Writing a Screenplay: A Comprehensive Step-by-Step Guide
Writing a screenplay is an incredibly ambitious and overwhelming task. It is arguably one of the most difficult forms of writing – given that a screenplay is necessarily meant to be a blueprint for a whole film/TV production.
Cinema and television are collaborative forms of art. Therefore, writing for them requires a screenwriter to account for considerations specific to film production – in addition to considerations only pertinent to writers. The most obvious difference between writing a screenplay and writing a novel (or anything else, really) is that screenplays are predominantly guided by dialogues, rather than prose or direct descriptions. Your whole story hinges on dialogue – it moves the plot, it is your strongest medium to get your point across.
We’ve made a concise guide that serves as an introduction to your screenwriting journey. Writing a screenplay is quite a dream, so let’s take it one step at a time!
Step 1: Get Your Basics Down!
This is the stage where you prep your writing, Just like you would do for a novel or a short story, this is when you decide what you want to write about. There are a host of things you could do to generate story ideas: talk to friends, keep an idea book…we’ll leave that to you! For your own clarity, you can also narrow down on a genre that you can work within.
Once you’ve figured out what you want to write on, the next important step is to do some research for your film idea. The idea is to make sure you get your facts right!
For example, if you’re doing a biopic on some famous figure, what you can plot out at this stage is to find a balance between historical facts and dramatic elements that will make your screenplay more engaging. Or if you’re adapting a book, now is when you pinpoint the elements that will go into your screenplay.
Alternatively, if you’re writing a story that has a world of its own, you have the mighty task of worldbuilding ahead of you.
Step 2: Write a logline
It’s a busy busy busy world! And no one has the time to go through long screenplays and then option it. So, you must be prepared to dazzle. In showbiz, we have an equivalent to an elevator pitch: a logline. A logline is essentially a short synopsis of the film you are going to write. It must not be longer than a sentence and must contain your protagonist, film setting (time and space) and the major conflict of your story.
Think of it like this: what’s the sentence you’d write to make a hotshot Hollywood producer say, “hmm, that’d be a great movie”?
Just to get you started, here are some loglines for some of your favourite movies.
Step 3: Write a Film Treatment
Your next step is writing your script. It is a summary of your screenplay in prose. Since a screenplay has only dialogues and directions (sometimes, not even the latter), a treatment is where you would go to for a more well-rounded context for the story.
To write a film treatment, this is the document that will help your production ease into the process of writing.
As the prose version of your screenplay, your treatment reads like a short story, almost. Apart from the flow of the story, there must have a considerable emphasis on the setting and character
(Even if you’re not writing a treatment to submit to a potential producer, it’s a good idea to write one for your own clarity.)
Step 4: Your First Draft (is NOT your Final Draft)
Okay. Now let’s get to the big stuff. Now’s when you get your writing pad (electronic or otherwise), a mug of coffee to its brim, a whole stock of memes on your desk – the whole deal – and finally write down your script. Everyone has a different process of writing, obviously. But we’d recommend you just write, write, and write. Don’t worry about formatting at this stage (we’ll guide you through it in just a bit). Even if your screenplay looks like a novel manuscript with a lot of dialogue, that’s a really good start!
Now that you’ve bared your soul on paper, take a step back. Get a good night’s sleep. Go on a drive. Take a short vacation, because you have a lot of editing, rewriting, and cutting (pun intended) to do after your well-deserved break!
Step 5: Kill Your Darlings
In the heat of wanting to compress everything you’ve ever wanted to write, your document might look a little longer than it should. A screenplay should ideally be 90-120 pages long. This is because, on average, one page of a screenplay takes one minute to be rendered on stage. A feature film is usually 90 to 120 minutes and varies from genre to genre.
Despite writing a logline and treatment, which should have served as proto-blueprints to your screenplay, you may find out yourself going off track during the actual process of writing. This is fine in the first draft. However, it is time to cut out all the tangents of your story, however enthralling they may be. Remove everything that is not directly related to your screenplay. If you do want to include something that is a tangent – like a foil, or a humorous exchange in a serious situation – have a clear intention for it.
Let us reiterate: have a clear reason for every element of your screenplay.
Step 6: Refining Your Dialogue
This is perhaps the most crucial step of your screenwriting process. The reason we lay so much emphasis on your dialogue in a screenplay is obvious. We’ve already spoken about how it is ideally a guide for the producer, director, and cinematographer for ultimately making the film. We’ve also told you that dialogue is what drives the plot forward. (Even if the plot progresses purely through shots, the base is still your screenplay).
But it is also an immensely crucial base for the actors who will play your character. Other than relying on your text for character development, they are highly dependent on your screenplay to ensure that their scenes don’t fall flat. However brilliant your actor is, if they are encountered with a badly written scene, all their talent will be limited.
Therefore it is really crucial to remember that when you write dialogue, it must not look contrived or exaggerated.
Here are some tips to help you write compelling dialogue:
- Ensure you have a reason for every word you use.
- Since you are telling a story, remember that each interaction brings out the conflict in the story or that scene. With your words alone, a reader should be able to determine the motivation, intention, and goals of the characters. (In the final film, this will be amplified by the actor).
- Show, don’t tell: As screenwriting, you are deprived of the luxury of being able to provide descriptions. Since your screenplay is up for interpretation by so many other people. So try to be as unambiguous and direct as possible in your what you want to convey. You can directly have characters stating things, or even provide implications.
Step 7: Rewrites and Edits
Okay, you know how this works. Edits and rewrites are a part of the writing process no matter what. We’ll say the same thing we always say, do what you do to write the best possible version of your draft.
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