How to Write a Movie Script: The Basics of This Storytelling Craft
Every Screenwriter asks the question of how to write a movie script at some point in their careers. Because the truth is that there is no one tried-and-true formula that will work every time for every Writer. Yes, there is a specific format for screenplays, as we will discuss. And yes, there’s even a three-act structure that most script experts recommend following when writing a screenplay. But how to write a movie script also involves individual voice, imagination, and innovation, which is why even the most practiced Screenwriters may question themselves from time to time.
The good news is that by learning the basics of this storytelling craft, such as format and story structure, an aspiring Screenwriter can immediately put themselves in a better position to get their work noticed and career ignited. And that’s exactly what we will explain how to do!
In our discussion of how to write a movie script, we’ll cover:
- Knowing the difference between a movie script and other storytelling mediums
- Movie script formatting
- Three act structure
- Creating conflict
Movie Script vs. Other Storytelling Mediums
But first, what exactly is a movie script? Plenty of people have heard the term thrown around in conversation, but why do screenplays exist? Especially when so many films are made from existing intellectual property such as graphic novels, books, and even newspaper articles, why aren’t those storytelling mediums used for making a movie?
Well, let’s take a look at one of the most successful adaptations in cinema—that of the Harry Potter books. As a whole, the series clocks in just under 20 hours of viewing time. Consider then just how long the films would be if the source material, which between all the books is approximately 4,000 pages, had been used instead of a script that hovers around 120 pages per movie. How to write a movie script is critical, as in many cases the source material needs to be condensed to fit the length of a film. Alternately, a 500-word newspaper article might make a great jumping-off point for a film, but it’s hardly enough material to sustain a two-hour movie. However, that’s when the talent of a Screenwriter can be utilized by fleshing out that article and making it an interesting story for the screen.
But even in the absence of source material, a screenplay is fundamental to the filmmaking process. Just as Architects require blueprints for the construction of a building, so too do filmmakers need scripts to create a film. As we’re about to dive into, a movie script entails very specific formatting that can not only describe for a reader what is happening in the story but also reveal to a Director, Cinematographer or other entertainment professional the key elements necessary for it to be made into a movie.
At its core, a three-act structure provides the foundation for a writer to create a story filled with conflict that keeps the reader or viewer intrigued, as well as giving the characters within the story the chance to make decisions or be on the receiving end of others’ actions that inform their character growth for better or for worse.
Movie Script Formatting & Its Importance
A movie script is unlike any other type of storytelling format, as it is meant to be both understood via the written word and ultimately translated into the visual and audio medium of film. For those reasons, the way in which a screenplay is written is extremely specific with clearly defined elements, such as scene headings, action lines, and dialogue. These are just a few of the most common script elements, but make no mistake, anyone intent on becoming a Screenwriter should take the time and energy to learn thoroughly what each element is and how it should be used in a screenplay. For now, it’s important to simply take note that these elements constitute the foundation of how to write a movie script.
A brief explanation of why these elements are necessary breaks down to this: Each succinctly tells the reader what is happening in a particular scene, and for the filmmakers who intend to turn the screenplay into a movie, what they need to assemble to make it happen. For instance, an opening scene heading can let a reader or filmmaker know that they’re at the Corleone compound as opposed to anywhere else fictionalized or in real life. The following action line might then indicate that there’s a conversation taking place between Vito Corleone and another man. Finally, the initial line of dialogue, “I believe in America,” sets up in a significant way one of the major themes of the story and film.
For a Screenwriter, having depth of understanding as it regards screenplay formatting serves two purposes. First, as mentioned above, correct formatting allows anyone reading or working from the screenplay to understand the story and how it can transition to the screen. Says Screenwriter Sara Strange, “The Writer’s main goal is to create a fluid reading experience. When you veer too far from proper/expected format, you create roadblocks/speed bumps for the reader that distract them from what’s truly important: the story.”
Second, though this may be considered a less tangible benefit, it demonstrates to others that the Screenwriter is of a professional caliber and knows how to write for the medium. For example, if a Manager, Agent, Producer or Executive comes across a script full of confusing scene headings, wordy action lines or dialogue attributed to the wrong character—it happens!—it can be the difference between wanting to move forward with the Writer or script and passing on it no matter how great the story. In short, Writers should understand the importance of a good first impression, and solid script formatting can go a long way towards it.
As Screenwriter Courtney Suttle emphasizes, “Every Studio Exec, Agent, Literary Manager, Script Reader, Producer, Director, etc. has hundreds of scripts sitting on their desk at any given time and they are looking for any excuse to make that pile smaller. Improper, sloppy formatting provides an immediate excuse to toss the script directly into the pass pile. Don’t be that Writer.”
While it can initially feel overwhelming to the Writer just starting out, the craft of screenplay writing can be so much more than a head-scratching proposition. Instead, it can be a great opportunity to connect with audiences around the globe and make them laugh, cry, shriek or even reconsider their deep-seated beliefs through a captivating story.
The Three Acts of Movie Script Story Structure
Beyond the more technical aspects of how to write a movie script, Writers must also always be striving towards creating the best story possible—and there are many ways to do it. We’ve already mentioned theme. There’s also character arc. Conflict. Emotional weight. Plot progression. All these elements and more can support an interesting and dynamic story, but all of them typically reveal themselves within the three-act structure.
Three-act structure. Again, it’s a term used quite often in the entertainment world, but why is it so important for a screenplay? On how to approach the three-act structure, Suttle notes, “Keep it simple, as every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. That’s your three-act formula. My job as a Writer is to provide the reader with the motivation to keep turning the page no matter which act they’re in.” But how exactly to keep the reader turning those pages?
Let’s use The Godfather again as an example. How interesting would it be if the story was just that a young man takes over the family business from his father? We go from point A to point B with no conflict, thematic value or character development. But imagine instead that the story was the following: A young man wanting to escape the violent lifestyle that has allowed his father to become a wealthy and influential mafia figure ends up taking it over from him after the father is on the receiving end of an attempted hit and his older brother the victim of a successful one. Now that’s a story! Not to mention the assassination of his first wife and the execution-style hits on his many rivals that set him up as the unopposed mafia head.
At its core, a three-act structure provides the foundation for a writer to create a story filled with conflict that keeps the reader or viewer intrigued, as well as giving the characters within the story the chance to make decisions or be on the receiving end of others’ actions that inform their character growth for better or for worse. Or as Strange succinctly explains, “I’m old school and like the general 1) put your character up a tree; 2) throw rocks at them; 3) get them out of the tree structure.”
As with script formatting, it’s essential that aspiring Screenwriters continue to nurture their expertise by learning all they can about three-act structure, including the rare instances in which they may break the rules! But the reason why three-act structure has such a stronghold in screenwriting is that it works. The first act provides the inciting incident which gives a reason as to why we’re following this story now and continues with the first major plot point. Moving into the second, the conflict should build, though the protagonist may experience the occasional “victory” along the way to keep the plot moving in a surprising and interesting way. With the second major plot point, we enter the third act, which is where the climax of the story will take place, as well as the resolution.
Scripts are often referred to as blueprints because the similarities between them are so strong. Within a blueprint, you might have designations for plumbing, electricity, insulation and more alongside the actual building plans. In the same way, a screenplay encompasses many elements, correct script formatting and three-act structure among them.
While it can initially feel overwhelming to the Writer just starting out, the craft of screenplay writing can be so much more than a head-scratching proposition. Instead, it can be a great opportunity to connect with audiences around the globe and make them laugh, cry, shriek or even reconsider their deep-seated beliefs through a captivating story. With passion, patience, and practice, the opportunity exists for all Writers to have the chance to enjoy this experience and further their craft of how to write a movie script.
- “What Is a Screenplay?” Screenwriting.io. Retrieved 15 November 2019.
- Haber, Joel (22 January 2018). “Script Classics: Adapting to the Adaptation Process.” Writer’s Digest. Retrieved 15 November 2019.
- Renee, V (24 September 2017). “Learn Script Formatting (& Why Screenplay Format Matters).” No Film School. Retrieved 15 November 2019.
- Miyamoto, Ken (23 July 2018). “Does Correct Screenplay Format REALLY Matter?” Screencraft. Retrieved 15 November 2019.
- Moura, Gabe (1 June 2014). “The Three-Act Structure.” The Elements of Cinema. Retrieved 15 November 2019.
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Best Free Screenwriting Software Options
If you want to get a start in the film business without spending a dime, there is free screenwriting software to do just that! But don’t forget, getting your start means more than putting words on paper. Study the craft and learn how to tell a story first. But that’s why you’re here, right? You already have one rattling in your head and you want to put it in a script. Congratulations! Now you face the technical task of formatting your writing to the industry standard for screenplays. As you probably already know, formatting your script is crucial, not only for writing it but if you want to have it read by a professional and you want to have a career as a Screenwriter, it’s absolutely mandatory. Luckily, there is screenwriting software to help! But before you spend any money, take some programs for a test drive first. And beyond looking into software, make sure you learn the elements of a screenplay and formatting rules before you dive in.
Most screenwriting programs come with tools for organizing your ideas, mapping your stories, and keeping track of characters, among other things, while others offer full production suites for you to take your script through production. Some are cloud-based programs and others are downloadable. (In case you don’t know, cloud-based software is accessed online like Google Docs, so you need an Internet connection to use it.)
Our picks for the best free screenwriting software:
- Writer Duet
- Page 2 Stage
- Highland 2
- Story Touch
- Fade In
As you shop, assess your needs as a Writer. I, for example, prefer to do my prewriting away from the computer with a pen and paper, so I don’t use a lot of the in-program tools. I also like to unplug when I write, so I don’t like cloud-based programs. On the other hand, if I were collaborating with another Writer, I would opt for a cloud-based program, so it just depends on what you need for your project. Maybe you want a TV pilot template instead of a feature film template. Maybe you like to customize your windows. Find a tool that works for you. If you have no idea what you want, try them all!
One of the things to look for in a scriptwriting program is one that is compatible with industry-standard software like Final Draft or Movie Magic. That way, if you have the opportunity to get the script into the hands of someone who can make it, you can export a file that can be imported into other industry standard programs used by various department heads. I will touch on this a little bit below.
So let’s look at the free screenwriting software currently available in 2019. Some of the sites I discovered are not secure, which I will note in my description.
Trelby is available as a download and is designed for Windows and Linux. It offers writing and editing tools and many of its features are customizable. It also has story tracking and revision tracking tools, which allows you to compare drafts. It also offers many export options that include .pdf and Final Draft.
How Free is It?
It’s totally free. You can even contact the programmers and make suggestions on how it can be better.
Writer Duet has a cloud-based and a downloadable version, but the download is only available with a subscription. The biggest selling point to this program is that it is designed for collaboration. You can work with writing partners on the same document at the same time. You can also fly solo with Writer Duet, which is what you will do with the free version, which is the bare bones program that has feature, TV pilot and stage play templates with basic writing and editing capabilities.
How Free is It?
Your first three scripts are free, regardless of the length. You can export as many .pdf files as you want with these three scripts, but once you start your fourth script, you will be asked to buy in for $11.99 a month. Once you unlock this “pro” version, you will have more features, like the collaboration tools, unlimited scripts, Final Draft export capability, version tracking, and other tools. However, it does not require that your writing partners are “pro” users, so it won’t inhibit collaboration if you are the only one to purchase it.
As you shop, assess your needs as a Writer. I, for example, prefer to do my prewriting away from the computer with a pen and paper, so I don’t use a lot of the in-program tools. I also like to unplug when I write, so I don’t like cloud-based programs. On the other hand, if I were collaborating with another Writer, I would opt for a cloud-based program, so it just depends on what you need for your project.
Page 2 Stage is another program available only for Windows. It appears to have standard writing and editing capabilities, but the website does not specify export options. It does offer multiple languages, which is a plus for non-English Writers. One of the features it offers is called “Advanced Auto Cheat” in which you tell the program how many pages you want your script to be and it will make the script that length. This may sound like a good idea, but script pagination is a serious thing. It shouldn’t be cheated. If you are new to screenwriting, one page equals roughly one minute of screen time. In order to properly pace your film, you need to pay attention to page numbers. I wouldn’t cheat.
How Free is It?
It’s totally free, and like Trelby, it encourages program feedback. However, it comes from an unsecure website.
Drama Queen is compatible with Mac, Windows, and Linux. It is a download with a free option, which has basic writing and editing capabilities, as well as tools to write a novel. You are able to export several formats, including .pdf and Final Draft. Unfortunately, in the free version you are unable to track changes.
How Free is It?
There is a free version, however, it has limitations and comes from an unsecure website. They have two additional tiers with pricing ranging from $99 to $297, with upgrades costing $38 and $78. The differences are clearly mapped out here.
For those of you using Chrome or who have an Android phone, Dubscript is your option. It has standard writing and editing capabilities, with a version tracker and other story tools. You can use it on your tablet, phone or Chromebook and it offers .pdf and Final Draft export capabilities.
How Free is It?
Highland 2 is a Mac-based suite of downloadable tools for both Screenwriters and Novelists and is a favorite among some professionals. It has many customizable features as well as tools to help you track changes and organize your thoughts. However, export seems to be limited to only .pdf or Highland files. They argue that Final Draft is not necessarily the industry standard and that most people read a .pdf when they read a script. However, reading a script is a fraction of the life of a script. If your script turns into a movie, it will need to be in either Final Draft or Screenwriter in order for the crew to use their programs, from budgeting to script breakdowns. For example, the popular Script Supervisor program ScriptE imports only Final Draft or Screenwriter files.
How Free is It?
There is a free option. Most of the bells and whistles (including an export without a watermark) are unlocked with the “pro” purchase option, but the cost is not indicated on their website.
One of the things to look for in a scriptwriting program is one that is compatible with industry-standard software like Final Draft or Movie Magic. That way, if you have the opportunity to get the script into the hands of someone who can make it, you can export a file that can be imported into other industry standard programs used by various department heads.
Story Touch is another downloadable program for Mac and Windows. It has basic writing and editing capabilities but also has a lot of tools to help you organize your thoughts and ideas. It does not specify the export options but the benefits of this program are the organization and analysis tools that it offers.
How Free is It?
There is a free option, with the “pro” version costing $270. The comparison of the two are here. This is another unsecure site.
Fade In is my favorite. It can be used with Mac, Windows, Linux, Android, iPad – you name it. I took this program on a test drive and purchased it when I needed to make an export without a watermark. I find it to be intuitive and it has all the tools I need, from writing and editing to version tracking and exporting in Final Draft. It also offers real-time collaboration tools. It’s the best of all worlds. It is a favorite among many film professionals and is inching toward being an industry standard.
How Free is It?
They have a free trial version that exports with a watermark and is missing a few bells and whistles. The “pro” version is only $79. That’s it!
Causality is another program worth exploring. Though they have a free option, it’s only good for ten pages, so in my opinion, that doesn’t count. But it does have some amazing tools, so I will mention it here, anyway. It is very user-friendly and you can purchase it yearly for $71.88 or purchase a permanent license for $279. Though I do all of my pre-writing by hand, Causality piqued my interest with its rewriting tools that make moving scenes around a breeze.
How Free is It?
Your first ten pages are free, so if you are writing a short, I’d try it.
Summing It Up
As you explore free screenwriting software, you will see that the basic functions of each program are similar. They keep things formatted as you write and edit and help you keep track of your pages and revisions. As I mentioned above, you must find what works for you and what is compatible with the rest of the industry, because after all, that script of yours should live beyond that .pdf output.
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How to Write a Treatment: The Basics of This Essential Screenwriting Tool
How to write a treatment should be on every Screenwriter’s list of capabilities. But why? And more importantly, what exactly is a film treatment again? It’s a common—yet often unasked—question that many Writers have. Especially when “write a great script” are the go-to words of advice, how to write a treatment is a skill that frequently leaves Writers scratching their heads.
While having a stellar script should always be the priority, that doesn’t mean ignoring other materials that could both improve the outcome of the script and put it in a better position to be read by executives, Managers, Agents, and Producers. So what are we waiting for? Let’s dive into the world of writing treatments.
In our discussion of how to write a treatment, we’ll cover:
- What a treatment is
- Why treatments are necessary
- Mapping out the story
- Generating script interest
- Creating the treatment
What Is a Treatment?
Before we get to how to write a treatment, it’s crucial to understand what it is. In fact, a treatment has a lot in common with a script. For one, the goal with each is to tell a story. Two, like a screenplay, a treatment is written in present tense.
However, a significant difference between scripts and treatments is that the latter is written in prose. That’s right! It’s more similar in format to a short story than a screenplay. So even if it has taken a Writer months or years to master the fine art of writing a script with all the unique elements that go along with it like scene headings, action lines, and dialogue, that pretty much goes out the door when writing a treatment. That being said, it’s still just as important to make sure the person reading the treatment receives strong introductions to each major character, as well as the significant plot points.
Why Are Treatments Necessary?
The task of how to write a treatment often comes with confusion and questions because some Writers don’t understand the why behind it. After all, if they have a solid script, what’s the point of a treatment?
Mapping Out the Story
First of all, a treatment can be an incredibly useful tool in assessing story. If a Writer can’t put pen to paper—or fingers to keyboard—and describe the script’s characters and explain its story trajectory in prose form, odds are they won’t do much better in screenplay format. So in many regards, a treatment can be used as a training ground for making sure the story is structurally sound. In short, does it read well? Is it compelling? Unexpected? All these elements should be part of a strong treatment.
Screenwriter Heidi Hornbacher notes, “The biggest benefit of writing a treatment is that it’s essentially me creating a roadmap for the project. It helps me sort out all the details and it forces me to do background work that always proves valuable once I start writing drafts of the script. So it’s good for me. Then, because I’ve thought through all this stuff, it’s much easier to articulate my vision to others like Producers or people who might be able to help make the project happen… I can talk about the look and feel of the world, the tone, the themes, anything like that. So a treatment helps keep me on track and sort out my creative process. AND it helps me articulate the details of the project so I can get other key folks as excited as I am about it.”
Of course, it’s possible that no one may ever ask for the treatment, but being prepared to provide one could mean the difference between getting an industry VIP willing to learn more about the story or simply saying, “No thanks.”
But why can’t a Writer just use an outline to achieve the same objectives? The truth is that they can. Both a treatment and outline provide a more in-depth fleshing out of a script that likely will provide a clearer path to a great script in comparison to note cards or a beat sheet. But where a treatment might provide an advantage over an outline is again in story flow. An outline often is written out scene by scene, which can be incredibly helpful. But a treatment is a tool that essentially ties those scenes together and reveals whether they seamlessly move from one to the next.
Says Screenwriter Andrea Smith Peek, “Writing a treatment helps me figure out story and character choices in a more manageable, smaller format. In treatment form, it’s easier to see how the whole story comes together, solve potential story problems, and get a feel for the emotional arc of the story. Not to mention, it’s easier to make changes to a treatment compared to a full script. The best thing about writing a treatment is when I finally get to actual script pages the dialogue flows because I know my characters’ wants, plans, and obstacles.”
Generating Script Interest
Some Writers wonder about how to get that script into the hands of someone like an executive or agent. But they should also be asking themselves how to get that  Because the truth is that some decision-makers may not want to read an entire script. Sure, they can—and often do—stop at the first 10 pages of a screenplay if they’re not connecting to the material, but that still leaves them without knowing the full story. So instead, some executives, Agents, Managers, and Producers might prefer to read a treatment.
In those cases, it typically won’t be a 50-page treatment that they’ll be wanting to read, which is why Writers should have on hand a version that’s about 10 pages or less. Of course, it’s possible that no one may ever ask for the treatment, but being prepared to provide one could mean the difference between getting an industry VIP willing to learn more about the story or simply saying, “No thanks.”
Another reason Writers should know how to write a treatment is so they’re ready to submit it for contests and fellowships. Especially over the last several years, competitions of all kinds have become a popular way for Screenwriters to get their work noticed. For some, all that’s required is the script itself. But for others, they mandate having a treatment of the story in addition to the screenplay. So having a treatment prepped ahead of time can mean a smoother submission experience.
When it comes to treatments, “always be prepared” is a handy motto to keep in mind. Because every Screenwriter wants to put out the strongest script possible, and knowing how to write a treatment can help them towards that goal.
How Does a Writer Go About Creating a Treatment?
Finally… How to write a treatment. Just like any other type of writing, it’s entirely possible that someone may simply want to take a seat at their computer and begin. But as with a screenplay, a little preparation never hurts.
That’s why some Writers may decide to start with note cards, beat sheets or even an outline before writing their treatment. In the same vein, these tools can provide a useful roadmap as a Writer creates their treatment and make the overall process an easier one.
Also, these tools can actually help Writers focus on the “bigger picture.” Unless the intent of the treatment is for the Writer’s eyes only as they eventually make the leap to their script, it doesn’t necessarily need to have every minor character and side plot explained. As mentioned earlier, many times treatments are provided in lieu of a script so that the person on the receiving end can spend less time reading it. Therefore, having a concise list like a beat sheet or even a condensed outline can be a strength in making sure that the treatment sticks to only the major characters and significant story arcs within the three-act structure.
One disclaimer: Like a script, each new character who is introduced into the treatment should have their name capitalized at first mention. This lets the reader take note of their introduction and more easily track them in the story. Otherwise, Writers should craft the treatment in conventional prose form as if they are writing a story. Writers should also include the (eventual) script title and logline, as well as their contact information.
Once finished, the next steps follow a similar trajectory to a script. Some Writers may choose to put the treatment away for a few days or weeks and come back to it with fresh eyes. Some may put it away for a while, make revisions and then send it out for feedback to a few trusted colleagues. There’s no one way to polish a treatment outside of recognizing that a first draft should never be the draft sent out for submission.
Screenwriter Steven Vivell emphasizes the importance of working and reworking a treatment, “You want the story you love the most… This means exploring and eliminating lots of options. You might waste your time writing a script that doesn’t have enough to sustain the story and characters. Then you’ll go back to the drawing board anyway. It’s better to do that preparatory work first and save yourself a lot of time and effort. Some Writers fear this because story plans or character biographies might feel technical and mundane, like writing an official report. But it’s an extremely creative and critical part of the process, and adopting a creative mindset for this may help. It’s also fun, because you can dream up anything without committing to anything (yet). Also, none of this is permanently set in stone. The treatment can and will change once you start writing the script. You must be open to change during the writing process, as you’ll discover new things you like, and some things you planned won’t work out.”
When it comes to treatments, “always be prepared” is a handy motto to keep in mind. Because every Screenwriter wants to put out the strongest script possible, and knowing how to write a treatment can help them towards that goal. At the end of the day, not only can a polished treatment support those efforts, but also—and perhaps more importantly—it can provide a Writer with confidence so that when opportunity knocks, they’ll be ready to open the door.
- McGrail, Lauren. “What Is a Film Treatment, and When Do You Need One?” Lights Film School. Retrieved 24 October 2019.
- Grover, Micki. “What is a Film Treatment, and Why Do I Need One?” Writers Store. Retrieved 24 October 2019.
- “How to Write a Screenplay Treatment That Gets More Requests.” Script Reader Pro (2 June 2015). Retrieved 24 October 2019.
- Hellerman, Jason (23 October 2018). “How to Write a Treatment (with Film Treatment Examples).” No Film School. Retrieved 24 October 2019.
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.
The following breaks down some of the most common elements and actions that go into writing a script that resonates beyond the imagination of the Writer and gains enough traction to get made into a film:
- Central Conflict
- Support Docs
- First Draft
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. 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.
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.
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. 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 protagonist. 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. 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.”
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.
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. 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.
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. Some 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.
- “9 Popular Screenplay Genres: A Guide to Different Movie Genres.” Masterclass (2 July 2019). Retrieved 16 October 2019.
- “Script Classics: Conflict at the Core—Four Types of Conflict.” Writer’s Digest (2 April 2018). Retrieved 16 October 2019.
- “How to Write a Movie/Film.” Screenplay.Today. Retrieved 16 October 2019.
- Hellerman, Jason (19 November 2018). “How Great Antagonist Examples Will Make Your Script a Page-Turner.” No Film School. Retrieved 16 October 2019.
- “How to Write a Script Outline and Save Months of Rewrites.” Script Reader Pro (21 May 2019). Retrieved 16 October 2019.
- “Screenwriting First Draft Tips From Acclaimed Screenwriters.” The Script Lab (8 May 2019). Retrieved 16 October 2019.
- Renee, V (24 November 2016). “Struggling on Your Screenplay Rewrite? Try the ‘Coffee Filter’ Method.” No Film School. Retrieved 16 October 2019.
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How to Become a Director
There is no sure-fire path on how to become a Director. That’s the bad news and the good news. Unlike other professions, like a Lawyer or a Doctor, in which there is a prescribed education and examinations to follow, the path to becoming a Film Director is usually paved by the person who has set his or her mind on becoming a Director. You’ve heard the phrase there are many ways to skin a cat? Well, there are many ways to become a Director, because what works for one person, might not work for the other. On top of that, times are changing. Can you believe YouTube has only been around 14 years? The idea of putting video directly on the internet for everyone to see is fairly new and has opened up a new path for aspiring filmmakers to get noticed. You are diving in at a great time! But here’s the skinny. If you want to be a Director, you must have an entrepreneurial spirit.
There are many people like you who started their careers by looking for guidance. In the book Breaking In, which was written to give aspiring Directors some answers before the age of the internet, Roger Ebert, who wrote the forward, muses over the many successful filmmakers he interviewed over the years and what he learned from them. He said one question always put a spark in their eyes: “How did you get your start?” The two consistent things he saw in many of the answers were how the Directors talked about their loneliness and their resolve. That seems heavy but stick with me. Writing a screenplay is a lonely experience, and getting it made is a huge task. Nobody will understand how important it is to you, but you. That’s where the resolve comes in. As Ebert points out, “It is a career you have to make for yourself.”
It’s true. Whatever path you take, whether it’s film school or not, be ready to take the lead. To quote Ebert again, “Studios don’t send recruiters to campuses to hire young Directors. The film schools turn out hundreds of thousands of graduates a year, and if you want to make feature films, there are no jobs and no openings except the ones you make for yourself.” So I bet you’re wondering, but where do I start? Let’s look at a few things you can do to get you closer to your goal.
In our discussion of how to become a Director, we’ll cover:
- The skills a Director needs
- How to build a Director skill set
- How to get a job as a Director
- Getting yourself out there
- How to actually become a Director
What Skills Does a Director Need?
A Director must be a good leader and a good communicator. She must understand the elements of story and be able to develop a vision from a script. She must be able to communicate this vision to her team and effectively lead them through the process it takes to put that vision onto the screen. But there is more to it than that.
In his book, On Directing, John Badham refers to directing as “part art and part craft….” Art, of course, is often associated with talent, which he says is, “virtually impossible to teach, difficult to describe, but unmistakable when observed.” That said, the craft part, the anatomy of film – the shots, the design, the sound, can be learned. But what makes a Director stand out is her point of view. It is the Director’s job to interpret the script and add her “take” on it.
Can that be learned? Perhaps. This is one of those things you won’t get at film school, so read, travel and talk to as many people as you can from as many places you can. When you have a worldview, you are more likely to approach stories in a different manner. That’s not to say you can’t pay homage to other great Directors, but like any artist, you must find your own voice.
Filmmaking tools are more accessible than ever. Get your hands on a camera, or make friends with someone who has a camera and start telling visual stories. You can even use your phone. The more you make, the better you will get. You just have to get started.
How Can I Build a Director’s Skill Set?
You might be a natural leader and a go-getter. Good for you! But some people need a little more structure. For those folks, film school is one place to get started. Film school will give you a lot of practical skills and will help you develop a network of co-creators. Making a film by yourself is virtually impossible, so this is probably the best perk of film school.
In most cases, film school forces you to experience the whole process of filmmaking and the students get to work on each other’s films in order to gain experience in a safe environment. You also have the benefit of Professors who will mentor you, so each step you make you have the advantage of feedback and support.
But what if you are not the film school type? There are plenty of great Directors who did not go to film school. It’s not a must. There are certainly ways to learn the craft. There are webinars, podcasts, books, and most of all, practical experience. The key is passion.
Consume whatever you can about the craft and watch as many movies as you can. Take them apart, figure them out and then start making them. Filmmaking tools are more accessible than ever. Get your hands on a camera, or make friends with someone who has a camera and start telling visual stories. You can even use your phone. The more you make, the better you will get. You just have to get started.
How Do I Get a Job as a Director?
Part of building a career as a Director is developing relationships. Now, this happens naturally in film school, but beyond that, you have to keep expanding your network. Getting on a professional set (and this goes for self-starters, too) is a great way to meet people.
But how do you get that first job? You’ve heard about the entry-level Production Assistant (PA) gig, but how do you score one? They aren’t advertised in the classifieds.
That’s because they are waiting for you to come to them. Getting that PA job isn’t as difficult as it seems. Make a resume and knock on doors. It’s all about timing and numbers. You show up on the right day, you got yourself a shot. You show up often enough, they know you’re serious and they will give you a shot.
If you don’t live in Los Angles or New York, where most production companies are, most cities that have film production have a website that lists current productions with email addresses to send a resume. A word of advice: Don’t stalk anyone. Be polite, and let them know what you have to offer. You have value.
It does help to know where you want to work. If you are interested in development and the corporate side, send your resume to the production company office. If you are interested in working on set, send your resume to the production office. If you are interested in post-production, send your resume to post-production houses. All of these places are where you meet people and learn. I myself targeted post-production because I knew that Editors worked with the footage. Becoming an Assistant Editor gave me the opportunity to see coverage day after day and I quickly learned the pieces it took to make a movie. Later I had to learn what it took to make those pieces, but I knew this is where I wanted to start.
Ultimately, you will meet people who will help you out, whether it’s to get an Agent or a Manager, or to helm a film. Just don’t expect it to happen overnight. You wouldn’t get married after a first date, would you?
Getting Yourself Out There!
Don’t just tell people you’re a Director. As I said above, get out there and direct! Get feedback and get better. When you think you have something good enough, put together a website, get a YouTube channel or a Vimeo account and share it with the world. Let people know you are serious and you are creating things regularly.
What about a web series? Many artists are diving into this space because they aren’t waiting for opportunity to knock, they are creating their own opportunities. Think Broad City.
The other way to get noticed is by submitting your work to film festivals. You don’t have to start with a feature. Start with a short. The submission fees add up so I would save the film festival route for that gem you really think is going to take you to the next level. Film festivals offer great networking opportunities and they also give you an audience for your film. Just watch out for scam festivals.
But How Do I Actually Become a Director?
I know the advice above focuses on acquiring skills and how to network and that feels a world away from being attached to a film as a Director. But here’s the thing: if you do all of the above and you are truly dedicated to your craft and have a unique point of view, someone will notice eventually. Ultimately, you will meet people who will help you out, whether it’s to get an Agent or a Manager or to helm a film. Just don’t expect it to happen overnight. You wouldn’t get married after a first date, would you?
- Say “yes” as often as you can on the job. Be a problem solver.
- Don’t be too cool to get coffee. You’ll be too busy to get coffee one day, also.
- Read trades like Variety and the Hollywood Reporter.
- If you want to get the email of a production office, call the office of the production company and politely ask where you can send your resume for the production.
- Listen to the Director’s Guild podcast.
- Jarecki, Nicholas and Roger Ebert (2001). Breaking In: How 20 Film Directors Got Their Start. Broadway Books. Retrieved 16 October 2019.
- Badham, John (2013). On Directing: Notes from the Sets of Saturday Night Fever, WarGames, and More. Audible. Retrieved 16 October 2019.
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How to Create a Call Sheet
Knowing how to create a call sheet is essential to staying organized and keeping on schedule throughout your shoot. It’s a document that is distributed daily that tells your crew when they need to show up on set, who will be there, any special needs for the day, and what script pages the crew is tackling. It’s basically a daily blueprint and is created by the Second Assistant Director (Second AD).
A preliminary call sheet, endearingly known as the “prelim,” is usually sent out after lunch so the crew can get an idea of what is coming up the next day. However, as the world of film dictates, things shift and change as the shoot day goes on, so the final call sheet gets approved by the Unit Production Manager (UPM) and is sent out at wrap. If something’s going to change on a call sheet between the preliminary and the final, it’s the call time. The call time is determined by wrap of the previous day, so if you wrap a half-hour late, the call time will be pushed a half hour.
There is an industry-standard for a call sheet, although you might find small differences from production to production. Below are the essentials that are consistent across the board that can be easily created in Excel or Google Sheets.
The components of a call sheet are:
- Above the line info
- Production title and general crew call
- Date, day of days, the weather and nearest hospital
- Set address and set details
- Shooting schedule
- Talent information
- Background talent and stand- ins
- Special instructions
- Advance schedule
- Crew list
The top of your call sheet is divided into three parts. Let’s call them the left, center and right. Once you have created this header, the rest of your call sheet is more like a spreadsheet.
1. Above The Line Info
On the very left of the call sheet you want to make sure you have listed, without contact information, the production company, the Director, the Executive Producer(s), and the Writer. The only contact information you must put down is the production office, giving the full address and phone number. If anyone needs something, this is the number to call.
2. Production Title and General Crew Call
In the center of the page, you will have the name of the show, the production itself, and below it, you will put the general call time.
You might want to put a pre-call on there as well, which is when the Grip and Electric show up or if there is a cast rehearsal. Sometimes you will see these details on the far right of the call sheet and can sometimes include the lunch break time and the wrap time.
3. Date, Day of Days, the Weather and Nearest Hospital
On the very right, you will have the date, and what day you are on in context of the whole shooting schedule. For example, you start with day 1 of 21, to 2 of 21, etc.
The weather is another important piece of info, given that rain could mean a change of plans. You will also want to put sunrise and sunset info. Very often you are chasing the sun during a shoot, so knowing when and how much of it you have is important information!
Being prepared for an emergency is essential during production, so noting the closest hospital is important. The last thing you want to do if someone suffers an accident is scramble for emergency care.
4. Set Address
The set address is always squeezed in somewhere on the right of the call sheet. You can also indicate a map is attached, which is a great practice that can also include parking or any transportation information. Some film sets have what is called a base camp, where the crew parks and the food tent is set up for catered meals, so the cast and crew take a shuttle to the actual set.
[contentblock id=37 img=gcb.png]Knowing how to create a call sheet is essential to staying organized and keeping on schedule throughout your shoot. It’s a document that is distributed daily that tells your crew when they need to show up on set, who will be there, any special needs for the day, and what script pages the crew is tackling.
5. Shooting Schedule
Once you have created the header above, your document becomes more of a regular spreadsheet.
The shooting schedule is the meat of the day. These are the script pages that you are going to shoot. Some people think this is a shot list, but it’s not because it only includes the scene – not the coverage (different camera angles) you will get of the scene. This section is divided into these columns:
Scene Numbers: Simply the scene number.
Set and Scene Description: Example: INT. DINING ROOM, Mary and David discuss getting married.
Cast: The cast is coded by numbers to keep things simple, so in this cell, you would put in the cast code number, instead of squeezing in the names.
D/N – Day or Night: Just put a D or N.
PGS – Pages: In this cell, you put the actual script pages for reference.
Location: This is the location of the set. You might have what’s called a company move during the day, in which you change locations, so it’s important to provide this information here.
6. Talent Information
Here you will put everything you need to know about each Actor’s schedule. This section is divided into the following columns:
ID: This is the identifying number of the cast member that you used above.
Cast: The name of the Actor.
Character: The name of the character.
Status: Here you will use more codes: SW (Start Work), W (Work), WF (Work Finish), SWF (Start Work Finish) or H (Hold). It’s pretty straightforward. SWF refers to a day player and if someone has an H status, they may or may not be needed that day.
Pickup: Will the Actor need transportation or will they drive to set?
Arrive: What time the Actor arrives on set. (They are not there the entire day like the crew).
Block: What time on set blocking will take place.
Set: What time the Actor needs to be on set.
Remarks: This can be wardrobe or prop notes.
7. Background Talent and Stand-Ins
This section can be divided in a couple of ways. The information here is to make sure everyone knows what time to report for work and when they are expected to be on set. The other thing that should be noted here is how many Extras and Stand-ins you have, so the Second AD and Catering will have a headcount.
Your columns can be a variation of this:
Number (#): How many Extras will be in the scene.
Description: A brief description such as “café customers”
Report: What time they arrive – their call time.
Set Call: What time they are needed on set.
Location: You don’t need the address here, just the location; and you can add a column for scene numbers, too, if you have a lot of scenes that day.
8. Special Instructions
This section will have any reminders for particular departments.
Here’s an example:
Props: Book, notebook and pencils
Makeup/Hair: To match scene 27 – the prom hairstyle
Wardrobe: Ice scream spill on dress
SFX: Squibs, blood
Grip Electric: Crane, day for night – scene 12
Location: Hot set. Do not touch or remove anything.
Vehicle: Hero vehicle, police cars
Animals: Dog licks ice cream off dress.
[contentblock id=37 img=gcb.png] If you are interested in becoming an Assistant Director, I would dive into the software options. These tools will make your life easier (and seriously, when you are in the throws of production, you will appreciate this, especially at 1:00 am when you are creating the call sheet for the next day.)
9. Advance Schedule
This section will be exactly like your shooting schedule, but it will have the information for the following day.
10. Crew List
This is the list of crew you will have on set that day. Your columns here are simple: Position, Name and Call Time.
11. Walkie Talkie Channels
A grid with walkie talkie channels is a great reference for crew members and will save the First PA (Production Assistant) the energy of having to remind people on set. Just add a simple list of departments and channels. You might put any other reminders down here as well, such as no cell phone, etc.
12. Hospital Address
Put the hospital address and phone number and make it clearly visible on the bottom of the call sheet.
As I mentioned above, there are many variations of a call sheet, so make sure you are getting all the information on your call sheet that is important to your production.
And don’t fret! There are terrific resources for creating a great call sheet. If you are looking for a template, check out Simple Call Sheet, Set Hero, or Studio Binder. There is also another industry favorite software made by Jungle Software, called Koala Call Sheets, which is another great tool.
If you are interested in becoming an Assistant Director, I would dive into the software options. These tools will make your life easier (and seriously, when you are in the throws of production, you will appreciate this, especially at 1:00 am when you are creating the call sheet for the next day.) Software will also help keep you organized. Most software options not only have tools for creating paperwork, they also include efficient ways of distributing these reports and documents, and keeping track of it all.
Another note: Save the call sheets for each day of production. It’s an important record of your shoot. And if you are a filmmaker, leading this adventure of making an independent film on your own, if you hang on to them, when you get to the finish line of post-production, your call sheet has the all the information of your cast and crew so you can easily put together your credit sequence!
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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 screenplay. 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. 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. 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.”
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.
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.
- “Script Ideas: 5 Proven Ways to Unlock Original Movie Ideas.” Script Reader Pro (6 August 2018). Retrieved 30 September 2019.
- Flesher, Felicity. “How to Adapt a Short Story Into a Feature Film.” In Focus Film School. Retrieved 30 September 2019.
- Chadwick, J.D. (31 January 2019). “The Best Screenwriting Software of 2019.” Top Ten Reviews. Retrieved 30 September 2019.
- Hellerman, Jason (5 April 2019). “Try Our Screenplay Beat Sheet.” No Film School. Retrieved 30 September 2019.
- McGrail, Lauren. “What Is a Film Treatment, and When Do You Need One?” Lights Film Film School. Retrieved 30 September 2019.
- Bourassa, Angela (9 July 2018). “How to Write a Vomit Draft (And Why It’s So Important).” Creative Screenwriting. Retrieved 30 September 2019.
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