So you’ve always wanted to come to Hollywood and pursue a career as a screenwriter, but you’ve never written a screenplay and have no idea where to start. Screenplays are written very differently from prose writing (novels, shorts stories, etc), and even once you know the basics, there are quite a few quirks and details in screenwriting that easily give away a green writer. And if you’re looking to get an agent and have your movie or TV show produced, writing something that actually resembles a screenplay is an important step. So today we’re breaking down how to actually go about writing your first screenplay.
BEFORE WE BEGIN: This piece will focus mostly on structure, software, and basic do’s and don’ts of writing a screenplay. If you’ve never written fiction before, I highly suggest you read Stephen King’s book On Writing. It’s a much better crash course on how to write than I could ever teach.
So, what is a screenplay?
Good question. A screenplay is Hollywood lingo for “movie script”. If you’re writing TV, the technical term is “teleplay”, but this guide will cover both, and nobody’s gonna look at you funny if you call your TV pilot a screenplay. While we’re at it, let’s define some more industry terms:
Feature – A full-length movie, usually between 90 and 120 minutes.Short – A short film.Pilot – The first episode of an original TV series. Usually, you don’t write further than the pilot when pitching a show to studios and networks. Spec – Broad strokes, a spec script is a script you write without being commissioned by anybody. You own the rights, but you have no guarantee it’s going to be made. If you’re reading this, chances are your script will be a spec.Spec episode – This is a confusing bit of industry jargon that means something completely different from the above definition of spec. A spec episode is an episode of an existing TV show you write to show you can emulate another show’s voice.
Okay, now that we’ve covered the definitions, let’s go deeper.
Seriously, listen to this. No, really, you need to read scripts. A lot of them. The first few will be tough, but it will get easier and more enjoyable as your brain learns how to read them. I’d even suggest reading scripts of movies and TV shows you’ve never seen, and then watching said movies / TV shows to see how they convert to the screen.
Before you attempt to write your first screenplay, you should read at least 10 scripts. I can already feel people scrolling past this section, but I’m telling you, don’t. Here are some great places to find free scripts to read online.
Can you just open up a Google Doc and start writing? You can, but you’ll likely be laughed out of any pitch meetings you manage to get. No matter how much agencies and studios say “they only care about unique voices”, nobody is going to take you seriously if your screenplay doesn’t look like a screenplay. Simple as that. So pay a bit of money (or use a free one), and get a screenwriting software. Here are a few of the most popular ones:
Final Draft is the industry standard. If you ever want to get an assistant job in the industry (and trust me, you do, even as a writer), you should know how to use it. It’s pricey, though, at $199.99.
I’ve never used Fade In myself, but it’s a good deal cheaper than Final Draft and it’s beloved by many writers. A license costs $79.99.
Named after a major thoroughfare in Hollywood, Highland is only available for Mac, so I hate it. But it’s also a creation of screenwriter John August, so I also kind of love it. And it’s only $29.99 for a license.
I used WriterDuet for a while. It’s killer feature is Online Mode, which is great if you have a Chromebook and can’t get Final Draft. It’s also a subscription, rather than a one-time fee. Plans start at $7.99/month.
There are also a bunch of less popular software to choose instead, if you want to be a maverick: StudioBinder, Celtx, and Scrivener, to name a few. I even found a Chrome Extension called YouMeScript for those of you who really just want to use Google Drive. But I strongly recommend shelling out some dough and getting a license for one of the above.
You have your software, great! You’re one step closer to typing “FADE IN”. But before you do, you might want to consider whether you’re an outliner or not. And yes, it is a choice! Many great writers, such as the aforementioned Stephen King, don’t like outlining, saying it drains their creative process. It’s a perfectly acceptable approach to simply have an idea and start writing (although if you ever work on a TV show, you’re going to have to write outlines. Sorry).
I myself find outlining very useful, even though I despise every minute the process. It’s slow, and I’m very aware that the outline is the easiest place to mess up the major beats of the story, my personal weak point. But it’s a benevolent evil (oxy moron?), and I find that when I don’t outline, I lose my the thread of the story 20 to 30 pages into any screenplay. So I end up having to go back to outline anyway.
So how do you write your outline? There are a few different ways:
Save some cats
Bullish outliners usually agree on the best starting point for an outline: Blake Snyder’s book Save The Cat. I highly suggest every aspiring screenwriter read it (yes, even those who don’t outline). But in broad strokes, here’s an example of his famous Beat Sheet (this one is for a novel, but the beats are the same for a feature):
QUICK NOTE: Snyder has a very strict adherence to outlining that I don’t necessarily use myself, so use what works and dump the rest.
Major story beats
If you want to let the cats die, but you still want to outline your work, here are some general structure rules for a screenplay (and remember: rules are made to be broken, especially in creative fields):
ACT I – Pages 1 – 20
This is where you set up your characters, the setting, and the central conflict. By the end of Act I, your protagonist (hero) is aware of the antagonist (villain), knows the mission, and has taken steps to move forward in the mission, albeit for the wrong reasons.
ACT II – Page 21 – 75
Act II is the meat, and it’s where a lot of screenwriters get bogged down.
PART I of Act II is what we call “Promise of The Premise”. If your movie is about a vampire hunter, there should be a lot of vampire hunting in this Act. The protagonist is getting their legs, facing the antagonist, and learning the ropes of their new world. As of now, things haven’t become dire yet. (Pages 21 – 45)
The MIDPOINT (Page 45ish) is when things get serious. This is either a huge failure for your protagonist, a huge victory that turns into a failure, or a twist. This is usually where the protagonist realizes they’re not as equipped to handle the antagonist as they thought.
PART II of Act II (Pages 46 – 72) is where things spiral. Everything that got serious in the midpoint is now getting exponentially worse. Try to be sadistic to your characters. What are the worst things you could do to your protagonist to destroy them and bring them to their…
LOW POINT. This is at the end of Act II, pages 72 – 75. This is where everything has fallen apart. The Nazis have the Arc. Loki has escaped. Kevin’s parents are never coming back and the burglars know he’s home alone. Everything comes crashing down at this exact moment. And then, as a final twist of the knife, you have to let your characters sit in the wreckage for a while before…
ACT III – Pages 76 – 90
This is where everything comes together. You’ve got to bring everything to a clear, concise finish (or maybe not, if you’re setting up for a sequel). And remember, as Anton Chekhov said, “If there’s a pistol above the door in Act One, it must be fired in Act Three”. This basically means you have to remember to pay off everything you’ve set up throughout the film.
The big moment. You’ve found your software, outlined (or at least developed an idea in your mind), and you’re ready to sit down and start typing. If you’re like me, you get very overwhelmed at this point. What was so exciting to you mere moments ago is now giving you a heart attack. You’re making something from nothing. It’s tough. Here are some tips to get over writers block.
Ideas. Ideas. Ideas. – Force yourself to write down ten ideas for movies or TV shows (or ten smaller ideas for the screenplay you’re currently working on) to get the juices flowing.Set a daily quota – Sometimes it’s helpful to give yourself a quota. Start with 1 page and work your way up.Set a deadline – On the flip side, set a date when the first draft HAS to be done, as if you’re turning it over to a studio. This will, most likely, light a fire under your behind.The vomit pass – I learned this one from genius filmmaker Judd Apatow, and I still use it to this day. Don’t give yourself any expectations on the first draft. Just start writing, acknowledging it will probably be terrible. You can always go back and change anything (or everything) later. Here’s the twist, half the time it’s not as terrible as you think it is.
Okay, so you’ve gotten past the fear of the blank page (just kidding, you’re gritting your teeth and forcing yourself to write anyway). How do you actually write the darn thing? Well, I’ll tell ya!
Slug lines indicate a new scene. They’re written in ALL CAPS and look like this:
INT/EXT. LOCATION – TIME OF DAY
Here are some examples:
INT. OFFICE – MORNING
EXT. STREET – MANHATTAN – NIGHT
INT/EXT. CAR – COUNTRY ROAD – AFTERNOON
EXT. STREET – CONTINUOUS
Let’s break down the pieces of a slug line:
INT./EXT.– In 99% of slug lines, the first thing you’ll see is INT, to indicate the scene takes place indoors, or EXT., to indicate it takes place outdoors. If you have a scene that changes from inside to outside (ie: Two people leave a building and walk across the parking lot), you can either write a separate slug line when they exit the building, or write both as one scene under the slug: INT./EXT.LOCATION – The location, or locations, come next. Don’t be too descriptive (bad slug line: FLOWERY DRIVEWAY OUTSIDE MANHATTAN WITH KIDS PLAYING IN THE STREET). Keep your locations straight to the point.TIME OF DAY – The time of day is the last piece of a slug line We don’t need the exact house, just a general time of day. Most common are DAY, AFTERNOON, EVENING, and NIGHT. You may also see CONTINUOUS or CONTD. This means the scene directly follows the previous scene (Again ie: Two people leave a building AND walk across the parking lot).
This is the section that’s going to be the most comfortable for prose writers, but don’t let the familiar form lull you into a false sense of security. In the action, you describe everything we see in the scene in real time (always present tense for screenplays, people). Note I didn’t say “anything that’s going on in the characters head”. Here are some examples of BAD action lines:
Jenny walks down the street in a daze, thinking about how terrible that job interview went.
The camera can’t show what’s going on in Jenny’s head, so this action line is useless to a director.
Billy and Joe sit in the office chatting. The receptionist comes over a few times offering them coffee and then to tell them Ms. Welch will see them now.
Firstly, action should be in REAL TIME except for very specific cases. Secondly, there’s dialogue implied here, so unless we’re not in the room with them, we should hear what Billy, Joe, and the Receptionist are saying.
The sun glows bright and gold on the waves of Boston Harbor, each one roaring in anger like Jenny’s mood.
Too flowery. Keep action lines simple and to the point. Each page of your script is supposed to equal one minute of screen time. This ratio gets inflated by flowery language.
These are the two biggest errors new screenwriters make, writing action that can’t possibly be filmed, or writing like flowery language of novelists. Think of your script as a blueprint. It can have a little bit of cheek and attitude, but too much and it gets in the way. Here are the good versions of the above action lines:
Jenny walks down the street, not paying attention as she steps into the road.
HOOONK! A Semi swerves to avoid Jenny, knocking her back to reality.
Billy and Joe sit in the office. The receptionist comes over with a coffee pot.
The sun sets over the choppy waves of Boston Harbor.
Characters & dialogue
Arguably the most important piece of writing a screenplay is dialogue. Many screenwriters say is “you can teach structure but you can’t teach dialogue”. I don’t know if I believe that, but I know the most telltale sign of a rookie screenplay is bad dialogue. Here are some things to avoid:
Tropes & Clichés – “Let me get this straight”, “you better come take a look at this”, “you don’t know what [insert situation] is like”, Russian villains, Bad guy mentors, etc.Exposition & Voiceover – Narration is usually a big no-no. The only time it’s okay is if it’s character driven, and not being used as a crutch to explain things about the world. Otherwise, it’s a lazy crutch. Same goes for lengthy blocks of dialogue in which a character explains how something works to another character who should definitely know how that thing works. Crime shows do this all the time.Characters saying exactly what they feel – We see this all the time, even in Oscar winners. But think about it: In real life, who do you know who says exactly what they’re thinking, especially in a charged emotional moment? If you have a couple falling out of love, don’t have them talk about how they no longer love each other. Instead, give them a really specific thing to argue over. Like whether the dude was checking out another girl on the bus. That’s a cliché, so don’t use it. But the point remains. People in the real world say EVERYTHING except how they really feel.
Dialogue is centered on the page, under the character’s name, which is also centered. Dialogue usually only takes up the middle third of the page (1.5 inch margins on either side). All together, it looks like this:
Oh, no thank you.
I’ll have a cup
Wait, you’re that guy from Sharon’s party?
The one with the Hot Chili Vodka? Yeah,
none for you!
QUICK NOTE: Characters should be introduced in action before they speak. The first time we see their name is ALL CAPS, and followed by their age in parentheses and a short description:
JOE (22), a stoner bro trying to dress up nice.
BILLY (20), who reeeeaaally doesn’t like that he’s here with Joe.
In addition, here are some parentheticals you can add on the end of a character’s name to qualify their dialogue:
O.S. – Off screen. Typically used if the person is in the other room.O.C. – Off camera. Typically used is the person is in the room but not currently in the shot.V.O. – Voiceover. Typically used for narration or a character’s thoughts.PRELAP – A character’s dialogue from the next scene. Used in transitions.
Putting it all together
Here’s what a sequence looks like with all the elements:
INT. UPTOWN OFFICE – DAY
JENNY (20), dressed to impress, runs out of the office, clearly holding back tears. She streaks past…
…JOE (21), and BILL (22), who enter and sit, looking curiously after her.
EXT. STREET – MANHATTEN – CONTINUOUS
Jenny pushes out of the office and starts sobbing. She steps into the street, not seeing…
…HOOOOOONK! She jumps back just in time as a Semi SCREECHES past her.
INT. OFFICE – CONTINUOUS
-sh*t. What was her problem?
The RECEPTIONIST comes over with a coffee pot.
Sure, I’ll have some.
Wait, you’re that guy from Sharon’s party?
With the Hot Chili Vodka? Yeah, none
for you. In fact…
She turns as MS. WELCH (50s), strong and imposing, comes into the room.
Don’t hire these guys. They had everyone in
my friend’s dorm drinking milk for a month.
Hire the Jenny girl.
Aw man?! Nice work, d*ckweed!
EXT. BOSTON HARBOR – AFTERNOON
Jenny sits on the pier, watching the the sun setting over the choppy waves of Boston Harbor. When…
BUZZ BUZZ. She looks down. A new call from “MS. WELCH”.
Off Jenny, confused and excited…
Once you’ve finished your draft
Keep writing, even when you can’t see the end point. And eventually you will finish the draft. Have a drink. Pat yourself on the back. Take a few days off. And you know what you get to do then? Go back to the beginning and start editing.
The best screenplays are rewritten five, ten, fifteen, sixty times. So don’ be afraid of rewrites. Show your screenplay to friends, colleagues, and industry mentors. Get the advice of screenwriters, Hollywood professionals, and people who just really like movies. I like to use Google Forms to put together a cohesive note-collection strategy. And keep rewriting. Until you reach the point where you feel you can’t rewrite anymore.
And then…? Put it away and start on your next screenplay. It will be better than your last one. And the next once will be better than that one and so on and so forth. And that, my friends, is how you become a screenwriter.
Getting your script sold
You may have noticed I’ve left a glaring hole in my guide. How do you actually sell your screenplay? Well, 1999 times out of 2000, it happens because of an agent. And that’s where we come in.
Get Me An Agent has catalogues with contact info for 400+ screenwriting agents and managers, and we’re constantly expanding. Every email in our catalogue is guaranteed to be real. Subscribers get unlimited access to our catalogues with any plan, no complicated credit system to be found. We have plans from $19.99/month, and an Unlimited plan, where you’ll get unlimited access to both catalogues AND we’ll read your Great American Screenplay and match you with agents who might be interested in you. Sounds to good to be true? It’s not. So click that fancy red button and get started today!