Writing a Script: The Fundamentals for Creating a Compelling Story
When boiled down to basics, writing a script is nothing more than putting enough words on paper — or a computer screen — to create a screenplay that’s 100 pages, give or take. But like any creative endeavor, it’s rarely that simple.
Especially for Screenwriters just starting out, it’s important to recognize all the many steps that precede the glorious moment of writing “FADE OUT.” Because it’s these steps that will make it possible to not only finish a script but also create a story gripping enough for others to take notice and want to see it on the big screen.
Choosing Story Elements
Writing a script is much like baking a cake or building a piece of furniture. Every single element has to be carefully selected so that it fits perfectly into the greater and more cohesive whole. So before sitting down to craft that masterpiece screenplay, every Writer must know exactly what they want to go into it.
Part of what makes writing a script fun is that a Writer can do whatever they want — create new worlds, defy the laws of physics, rewrite history or forecast their personal vision of the future. But before all that imagining happens, a Writer should consider the genre they want to write in.
Genre simply means category of story, such as comedy, drama, horror, science fiction, adventure, fantasy and so on.1 Nowadays some of those lines have blurred, hence the term “dramedy,” but picking a genre is important for several reasons. One, it’s a quick and easy way to explain to others the general feel of the script. And two, working under the constraints of a genre can actually spark greater ingenuity. Consider the film Scream. What made it stand out from its horror movie predecessors was its meta-like quality of acknowledging within the world of the film the conventional tropes of the genre.
When writing a script, setting is often determined by genre. For instance, a fair number of westerns are set in the American West of the 1800s. More than one horror film takes place in a deserted house or secluded cabin.
Says Screenwriter Kayla Baken of how her genre preference informs setting, “My genre of choice is comedy. When I write a script, I always treat the setting in whatever world I’ve created like its own character — whether it’s a real place or a fictional one. I find that setting is a great source of comedy.”
But even when setting isn’t necessarily dictated by genre, a writer should give consideration to where their story is going to take place, as in many regards, setting can set the tone for the film. Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Rocky, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Hangover… New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Las Vegas. Imagine these films not set in these locations. It could have been done, but they all would have been immeasurably different films.
Okay, it’s time to get to the heart of every great script — its conflict.2 Who or what is butting heads against someone or something else? Doesn’t matter if it’s a couple on the brink of divorce or a planet on the brink of destruction. As long as the conflict is organic, exciting and at times unpredictable to keep audiences on the edges of their seats, it can make for a story that people want more of.
While conflict can source from events such as an earthquake or alien invasion, many Writers understand that an audience needs someone to identify with as they follow that conflict from inciting incident to climax to resolution. Enter the protagonist3. The protagonist, while by no means perfect, is typically the person who the audience can see themselves as. And this can happen no matter what qualities may set the protagonist apart from a conventional person. Think Forrest Gump, Laurie Strode or Sarah Connor. They all are far from the average individual, but still retain qualities that not only get the audience invested in their stories but also seeking their eventual victory whether that’s love, survival or saving the world.
Antagonists can be a lot of fun. But more important than fun, they’re mandatory when writing a script.4 Even if a Writer decides that their antagonist is going to be abstract like a tornado or even a person’s own mind, it must be present to create and progress the conflict. Because the nature of antagonists is typically outrageous and larger than life, such as the Joker in The Dark Knight Rises or the shark in Jaws, there’s always the risk of the audience identifying more with the “bad guy” than the protagonist. That’s not necessarily detrimental to the script, but the Writer should make sure that the protagonist and antagonist are evenly matched to keep tension high and the conflict riveting.
On identifying with the protagonist and antagonist, Screenwriter Joe Wielosinski notes, “I relate to my protagonist and antagonist by putting myself in the character’s shoes. I’m a firm believer that each character drives the decision. Having fleshed-out characters helps me make the decisions for them.”
Crafting the Screenplay
Once these main aspects of a screenplay have been figured out, a Writer can move into the actual writing phase. But that doesn’t necessarily mean screenplay! In fact, it may prove wiser to start small, such as with a beat sheet or treatment, before diving into a 100-page script to ensure there’s a clear story path to follow.
Whether it’s an actual paper document or a phone’s digital GPS, most people need a map to get from their starting location to their final destination. The same goes for writing a script. Sure, some Writers might just wing it, but many prefer to create their own “maps” ahead of the script-writing phase so that they don’t get lost once they write “FADE IN.” These maps can be as brief as a one-sentence logline or a lengthier 60-70 page outline that details every scene and includes dialogue. For many Writers, it’s somewhere in between.
A beat sheet, which very simply describes the main actions that occur in the story — also known as plot points — is a popular choice for Writers. Some may instead prefer a treatment, which is typically a document of 10 pages or less that tells the story in present tense and prose form. Depending on the Writer, it can go longer. And then some decide to go with an outline.6 Again, the length of this document depends solely on how detailed the Writer wants to be. Shorter doesn’t necessarily mean less helpful. It’s all about what will keep the Writer on track from opening scene to finale.
States Baken, “Preparation is everything when I write a script. For me, this is where the real work is done… I start with a beat sheet and work my way up to a scene-by-scene outline so when it comes time to actually write my script, I’m essentially just adding dialogue.”
Finally, it’s time to write a script! Given all the preparation a Writer does ahead of sitting down to write a screenplay, it might feel a bit overwhelming when the time comes to actually put pen to paper, so to speak. But now is not the time to get hung up on the details.5
In fact, the first draft phase of writing a script is really the time to just unleash the story and see what happens. All the elements have been carefully considered. One or more preparatory documents have been drafted to help along the way. Now it’s just time to write. No editing. No self-criticism. Just get those words on the page.
Why the lack of restraint? Because that will come in time. As the adage goes, “writing is rewriting.” The first draft is hardly the draft that will be sent out and used as a writing sample or even possible spec sale. The first draft is just essentially the skeleton of the script. The revisions will — and should — happen later.
Some Writers prefer to get out their first draft and then forget about their script for a while, as time away can help them see their work in a new light once they come back to it. Regardless of for how long a Writer puts their work away, they should decide how they want to tackle revisions. 7Some might very systematically go through the script multiple times, with each pass focusing on a different element, such as setting, character or dialogue. Others revise in a more holistic manner, preferring to edit whatever stands out to them as they go along in the script. Again, there’s no right or wrong, just what works better for the Writer.
And let’s not forget feedback! Screenwriter Hussain Pirani explains, “I have a small circle of filmmakers and close friends who are happy to read early drafts of material… Once it goes through revisions from that group, there’s an outer circle (usually more Screenwriters and colleagues this time). And they will almost certainly have their own thoughts that could very well blow up all my hard work. So I will say, knowing your voice is crucial for moments like this that allow you to digest notes while staying true to your vision.”
With feedback will inevitably come more revisions until that voice and vision are clear to everyone, including the Writer! Though it takes time, focused energy and a good dose of self-reflection and humility, writing a script that rises to the top is well within the reach of every aspiring Screenwriter.
- 1. "9 Popular Screenplay Genres: A Guide to Different Movie Genres". Masterclass. published: 2 July 2019. retrieved on: 16 October 2019
- 2. "Script Classics: Conflict at the Core—Four Types of Conflict". Writer’s Digest. published: 2 April 2018. retrieved on: 16 October 2019
- 3. "How to Write a Movie/Film". Screenplay.Today. published: . retrieved on: 16 October 2019
- 4Hellerman, Jason. "How Great Antagonist Examples Will Make Your Script a Page-Turner". No Film School. published: 19 November 2018. retrieved on: 16 October 2019
- 5. "Screenwriting First Draft Tips From Acclaimed Screenwriters". The Script Lab. published: 8 May 2019. retrieved on: 16 October 2019
- 6. "How to Write a Script Outline and Save Months of Rewrites". Script Reader Pro. published: 21 May 2019. retrieved on: 16 October 2019
- 7Renee, V. "Struggling on Your Screenplay Rewrite? Try the ‘Coffee Filter’ Method". No Film School. published: 24 November 2016. retrieved on: 16 October 2019