Beginner's guide to writing a feature-length screenplay
Updated: Apr 12, 2020
Find the story
Before you hunch over your laptop and start grinding out your masterpiece, you need to answer this fundamental question—What is the story you’re trying to tell?
Now, this may seem obvious, but it is a step that some people miss, and when they get asked this question later down the line, they don’t have a clear answer. It’s great to have an excellent idea, fascinating characters, and an exciting world, but you need to answer this critical question first, so you can always fall back on your answer when the process gets tough—and it will.
Research the genre
If you’re hoping to sell your script, be sure to research your chosen genre, see what is selling right now, and learn the rules for that genre. It is essential to stay within those rules to increase the marketability of the script. Screenwriting is an incredibly difficult market to break into, so increasing the marketability of your script is even more important than originality. However, there is one thing to keep in mind—awsome trumps everything! If your screenplay is totally different from the other hits in its genre, but it is absolutely outstanding, it won’t matter, it will get the praise it deserves. But realistically, we are talking about the 0.001% of scripts.
Write a logline
A logline is a brief (usually one-sentence) summary of your script. It’s how you would describe the film when asked: “what is it about?” Within the logline you must introduce the protagonist and state the central conflict. Below are some great examples.
The Matrix—A computer hacker learns from mysterious rebels about the true nature of his reality and his role in the war against its controllers.
Django Unchained—With the help of a German bounty hunter, a freed slave sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner.
The Godfather—The aging patriarch of an organized crime dynasty transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant son.
Write a synopsis
You can skip this step and move on to the outline (below) if you so desire, but know that producers, execs, and agents will often want to read a synopsis before diving into the actual script. So why not write a first pass at it now?!
Your synopsis is a one-pager that describes the plot and world of your story, written in present tense, third person, in the same tone as the script. Keep it simple, introduce the main character, don’t go into too much detail, and don’t keep any secrets regarding twists and/or the ending.
For a more detailed look at the synopsis and to download your free template, check out my post on how to write a screenplay synopsis.
Write an outline
This is the blueprint for your script and allows you to flesh out your story without having to go back and do multiple rewrites. They tend to be in the region of 5 to 10 pages and should include the essential information for each scene—location, characters, & action. You should consider conforming to the standard three-act structure, and add the major plot points: inciting incident, call to action, midpoint, etc. A beat sheet is an excellent tool to help you with this, and there are many free versions online.
Note: Some writers (I was one of them) choose not to write an outline and instead free-flow through the first draft with nothing more than a logline. This works for some, but I found I had trouble finishing the scripts when using this approach. Since I’ve started using an outline, writer’s block cannot rear its ugly head, because if I get to a point where I’m stuck, I simply refer back to the outline.
Get screenwriting software
If you are just writing for fun and have no intention of sending your finished screenplay to anyone, you could bypass this step. But if you want to produce a professional-looking, perfectly formatted screenplay, then screenwriting software is a must! The first thing a producer or script reader notices is the format. If it’s wrong, even a little, then the script will likely end up in the trash.
In terms of which software to use, I use Final Draft, but there are a few more affordable/free options out there like Celtx. Take a look and see what’s best for you.
Now you are armed with an outline, it’s time to start writing your screenplay. I could (and likely will) write an entire post about the do’s and don’ts of screenwriting, but for now, here are a few things to keep in mind...
Get to the point—A common mistake new screenwriters make, and the comment I hear most at writers groups, is not getting to the main conflict/inciting incident quick enough. There is a lot of temptation to delve into the character’s background, etc., but the golden rule is that within the first ten pages, it should be clear what the movie is about. Go back and rewatch your favorite movies, and you will find this to be the case in almost every instance.
Don’t overdo the dialogue—Another newbie mistake is to write pages and pages of dialogue. It can be easy to get carried away when exploring a fascinating situation or conflict, but it’s all about finding the right balance. Remember that film is a visual medium. In fact, the great Alfred Hitchcock once said: “When we tell a story in cinema we should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise.”
Length—Feature Film scripts are usually 90 - 120 pages. Try not to go over 120. The reason for this number is that one page of a screenplay roughly translates to one minute of screen time. And as with formatting, if the page count is off, it will generally mean that your script will not be read.
Once you finish your first draft, put it down for a week or so, then go back over and do a rewrite. When I do my rewrites, I focus on ironing ou
t all the action lines to improve on its readability, trimming the fat where needed, making sure the dialogue is snappy, and ensuring there is sufficient subtext.
There are several ways to do this, from asking friends and family, to paying for a script analysis from websites such as Fiverr. Personally, I prefer peer-to-peer reviews. I get these by using Francis Ford Coppola’s peer review website Zoetrope, and by being a member of a writers group here in Hollywood.
I hate being cliché, but nothing is more accurate in writing than the age-old saying: “The art of writing is rewriting.” Get comfortable with this, and keep plugging away until you have the best possible finished product!