Film Script Writing: How to write a Screenplay complete guide for beginners with examples
How to write a screenplay that sells? Here is the complete guide to the craft of film script writing. Learn from scratch and know the advanced modern concepts. Find out how to sell script.
Wondering how to write a film script that easily sells, then this article is meant for you. Screenwriting is not only about the format which every aspiring film screenplay writer has mastered. It purely involves intelligent planning, clever plotting, and then penning down. The job is still not over until unless the writer has not been through rewriting. Then the draft is ready to send to production houses.
Table of Contents
- What is a screenplay?
- Screenplay Pattern
- Plot Structure
- Inciting Incident
- First Turning Point
- Mid Point
- Second Turning Point
- 3 act structure
- 3 act structure diagram
- Step Outline
- Screenplay Format
- Movie Scene
- Character Cue
- Film Script Length
- Script Pitching
- Beat Sheets
- Screenplay Elements
- Screenplay vs script
- Screenplay vs story
The goal of this article is not to criticize your approach towards the art of visual storytelling rather to make you aware of the professional approach. If you are doing it wrong then this is the right time to rectify it. So are you ready?
General questions, where to begin, how to proceed, and where to pitch. The answer is to know the basics, then understand the various intelligent approach.
The first step towards learning any craft is to understand and master the basics. Then to understand the modern approach towards the craft. Unfortunately, most aspiring filmmakers believe writing for movies is all about the format. It is not. Just one part of the craft is about the format and of course format matters but apart from the format, there are other very very important screenplay elements that matter the most to any production house in the world.
Basics of screenplay writing involve an understanding of plot, structure, breakdown, and rewriting. Story or plot is the key pillar to sell a script to the movie studios in the industry. And this is just one part of the selling. Film Script plays an equal role to sell it. Let's begin with very basics.
What is a screenplay?
The screenplay is an important document in the world of film making. With this document, no department of movie production can proceed even a single step. The costume department decides the type of costumes required that actors going to wear for a particular scene. The art department is going to decide the type of artwork a particular scene needs to be based on the document. The production department is going to sanction the budget for the scene based on this. Apart from the production aspect, this document too has one important goal and that helps the producer and production house to visualize the kind of story going to be projected on the screen.
Experience, potential revenue, and film industry marketing value tickle investors to produce the script. However, tremendous competition in the industry has been creating a tough environment for production houses and aspiring screenwriters as well. Despite this bitter reality, a writer with a contemporary understanding of this craft is going to break the ice.
The screenplay is the visual presentation of a story or plot. Some times author develops original plot or most of the time adopted from other sources such as news, novel, or blog article. In most of the movie production industry around the world, the screenwriter develops action and dialogue together. But in Bollywood and other Indian film industries, a dialogue writer is hired separately only to develop dialogues for the project.
So screenwriting is about converting a plot into a visual narrative. Then what is the first step?
Alike any other project the journey of screenwriting begins from an idea. A reason to spend the next couple of months or maybe years. Bollywood has been always open to ideas. However, studios in the west, such as Hollywood is restricted to the screenplay. They decide whether to proceed or not based upon screenplay. But in the Indian film industry, production houses are looking for ideas first. Of course screenplay matters. But the first priority goes to identify the idea the author had been working on for so long.
Movie Scripts are based upon a plot. And the fun part, every movie there is a unique pattern. And the pattern is a character is in his normal world, gets a goal, sets out to achieve the goal, and faces one obstacle after another, and finally either wins the goal or loses the goal.
No matter how complex is a feature film, in every cinema, we could easily identify this simple pattern. So this simple pattern of the plot is because of its structure.
Once an idea author decides, then its time to build the structure of the plot. Even if a writer adopts a novel then also he or she needs to re-structure the plot form his or her perspective. The plot structure mainly involves the following main points.
- Inciting Incident
- First Turning Point
- Mid Point
- Second Turning Point
Inciting Incident is the point in any plot which is the root reason for the entire character's journey in the plot. In Die Hard, Jack visits his wife in the Christmas eve to give a last try to keep up his breaking relationship with his wife. It is the inciting incident. If it did not have to happen then he would not have buckled up to spoil the terrorist's plan.
First Turning Point
The first turning point is the point in the plot where the character gets a goal and there is no way to return back. In die-hard, terrorist hostages employees and jack overhear their plan. This is the first turning point in the plot.
Mainly this point assigns the character to set out on a journey to achieve something. It is the duty of the author to figure out whether the character is going to achieve his goal or not.
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Midpoint is not the center or middle point of the plot. Neither is the point where interval appears in movie theatres in India. (Yes, Indian movie theatres has the custom of interval in between the movie). And also it is not the point where half of the movie is over.
Midpoint is the point in the plot where the character attempts for the first time to win his / her goal and either he wins or loses the goal but for a temporary period of time. In die-hard, the midpoint is the SWAT team reaches the Nakatomi building premise. It seems jack's goal is going to fulfill. It is the first success of the goal. But soon, it seems, it is not enough to spoil the terrorist's plan.
Second Turning Point
The second turning point is the point in the plot where the protagonist seems far away from the goal and is not easy to achieve the goal again. In die-hard, jack discovers the actual reality of terrorists that they are not terrorists but they are robbers and they have the plan to destroy the entire building. This is the second turning point.
After the turning point, the character is in jeopardy and has accepted the fact that he or she can not achieve the goal again. But something happens, and a solution appears to him or her. This point in the plot is known as a plot point.
The purpose of a plot point is to provide a solution to the character to proceed towards the goal again.
After resolution, the character has a solution to win back his goal. So now character jumps straight to win the goal and applies all his effort, understandings. This point is known as the climax in the plot.
And after climax, either the character wins the goal or loses the goal.
Astonishingly, we find these plot points in any movie plot. Some are a bit complex to figure out the plot points but still, there is the same pattern exists in any movie.
(The above plot points is described well by Syd Field )
Earlier days of the stage play, the world has been following a unique pattern of storytelling and that is 3 act structure.
Three Act Structure
Every movie, the plot has a unique structure and that is known as a three-act structure. Three act structure was introduced by Aristotle. Understand the parts of a three-act structure.
Three act structure has three important parts:
- Set up
Setup is the first part of the movie plot. Setup is also known as Act One. In act one, the author introduces the prime characters and the main goal of the main character. Important plot points Inciting Incident and first turning point are the part of act one.
In simple terms, we can say act one ends with first turning point.
Confrontation is the second part of any plot. It is known as act two. Act two is the main part of any film storytelling. People go theater to watch this part. It is the whole struggle of any character to win the goal. One obstacle after another keeps on coming in the path of the character.
The character with all his effort overcomes the obstacle. But again there is another obstacle waiting for him. Sometimes the villain of the story keeps on creating the story and other times the situation itself creates such obstacles.
Midpoint and second turning point are the part of act two. With the second turning point, act two completes.
Do not confuse resolution with the resolution plot point. Resolution in this context is the last act of the movie plot. This is the act, where the lead character realizes his flaws and strengths. Discovers a final solution to win the goal finally. With all his effort he jumps straight to win the goal.
Not necessarily the character achieves the goal. It is the author who decides whether the character should get the goal or lose the goal.
The climax and resolution plot point is the part of the resolution act.
The ratio between these three acts is 1:2:1
It means act two should twice then act one and act two.
In terms of the diagram, the three-act structure would appear as below.
Once a plot is ready, then its time to figure out how would you want to project the plot on the screen. Ten screenwriters are going to develop ten absolutely different drafts for the same plot story. This part of the screenwriting process is known as treatment development. In simple words, how the author is going to portray the story on to the screen.
It may sound very simple but it is a crucial part and it is only going to help to sell the cinema script. The reason behind this is, treatment is the blueprint for a screenplay. So the author in advance figures out what are visuals and their orders are going to appear on the screen.
Few production houses accept treatment drafts also. But in a broad sense, it is the screenwriter's document which in general never shares with anyone.
The goal of treatment development is to break the plot into scenes. The author goes for multiple drafts of treatment until unless he or she has not satisfied with the draft.
There are mainly two approaches to develop treatment.
- Narrative Paragraphic Approach
- Step Outline
Narrative Paragraphic Approach
In this approach, the screenwriter breaks down the entire plot into multiple scenes. Each scene is in paragraph form. And every detail is added. It is the informal way of writing down the scene with as much detail as the author want.
In this approach, the author breaks down the plot into multiple scenes. Every scene is restricted to one or two lines only. Some authors add slug lines or heading of the scene to each scene. Such a draft is known as a step outline. The goal is to focus on the main elements of the scene.
Once the treatment is ready then the writer goes to develop each scene individually.
Treatment is the base for the author to develop each scene. Because treatment is the scene breakdown of the plot. At this point, the screenwriter is well aware of the visual presentation of the story he or she is working on. So the writer is ready to pen down each scene and this process is the root reason for the birth of the first draft of the screenplay. So the writer needs to understand the screenplay format.
Any screenplay is consists of three acts, each act consists of plot points, each plot points consists of sequences, each sequence consists of scenes.
A movie scene is what, an audience going to watch in the movie theater. So it is written in a specific way. The scene has the following important parts:
- Slug Line or Scene Heading
- Character cue
Slugline or Scene Heading
The first part of any scene. It tells the reader whether the scene is taking place interior or exterior and also it informs the location of the scene.Examples
INT. HOTEL LOBBY. DAY
Whatever visuals we see in a scene in a movie is an action. Character eating food, walking around, the flight takes off, etc. are some examples of action.
Heading part of the dialogue section. It is the name of the character that is going to speak in the scene.
Dialogue is the sentences or words that a character speaks with another character in the scene. Dialogue should be as short as possible
Transition is a way to inform the reader or audience about a time passage. Time passage in movies is achieved through editing. Such as cut to, fade away, fade in, fade out, smash cut, etc. are some popular transition keywords we use in a film script draft.
Super is the text that appears on the screen. The most common super we watch in movies are location names, years passed, so humor text, etc.
Once the writer completes each scene writing in a visual storytelling format than its time for rewriting. No matter how best the author has written the draft, the first draft is always filled with loopholes. The writer must take a break from his work and then return back to the draft. Magically all the loopholes going to appear in front of the writer. And now its time for rewriting the entire draft.
Writer deletes scene, add new scenes, removes character, adds a new character, changes the characteristics of one or more character, some time rewrites entire act, etc. It all depends upon the writer how he or she wants to rewrite.
The sole purpose of rewriting in the screenplay world is to make the draft more potential content in which the studio might show interest and purchase. The writer may take a couple of weeks, to months and even years depending upon so many factors.
The crucial part of rewriting is not only to follow own instinct but also to share with others (who are trustable and has a good understanding of cinema) and ask for feedback.
Plenty of aspiring writers are a bit skeptical about sharing their developed content with others. The real way of developing a good script is to look at the draft from a third perspective as an audience. And it is only possible when the writer shares the content with others. They notice the loopholes in the draft.
However, this is solely dependent upon the writer which feedback is worthy to consider and which feedback to accept. But as a writer, you must have to consider every feedback you get.
Once a writer works on feedback and rewrites the draft, the writer is ready to pitch it.
Film Script length
Length of screenplay matters. So we must have to restrict the page length. It is believed that one page of a screenplay is equivalent to one minute on screen. On average a movie is 120-minute duration then the screenplay should not cross 120 pages long.
However 120-page long script is not at all small length content. It is huge. So the screenwriter should come up with an 80 to 90-page long draft following three-act structure. Once the writer gains recognition then it hardly matters the length of the screenplay.
If you are not including dialogue in your draft then your screenplay draft should not cross 30 to 40 page long.
The most difficult part is to sell a script. Screenwriters even struggle whole life to figure out how to sell a screenplay? There are plenty of reasons behind such life long struggle (let's not say failure!)
Lack of understanding of how the industry works
90 out of 100 writers who are struggling to sell their film script often visit production houses or try to contact producers to pitch their drafts. In Bollywood, producers are not the buyers of the script they are mere investors. They invest in a project which seems to be a sure-shot revenue generator. It's not the writers to whom they consider rather they love to hear film directors.
Film directors approach producers or production houses and get funds to make it. This is the reality. With growing OTT, the work for the director has become super easy. Content with less potential is also being made. This is a golden opportunity for writers to approach directors and pitch directors. Directors even guide how to rewrite the draft.
Lack of understanding about the craft
Hard to digest but this is another reality 99% of struggling writers are not trained. Such writers have landed upon into the world of screenwriting because they have been writing stories, poems, novels for several years and have good knowledge of the screenplay format. As mentioned above screenwriting is not only about the format. A couple of pages from the script clearly tells about the potential of its writer. So go for screenwriting training if you are really serious about the career.
A beat sheet is just another approach to treatment. Instead of breaking down the plot into a scene, the writer breaks down the plot into the beat. A scene is comprising of so many beat.
If a scene is about the police team chase an outlaw on the streets and finally catches. Then the beats will be as below
- Outlaw stumbles, gunshot misses him and hits nearby
- Outlaw steals bike
- more police vehicle gathers around
- outlaw hostages a teen girl
- police chief negotiates
- outlaw pretends to surrender
- outlaw tries to escape
- police chief fires, outlaw injures
- police chief arrests
This approach helps the writer looks at the visual details more minutely.
Important screenplay elements are:
- Plot Points
Following are the important Genres
Note: These are the pure genre list. However, filmmakers prefer a mixture of genres such as horror-comedy, action-comedy, romance-comedy or rom-com, suspense thriller, etc.
Logline of any proposed movie script tells about the main protagonist, protagonist's goal, and the reason behind the goal. In simple words, loglines are few lines about the entire movie.
In a Christmas eve, Jack, a middle-aged NYPD cop, meets wife in Los Angeles to save their relationship, must have to spoil the plans of terrorists after they hostaged her wife including others in Nakatomi Building.
The above example of the logline clearly tells the goal of the protagonist and reason behind the goal. Such a logline creates curiosity among listeners or readers to know further.
Screenplay vs Script
In broader sense screenplay and script are two different terms referred to the same document. People in the industry use these terms to refer a screenplay document only. However, technically both are different. The document which is used to pitch in the studio is known as a screenplay. And the document which a director uses to shoot each scene is known as script. The script includes extra dialogues, camera movements, hints for actors, lighting instructions, extra special effect sound capture, background crowd details, etc.
Screenplay vs Story
The story is the core part of any screenplay. The screenplay is developed based on a story. However the story is not developed keeping a screenplay at its core. (A writer inspired from a screenplay of a movie and wrote the story is a different matter of discussion).
Earlier days, writers used to prefer to type their script on a typewriter, but these days there is plenty of software available for screenwriting.
Luckily there are plenty of techniques available using which any writer can develop a potential script.
In this technique, the writer writes down each scene into an index card and stapled to a board. Even the writer takes different color cards to define different types of scene (action, comedy, fight, tragedy, etc.).
Vomit draft is another approach in which the writer writes without thinking, without judging, without bothering about grammatical errors, without planning, without worrying about spelling mistakes. Writers write whatever comes to mind for ten to twenty minutes each day.
Initially the writer ends up writing meaningless content such as filled with slangs, abuses, strange lines, no meaning words. But regular practice helps the writer to write something organic straight from the heart.
Frequently Asked Questions
Questions that are asked frequent Screenplay Questions.
How to write a screenplay?
Just discussed in the above about screenplay writing.
How to sell a screenplay?
How long does it take to write a screenplay?
It depends. If you are a first time writer, then spend one month on first draft and spend two months on rewriting. Take sufficient breaks in between rewriting. Go for two rewriting drafts.
How to write a screenplay outline?
What is an adapted screenplay?
If a screenplay is developed based upon a novel or news article or any existing content then such screenplay is known as an adapted screenplay.
What is a screenplay treatment?
What makes a good film script?
If a reader reads the first couple of pages and it influences him to read furthermore then such a draft is a good film script. This can be achieved by developing potential drafts and treatments based upon the draft.
What is the three-act structure in the film?
Screenwriting is a step by step process. It begins with picking an idea, turning into plot then into a treatment. The plot has plot points, important pillars of any movie story. Every movie story has three act structure. We write a screenplay based on treatment. Treatment defines the potential of any screenwriter.