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Curious about screenwriting as a career, but not entirely sure what that would entail?

You’re in the right place! When learning any craft, it’s important to build a solid foundation of the basics, and screenwriting is no different.

Whether you’re taking your first dive into what all this scripting business is about, or you’re looking for a refresher on this unique medium, read ahead to find out how and why screenwriting is a craft all unto its own.

Throughout our discussion of screenwriting basics, we’ll hear a bit about starting a career as a Screenwriter from Writer/Director/Producer Nikole Beckwith (Together Together; 3 Generations; Stockholm, Pennsylvania) and Writer/Director/Producer Chris Dowling (Blue Miracle, Where Hope Grows, Asperger’s Are Us).

What Is Screenwriting?

There’s no better place to start than with an explanation of what screenwriting is: A form of storytelling in script format created for entertainment-related production.

Like any good story, screenwriting thrives on conflict. Crafting a story where a character has an easy and unchallenged life is not what will attract potential movie or TV fans. That character must want something. Perhaps it’s getting married, making money, or running a marathon.

Whatever that goal is, there must be obstacles that get in the way of the character achieving it. Screenwriting is creating a story where the character must engage with these challenges, and when all is said and done, they either succeed or fail in attaining that goal.

How to Get Started as a Screenwriter

Is screenwriting a good career?

Anna Keizer

In terms of creativity, screenwriting can be a wonderful career. For someone with limitless imagination and a passion for writing, it can be wildly fulfilling.

But the truth is that screenwriting is an incredibly competitive field that comes with much rejection and often little professional success. In short, it is not for the impatient or thin-skinned. It is very much the proverbial marathon and not a sprint.

For those who understand this aspect of the industry, though, they often gain the resilience necessary to wait out those difficult times to find great satisfaction and pride during the moments of success.

How do you start a screenwriting career?

Chris Dowling (Blue Miracle, Where Hope Grows, Asperger's Are Us)

That is such a tough question. For Writers, it’s very much the chicken or the egg theory at work. Production companies, studios, Producers, etc- they are typically wanting someone who has a track record of films getting made and it’s really hard to get a film made without prodcos, Producers, etc. So I will say it becomes exponentially easier once you get a couple of projects under your belt.

I would always recommend finding work at an agency, production company, on set, etc–be around the business because the truth is whoever is going to give you the first break is probably someone you’ve developed a relationship with. I have many friends that started as Assistants, Readers, etc…it’s great because you are getting paid and seeing what kind of screenplays are coming across the desks from professional Writers.

However you choose to give it a go, just know that in the beginning, you are definitely doing another job to pay the bills and then sneaking in your writing when you can. The goal is to have that balance shift…as you get better and start getting paid as a Writer, the other work gets less attention and then hopefully, goes away altogether.

Nikole Beckwith (Together Together; Stockholm, Pennsylvania)

I started mine by just jumping in to writing what I wanted to write most and then submitting that script to fellowships and workshops, looking for feedback and opportunities to become a better Writer and getting a better sense of the film development landscape. For me personally, The Nicholl Fellowship and The Sundance labs were a huge part of my beginning.

Do you need a degree to become a Screenwriter?

Chris Dowling (Blue Miracle, Where Hope Grows, Asperger's Are Us)

Definitely not. There are things, theories, styles, etc you can learn in college courses, but to just jump in at an agency and become an Assistant or Reader is just as beneficial, if not more. I did get a degree but I honestly think if I had just gone straight into the industry I would have moved up quicker in my career–only because I would have been meeting industry contacts four years earlier and those contacts would be moving up the ladder wherever they are.

Just remember the people that are PAs and Assistants and the low-rung starting out positions aren’t going to be there forever. Ten years from now, those people will be Agents, Managers, Heads of Productions, execs, etc. So, it takes time, but if you have talent and keep the right connections, when the time is right, you will get your shot!

Nikole Beckwith (Together Together; Stockholm, Pennsylvania)

I don’t have a degree in anything. I never studied filmmaking or writing (college is expensive) BUT you do need to always be learning. If you are not going to go to school, you have to task yourself with creating your own education.

When I was a Playwright in New York I went to as many free workshop readings of new plays as I possibly could, whether they sounded good to me or not (you learn from them either way).

I saw as many new plays as I could and I joined writing groups, which were very, very helpful (they are free and also come with a community, structure, and feedback) and when I transitioned into film, I watched as many movies as I could, went to as many screenings with Q and A’s as I could, tried to track down scripts of films I’d seen (on the internet and otherwise) to read and compare to what had been on-screen and got involved with fellowships and other early-career filmmaker events like IFP (which is called Gotham now)–places I could meet other filmmakers, Writers, early-career Producers, etc. You don’t need a degree but you need an education.

Is it hard to become a Screenwriter?

Chris Dowling (Blue Miracle, Where Hope Grows, Asperger's Are Us)

Yup. I’ve been doing this for two decades and I’m very grateful, but it’s still paycheck to paycheck. It’s a lot of rejection so you really do have to love it. There is nothing like seeing your words up on that 50-foot-screen…it’s a grind and it takes time, but you just have to keep working hard on the craft and the connections you will make. And just be the kind of person that people want to be around–don’t forget that!

Nikole Beckwith (Together Together; Stockholm, Pennsylvania)

Yes. But anything worth doing is hard. Especially if it is what you want to dedicate your life to.

How much does a Screenwriter make?

Anna Keizer

As with every other profession within the entertainment industry, the salary of a Screenwriter can vary wildly from person to person.

Some Screenwriters may never make any money from their endeavors. However, for those who gain a foothold in the industry and are consistently hired either for television work or feature script writing, they can earn anywhere from $50,000 to upper six figures in a given year.

What Are Some Different Types of Screenwriting?

As mentioned, screenwriting is storytelling in script form. While most people associate screenwriting and scripts with movies, they are hardly the only medium that necessitates the talent and technical know-how of a Screenwriter1.

Screenwriting is often used as a catchall term for all the many types of scripts a Screenwriter can work on, such as:

  • Feature films
  • Short films
  • Episodic television
  • Television limited series
  • Television movies
  • Video games

For each of these types of screenwriting, the length of the script can vary. For instance, a script written to become a feature-length film can come in anywhere between 90 and 120 pages, give or take. Scripts for short films could be anywhere from a page or two to 40 or more.

There’s considerable diversity in script length within the world of television as well. Depending on whether a script is written for network television where there are regular commercial breaks or streaming where there may not be a single commercial shown during it, a script could be anywhere from around 25 to 70 pages.

Teleplay is a term used to emphasize that the script is in fact meant for television. Those thought of as comedies are typically on the shorter side, as these shows usually run for about a half-hour. Dramatic teleplays are usually conceptualized as hour-long shows, and therefore the script length is longer for them.2

It’s important to keep in mind other designations commonly associated with different types of scripts. For instance, spec script, which can be a confusing term for someone just learning about screenwriting because it means different things depending on whether you’re talking about film or television.3

In film, a spec script is an unsolicited script that a Screenwriter crafts on their own without any backing, financial or otherwise, from a Producer, production company or studio. A spec script can be an idea entirely from the Writer’s imagination or adapted from existing material like a book or newspaper article–but make sure the rights have been attained! Feature spec scripts can be used merely as a writing sample or potentially optioned or bought for future production.

In television, a spec script is a script that a Screenwriter crafts as a writing sample, as it’s a pseudo or faux episode of an existing television show. It might sound strange that someone would write a spec script for this medium knowing that it won’t get produced, but it can be very important for a Screenwriter’s career.

In deciding who they want to be part of their Writer’s room, the Creator or Showrunner of a particular show will want to see that a potential Writer can craft a script in the tone and voice of their show, hence the need for a spec script.

With every type of script we’ve mentioned so far, that version of the script is not what the eventual Directors, Producers, and other filmmakers attached to it will use when they go into production. Rather, they will use what is called a shooting script.

While a shooting script may contain several elements that make it distinct, perhaps the biggest difference between it and any other script is that it has been updated to include scene numbers that inform the production schedule and the order in which each scene is shot.

A shooting script is also a “locked” script, meaning that it is in its final form. That being said, last-minute revisions can–and usually do–still happen. When they occur, those pages will be added to the current script in a different color to denote their inclusion.

What is the difference between script writing and screenwriting?

Anna Keizer

Nothing! That being said, some may use the term screenwriting to speak specifically about writing for film. Alternately, they may call writing for other mediums TV writing, web series writing, and so on.

In general, though, the two terms are interchangeable.

What Are Screenwriting Genres?

All right, let’s get back to why screenwriting is so much fun… Because it allows a Screenwriter to create stories all their own! And those stories are typically told within a genre.

A genre is a particular category of story, if you will.4 A category that over time has become known for certain associations and conventions. Think “The Final Girl” in horror films. Or the presence of cowboys and Indigenous people in westerns.

Over its 120-year-old history, cinema has developed several types of genres.

Some of the more popular film genres are:

  • Action. Examples include Die Hard, The Great Escape, and Mission: Impossible.
  • Adventure. Examples include The African Queen, Lawrence of Arabia, and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
  • Comedy. Examples include Bridesmaids, Coming to America, and Some Like It Hot.
  • Drama. Examples include The Godfather, Good Will Hunting, and Schindler’s List.
  • Fantasy. Examples include the entire Harry Potter franchise.
  • Horror. Examples include Halloween, A Quiet Place, and Scream.
  • Sci-fi. Examples include Arrival, Blade Runner, and Planet of the Apes.
  • Western. Examples include Dances with Wolves, Tombstone, and Unforgiven.

Keep in mind that genre is not an either-or proposition. Screenwriting can make use of two or more genres within a single story. For instance, Romancing the Stone is both a comedy and adventure film. Alien is both a science fiction and a horror movie.

Cinema has also become so sophisticated that many genres now have sub-genres such as the zombie horror film or the mockumentary comedy.

What Types of Stories or Conflicts Are Told Through Screenwriting?

We just mentioned genre, but in and of itself, genre does not define what type of conflict or story will be told in it.

Storytelling has been around for millennia–long before movies came around. Because of that, many trains of thought have developed as far as what constitutes universal types of stories.

For instance, the great mythology expert Joseph Campbell coined the term the Hero’s Journey, which has been used many, many times since to describe the story of someone called to action though they may have grave hesitations or fear as they embark upon this unknown path. Fun fact: It was Campbell’s work that largely influenced George Lucas as he wrote Star Wars5.

While many screenwriting experts have come up with their own lists of the main universal stories that exist in the world, they all boil down to conflict6. And given that the overwhelming majority of films are successful based upon the audience’s ability to connect with and follow the main character in them–often referred to as the central protagonist–that conflict is usually a human being versus someone or something7, such as:

  • Human versus self. Examples include Fight Club, Moonlight, and Tully.
  • Human versus human. Examples include Gladiator, Home Alone, and The Karate Kid.
  • Human versus machine. Examples include 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix, and The Terminator.
  • Human versus nature. Examples include 127 Hours, Cast Away, and The Perfect Storm.
  • Human versus society. Examples include Footloose, High Noon, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
  • Human versus supernatural. Examples include Jurassic Park, Poltergeist, and Predator.

Three Act Structure

As these stories and the conflict within them unfold, they are told within a three-act structure. Acts are basically sections of a story that together provide a structure for it. When screenwriting for film, the most common and widely recommended format is a script constructed via three acts.

The first act is when all the introductions are made–that of the main characters, including the central protagonist, the world in which they live, and the conflict that they will have to confront.

The second act typically includes the main character reacting to the obstacles put in their path and a gradual rise in tension that leads us to the third act.

In this final act, the central protagonist will experience a climax of conflict followed by a resolution to it.

While feature film scripts typically adhere to a three-act structure, that is not the case for episodic television. In most cases, teleplays, depending on length, will include four or five acts, as well as a cold open or teaser to begin the script and a tag to end it.

What Makes for a Strong Central Protagonist?

All right, we’ve mentioned several times now this central protagonist who is so important in a script. And they really are. They’re the figure who usually makes an audience decide that, yes, they do want to spend the next hour or two watching what happens to them.

For this reason, the importance of the central protagonist and the supporting characters who are part of their journey cannot be overstated. So how to make sure that when you write that script, you will be creating a central protagonist so compelling that someone reading your screenplay will need to know what becomes of them?

Give them a goal.

Dorothy wants to return home. Chief Brody wants to kill a great white shark. Wonder Woman wants to stop World War I. In screenwriting, there needs to be a reason why we asked to follow along with a particular story. That reason always begins with a goal or want for the central protagonist.

Include flaws.

No one’s perfect, and that includes your central protagonist. Dorothy is frustrated by her family and dislikes Kansas. Brody is terrified of water. Wonder Woman doesn’t know love or the power of it. Giving your central protagonist flaws is important on several levels. For one, it humanizes them and gives audiences qualities to which they can relate. And two, if crafted thoughtfully, those flaws will play directly into the obstacles that the character will face.

Create obstacles.

The Wizard of Oz doesn’t have the power to send Dorothy home. Brody has to go on the ocean to kill the shark. Wonder Woman experiences grief upon the death of Steve Trevor.

Conflict, conflict, conflict. It’s the backbone of any good script. That’s to say, no screenplay can succeed without it. Many Screenwriters fail to recognize this because they understandably love their characters and don’t want them to suffer. But only through conflict can growth occur.

Show change or growth.

Why should we watch a film or television show if the character we’re following is the same person at the end of it as they were when it started? What do we learn from a static central protagonist? In short, nothing.

That’s why every main character must experience some kind of change for there to be a satisfying resolution to their story. Dorothy realizes she has the power within herself to go home. Brody, left without the knowledge or skill of his companions, must kill the shark on his own. Wonder Woman, now understanding the power of love, defeats Ares.

In Closing

One final note on characters: Make them active. Don’t just have things happen to them. Have them make choices–even if they’re the wrong ones. In fact, wrong choices can be great because they often lead to more conflict. The bottom line is that passive characters–a central protagonist without agency–does not make for an engaging figure that audiences will want to invest in and follow along on their journey.

Screenwriting encompasses so many elements, such as classification of medium, category of genre, and type of conflict. While perhaps a bit overwhelming for an emerging Writer, just remember that even the most accomplished professional Screenwriter was once brand new to the craft and in the very same position.

It’s with dedication to that craft that can make any person with the right combination of enthusiasm, work ethic, and imagination the next successful screenwriting pro.

Writer/Director Nikole Beckwith
Nikole Beckwith

Nikole Beckwith is a filmmaker, writer, and artist.

She made her feature film debut with STOCKHOLM, PENNSYLVANIA starring Saoirse Ronan, Cynthia Nixon, and Jason Isaacs, which premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in the US Dramatic category and sold to A&E. The film garnered Nikole a Women’s Image Award for “Best Screenplay” and nomination for “Best Director,” a Satellite Award for “Best Film for Television”, three TV Critics Choice Award nominations including “Best Movie,” and a slew of awards and nominations for the cast.

Her second feature TOGETHER TOGETHER, which she wrote, directed and executive produced, premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival in the US Dramatic Category, and was released theatrically on April 23 by Bleecker Street Films. The film, starring Patti Harrison and Ed Helms, has been praised for subverting expectations and is certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.

As a playwright, Nikole was the first non-UK playwright invited to hold residency at The National Theatre Studio where she wrote Untitled Matriarch Play (Or Seven Sisters), which subsequently premiered at The Royal Court (Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone). Her first play Everything is Ours was developed with Labyrinth Theater Company (Artistic Director Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and premiered at HERE Arts Center in New York. Additional work has been developed and/or performed with The Public Theater, Clubbed Thumb, Playwrights Horizons, Ensemble Studio Theatre and Ars Nova. Other residencies and fellowships include; Atlantic Center for The Arts, The Public Theater, Ensemble Studio Theater, Playwrights Foundation, Half Initiative, Sundance Institute, San Francisco Film Society, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Nicholl Fellowship.

Also a pen and ink artist, her comics have been featured on WNYC, NPR, The Huffington Post, and The Hairpin, among others. As an actor, she has appeared in work by Eric Bogosian, Gregory S Moss, Labyrinth Theater Company, The Story Pirates, and EST. She made her NY theater debut originating Lady in a Leotard in Joshua Conkel’s critically acclaimed MilkMilkLemonade.​

Nikole currently splits her time between small-town Massachusetts and Los Angeles.

Screenwriter, Director, and Producer Chris Dowling
Chris Dowling

Chris Dowling is a multi-talented Writer, Director, and Producer who has optioned multiple properties that span both genre and medium. He wrote and directed his first feature in 2009, the award-winning noir comedy ROCK SLYDE. Chris followed that up by creating and selling four television properties including back-to-back 20-episode orders of REPO GAMES for Spike TV.

In 2014, he wrote the theatrical feature THE REMAINING for Sony. The next year, he wrote and directed WHERE HOPE GROWS which was released by Roadside Attractions/Lionsgate Entertainment. The film won numerous awards including the “Audience Award” at The Heartland Film Festival. The feature drama he wrote for the Grammy award-winning band For King & Country entitled PRICELESS was released in theaters in October 2016 and was nominated for a Dove Award in the category of “Inspirational Film of the Year.”

As a Producer, his documentary ASPERGER’S ARE US was purchased by Netflix and chronicles the first comedy troupe that consists entirely of openly Autistic performers. Chris followed that up with the 6-part HBO docu-series ON TOUR WITH ASPERGER’S ARE US. Next came the inspirational drama he wrote and directed that was executive produced by Tim Tebow called RUN THE RACE which did nearly 3X its production budget in domestic box office in 2019.

Chris’s latest film ROLL WITH IT, a comedy for Endeavor Content and Third Coast Entertainment comes to theaters in Fall. BLUE MIRACLE, a film he wrote starring Dennis Quaid, just released on Netflix where it quickly became the #1 highest rated movie on the platform. Chris’s large-scale musical UNDONE, which he wrote and will be directing as well as producing with Monarch Media is set for production date of Summer of 2021. Following UNDONE, is the indie drama ACIDMAN and the Little Jimmy Dickens biopic slated for a Q1 2022 shoot.

  1. 1Miyamoto, Ken. "3 Eye-Opening Differences Between Short and Feature Scripts". ScreenCraft. published: 12 October 2017. retrieved on: 19 March 2021
  2. 2MasterClass. "How to Write a TV Script: A Guide to Starting Your Career in Television Writing". MasterClass. published: 8 November 2020. retrieved on: 19 March 2021
  3. 3Hellerman, Jason. "What is a Spec Script (and How to Write One)". No Film School. published: 28 June 2019. retrieved on: 19 March 2021
  4. 4Aldredge, Jourdan. "A Guide to the Basic Film Genres (and How to Use Them)". Premium Beat. published: 10 June 2020. retrieved on: 19 March 2021
  5. 5Seastrom, Lucas O.. "MYTHIC DISCOVERY WITHIN THE INNER REACHES OF OUTER SPACE: JOSEPH CAMPBELL MEETS GEORGE LUCAS – PART I". published: 22 October 2015. retrieved on: 19 March 2021
  6. 6Kram, Wendy. "WENDY'S LA4HIRE: Great Screenplay Writing Part 6 - Conflicts & Obstacles". Script Mag. published: 29 March 2016. retrieved on: 19 March 2021
  7. 7MasterClass. "What Is Conflict in Literature? 6 Different Types of Literary Conflict and How to Create Conflict In Writing". MasterClass. published: 8 November 2020. retrieved on: 19 March 2021
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