals and act like squirrels with brain damage. If a scene bogs me down, I skip it. That tough scene becomes easier when the other scenes around it are built up.”
What happens to the script from there depends largely on the Writer. Some might go through several revisions. Others might immediately ask for feedback from a trusted colleague or friend. Still others might put the script away for a while so that they can come back to it later to address issues that they’d otherwise miss without a break from the material. Of her process, Kurowski says, “After the first draft I move away from it for a week or two so that I have fresh eyes and then go back in to rewrite. After a few drafts, I send it to friends (some in the industry/some not), get notes and then back to rewriting.”
However a Writer chooses their screenplay writing process, the basic goal is the same — to write a complete script! And while they likely will be living with that material for months or sometimes years before being happy with their screenplay, by following the above steps, they will have a process that they can hone and make their own as they move forward in their career and build their screenplay writing portfolio.
- 1. "Script Ideas: 5 Proven Ways to Unlock Original Movie Ideas". Script Reader Pro. published: 6 August 2018. retrieved on: 30 September 2019
- 2Flesher, Felicity. "How to Adapt a Short Story Into a Feature Film". In Focus Film School. published: APRIL 4, 2019. retrieved on: 30 September 2019
- 3Chadwick, J.D.. "The Best Screenwriting Software of 2019 ". Top Ten Reviews. published: 31 January 2019. retrieved on: 30 September 2019
- 4Hellerman, Jason. "Try Our Screenplay Beat Sheet". No Film School. published: 5 April 2019. retrieved on: 30 September 2019
- 5McGrail, Lauren.. "What Is a Film Treatment, and When Do You Need One?". Lights Film Film School. published: . retrieved on: 30 September 2019
- 6 Bourassa, Angela. "How to Write a Vomit Draft (And Why It’s So Important)". Creative Screenwriting. published: 9 July 2018. retrieved on: 30 September 2019