As is the case with almost every art form or creative process, there are a million ways to do it well. Learning how to write a screenplay is no different.
While there are plenty of methods for creating turning that million-dollar idea into an award-winning screenplay, there are a few valuable and trusted tips that every screenwriter in the industry consistently relies upon as they’re bringing their story to life.
By following the 9 helpful screenwriting tips below, your screenplay will be more polished, more professional, and more market-ready for the Hollywood executives you want to impress.
If you’re new to scriptwriting or simply needing a creative process shake-up, then here are some reliable pointers for producing your best work and learning how to write a screenplay.
But before we get started, if you wanted to get started and practice as you learn, sign up for Celtx’s free script editor here!
1. Start Observing Your Own Life
Real-life stories create or inspire 100% of great ideas.
With this in mind, start more attentively observing your own life to gather small anecdotes, stories, and ideas. By encountering and observing events in your own life, you can get you high concept ideas, little snippets of dialogue, or even a creative idea for a setting or location.
This can be as simple as making short notes on your phone or a notepad as you come across events and people that have creative potential for a script.
Throughout this ongoing exercise, reach into your past and brainstorm stories and moments you’ve already experienced. A day trip or holiday with friends, for example, could spark creative ideas for a comedy screenplay while an eccentric neighbor you once knew could be a great supporting character to weave into your thriller script.
Whether real life events or people become the main thrust of your narrative or just fine details, your screenplay will benefit from having life experience and emotionality injected into the plot.
2. Write Your Logline
Your logline, sometimes referred to as a slugline, is the briefest summary of your script and widely considered the first building block towards constructing your amazing screenplay. In a single sentence you must concisely describe what your script is all about.
This is not an easy task, but ask yourself, what is my film really about? A logline won’t fit the entire narrative of your script, but it should capture the essence of your story and the drama unfolding. It’s the perfect opportunity to condense your story down and intrigue readers to give your screenplay the time it deserves.
If boiling your plot down into one line is proving difficult, first consider what your narrative arch is. What is the greatest conflict, drama, or challenging moment facing your character or characters? This nexus point of drama is likely the pinnacle moment of your film and is a great place to focus on when crafting a logline.
Loglines were historically printed in the spine of printed screenplays and, while your logline will not be on the spine of your script, it should be a compelling summary of what makes your script worth reading.
For example, Pixar’s Encanto (2021) could be summarized into a logline such as, “Colombian teenager, Maribel, searches for her missing superpower amongst her magically gifted family.”
It’s more than okay to modify or edit your logline after you’ve finished writing your screenplay, but it is useful to have a complete logline before diving into the scriptwriting as it can be your narrative compass should you find yourself becoming creatively tangential.
Keep your logline simple and to hand, be open to editing it if needed, and press on with the writing process!
3. Learn How to Craft a Script Outline
With a tidy logline complete, it may be tempting to dive straight into the script, but it’s essential to take the time to create and polish an outline. An outline is typically a two-page document which chronologically details all the key events which occur in your script. Your outline should be streamlined and feel like you are plotting points on a map.
Try your best not to be overly descriptive in your outline when describing events. Instead, treat events like they are in a bullet point format. (For example, “Claire and Derek met at work that morning”). Some writers prefer to keep these sentences in bullet points on a single document; another popular technique for organizing your outline is to write each sentence on an index card.
As a rough guide, and tip for your own outline writing, most screenplays are 90 – 120 pages as one page of script typically equates to one minute of screen time. Bearing this in mind, your outline should have approximately 90 -100 single sentences which are bullet-pointed and cover the beginning, middle, and end of your screenplay.
4. Write a Treatment
If your outline is your screenplay’s skeleton, then your screenplay’s treatment is the muscle.
With your outline to keep you on track, your treatment will be a prose version of the events and will read like a short story over 2-5 pages. The treatment will contain your logline and briefly introduce your main characters as well.
A script’s treatment often accompanies a script when it is being read by potential producers or studios, so consider your treatment a little like a marketing document for your story. Therefore, this is an ideal opportunity to include details on the intended visual style and mood of your script.
Writing your treatment may prompt you to, slightly or significantly, adjust your plot or characters as you can more clearly see how your story is translating onto the page. Do not be discouraged by these edits as they will only improve your understanding of your story and strengthen your final screenplay overall.
5. Setup, Confrontation, and Resolution
The set-up, confrontation and resolution recipe is a tried and tested success for storytellers structuring their work through the ages. This simple and highly effective screenwriting device can be spotted across almost every genre of filmmaking and represents a crucial step in learning how to write a screenplay.
Most movies are split into three acts and follow this dramatic sequence. Even Aristotle and many Shakespearean plays follow this structure.
Typically, this tripartite structure can be characterized and understood like this:
- The set-up act introduces and establishes the world, themes, and characters, as well as the problems they face along the way. The pre-text for future confrontations is also laid out in the set-up act.
- The confrontation act raises the stakes by depicting characters’ struggles or efforts to overcome the obstacles or missions they face. This act is typically packed with drama as the conflict escalates and tension builds.
- The resolution act shows the crisis climax and, subsequently, its resolution. The action typically tails off in this act as the aftermath and consequences of the action are felt and unfold. Ideally, at the end of this act, there should be a neat and rewarding conclusion to the story.
6. Show, but Don’t Tell
A key difference between writing screenplays compared to other forms of writing, such as novels or articles, is the need for scriptwriters to create language for depicting visual worlds – rather than simply making descriptive worlds for the reader to imagine.
Before diving into your script, practice what it’s like to describe a scene and convey your characters’ thoughts and characteristics through visual storytelling and dialogue. Try this by taking a simple example, such as describing something you did today.
Did you enjoy a coffee this morning? Were you excited to see a friend earlier today? Now try to write a short scene, or a few lines, to tell this visual story. Scriptwriting is like a kind of translating in this respect because almost all the language written is designed to serve the visuals. This was the lynchpin in learning how to write a screenplay.
To further familiarize yourself with the “show me, don’t tell me” process, choose one of your favorite films and search for its script online. Scripts for notable films are often easy to find and can be illuminating to read how iconic scenes which you are already familiar with were once visually crafted and incepted through scriptwriting.
Later in the process, if you detect overly descriptive language weighing down your script, remind yourself of this practice and ensure your script’s visuals are the driving force of your story.
7. Develop Your Characters
Before getting fully immersed in the scriptwriting stage, it’s crucial that you can answer all the simple information about your characters with detail, such as their name, age, hometown, and physical appearance. Only then can you dive deeper to determine their style, faith, values, sense of humor, ambitions, philosophies, and habits.
Understanding your characters as real people is the secret ingredient to learning how to write a good screenplay. This may feel daunting but the better you have this figured out the easier it will be to write dialogue for these characters.
Life is the greatest inspiration, so a helpful strategy for developing and creating well-rounded characters is to consider people you know or have met in real life. You already have a range of “characters” in your own life, so it can be a helpful place to start character development.
Fabricating, tweaking, or mixing aspects of those you know can spark the creation of incredibly interesting characters. Having your script’s characters embody qualities and aspects of real people will enrich the characters and give you a firm grasp of their qualities. Therefore, it may make them easier to write dialogue and action for, and this will translate into them being more compelling and authentic on screen.
Determining broad strokes of what defines your characters first, then go in and add heaps of detail. Even if this intricate character minutia doesn’t appear in the final script, the more dimensional and authentic your character is, the better they will naturally translate to script and screen.
8. Plan How Your Script Will End
Prioritizing a powerful ending is key for creating a successful script. Wrapping up your screenplay is one the hardest parts of the creative process. After pouring so much of your creativity, time, and energy into a screenplay, it can be difficult to know how and where to halt the action.
It may be disappointing to learn that there is no secret sauce ingredient for scriptwriters to know exactly how best to end their scripts. However, you still need a thoughtful approach as to how to end your story.
Whether you choose a surprise ending, a cliff-hanger ending, highly emotional ending, or some complex combination, it is important to write an ending which gives your characters deep consideration. After all, a rushed or harsh ending is one of the fastest ways to lose your audience and discolor your whole story.
Therefore, a key tip for how to write a good screenplay is to end strong. Ensure your key themes, characters, and narrative message are not lost at the last hurdle. A way of ensuring the ending is powerful is by writing it first – many successful writers credit this strategy as integral to their writing process.
Another way to plan your script’s ending well is to have your logline and treatment to hand, as these will serve as anchors that constantly remind you of your central message.
9. Consider Using a Quality Scriptwriting Software
There are a bevy of professional, quality, and affordable scriptwriting softwares available online. Not only will investing in scriptwriting software make it easier to format your work, but it will also teach you a great deal about the correct, standardized script format used throughout the entire entertainment industry.
Screenplays have a rigid and strictly adhered-to format, and the sooner you become fluent in this scriptwriting language, the better.
Having a reliable and intuitive software to assist you through the screenwriting process will make your life much easier, and instead of being bogged down with formatting, you can focus your energy and attention into the storytelling.