The Screenwriting Basics You Need to Write a Killer Screenplay - Careers in Film
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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.

What are you most afraid of that is holding you back?

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.

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 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?8

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.

  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
  8. 8McGrail, Lauren. "How to Write a Strong Protagonist Character in a Movie". Lights Film School. published: 2020. retrieved on: 19 March 2021
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