How to Write a Screenplay: 11-Step Ultimate Guide

Do you have a story to tell? Have you already written a short story or a novel and want to learn how to adapt it into a screenplay? Are you passionate about film and want to write your own movie?

There are multiple elements to learning how to write an amazing screenplay: you absolutely need multi-faceted characters driven by a compelling plot. But, if you want to sell or produce your script, you also need to know how to tell a story on screen.

You need to observe the strict formatting rules for screenplays. And you need to know when you should follow screenwriting conventions and where you can break them. 

It’s a lot – but don’t worry – we’ll unpack it all in this guide to writing a screenplay!

My Experience Writing Screenplays

I always dreamed of writing a movie, even before I got into the film world. But at that point in my life, I wrote short stories. I didn’t have any idea what it took to write a screenplay – or how different it was.

So I lost myself in research. The Screenwriter’s Bible and Blake Snyder’s legendary Save the Cat were at the top of my filmmaking reading list for months. After that, I started reading through successful screenplays. But finally, when I started talking to filmmakers and writers and taking roles in various productions, things started to click. I finally felt ready to write my own screenplays!

Now, I’m so happy to be able to share what I’ve learned over the past 15 years of screenwriting with you here in this beginner’s guide.

Getting Set Up to Write a Movie Script

I know! You probably have a burning idea and want to jump right into writing – and that’s great. Jot down a story treatment or an outline before those ideas fizzle out! 

But when you are ready to sit down and really write a screenplay, you should know what exactly you’re writing. 

Here are some quick definitions.

  • Spec Script: A spec script is a film script you hope to sell. It’s the basic dialogue and action, with few or no filming directives. It should follow screenwriting conventions closely to not throw off potential buyers. 
  • Shooting script: A shooting script is more detailed. It’s the script the cast and crew will actually use on set. It includes heading numbers, revision history, camera shots, actor directions, editing transitions, and sound effects. 
  • Outline: An outline can take a variety of forms – whatever you, the screenwriter, need to get ideas on paper. It’s a roadmap outlining the major events, plot points, character arcs, and thematic elements. 
  • Beat Sheet: A beat sheet is a condensed version of an outline that focuses on the major beats or turning points in the story. It helps to identify key moments, such as plot twists or character developments.
  • Story Treatment: A story treatment is a narrative description of the story, often broken down by scenes, and may provide additional information about characters, themes, and tone.
  • Synopsis: A film synopsis is a brief written description of the movie’s plot, main characters, and central themes. It opens with a logline to capture attention and quickly, concisely conveys what your film is about.

Correct Script Format

It will save you lots of time in edits if you know how to format a screenplay correctly before you start the writing process. There are different conventions to use for spec scripts and shooting scripts, and I highly recommend following them as best as you can.

If you want production companies, contest judges, or film crews to love your script, make it easy on them and play by the rules. I have a full guide to correct screenplay format that will teach you all the details. 

The most important rules about movie script format are:

  • Screenplays are written in 12-point Courier font, with one-inch margins on the top, bottom, and right. The left margin is 1.5” to allow for binding. 
  • The title page should include the title of the screenplay and the author’s name and contact information.
  • Page numbers should be included in the upper right-hand corner of every page, starting with the second page. The title page and first page have no page number.
  • Scene headings should indicate changes in location or time. They should be written in all caps and left-justified. The scene heading “FADE IN” should be the very first words on the first page. Scene headings are written in present tense.
  • Script dialogue should be centered on the page and written in regular (not all caps) font.
  • Write character names in ALL CAPS, both above dialogue lines and whenever a character is introduced with an action.

Screenwriting Software

If all the formatting details seem like a lot to learn, here’s a tip: Get a screenwriting software that will format your script as you write it! 

Final Draft is the industry standard for script writing software programs, but there are great alternatives that work perfectly for indie filmmakers. Some of my favorites include:

  • Celtx
  • ArcStudio Pro
  • Trelby
  • WriterDuet

How to Write a Screenplay: 11 Steps

If you want to learn great screenplay writing, don’t rush past the early stages. Spend plenty of time studying master storytellers and letting your world, plot, and characters grow in your mind. 

1. Watch Movies Actively

How to Write a Screenplay - step 1

If you want to write movies, you need to watch movies! Absorb all kinds of films – features and shorts from lots of different genres. Let the rules of pacing, rhythm, and storytelling conventions (like the classic three-act structure) sink into your bones.

Analyze how scenes are put together so you can learn how to move a story forward. (Dead time is a huge problem for most indie films!)

Pay attention to how characters and their motivations feed into the story conflict, building to a climax. Take notes on what you felt worked or didn’t work in a film, and try to pinpoint why you liked or disliked it. 

Watch films with other active viewers and compare notes. This is also one of the best ways to brainstorm new movie ideas!

2. Read Movie Scripts

How to Write a Screenplay - step 2

You’ve watched the movie. Now read the screenplay behind it. 

Watching movies can give you a great idea of what makes stories tick. But when you see a finished film, you’re looking at the product of many collaborators, including the screenwriter, the director, the cinematographer, the actors, the editors, and the sound designer.

When you compare the film to the movie script, you may notice that something that seemed to work well on the page didn’t work as well on screen, and was changed by the director. Or, maybe an actor had a flash of inspiration about the inner motivations of their character and subtly changed a line of dialogue. You can sometimes learn the most from these moments!

Remember, your goal is to get your screenplay read and loved by producers. By reading screenplays of movies that have been picked up by studios or investors and produced, you can learn script writing in a way that appeals to filmmakers. 

3. Plan Out Your Characters

How to Write a Screenplay - step 3

Start thinking about your characters’ backstories. What’s their history? What motivates them? What are their goals? Think about how your main character speaks or carries themselves and any distinguishing physical features.

You don’t have to reveal everything about your character’s history in your story. But getting their motivations and backstories straight will help you create characters who are internally consistent and make logical decisions and actions, whether you reveal their motivations or not. Sometimes, you may want to let the audience theorize about what motivated your characters.

Remember, in a film, every moment has to move the story forward. Resist the temptation to “tell” the audience facts about your characters through monologues. Instead, use rich dialogue and decisive action to reveal their inner selves. 

How to Choose a Great Character Name

Don’t underestimate the effect of a great name. Who can forget the romance of a name like Scarlet O’Hara, or the iconic adventure evoked by the name Indiana Jones? 

Unique names have their place. But, depending on what your protagonist needs to be in your story, you may want to choose a name that your audience can connect with as an everyman or everywoman. 

Even protagonists who engage in the most fantastical adventures may have curt, blunt, names like James Bond. Antagonists, on the other hand, often offer more leeway for a writer to use some flair. For instance, Bond’s nemesis is named Ernst Stavro Blofeld. A very different name, but equally memorable!

4. Plan Out Your Story Plot

How to Write a Screenplay - step 4

Next, plan out your plot. (You can combine this with the next step – the outline or story treatment – or do it separately.)  This will help you keep track of the events and make sure they flow smoothly.

There are a few different ways to approach this, but one extremely helpful method is to break the story down into beats.

Each story beat should represent a pivotal moment in the script, such as a decision or an action. By identifying these beats, you’ll see how the story develops and what needs to happen in each scene.

rising falling action in a story

You can also use this approach to determine your screenplay’s central conflict, introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.

5. Write Your Outline or Treatment

How to Write a Screenplay - step 5

Any spec script worth its salt will have a killer outline – a structure so strong and compelling that it could sell the project independently. 

A script outline is not a rigid set of rules – it’s more like a road map, flexible enough to change as your screenplay develops. Sometimes I like to do a visual outline, almost like a storyboard for my script. 

Sometimes it turns into more of a story treatment. Treatments are typically between five and fifteen pages in length for a feature film. It contains the script summary For example, a story treatment for X movie might describe xyz, but leave out details like abc.

You can also use AI story generators to create a great logline. All you need is an idea of your inciting incident, your protagonist, their objective, and the antagonistic force of your script!

RELATED: Check out my tutorial on how to use AI writing software to create a great logline in this article!

6. Get Feedback on Your Ideas

How to Write a Screenplay - step six

While it’s certainly possible to write a movie script on your own, it’s not always the best idea. 

Of course, it’s important to be selective about who you take feedback from – after all, you don’t want to end up with a watered-down version of your original idea. But talking with others can be extremely helpful in identifying the essence of your story – what can you cut without losing its true meaning?

If you can find someone who shares your passion for storytelling and is willing to offer constructive criticism – especially a professional screenwriter, coverage service, or other industry insiders – their feedback can be invaluable.

Both positive and critical comments have helped me many times on my road to screenplay success!

7. Write the First Draft

How to Write a Screenplay - step 7

The moment has come: open your screenwriting software and start typing!

For your first draft, focus on one scene at a time, and don’t worry about perfection. Here are my best first draft-writing tips:

  • Learn how to write action lines for your screenplay. Action lines are descriptions of the physical actions that are happening in each screenplay scene. Follow standard screenplay format.
  • Read dialogue out loud to make sure it sounds natural. It takes skill and practice to avoid stilted dialogue. But if you can sell dialogue, you can sell a script.
  • Seek feedback if it helps – and don’t if it doesn’t. Author Stephen King says, “Write with the door closed; rewrite with it open.”  But since a film is more of a collaborative effort than a novel, you may find feedback from industry professionals helpful as you write.
  • Challenge yourself to write every day – even if it’s just 200 words. 
  • Regularly back up your work in a document outside of your screenwriting software. You never know when it might crash!

If you get stuck, you can even play with AI (artificial intelligence) to brainstorm ideas or help reword certain lines. These work best if you already basically know what you want to say, but need help to power through writer’s block.

Have fun! Writing a first draft should be low-stress. Relax and let your creative juices flow.

8. Think About Something Else

How to Write a Screenplay - step 8

Now that you have the initial draft of your screenplay, it’s time to close your script-writing software and think about something else! Take a walk, work on a hobby, or spend time with family or friends. Your brain needs time to process all the information you’ve just written on paper.

So take a few days (or even weeks) to clear your head before you seek inspiration to start work on the second draft!

9. Re-Write or Edit Your Script

How to Write a Screenplay - step 9

Re-writing is where the real magic happens. By taking a second pass at your work, you can tighten up the storyline, intensify the conflict, and add greater depth to your characters. Here are a few tips to help you make the most of your rewrite:

  • Ruthlessly cut lines, scenes, or characters that don’t serve the story. The goal is to streamline the plot, not keep every element you came up with in the first draft.
  • Take a close look at your dialogue. Is it sharp and witty – but still accessible? Does it sound like something people would say?
  • Ask yourself whether the ending is satisfying. Ask your family and friends this, too. They may not be able to tell you how to craft good dialogue – but they’ll definitely be able to tell you if they like the way the story wraps!
  • Check your screenplay format to ensure you have followed all the essential movie script format conventions.

10. Write Your Logline and Synopsis

How to Write a Screenplay - step 10

A screenplay logline is a brief script summary, typically one sentence long. It should include the protagonist, the central conflict, and the stakes. What does the main character want? What is standing in their way? And what are the consequences if they fail?

A good logline will make someone want to read the screenplay, while a lousy logline will make them lose interest before they’ve even started.

The best way to get a feel for a good logline is to read lots of them! Check out this article on examples of great film loglines.

And, I will say, writing loglines is one thing that AI story generators are surprisingly good at.

RELATED: Check out my thoughts on why low stakes are killing modern Hollywood!

Screenplay Synopsis

infographic giving the definition of a synopsis for a screenplay or film

You also need to write a screenplay synopsis if you want to sell your screenplay. Buyers and investors won’t read a script unless the synopsis catches their attention. 

A script synopsis is a 1-2 page summary of the screenplay, including key points. You may need to write several different synopses of different lengths and styles.

For example, the synopsis that pitches a film to an audience will be written with intrigue, but screenplay contests may want a very straightforward description of what happens in the script. 

11. Submit Your Script

How to Write a Screenplay - step 11

Now that you have a finished screenplay, it’s time to submit it to screenplay contests, agents, and producers. You may get nothing but rejections for a while – but don’t give up. If one script isn’t gaining momentum, take the feedback you got and write a second or a third. Each one will get better. 

Don’t let imposter syndrome get to you! Even the great British filmmaker Terence Davies said,

“I never think anyone will like what I do.”  

Terence Davies

Eventually, if you’re cut out to be a filmmaker, someone will recognize your talent.

Common Questions (FAQs)

What is a screenplay and how does it differ from other forms of writing?

A screenplay is a written work that screenwriters create for a film or television show. It differs from other forms of writing because it’s structured specifically for visual storytelling.

How do I start writing my screenplay?

The best way to start writing a script is to study great scripts! Observe dialogue, character development, pacing, and conflict buildup and resolution. Learn about proper screenplay format or get a software that will do it for you. Let great ideas marinate, and when you have a clear vision for your film, go ahead and type, “FADE IN…”

How should I structure my screenplay?

Most screenplays follow a three-act structure: setup, confrontation, and resolution. This structure helps keep your story organized and maintains a steady pace for your audience.

How do I handle writer’s block when working on my screenplay?

Writer’s block happens to everyone. When it hits, try taking a break, seeking feedback, or writing through it. Remember, your first draft doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to be written.

Do I need to copyright my screenplay?

While all creative works are automatically copyrighted, registering it with the Writer’s Guild of America provides additional protection against plagiarism, especially if you’re concerned about idea theft.

Who owns the rights to a script?

Typically, scriptwriters retain rights to their work unless it’s a work-for-hire, based on existing material, or co-written. Script ownership can be complex, so make sure you understand all relevant factors.

Do screenplays have chapters?

Chapters are common novels and nonfiction books – but not screenplays. Screenplays are usually divided into acts and scenes, sometimes with subheadings. A three-act structure includes set-up, rising action, and resolution. A scene is a unit of storytelling that takes place in a specific location and time.

Can I use AI to help me write a screenplay?

Absolutely! Several AI story generators are available online, and they can provide a great starting point for the ideas for a script. An AI script generator can bust through writer’s block, and help create a realistic and believable plot. But a great screenplay is much more than a collection of scenes. A genuinely great script is born of a human soul. 

Neil Chase Screenplay Award

Final Thoughts: How to Write a Screenplay

Scriptwriting is a unique form of writing; it takes time to learn the ropes of format and structure. Yet, at its core, screenwriting like any other form of fiction writing, driven by vivid scenes, authentic dialogue, and an emotionally resonant narrative. 

The best advice I’ve seen on how to write a screenplay comes from producer-screenwriter Leslie Dixon. “[There is] one rule of screenwriting,” she says, “does the reader want to turn the page?”

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