Joe Gilles, the struggling screenwriter protagonist of Sunset Boulevard once said that “Audiences don’t know somebody sits down and writes a picture; they think the actors make it up as they go along.” That may be true (with the right level of skill), but getting to be the somebody writing the picture can be the trickiest step of the process. Everyone’s got a story to tell and the road to realizing your idea in 90-120 pages of script is not always easily walked.
That’s where we’ve got you covered. We’ll be taking you on a step-by-step guide to becoming a screenwriter, taking you all the way from the basics of craft, to pitching in front of executives.
Now, it’s worth mentioning that there is no “one way” to becoming a screenwriter. There are tried and tested method, but a little luck and being in the right place at the right time with your project can make all the difference. Remember, it’s important to be motivated and ready to tackle each obstacle one step at a time.
But first, let’s get to grips with the role of a screenwriter and its responsibilities.
What is a Screenwriter?
For feature films, television series, video games, documentaries, commercials and even music videos, there’s always a screenwriter at the helm. If it’s a visual medium, screenwriters create the blueprint for the project with their script or pitch document (sometimes called a ‘treatment’ or ‘bible’).
While we often think of scripts as being for film and television, there’s a lot of other opportunities to write and create in different industries. So, it’s best to keep your options open and be flexible – modern writers seldom work in just one field!
This leads nicely into our first step:
How to Become a Screenwriter: An 8-Step Guide
|1. Read, Read and Read|
|2. Study the Masters|
|3. Watch and Learn|
|4. Time to Write|
|5. Craft a Screenwriter’s Portfolio|
|6. Be a Professional|
|7. Challenge Yourself|
|8. Go for The Sale|
Step 1: Read, Read and Read
Though it may seem like an overly simple starting point, “reading like a writer” is one of the best ways to enhance your craft. Scripts have to grab their reader to get made, so understanding what makes a script sing is critical. By reading screenplays, you’ll be able to study each scene, character and plot point in-depth. More importantly, you’ll learn how these ideas work together on the page.
For this reason, you’ll find it helpful to read “Spec” scripts wherever possible. Spec (“speculation”) scripts are unproduced drafts. These are written in the hope that the project will be bought and eventually made. SimplyScripts is a great resource for screenplays, as well as the Internet Movie Script Database.
Keep an eye out for “FYC” or “For Your Consideration” drafts. These are screenplays bound for competitions during awards season. Industry site Deadline publishes dozens of award-nominated scripts to read for free each year. You’ll roughly find feature scripts towards the end/start of the year, for the Academy. Whereas television scripts you’ll find in the middle of the year, gearing up for the Emmys. These drafts are designed to be as clean and impressive a read as possible, so they can pack a real punch!
Step 2: Study the Masters
No, I’m not talking about college, though there are some fine screenwriting courses out there.
Screenwriting is a skill and a skill can be taught. That’s why you’ll find it helpful to seek out screenwriting books to build on what you’ve already learned. Some strong, general examples include Syd Field’s “Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting”, Robert McKee’s “Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting” and Blake Snyder’s “Save The Cat!” The last of these suggestions tend to split opinion. But it’s good to read it yourself and have an opinion, even if you don’t use it.
These books aim to give you the guidance to deconstruct a script and use its techniques yourself. Consider them a way to translate the language of screenwriting. You’ll start to see similarities in structure and technique in scripts you’ve already read. Often these books include breakdowns of popular screenplays, examining plot, structure, characters or theme.
If you’re tired of reading, try listening. There’s a wealth of podcasts for both novice and experienced writers alike. Often these are run by established writers and tutors, so they’re just as valuable as books. Scriptnotes and Draft Zero are strong references here.
It’s important to remember that not all advice you receive from these guides will be the same. Some information may be contradictory. Some books may assess famous scripts differently. But each screenwriter simply has their own approach to voice and style. You’ll have one too, developing over your career. So, don’t try to take in too much information at once. As with things you watch and script you read, you want a range. Above all, use what works for you.
Step 3: Watch and Learn
Remember how I told you that screenplays are blueprints? It’s good to know what the final product looks like. Whether it’s a new screenplay you’ve read or an old favourite, the comparison is another crucial step.
Knowing how written material transfers to screen matters. “Watching like a writer” will give you a firmer grasp on screenwriting techniques in action. By appreciating the blocking of scenes or the placement of beats, you’ll be able to manipulate your story that much more. This, in turn, makes your writing more visual. As the adage goes: show, don’t tell. It’s vital that you remember your audience’s perspective when you write. If we can’t see it or infer it, we may struggle to understand what you’re trying to say or depict.
Take notes and compare drafts. They won’t always match one-to-one, but that’s part of the process. A screenplay is a document that everyone needs room to project their own skills onto. It’s about making room for directors to have their own vision, cinematographers to shoot, roles for actors to develop and so-on.
There’s another neglected but also important reason to watch more: cost. Set pieces are set pieces for a reason. Not every project, especially not for a first-time writer, is going to be afforded a multi-million dollar budget. So, play producer and do some research. Estimate cost and where the budget was spent. Getting to grips with these numbers allows you to prioritize action where it counts and trim down overall cost. This means a more balanced screenplay, with better appeal as a result. If there’s less risk for a producer to take, that’s one more reason to say yes to your screenplay.
Similarly, knowing what’s been made (and why) allows you to make smarter decisions about your project. A CGI-driven epic isn’t going to fare well with most producers (at least not when you start!). Budgets don’t just determine how you write but what you write. Consider when you watch: why did this film or series get made? What themes does it relate to? What is it saying about the time we’re in right now? Often, you’ll get more than one answer or interpretation. But it’s all about making the project more marketable.
Putting on your producer’s hat here helps. Knowing their perspective means you can play to it and sharpen your pitch. As an exercise, imagine you’re in the room justifying what you’re watching now to an executive. Try and answer the question: “Why tell this story now?” If it’s an adaptation, does it have appeal? Were actors or crew members already attached? Think about it.
So, by now you’ve spent several hours reading and watching movies and TV. What’s new? Well, grab your screenwriting software, it’s time to kick it up a notch.
Step 4: Time to Write
By now, you should have plenty of prompts to start your new screenplay with. You may have come into this process with an idea, changing it as you’ve learned! But, if you haven’t yet, experiment. “What if?” is a powerful question for storytellers. It’s a great tool for extracting a single, powerful question or idea that you can then center a screenplay around.
You may also find inspiration in the world around you: an anecdote or real-life story. If you’re still struggling, check out our 9 methods to start your next script.
As part of developing your concept, it’s a good idea to create an Outline (it may also be referred to a ‘Beat Sheet’). Try developing your story in a written form, prose will do just fine for now. Then, map out your plot points to one or two pages. Just include the basics here, the dramatic moments of your story. Here’s where the study of structure comes into play. If you’re writing a conventional three act structure, you should be able to break your points into three sections
- The First Act introduces your characters, the story world and gives us the inciting incident that sets off the narrative.
- The Second Act has your protagonist facing new problems, meeting new characters and ultimately encountering a problem they can’t overcome.
- The Third Act escalates this problem into a moment where your protagonist changes irreversibly. In the climax, often a confrontation, they triumph or fail, before the plot comes to a resolution.
If you’re looking at your outline and your beats broadly map onto these points, congratulations! You’ve hopefully got a reliable three act structure to anchor your story with. If not, don’t worry, there’s still room to experiment with your structure and plot. But make sure you have a firm grasp on what the three act structure is. It’s a powerful, reliable tool for writers.
Taking your planning an extra step, you can expand on your outline to include a treatment. This also saves you time later on (we’ll get to that soon). A treatment is a detailed prose summary of the story, including all of the key beats you already outlined. A treatment can be as long or as short as you’d like. But we’d always encourage you to trend down, rather than up. Learning to be efficient with your wording is critical. That applies not just to the treatment, but to the script itself.
Writing a short can also be a great chance to flex your writing muscles before advancing into your first feature or pilot. You’ll have seen them discussed in screenwriting books and the same principles apply here. Think about a single idea and how you might plot it across 5-15 pages. Shorts can also be a great chance to preview a bigger idea, especially if the short does well! If you have a feature idea, try boiling it down to its essence and writing a short about that first.
The formatting of your first screenplay isn’t all-important, but it will make a difference to people who read your work. Celtx makes planning, writing and editing your script a breeze. It handles the formatting automatically and intuitively guides you from one element to the next. Try Celtx for free today!
With your knowledge from scripts you’ve read and books on-hand, you should have a firm grasp of how to format your script. But, if you’re still struggling, we’ve got you covered.
This process can take as long or as short a time as necessary. Stay motivated and keep making progress. Remember Hemingway’s famous quote on first drafts. Finishing it is what counts, even if it’s not yet perfect.
Then, once you have a finished screenplay, take two important mini-steps:
- Congratulate yourself! You just finished your first ever screenplay! That’s no easy feat and worth commending yourself for.
- Get ready to rewrite. Now you become the editor and, being critical of your work, prepare to make changes. We’ll discuss ways to do this in our next major step…
Step 5: Craft a Screenwriter’s Portfolio
Breaking into the industry is rarely done with a single screenplay. Agents, producers and executives need consistency from the people they work with. How do you win their trust to drive their latest investment? Make a portfolio. Simply said, you need more than one project to show for yourself. Ideally, you have at least two to three scripts on hand, when asked for.
So, in-between drafts of your first project, start up a new idea. You might find it helpful to jump from one script to another, especially if you struggle with Writer’s Block. Again, take your time here. It’s all about having a range of projects that show off your writing as consistently as possible.
Don’t be afraid to mix genre and format here! Knowing that you’re flexible across different mediums and tones is valuable to a producer.
Supporting documents also form an important part of your portfolio. Each project should have a logline, synopsis and treatment to match. You’ll have encountered these ideas before in reading, but we’ll handle each of these in turn now:
- A Logline is a one or two sentence expression of a screenplay’s central premise and story. An example for Titanic would be “A poor, young artist and an aristocratic young woman fall in love aboard the Titanic’s maiden voyage and struggle to survive the disaster.” There’s a lot of ways to spin out loglines, but it’s important you have one.
- A Short Synopsis summarizes your story in one page. When writing this, remember that you’re selling the story, more than you’re providing extra detail. Focus on the main plot points and characters. Include the beats that develop your characters and make sure the language in the synopsis reflects the genre of the script. If it’s a comedy, be light-hearted, emphasize the humor. If it’s a drama, play it straight and bring out the emotional consequences of each beat.
- As we covered earlier, a Treatment also summarizes the story, but has additional detail. The above rules apply here, but you have room to delve into the story proper. Here’s where you can include the important details that matter to you as the writer. If you wrote a treatment before creating the script, ensure it’s consistent with the final draft on your portfolio.
With these three elements beside each project, you’ll be able to quickly give a producer the gist of each project. It’s all about making the process as fluid as possible for the people interested in your work. If they read your logline and then your synopsis, you’re onto something.
If possible, join a writing group. Though you may not think of it in this way, screenwriting is a highly collaborative process. Having a group of screenwriters at a similar career stage around you is invaluable. Ideally, you can share your work with like-minded people on a regular basis. Your skills can grow greatly through this process, but that’s not all.
Knowing how to take script notes well is an underrated but important step of the process. Along your career, you’ll get good and bad notes, both devastating and extremely helpful. Write it all down, even if you don’t use it. It’s good to have the perspective of readers, as it makes you more aware of your writing. Speaking of reading…
Step 6: Be a Professional
Internships and writing jobs within the industry are hard to come by, but you should aim for them all the same. This may require you to move to an industry-focused city, but some relevant jobs can be performed remotely. Script Reader jobs are a solid entry point and something you should have plenty of experience with, provided you’ve followed our steps!
Being in a similar or adjacent role in the industry is just as valuable. Your work as a Production Assistant or an Assistant Director might not directly advance your writing career. But it will give you a critical edge: networking.
It’s not just what you know, it’s who you know. Being able to meet professional figures, screenwriters and representatives is a big plus for when you need it. Working in the industry puts you in their proximity. Like appreciating finished projects, it gives you another perspective on your work.
Don’t underestimate the value of networking. Make friends, be polite, surround yourself with like-minded people. Listen to the stories of others and stay informed about industry trends. If possible, find a mentor to guide your work. It may seem obvious, but it’s all part of building a professional, respectable identity. Half of the battle is winning people’s trust, so take it seriously.
Step 7: Challenge Yourself
Now that your work’s been stress tested by those around you, it’s time to get it out there. You’ve got a few options ahead of you:
- Festivals and Contests. This is a vast world in its own right, with thousands of opportunities all around the world. So, hone in on relevant places to enter. Often these are judged by industry professionals. If you write a historical drama, make sure you don’t submit it to a horror festival.
- The Blacklist. A list of the hottest but currently unproduced scripts, The Blacklist is a great proving ground. For a fee, professional readers will review and rate your script. With enough positive ratings, it goes up on their annual list.
- Fellowships. Highly competitive, but worth knowing about. These are network and studio-driven programs designed to find talented writers. Entry requirements can be high, often including letters of recommendation, so try taking a few laps before you take a shot.
These steps can be a great way to gain recognition for your work, as well as network. With enough approval, you may consider submitting your script to a production company. Look for companies that accept unsolicited material. This means you won’t need a reference to send your script. But only take this step if you’re truly ready. It’s high bar to pass, so accept any outcome with grace.
If your good work is getting around, there’s every chance an agent might find you. Of course, an agent can open up doors for you, but they won’t transform your world. Remember that it’s hard work that earns representation, not the other way around.
Focus on building momentum around yourself and your work. Keep sending it out, collaborating and, as we mentioned earlier, being the professional you want to be.
Step 8: Go for The Sale
We’re finally here. Along the way, you’ll have figured out a lot of this yourself. But, we’re happy to give you a head start. By now, you hopefully have:
- Enthusiasm and momentum behind your work.
- Meaningful industry connections.
- An agent to vouch for you.
- A professional screenwriting portfolio.
- A meeting with producers or executives.
But how do you sell a screenplay? There’s a couple of important things to consider here.
Remember how I told you to consider “Why now?” That’s the question that producers and executives want to be answered most. What is it about your project that reassures them of a good investment? Knowing that answer is the most crucial component of your pitch.
If things fall through, don’t be disheartened. The road to becoming a screenwriter is not the path of least resistance. But, if your heart is in it and you’re willing to commit, there’s every reason to be optimistic. Along the way, you’ll have changed both as a writer and an individual. Becoming a trustworthy figure within the industry is a reward in and of itself, giving you further shots at selling your screenplay.
Remember that it’s all about personal growth, step-by-step.
1. Will I Have to Give up My Day Job?
No! Most of this process will be building your reputation and portfolio, spending your off-hours developing your writing. Having a reliable, continual source of income to support that extra work is important. When the time comes to switch to a professional screenwriting job, you’ll know. Remember, the career of a screenwriter is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.
2. Will I Have to Move to LA?
It depends. Remote jobs are more prolific than ever and there’s ample opportunity to pitch and sell your work remotely. But, as you get further down the line, you may find it helpful to move to a screenwriting hub. This will give you the chance to network with like-minded individuals. Additionally, it gives you more opportunities to experience moviemaking first-hand.
3. Should I Write with a Partner?
Yes! Collaboration is a crucial part of the screenwriting craft. This can range from sharing individually written drafts, to beating and writing one screenplay together. The choice is yours, but a writing partner at any stage is helpful. Just make sure you get an outside perspective when you need one!
4. When is it Right to Start Submitting?
Try submitting when you get two pieces of positive, unbiased feedback from figures in the industry. These are professional readers, producers, agents or similar. The key here is unbiased, make sure they only know you from your work as a writer.