How to Write a Screenplay

I believe that were Hemingway alive today, he would be a screenwriter. Void of the adverbs and adjectives, the screenplay is known for being the foundation of a feature film to most, but to others it is a format that strips all creativity from the writer, forcing them to write short, boring sentences without any flourishes.

Write a Screenplay

As you might have guessed, I do not agree with the latter notion and instead aim to prove this mindset incorrect by detailing the steps to writing a screenplay and how the rules are not so strict as they seem. 

Though the screenplay format is considered restricting even by those who only write scripts, I have found over time that by embracing these restrictions one can get to the storytelling in its most pure form, something you'll find when you take my free e-course, Speedy Screenwriting or, if you're ready to write that feature film, my advanced course, Swank Up Your Script

So without further ado, here are my steps to writing a screenplay as a newbie:

1. Learn the rules, but don't stress out over them. 

Like with anything, there are some rules that exist for a reason, and these are worth learning and adhering to. Most of them exist for clarity's sake, and the more scripts you read, the more aware you'll become of the importance of the universal language of screenwriting. There is no perfect way to go about learning the correct format - I've never tortured myself with a book on all the rules - but whenever I have a question about specific formatting I usually refer to John August.

Overall though, the "rules" of screenwriting are not hard to grasp and I usually only visit John August's blog when I have very specific formatting questions like how to write an intercut scene or indicate that a sound from one scene carries on to the other, questions that many newbies do not yet need to tackle. However, there are a few general rules to know that will save you a lot of time and edits if you learn them now, and to help you out I have listed below the rules I see most people messing up:

  • The first time you introduce a character, put their names in all caps. After that, there is no need for capitalization. That being said, you must always introduce characters in the action, even the most minor ones.
  • Don't introduce backstory in the action. Hint at it through the dialogue. Action is for one thing only - action.
  • Anytime you introduce a new location, provide some description before jumping into dialogue. This is an amateur mistake that I most often make when cutting between two different scenes, but even the shortest scenes need some sort of action or description before the dialogue.
  • No large blocks of text, including in dialogue. Break things up into smaller paragraphs or insert action between dialogue. A general rule I keep to is no lines of description longer than four lines and no lines of dialogue longer than five, but to some people even this is considered too long.
  • Break up conversations with action. Anytime characters have been talking for nearly a page without any action in between (be it sighing, laughing, shifting in their seat, frowning, etc.) I always write down questions like "How do the characters feel?" "What are they doing [while the other person is talking]?" and so forth. This is your way to tell people how the characters feel visually!

These are things I cover in more detail in Swank Up Your Script, teaching you the basics of what you need to know as a new screenwriter, but never forcing any rules down your throat.

Fill out the form below to get a cheatsheet with the ten rules you need to know!

2. Download a program like Final Draft or Celtx

These programs make it incredibly easy to write a screenplay by formatting it for you. There are still some rules you'll need to learn, but overall these programs teach the process by pure intuition, which is why I never really know what advice to offer to aspiring screenwriters other than to download one of these programs.

Final Draft is industry standard and therefore makes it less likely you'll make formatting errors but it's costly. Celtx, on the other hand, is free and great for beginners. If you aren't sure screenwriting is for you or just want to mess around with the craft, I recommend downloading Celtx, but if you plan to send your work off somewhere I would buy Final Draft to save yourself the stress and time of ensuring you've formatted everything correctly.

3. Read other scripts

Just like aspiring novelists read novels, the best way to learn is read other scripts! Luckily, unlike books, scripts can be found for free (legally!) and are quite easy to find. The most common place to download scripts is the Internet Movie Script Database, though I shall forewarn you that the website's aesthetics look like they haven't been updated since 2007. However, if you are familiar with The Black List, they have a website called Go Into the Story that is more visually pleasing and has many scripts to download from.

Additionally, you can purchase paperback copies of some scripts to read or even fancy annotated copies like this Godfather one, though this becomes a habit just as expensive as buying books and usually yields less pretty editions since scripts exist in so many different states.

4. Remain consistent to your own rules

If you introduce a main character as "JENNA, a woman in her thirties with blonde hair," do not introduce other characters in a different format, such as "RICO (30's)." It's a small thing, and either way of describing someone's age is correct, but it's best to stick to one style of introducing age. The more you read scripts, the more you'll notice people breaking from the rules - and that's fine. But what's important is when you break the rules, you do it consistently.

5. "It's in the script"

When actors would approach Alfred Hitchcock hoping to discuss their character and motivations, Hitchcock allegedly would tell the actors that whatever the needed to know was "in the script" and leave it at that. It is this idea that I keep in mind when writing my own scripts now, treating the piece I am writing not only as a story, but as the key that unlocks everything anyone who would be making this film would need to know. After all, it's highly unlikely that the screenwriter will be on set, so I treat the script as a place to answer all questions any department might have.

This is where I believe Hemingway comes in. When I first started screenwriting, I found myself bogged down by all the different rules. I was never sure whether to mention the way someone looked or if the decoration of a room was important enough to write down, so that most of my scripts ended up a juvenile mess wrought with lengthy descriptions at the beginning that completely forgot to say anything about the character.

Now when I write scripts, I only write what is essential to know, but if I believe details like the way someone is dressed will give people information about the character, I describe it. This way of thinking helps me stick to the classic "Show, don't tell" rule every writer has heard.

But for screenplays, that rule is definitely worth keeping to! Whatever I don't think is absolutely essential to mention, I leave out and imagine some art department figure in my future getting creative with it instead. This doesn't mean my scripts are completely void of any life, but that I try to find the small details about the setting and people that can say more in one sentence than a whole paragraph can. By thinking like this, I've become more attuned to the quick details in life that can say a lot about someone and become a better writer as a result.

Fill out the form below to get a cheatsheet with the ten rules you need to know!