How to write a screenplay in 5 easy steps

Screenplay Writing - The 5 StepsA screenplay is a story that’s told in moving pictures. The reason this is important to emphasize is that a lot of people truly don’t know what distinguishes a screenplay from other forms of writing. Or a better way of putting it, is that many folks don’t know if their idea would be better suited as a movie or in another medium. If you want to know if the story you’ve written is best suited for the screen, put it through this simple test.

First, is your script full of long speeches or blocks of dialogue? Perhaps the story you want to tell would best be told as a stage play.

Second , are you the kind of writer who enjoys telling the reader every single morsel of detail about every single thing in the story? You like telling the reader what shade of pink your character’s wearing and how she got the deep gash above her left eye? Then perhaps you’d enjoy writing a novel or even a short story.

Third , is there enough meat to keep the audience engaged for at least an hour and a half? If not, maybe you should write a series of short stories instead of a script. Or maybe you should write a book of essays.

Here is how you can write a screenplay in five easy steps:

Step 1: Create engaging characters

Creating a character that a reader (and ultimately the audience), will care about is no easy task. But it is your primary goal at this stage of the game. It’s important to realize that everything about the character will emanate from that character’s needs, fears and desires. In other words, your characters, just like you, do what they do because of who they are, where they’ve been and where they want to go. This is very important. You can never have your characters doing things that are “out of character” for who they are “at that juncture in the script”.

Here’s an exercise to get you to create a vivid protagonist:

Character Inventory

Age ___________________________________________

Birthplace ______________________________________

Gender ________________________________________

Socioeconomic Background _______________________

Ethnicity ______________________________________

Physical/Mental Limitations ________________________

Education ______________________________________

Family Background ______________________________

Relevant Personality Traits ________________________


Significant positive events _________________________


Significant negative events _________________________


Employment Situation _____________________________

This simple inventory should give you some insights into your main character. I suggest doing the same inventory for your other primary and supporting characters. I’ve had teachers recommend doing full bios for characters and if that suits your style, go for it. I’ve never done this and I’ve never recommended that anyone else do it either,primarily because I think there should be things about your character that even you have to discover later in the script. I like to write characters that are fresh and unpredictable and how can they be unpredictable if I know everything about them? They can’t. It’s not possible.

Step 2: Frame dialogues that reveal the character and advance the story

Many beginning screenwriters think that they can fool folks into thinking that they are good writers simply by putting decent dialogue onto the page. That’s only a part of the great screenwriting equation. And no part is greater than the sum. You can create the most visual characters in the world but if they utter words that make no sense, you haven’t done much as a screenwriter.

Remember these two things: Dialogue must (1) reveal character and (2) advance the story:

Reveal Character:

In other words, you can’t put words into your characters’ mouths that don’t belong there. If you create a character that’s starched and polished, it would appear to be out of character for that individual to use a lot of slang. Another way to reveal character is what your characters do not say. In the movie Ghost, what phrase does Patrick Swayze never say? I love you. Instead he always says ditto. This reveals character.

Advance The Story

I don’t care how clever a line, if it doesn’t move the story or character forward, it must go to the Dialogue Graveyard! Tough pill to swallow so keep a tall glass of water near the computer. It’s okay to love a great line or to totally enjoy a sappy monologue by one of your characters but if the words (1) don’t tell us something that we didn’t already know, (2) tell us something we’ve already heard or (3) don’t put the story in more motion, it can’t stay. Sorry.

Step 3: Create conflict

A screenplay without any tension is a screenplay that’s just asking to be tossed into file 13. Without conflict, you don’t have a movie. If boy meets girl and immediately gets girl, we’re all napping in the theater. But if boy meets girl, loses girl and then gets girl again, we feel like the 10 bucks may have been worth it.

In other words, a script contains many elements but one of the main ingredients is conflict. Well, you say, sure, conflict is important in thrillers and action movies but what about comedies? I’d say conflict is even MORE important in comedies. In fact, I think comedy is conflict.

Once you have a chart that shows the potential areas for creating conflict, then narrow down which pieces of conflict actually have a place in your script. Even though a bit of conflict might be fun to play out, doesn’t mean that it belongs in your story.

So, how do you know what to keep and what to scrap? You don’t. Not always. Not at first anyway. So, you’ve got to experiment. Maybe you’ll select those threads of conflict that have the greatest chance of elevating your story. Maybe you’ll lower the intensity of other conflict so that you’re not overshadowing the main conflict. Then, you just write those in and see how they work.

Step 4: Put that story in a structure

The next thing you must do is put that story in a structure that makes it an enjoyable film. Contrary to popular belief, films are not simply a string of inconsequential moments that happen to make sense and on occasion make us laugh or cry. Instead, structure involves a strategy, a system for arranging scenes and sequences that elicit specific emotional responses.

Screenplays are comprised of scenes that involve rising and falling emotions and action. Scenes that involve growth, information and movement by characters or circumstances. Scripts are about characters who experience changes in a finite amount of time arranged in such a way that each scene, through a number of mechanisms, reveals more about the story (and character) than previously known.

Now, that may sound a little convoluted, so let’s break it down.

On a basic level, movies are about people (or characters) on a journey. Since movies generally last from 2 to 3 hours, the storyteller only has so much time for the character to travel to his destination. The road map for screenplays then, involve scenes and sequences. A sequence is simply a series of scenes. A scene involves action that contains information about the story and/or character using things like conflict and events to move the character closer or farther from his destination, which could be a goal. Make sense?

Step 5: Plot it out

This topic is discussed in more detail in my advanced script writing classes but it’s a topic you definitely need to begin incorporating into your scripts. On a very basic level, your script needs the following.

I’ve used ‘Save The Last Dance’ as an example of some of the kinds of plots and subplots you can use.

! 1 Major Plot (a young woman wants to become a dancer and attend Julliard only she’s given up dancing because her mother was killed trying to get to her performance)

! 1 Major Sub Plot (young woman is forced to move to the “hood” where she learns a different kind of dancing that helps her land an audition for Julliard)

! 2-3 Minor Sub Plots (1) young woman is forced to move in with a father she barely knows, (2) falls in love with a black boy and (3) endures racial tension at school.

Why so many plots? Because if you tell me, “My movie’s about girl who wants a boy and she gets him.” I’ll say you don’t have a movie. Go back and add some additional sub plots. What else is going on?We’re not going to pay $10 to see a character declare her desire in one scene and then get it in the next! That’s not a movie, that’s a fairy tale.

You can keep adding subplots to make the story even more interesting. Maybe the boy doesn’t really want to marry the new girl but when he tries to reach his old sweetheart, is told by her jealous roommate that she’s moved out of the country!

What next?

Remember, it doesn’t have to be great or even good, for that matter. Just write. Notice how easy it is for your eyes to move through the script. You shouldn’t get bogged down while reading any script. If you’re not soaring through a reading of your script, you may need to trim it in some places. Maybe there’s too much dialogue. Perhaps too much description.

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