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How to Write a Movie Script | A Comprehensive Guide

How do words on a page translate into images on a screen? If you have that killer idea for a movie but aren’t sure how to put those thoughts in your head into a cohesive story document, you’ve definitely come to the right place.

Filmmaking is a visual medium wholly unique from other forms of storytelling, and scriptwriting is, by extension, totally different from other forms of writing. Your script can’t waste time and precious page real-estate telling your readers about what’s happening; you need to be showing them by literally describing the actions on screen.

But you can’t dive right into a blank script document armed with a billion-dollar idea and no plan. That’s like hitting the road without a map or GPS. Where do you go?

The best place to start is by building your own storytelling roadmap, better known as an outline. Even broader than that, it’s important to plan out your story — describe all of the characters, create a top-to-bottom timeline, brainstorm various scenes or themes — before beginning the actual writing.

For this ideation phase, we recommend using some of Celtx’s scriptwriting tools – It’s completely free to get started!

Crafting a compelling story that creates an emotional connection with your audience takes a lot of careful consideration and, like all the best things in the world, a hearty dose of hard work. When you boil it down, the path to success is actually pretty simple: ample dedication to planning and brainstorming, a solid understanding of screenplay elements, and a firm grasp on major storytelling mechanics.

Related Article by Celtx: How to Write a Script for TV (Beginner’s Guide)

Develop Your Storytelling Roadmap

Just like making a meal, it’s crucial to first decide on the perfect recipe, purchase all of your ingredients, and prepare each of them before you actually start cooking.

Likewise, you need to thoughtfully plan your story. Every single screenwriter on the planet begins their screenwriting process by creating an outline, or a document that presents a short synopsis of the story’s events, major themes, and the relationships between your main characters. This can be as short as three pages and serves as your initial story blueprint. It’s an efficient and industry-standard method for providing your story with a general framework and yourself with a reference as you begin writing.

Recommended Celtx Article: 4 Tips for Overcoming Writer’s Block

You should also write out full biographies of each of your main characters, almost like you’re making a social media profile for them. Explain their demographic information like age, physique, job, etc. but go even deeper and ask yourself questions about their dreams, romantic interests, ambitions, or fears. Strive to truly understand who they are as if they were real people.

In addition to an outline and character bios, it can also be helpful to create a high-level “Beat Sheet”, or a chronological series of single-sentence bullet points that provides a top-to-bottom sequence of events in your story. It’s another version of a synopsis or an outline, but creating it is an exercise in deciding what the defining moments of your story really are.

Structure is a difficult component to master, but it also has a way of defining itself when enough time is spent planning a story (more on this in our “Plot Points” section farther down). Paying keen attention to pacing and cadence throughout this process is crucial; all it takes is a couple of “boring” scenes in a row and you’ve lost your audience.

All The Major (and Minor) Elements of a Screenplay

You’ve decided to cook a big meal and you’ve selected the appetizer, entree, and dessert. Next up: what ingredients do you need to actually make that meal? 

Screenwriting has no “perfect” recipe, but it does have a list of essential ingredients that make any story edible (ok, done with the food parallels).

Let’s start with the absolute basics first, aka Elements of a Screenplay 101. Assuming you have at least a general understanding of these components, we’ll keep these descriptions short before delving into the 201 class.

But wait, there’s more! Those are the basics, but you still need a handful of other ingredients to make your script soar. Welcome to Elements of a Screenplay 201.

With these ingredients in-hand, and a well-developed story at your side, you have the tools to open up that blank script document and know precisely what to do.

The last step? Ensuring your story has all the right content in all the right places.

“Plot Points” or How to Really Write a Movie Script

Like a lot of screenwriting terminology that’s found its way into everyday speech, you’re likely familiar with the term “plot point.” But did you know the concept of the plot point was first coined by the founder of another major storytelling theory called The Paradigm?

A plot point, according to this theory, is “any incident, episode, or event that hooks into the action and spins it around in another direction.” In other words, these are your story’s lynchpins, the crucial moments that anchor everything else in place. Screenplays have dozens and dozens of plot points, but The Paradigm defines a chronological list of major plot points in the following order:

Like everything, these are guideposts rather than narrative necessities, but they’re also trusted for a reason. Use them as a starting point and deviate only when you feel confident enough to veer off the track. If you start to get lost, turn the wheel back towards the next major plot point and you’ll be back on solid ground in no time.

Recommended Celtx Article: 3 Popular Script Types Every Screenwriter Should Know

Conclusion

It’s safe to assume every screenwriter has a basic understanding of classic story structure, even if they may not adhere to it. These narrative frameworks are better thought of as blueprints rather than rigid templates, or a way to help and support you as you turn ideas into coherent stories that believably emulate the human experience — highs, lows, and all the conflicts in between.

The path to earning that all-important emotional connection with your audience is pretty clear: do your homework, understand the tools at hand, and make sure to stick to the narrative basics…at least as you get started.

Follow that formula for long enough and you’ll be your own Tarantino before you know it!

Author

  • Andrew Stamm is based in London with his wife and dog. He spends his working time as Partner and Creative Director at Estes Media, a budding digital marketing agency, and performs freelance scriptwriting services on the side. Off the clock he loves to bake, hike, and watch as many niche films as possible.

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