How do I write a movie script?
Writing screenplays can be difficult, but there are simple steps you can follow to begin the process. Below we will go over 6 ways to write your own script:
- Read scripts for reference
- “Meet” and understand your characters
- Develop a logline
- Develop a want vs. need
- Write a treatment
- Find the right software for formatting
If you’ve tried to write a screenplay, I know your pain. Trust me, that struggle is real.
When I decided I wanted to be a screenwriter at the ripe old age of 17 or 18, I can remember Googling “How to write a screenplay” and “Tips for writing scripts.” What I found was too much information and not nearly enough substance.
I learned virtually nothing until I got into my later years of college. By then, I felt I had already wasted time. Time I could’ve spent writing, if I’d only known how.
But what if you’re not going to college? What if you’re already out? What if your school doesn’t offer a screenwriting class? The point is, not everyone has the opportunity to practice screenwriting in the classroom, and it’s nearly impossible to hone a skill if you don’t know where to begin.
That’s why I’ve listed 6 tips on how to begin a screenplay below.
With any kind of writing, reading is so important. You may have read my post on how to improve your writing. In the post, I mention reading 5 pages a day—a goal that even lazy me can achieve. I know, I know—books cost money; going to the library takes time.
Screenplays, however, are largely free and online. Imdb has a screenplay database with like, a bajillion screenplays that are free to read. This is an amazing tool, because you can study screenplays you admire while also becoming familiar with the formatting.
Meet your characters
In writing workshops and drama classes, we often hear questions like, “What does your character eat for breakfast?” Or maybe, “What is your character’s intention?” While one of those questions is perhaps easier to answer than the other (cold pizza), these questions matter.
But why? Well, it all comes down to goals and round characters. In my post about character-writing, I outline these five criteria for writing characters: physical strengths, positive traits, physical weaknesses, flaws, and backstory. Giving your characters these defining qualities will allow you to give them intention.
Develop a logline
You’ve probably heard the term, “elevator pitch,” or the 1-2 sentence reason your movie should be made.
The idea is this; you’re a regular joe schmoe, and you happen to get into the elevator with a Hollywood bigwig (or an Atlanta, LA, Albuquerque, or Austin bigwig). You have the next minute to pitch your idea for a movie. The idea must be fully formed, concise, and enticing.
Scriptfirm has a post about writing effective loglines. To create an effective logline, you must think about your story’s character, goal, and antagonistic force. In the post, the logline for It’s a Wonderful Life is written like this:
“A suicidal family man is given the opportunity to see what the world would be like if had never been born.”
This is, in a nutshell, the plot of It’s a Wonderful Life. We know there’s a lot more to the actual script, but the logline isn’t the script. It’s simply the initial hook your story needs to become successful.
Develop your character’s want vs. need
To put it simply, what your character wants is not often what your character needs. Your character may even believe a lie associated with his/her goal (want). Additionally, your character may actively avoid learning the truth (need).
So, if you’ve ever seen Happy Gilmore, Happy wants to make money and get his grandma’s house back, but he needs to find his calling and learn to cope with his rage. He believes he’s a hockey player, when he’s really a golfer. What he believes is the lie, and by the end of the movie, he realizes the truth. (For a great in-depth article on want vs. need, check out this post.)
The truth is, these things aren’t always easy to pin down. Some people even believe want vs. need is unimportant to a storyline’s success.
Personally, I believe it’s good to over-prepare. Be ready to educate anyone who asks about your protagonist—his/her want, need, lie, breakfast, backstory—everything. You want to show anyone and everyone you know your stuff.
Write a treatment
I’ll tell you a secret. I hate writing treatments. Seriously. I start copping an attitude whenever I have to write one. “You think you can force me to waste my time on organization? Ha! I don’t need a treatment; I already know my script.”
I can’t speak for all screenwriters, but for most of us, the script we think we know is actually a stranger until it’s written. Even then, it continues to change. You may know your script now, but it will go places you probably aren’t expecting, which is why treatments are so necessary.
Thankfully, the treatment is just an outline. It doesn’t have to be perfect, and no one needs to see it but you.
Outlining your story forces you to cut, add, and face anything not working. The treatment helps you know your scenes even before you write them.
Find yourself some screenwriting software
If you’ve ever tried to format a screenplay on your own, it’s horrible. Luckily, the internet has recognized how awful it is and capitalized on ways to make it… well, not so awful. There are a variety of softwares, apps, and sites that allow you to write, while they do the formatting for you.
Personally, I use Celtx, because it’s free and fairly easy to navigate. Additionally, it has a mobile app, so you can write from your tablet, should you desire to do so. Celtx can be a little glitchy at times, but on the whole, it’s been a great tool for me. (For a full list of softwares, sites, and apps, go here.)
Are you ready to write? If so, I have a little homework for you. (I know. I know. No worries, there’s no deadline.) Okay, so your homework. Pick your favorite movie, then find the script online. Ask yourself about the characters. Can you dissect them? What makes them great or not great? Does your protagonist have a want? A need? What about a lie? Start digging. You may find your favorite movie is not so out of your reach anymore.
Once you begin understanding the formula, you can emulate it. So good luck, and good writing.