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Why do the basics of great script writing matter?

Because a professional Script Reader might read eight or nine scripts in a single day.

That’s nearly 50 scripts a week. Over 2,000 scripts a year. And that’s not including the “favor” scripts they agree to read for friends and friends of friends on nights and weekends. Managers, Agents, and Development Executives have an endless pile of scripts on their desks as well.

These professionals are typically the gatekeepers through which Writers make it to earn fellowships, win contests and get meetings. So to truly stand out from the thousands of competing stories vying for the attention of these individuals, stellar script writing is key.

To help Writers perfect that stellar script writing, we’re breaking down the steps to creating a screenplay that Managers, Agents and Development Execs will be eager to read.

The 9 steps to script writing include:

  1. Craft a logline
  2. Write a beat sheet
  3. Flesh out an outline
  4. Draw up a treatment
  5. Create a first draft
  6. Make edits
  7. Take a break
  8. Get feedback
  9. Submit to competitions

To learn more about the elements of script writing, we spoke with:

  • Ashley Avis (Black Beauty, Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West
  • Matt Lieberman (Free Guy, The Addams Family, Scoob!)
  • Billy Ray (The Devil in the White City, The Hunger Games, J6)

1. Craft a Logline

Before launching into a 100-page script, let’s start with a single sentence—the logline. A logline is a one-sentence synopsis of an entire script.

Why should a logline come before a screenplay? In short, because it can help a Writer truly hone in on what their story is about. Of course, tweaks to a logline can come and are often expected, but having a solid logline that clearly and compellingly conveys the narrative is a key first step in script writing1.

2. Write a Beat Sheet

An intermediary step that many find very helpful in script writing is the creation of a beat sheet. A beat sheet gets its name from its intended purpose—to describe the major beats of a story2.

Who hasn’t heard some version of the phrase “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back?” That, in many ways, is a highly condensed beat sheet.

Longer than a logline but shorter than an outline, a beat sheet gives a Writer the chance to start fleshing out the major plot points of their script as they proceed to the next scripting step.

3. Flesh Out an Outline

Once a Writer feels like the basic plot is in good shape, it’s time to dive into the outline. The outline brings together several script writing elements, including locations, description of action, and even bits of dialogue–especially a dynamic line or two that they don’t want to forget!

An outline is often considered an absolute necessity before heading into the screenplay writing phase because much like an architectural blueprint or aeronautical chart, it’s the document that a Writer uses to guide their way as they create their screenplay3.

What are the five stages of script writing?

Anna Keizer

The truth is that every Script Writer will develop their own process of developing and writing a screenplay. But if you’re just starting out, it can help to have a map of how to proceed from one step to the next. The following stages can lead you from idea to completed script:

  • Stage one: Create a logline. A logline is a single sentence that describes the story of your script.
  • Stage two: Create an outline. An outline is a document that details the major plot points of your script and allows you to see how the arc of the story unfolds.
  • Stage three: Write a treatment. A treatment is a prose retelling of your script. While a treatment can be incredibly helpful for Script Writers themselves, they are also often asked for in lieu of a script by Producers and Executives who are interested in the script’s concept.
  • Stage four: Write the script. With your logline, outline, and treatment in hand, you should have a solid starting point for your script. That’s not to say it won’t be a challenge, but those supporting documents will prove invaluable during the actual screenwriting process.
  • Stage five: Edit. But first, forget your script. Give yourself some time away from it. Then return to your screenplay with fresh eyes and tighten up what isn’t working. And remember, no first draft should ever be a final draft.

4. Draw Up a Treatment

A beat sheet or outline might make sense to the Writer, but would it to an outside person? To make sure that these materials are first and foremost telling a story, many Writers also draft a treatment to make sure their narrative is staying on point.

Told in third person and present tense–like a script–a treatment is a prose telling of the screenplay.4 While some Writers might be eager to jump from a beat sheet or outline right into the script, it’s important to keep in mind that some Managers, Agents, or Execs might ask first to read the treatment since it’s often a tenth or less of the length. So, do not underestimate the importance of a treatment!

5. Create a First Draft

All right, we’re ready to start on that script! With these initial steps completed, writing a screenplay becomes incredibly easier. Not easy, but easier. And if a Writer has done their homework to create a solid narrative foundation, these screenplay elements should be part of the first draft5.

How do you write a script?

Anna Keizer

Writing a script is unlike writing any other type of storytelling. It’s not prose like you would see in a novel. It also has its own unique format. That’s why it may takes years or even decades for a Screenwriter to feel like they have a handle on how to write a script.

The best place to start is by reading other scripts, which will quickly show you how the format of a screenplay is created. Finding a type of screenwriting software that works for you can be likewise incredibly helpful in putting into practice the specific steps of how to write a script.

While some Screenwriters really do pick up the craft on their own, many look to classes or books for help when learning about the creative elements, such as plot, character development, and conflict, that are essential to a good script.

And the very best way of writing a script? Just do it! Even if the first few attempts are nothing more than for your eyes only, practice is by far the most effective way to learn the craft.

What is the format for script writing?

Anna Keizer

Today’s Screenwriters have a leg up on those of decades past because of the many different screenwriting software programs out there. Find one that you like and start exploring with it.

In general, though, the most common formatting elements that go into a screenplay are the scene headings, action lines, character names, and dialogue. Other elements include parentheticals and transitions.

Again, this can’t be overestimated… Find a screenwriting software program (many are free!) that feels intuitive to you to get a grasp on the different elements and how they are used.

How do you write a script?

Matt Lieberman (Free Guy, The Addams Family, Scoob!)

I think there’s no right way to write a screenplay. You usually want to have a sense of where you’re going. You probably should read a book or two. Save the Cat! . . . is a good resource for showing beginners how a movie is structured. It doesn’t have to be structured the way he does it, but it’s a good starting-off point to get you thinking.

Some people write their scenes out on notecards or white boards and piece it together like a puzzle before they start. Others like to outline. I like a rough outline, so I know where I’m going–but I like to leave a lot for discovery and surprise along the way. That’s the real fun part for me. Coming up with ideas and scenes that you didn’t even know were in you. Painting characters into a corner and figuring out an interesting way for them to get out of it.

I would advise against charging into the writing process for a beginner, because most of the time you’ll hit a wall and not know why you’re stuck. Then it’s harder to go back and try to untangle why you’ve gotten there.

I would also say, not to let anybody read your script until you’ve hit the end of your first draft. Once you’re done, give it to as many Writers or Teachers or industry people as you can. Everyday friends can’t give you real valuable screenwriting feedback–just because you like movies doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to quantify how a screenplay isn’t working or how to make it better. And when you get feedback, you have to let yourself be open to criticism and know that it’ll only make it better in the end. You need to be thick-skinned to be a Screenwriter and willing to kill your darlings. Writing is rewriting.

Ashley Avis (Black Beauty, Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West )

To me, you should start by reading as many screenplays as you can. Read the type of work, and the genres, you love and resonate with–and hope to stylistically write. You can Google search for screenplay PDFs, or order them online. Read books about screenwriting, such as Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, Screenplay by Syd Field, and Story by Robert McKee.

Learning about structure is essential, and will ultimately free you creatively once you learn more about how a screenplay is more formally constructed. Write spec scripts. You will probably throw out most of them later on, but that’s okay. You must work, and write, to develop your style. And that will take years. It is an ever-evolving process.

Personally, when I sit down to write a screenplay, I have gestated the idea for a long time. Before I put my fingertips to the keys, I do quite a bit of thinking, walking around in nature, listening to classical music (I have an ever-growing “writing” playlist). I work through beat sheets and outlines.

If I am writing something original, I spend hours upon hours imbuing meanings behind my character names. I have days where I feel like I’ve failed, others when I feel like I’ve succeeded. Over the years I’ve become less afraid to throw bad pages out or start all over again. Once I have a draft, I speak the dialogue aloud, feeling out how it sounds in the air–does it sound truthful, real, authentic?

That whole process can sometimes take a long time–weeks, months, years–every project is different. But once I am ready to write, it feels like a little bell going off. And then there is a settled feeling, and I personally tend to write a first draft quite quickly. After that initial draft is out, however (which is so exciting) the work has only just begun.

From there I re-write like crazy. Later, if I am lucky enough for that project to go somewhere and transform from a hundred or so black and white pages into a living, breathing film or another medium, and I begin working with the Producers, Actors, and other creatives, I re-write again.

Screenplays and stories are ever-changing, ever-evolving, and I love the collaboration that comes from that, especially getting to know the characters once they are alive and in front of me. I enjoy studying speech patterns and idiosyncrasies. And when you’re sitting in that first table read, hearing your words aloud for the very first time–it is truly surreal. All the hard work is worth it.

Billy Ray (The Devil in the White City, The Hunger Games, J6)

The first thing you need to do is decide what you want to write. You’re always going to have a lot of ideas competing for bandwidth inside your head and you have to pick the one that’s going to be the right one.

I apply a really simple litmus test. It’s the idea I wake up thinking about. If I don’t wake up thinking about an idea—if there isn’t something inside me subconsciously trying to claw its way out—I won’t do my most inspired work. So that’s the first thing.

Once you decide what it is you want to write, ask yourself, “What does that movie or TV show feel like tonally? Does it feel like an action movie? Does it feel like a drama? Does it feel like a horror?”

Once I’ve settled on a tone, then I think about other movies that have already been made in that tone. I will go out and get the soundtrack from one of those movies, play it and get myself in the emotional headspace of what that tone feels like. Then the ideas come to me.

As the ideas come to me, I’m constantly writing them down. I open a file on my computer where I start putting together a treatment. Just random ideas about scenes, characters, what the world looks like, what the theme should be. Any idea I can come up with at that moment gets thrown in there. I don’t edit myself during that process. I don’t judge myself in any way. I know some of the ideas are going to be dumb. That’s absolutely fine.

It’s just letting yourself have a certain consciousness about it at that time. Anything that sounds intriguing, just write it down. Once you’ve been doing that for a while–it takes a couple of weeks–then you step back.

Do you know how to do a sculpture of an elephant? You start with a block of granite and you chip away everything that’s not an elephant, right? All these ideas are your block of granite. You step back and say, “What’s the story in here? What’s the simple, emotional journey I’m trying to tell?” Anything that isn’t that just falls out of the treatment and now you’re left with your elephant, which is the story you’re supposed to be telling.

I never write a script without starting with a treatment first. It usually ends up being 30 or 40 pages with a bit of dialogue but it’s just scratch-track dialogue.

When I wrote the script for Captain Phillips, I was working off a treatment that was 65 pages because I had so much information I had learned about the Merchant Marine and how it worked. When I wrote The Comey Rule, the treatment was 144 pages. It was every note I had taken from every interview. It was every note I had taken from every book, the IG report, available recordings. So treatments can vary in size.

But when I start to write the script, I stay inside that same treatment. The scenes that I write cannibalize the ideas that I have in the treatment, so pretty soon the treatment stops being ideas and starts being scenes.

The reason I do that is that it takes the terror out of writing. You’re not going to start your screenplay by staring at a blank page and a blinking cursor telling you that you don’t have any talent. By the time you sit down to write the first draft, you’ve got 30 pages of treatment in front of you and it just makes you more confident.

Is it hard to write a screenplay?

Billy Ray (The Devil in the White City, The Hunger Games, J6)

It is very hard to write a screenplay. It should be hard to write a screenplay. It’s a wonderful way to make a living–telling stories all day long. It beats digging a ditch. It beats working in an emergency room and getting COVID. It’s a great job and therefore it shouldn’t be available to everybody.

It’s hard because we collectively, as a culture, have seen a lot of movies and a lot of TV shows. We’ve seen many stories play out and so our standards are very tough to beat.

By that, I mean stories that surprise us. We’ve seen just about every twist there is. We’ve seen lots of different characters and lots of different conflicts, so what’s difficult is staying within the rules of good screenwriting and yet breaking them in a way that is unexpected and perhaps paradigm-shifting.

The fact that it’s hard doesn’t mean it cannot be done. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try. You become a writer by writing. You don’t become a writer by thinking. You have to sit down and do it.

What I would say to a 15-year-old wanting to write a screenplay is that a goal without a plan is just a wish. Start applying your plan to your goal, and that plan should involve reading screenplays. They are very easy to get online. Or watching movies that you’ve seen two times. Watch them three more times and see what makes them work.

Ask yourself at what point of the story do you become engaged or at what point in the story do you fall out of that engagement? When do you stop caring and why? It could be that a moment sixty minutes into the movie is supposed to make you cry and it didn’t. Ask yourself why. Chances are it’s because you weren’t engaged enough on page five.

When I was first coming up, I was interning for these two TV Producers when I was still at UCLA. It was a big internship and I read every script that came through that office. And I would ask myself, “This script is working. Why? This script is not working. Why?” And you start to do that kind of analysis and you learn right where you want to be.

Matt Lieberman (Free Guy, The Addams Family, Scoob!)

Writing a screenplay is a lot like golf. I guess it’s not hard to play golf–but it’s hard to play golf well. I would say the same thing for screenwriting.

You could probably get on your computer and write 90-100 pages of a screenplay. There will be characters talking and things happening but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be any good.

It’s not just about getting to the finish line. Screenwriting is a craft. Like anything else, it takes years and writing multiple screenplays to get better and to start to really understand how it works. I’m still learning. Every script, I’m learning.

Ashley Avis (Black Beauty, Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West )

Some days it feels like new worlds, beautiful dialogue, lyricism and art simply pour out of you. Other days you feel like you are a complete and utter failure and will never write a decent page again. Over the years, I’ve better come to understand those swings, but it still doesn’t make the hard days easy! But, I love to write. I love what I do desperately, so I push through for the days when the little bell rings true.

So if you are passionate about writing above all else, if you know in your gut there is simply no other path, if you are ready to put in years upon years of incredibly hard work, then dive in. For the potential rewards at the end of that long road are spellbinding.

Remember, too, that writing is a responsibility. If you are successful, your work could influence hundreds, thousands, possibly millions of people. If your screenplay is lucky enough to transform into a film–your words, characters, and messages could touch people, influence people, inspire people, make change! If you are successful…you might even create a legacy. Write wisely.

What makes a screenplay great?

Ashley Avis (Black Beauty, Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West )

I think what makes a screenplay great is a Writer’s unique vision coupled with the collaboration of a passionate team. A screenplay is only as good as the other people involved in the process–because unlike a novel, or a poem, a completed screenplay still isn’t in its final form. It longs to take that next step, to metamorphosize, to become a film.

Your vision and hard work at the writing stage, bolstered by great Producers who believe in what you’ve crafted, a wonderful Director to bring the script to life, brilliant Actors to embody your characters, and a dedicated crew to help execute it–that’s what makes a screenplay great, to me.

Matt Lieberman (Free Guy, The Addams Family, Scoob!)

A great screenplay is lightning in a bottle. There’s definitely an extra something about it that you can tell when you read it, but can’t exactly quantify–as is the case with all art. Even great Screenwriters won’t succeed every time up to bat.

But beyond that, if you have a strong concept, great characters, and emotional themes executed well, you’ll have at least a really good screenplay. Is your movie about something interesting, compelling, emotional, or personal? Then chances are that will translate on the page.

That being said, I believe that perfect is the enemy of good, and you should not stop yourself from telling your story because you’re afraid it won’t be great. A great screenplay can be achieved in one draft or twenty. There’s no one way to get there but you won’t ever know if you don’t try.

Billy Ray (The Devil in the White City, The Hunger Games, J6)

There are a lot of things. One is the Writer having a unique voice. A screenplay that feels like only one person in the world could have written it. One thing that inexperienced Writers always forget is that there is no one in the world that has your voice. Nobody has your past, your history, your talent, your pain, your energy, your joy–that’s unique to you.

It’s like a snowflake in that way. No one can write the screenplay that you can write, including me. But I want to see that translate on the page. I don’t want to see a screenplay that anybody could have written. So that’s one of the things that I look at first.

Does the person develop characters in a way that’s interesting? Does the person pick a world that’s really specific and detailed? Do people behave in an idiosyncratic way? (Which is a very good thing.) Can they write a scene? Can they actually keep my interest for a scene?

The most important thing of all of it is, do they make me care? Screenplays are an intellectual exercise designed to elicit an emotional response. If I write a script and someone calls me and says, “This is the smartest script I’ve ever read,” I have failed 100 percent. Because I’m reaching them in their head instead of their guts. Belief and love are the ones that hit you in your guts. They’re the ones that make you feel. They make you root for something.

“God, I hope Dorothy makes it home. God, I hope Chief Brody catches the shark. God, I hope Rocky wins the fight.” That’s because you’re invested. The primary job of a Screenwriter is to make sure the audience is going to be invested. You want to do the thinking so they can just do the feeling. That’s the thing I’m looking for most.

How much do Script Writers earn?

Anna Keizer

The salary of a Script Writer depends on multiple factors, including the nature of the material they’re being asked to write and the production company or studio asking them to write it.

For instance, a Script Writer who is hired to write a feature film – or someone who sells a feature script – will generally make more than someone who is hired for a single season of a streamed television show or web series.

The fees for a Script Writer are just one component of a production budget, but typically the bigger the budget, the bigger the fees. For this reason, a feature film backed by a major production company or studio can afford to pay more than a startup or independent Producer.

Some Script Writers may also belong to the WGA, or Writers Guild of America, a union that sets minimum rates for its members. Often being a member of the WGA means an overall higher payday.

Because Script Writers can be hired for projects big and small, it’s incredibly challenging to determine an annual salary. In some cases, a Script Writer may make nothing in a given year or earn only royalties from a prior project.

However, should they be consistently working, a Script Writer might earn anywhere between $30,000 and $110,000 in a given year.

Unique Premise

Every great script begins with a compelling premise… A shark terrorizes an east coast community over the Fourth of July. An adventurous Archeologist searches for the lost Ark before the Nazis find it. A young boy tries to hide and protect an alien left behind on earth.

The above concepts might all belong to Steven Spielberg films, but they’re also some of the most iconic movies ever produced. Why? Because at the time, those stories had never been seen before. Spielberg–and his Screenwriter collaborators–found a hook in each story that got people to not only pay attention but also want to know more.

Memorable World

Let’s go back to those concepts. Beyond hooking the audience with a unique premise, each story was brought to life through the creation of a believable, three-dimensional world—and that world begins long before a camera shoots it. It always starts on the page.

It’s important to note that a screenplay is not a novel where lengthy, and sometimes flowery, descriptions of the world are common. In a script, economy of space is vital…which makes it all the more essential that a Writer knows how to describe and build a world with minimal words.

Distinct Characters

When deciding on characters for a story, here’s a good rule of thumb for Writers: you should know who is saying what even if you remove the character names from the script.

Characters should not be interchangeable. Each one must have a distinct voice that is separate from every other character in that story. But how to develop those distinct voices? While not mandatory to create a memorable cast of characters, many Writers choose to write backgrounds for each of their characters.

Others have a list of questions that they answer for their protagonists and antagonists. Both exercises serve to provide more specificity for their characters, which helps to make them more distinct.

Gripping Plot

A logically and thematically sound plot is crucial to any script. Writers should keep in mind, though, that logic doesn’t necessarily mean what makes sense in the real world. They can make up any rules they want for their story, but those rules need to both fit together and build upon one another. Whatever the logic, it must make sense for that particular world.

Another question to ask… What is the story really about? Is it just about an Archaeologist finding a piece of history or is it about the forces of good overcoming evil? While the plot should move along the action and progress of the story, it should also be continually building upon the larger themes of the story, whether that’s love, redemption, independence or any other human experience.

Because, while a fast-paced race to find the Ark of the Covenant can be fun to watch, it’s the larger themes of Raiders of the Lost Ark that make the audience care about whether or not Indy will be successful.

Cathartic Climax & Resolution

When the audience does find out what happens—that Brody blows up the shark or that E.T. does go home—how will they feel? Will they think the outcome was warranted? That there is satisfaction in how the final climax leads to the resolution? It’s up to the Writer to give the reader not necessarily what they want but rather what the story needs.

A Writer should always be looking for the climax and resolution that makes sense for the story and characters, and sometimes that means going against what they think the audience wants. For instance, Rhett doesn’t stay with Scarlett. R.P. McMurphy never escapes the psychiatric ward. Jack dies before he and Rose can be rescued.

They’re all bittersweet yet ultimately satisfying endings precisely because they adhere to the way the final climax was executed.

6. Make Edits

Got a finished first draft of a screenplay? Congratulations! Now it’s time to make it better. As the adage goes, “writing is rewriting.” No first draft is the last draft6. That being said, how a Writer chooses to edit can vary from person to person.

Some Writers may go through their scripts page by page and make edits to whatever element they think needs tweaking. Others read through a script with a specific task, such as sharpening the dialogue or making the action lines more concise.

Speaking of dialogue and action lines, now