Lauri Donahue

Structure 101: More than one way to build a screenplay (STPS #8)

What do we mean when we talk about the “structure” of a screenplay?

“Structure” isn’t the same as an outline or a beat sheet, though outlines and beat sheets are tools you can use to develop a structure.

Structure is like a framework or a skeleton. It’s what holds your script together and keeps it from being a pile of word mush.

Structure involves a lot of elements. For example, it can encompass:

  • Causation: THIS causes THAT
  • Dramatic Questions/Suspense: What’s going to happen next? What’s really going on here?
  • Pace: How fast/slow does the story move?
  • Variation: in scene length, intensity, etc.
  • Obstacles: what problems do the characters bump into?
  • Reversals: changes in direction/goals/wants, good-to-bad and vice-verse, etc.
  • Plants (clues), Reveals (surprises), and Callbacks (references to earlier events)
  • Framing Devices (prologues, epilogues, stories-within-stories, etc.)

Structure Doesn’t Mean Formula

I don’t believe in any “one-size-fits-all” theory of structure. Also, I’m highly suspicious of any overelaborate structure model, because that can lead to formulaic, paint-by-numbers scripts.

I don’t believe that if you do X by page 10 and Y by page 24 you’re well on your way to a great script. That’s just silly (but too many screenwriting books are based on such silliness).

But if you’re not applying any structural thinking to your script, you can end up with mush.

So here are some ways of thinking about structure.

This happens and then this happens and then…

Beginning screenwriters often write scripts that are basically “this happens and then this happens and then this happens” or (worse) “these people talk and then those people talk and then some other people talk.”

When a story lacks structure, it’s often called “episodic” – and that’s “bad.”

(This is confusing, because “episodic” also simply means a story told in episodes – like a TV series.)

The “bad” kind of episodic is when a story is just a series of events that are loosely tied together. There are some good examples here.

Episodic stories are usually boring – even if each event is something “entertaining” like sex, violence, spectacle, pratfalls, etc.

  • If all you have is sex, you have porn.
  • If all you have is violence, you’ve got a boxing match, or a bullfight, or whatever.
  • If all you’ve got is spectacle, you’ve got a fireworks display.
  • If all you have is pratfalls, you’ve got clowns in a circus.

Those things may be entertaining – but they’re not movies or TV shows. They’re not stories.

Even if you combine sex, violence, spectacle, and pratfalls, you STILL don’t have a plot for a movie or TV show — unless these things take place within some kind of structure. (And it will still be boring unless we care about the people involved.)

Therefore and But

Episodic screenplays are all “and then,” as Trey Parker and Matt Stone (the creators of South Park) discuss in this talk:

We can take these beats, which are basically the beats of your outline, and if the words ‘and then’ belong between those beats, you’re fucked. Basically. You’ve got something pretty boring.

What should happen between every beat that you’ve written down, is either the word ‘therefore’ or ‘but’. So what I’m saying is that you come up with an idea, and it’s like ‘so this happens’ right? And then this happens,’ no no no no, It should be ‘this happens, and therefore this happens. But this happens, therefore this happens.’

“Because” is about causation.

“But” is about reversals.

Stories and Plots

E.M Forster, the English novelist who wrote A Room with a View (1908), Howard’s End (1910) and A Passage to India (all of which have been adapted into movies and/or series) famously wrote:

A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality –  “The king died and then the queen died” is a story.’ But ‘“the king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.

Again, he’s talking about causation.

He also wrote that a story “can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next.”

He’s talking about suspense – about raising questions that the audience wants to have answered.

Suspense and Dramatic Questions

A leading cause of mushy screenplays is the lack of a series of dramatic questions.

The answers to big dramatic questions are usually obvious and thus boring.

  • In a superhero movie, will the hero(s) prevail in the end? Of course!
  • In a rom-com, will the couple end up together? #duh!

Often, the audience knows HOW the story is going to end when they go into the theater or sit down on the sofa.

What makes it interesting is all the little dramatic questions and answers along the way.

For example, imagine you’re seeing Star Wars for the first time. Here are some of the dramatic questions you’ll be encountering:

  • Why is this big spaceship chasing this little spaceship?
  • Who’s the lady with the weird hair and the blaster?
  • What’s she doing with that droid?
  • Why is this Luke guy living with his aunt and uncle? What happened to his parents?
  • Who’s Obi Wan Kenobi and why is he the only one who can help?
  • What’s up with “The Force”?
  • What’s Han going to do about Greedo?
  • How is Luke going to rescue the princess?
  • How’s the gang going to get out of that trash compactor?
  • Where does blue milk come from?

Some of the questions are answered soon after they’re raised. Others don’t get answered until the end of the movie – or even in other movies.

Episodic (in the good way) TV shows are all about the dramatic questions – including ones than can span multiple seasons:

  • Who are Jon Snow’s real parents?
  • How can our heroes fight the Night King?
  • Who’s going to sit on the Iron Throne?

Audiences can love or hate how you answer the questions – but if you don’t even ask those questions, they’ll get bored.

If you don’t have at least one dramatic question “running” at all times, your story stops dead.  Or it’s just coasting along with the engine off until you raise another one.

Three Acts

A really old (but still useful) model of story-telling structure involves three acts:

  • Act 1: A character (or group) is in a situation. A problem/goal arises.
  • Act 2:  The character/group confronts that problem/goal. Complications ensue.
  • Act 3: The character/group succeeds or fails.

Occasionally, like with Job in the Bible, shit just happens to a character. But it’s usually much more interesting when a character actively tries to solve a problem or achieve some goal.

Probably the most famous explainer of the three-act structure for screenwriting is Syd Field in Screenplay.

A similar model is in How to Write a Movie in 21 Days by Viki King.

Hero’s Journey

Another really old (but still useful) model of structure involves a “hero’s journey.”

Joseph Campbell is often associated with this model, but it’s as old as story-telling.

Basically, the hero’s journey

involves a hero who goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed.

This model was applied to screenwriting in The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler.

“Save the Cat”

Save the Cat is a series of books started by the late Blake Snyder. Some people love these books; others hate or sneer at them.

The famous/infamous Blake Snyder Beat Sheet (BSBS) is formulaic. It can also be useful in helping you start to mold your mush into a story. I often use a BSBS at the very early stages of figuring out a script. That doesn’t mean I’m wedded to it or obsess about what happens on what page. (Also, I loathe his page 5 beat.)

It’s all about theme

Craig Mazin (HBO’s Chernobyl and the Scriptnotes podcast) says structure is all about theme.

He says it’s about asking what your character believes at the beginning, and what you want that character to believe at the end.

The structure of a script thus arises out of the character confronting, and wrestling with, that thematic question.

He talks about it here.

The Unified Theory of Screenwriting

In this interview, I talked with Ashley Miller (Thor, X-Men First Class).  Here’s what he had to say about structure:

I’m not a fan of anything that smacks of formula—“If you do this, your screenplay will work.”

I don’t care if you’re talking about Christopher Vogler, or if you’re talking about Robert McKee, or if you’re talking about Blake Snyder. I don’t believe that’s how the creation process works.

What they’ve each identified is an analytical tool. They’ve identified a way of looking at a product in retrospect and telling you what the parts are.

In other words, many structure models are autopsies – but they’re not recipes.

Miller combined a bunch of different structure models into a chart that he could apply to his own work – as a diagnostic tool AFTER he wrote one or more drafts.

I’m not saying, “This isn’t working because it fails to meet any of these standards.”

What I’m asking is, “Am I getting an insight about what’s making me feel this bump in the story?

What’s making me hear and smell the gears grinding?”

You can see the chart at the link above.

TL; DR

There isn’t one best answer to “how do I structure a screenplay?”

Understanding different ideas about structure can give you tools that can make your script better.

Screenwriting Tools and Communities (STPS #7)

Here are some resources I’ve found interesting and/or useful.

Books

There are over 10,000 results for “screenwriting” when you search for books on Amazon.com, and at least one new screenwriting book is published every week.

Here are some “how to” books I recommend:

There are also good books about the screenwriting life. Some of my favorites are:

Software

Some of the most popular screenwriting format programs include:

  • Celtx (free; upgrades available)
  • Highland (free, with $49.99 pro upgrade)
  • Final Draft ($249.99 for Final Draft 11; considered over-priced and widely-loathed, but also the industry standard)
  • Movie Magic ($99.99 for version 6)

More options are discussed here, and you can find about 40 screenwriting programs at The Writer’s Store.

Most programs have free trials, so you can see which one you like best before you commit.

Having screenwriting software is necessary (IMHO) but not sufficient to write a properly formatted screenplay. The software will let you designate dialogue as V.O. (voice over) or O.S. (off-screen), but it won’t explain when you use which. For that, and for many other things, you need to read something that gets into the details of formatting, like The Screenwriter’s Bible.

Many format programs have lots of bells and whistles including:

  • virtual index cards that can be moved around on virtual cork boards,
  • text-to-speech (so you can hear robots read your screenplay out loud), and
  • collaboration functions (which are actually useful if you and your writing partner are in different locations or don’t want to crowd around the same screen).

There are also specialized software programs that supposedly help with plotting and structure, character development, etc., but I’ve never used any.

Screenplays

You can often find screenplays for produced movies by googling the name of the movie along with “PDF.”

Scott Myers has collected a list of 100+ scripts made available by studios and production companies here.

Scripts often appear online around awards season (roughly the three months before the Oscars) but they may disappear later. So if you find a copy of a script you really want to study, it’s a good idea to download and save it.

You can also try Simply ScriptsThe Internet Movie Script Database (IMSDb), and Drew’s Script-O-Rama.

Many libraries and bookstores carry published scripts, but often the format will be somewhat different from the original version. 

Magazines

There are no longer any paper screenwriting magazines that I know about, but print magazines like Movie Maker and Writer’s Digest often have articles on screenwriting.

The top online screenwriting magazines are:

You can read some screenwriting articles I’ve written here.

Podcasts

Scriptnotes

The number-one screenwriting podcast is unquestionably Scriptnotes, with over 100,000 weekly listeners and over 400 episodes.

New episodes are free (and don’t even have annoying ads!) and have transcripts available within a week after the podcast airs.

Older episodes are available for a premium subscription or you can buy a 50-episode season for $5.

The Listener’s Guide will help you navigate back episodes.

IMHO, if you’re not listening to Scriptnotes you’re not serious about screenwriting.

The Moment

The Moment podcast hosted by Brian Koppelman isn’t just about screenwriting but includes many talks with screenwriters. My favorite features Eric Heisserer (Arrival).

You Had Us at Hello

This occasional podcast hosted by Tess Morris and Billy Mernit focuses on rom-coms.

BAFTA Screenwriters Lectures

Recorded screenwriting lectures and other screenwriting resources are on the BAFTA screenwriting page.  Apps are here.

My favorite talk is the one by Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey).

The Writer’s Almanac

This is a short (5-minute) daily podcast with historical tidbits about writers and a poem.

Screenwriting Websites

JohnAugust.com

Home of the Scriptnotes podcasts and transcripts, plus sample scripts and other resources.

Go into the Story

Named “Best of the Best” Scriptwriting Website by Writer’s Digest

Black List Screenwriter’s Notebook

Books, essays, talks, podcasts, data, and more.

Nicholl Fellowship Formatting Guide

Nicholl-winning scripts are also available here, and there’s a long list of recommended books.

Online Screenwriting Communities

Here are some online groups to know about:

Done Deal Pro Screenwriting Forum

Zoetrope Screenplay Forum

Reddit Screenwriting

Twitter

Most of the people I follow are screenwriters, so you could start building your own follow-list here.

Scott Meyers has compiled a great collection of screenwriting tweetstorms here.

Facebook LA TV Writers

In-Person Meetups and Conferences

In the wake of the WGA-ATA dispute, there have been a bunch of screenwriter mixers, mostly in LA. To find the next one, look for #WGAMIX on Twitter.

To find screenwriting meetups in your area, check here. Or start one of your own.

The absolute best screenwriting conference is the Austin Film Festival Writers Conference every year in October.  I wrote about it here and here.

Screenwriting Classes

Most community colleges offer classes in screenwriting.

UCLA Extension has a large selection of online and in-person screenwriting classes and offers certificate programs. 

Other Stuff

The best pen for screenwriters is the Pilot G-2 07. It is known.

I like Decomposition spiral notebooks for taking notes and making outlines, because the paper feels nice, they’re eco-friendly, they have sturdy covers, and they’re hipster AF.

My favorite journals are made by Paperblanks, and the mini size will fit in a purse or pocket. Other writers like Moleskine.

John August’s Writer Emergency Pack ($19) is a card deck for helping to get a story unstuck.

 

Let me know if you think I’ve missed anything important!

About Time (STPS #6)

How do you find time to write a screenplay, and how long does it take to write one?

Finding Time

Almost all big-time professional screenwriters worked at something else for years before they made their first dollar from screenwriting, and/or had long dry spells between screenwriting gigs.

  • Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester-by-the-Sea) wrote industrial shows and speeches for the regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) was a musician and tended bar.
  • Dan Gillroy (Nightcrawler) was an admin for a theatrical producer and wrote for Variety.
  • Eli Attie (House, The West Wing) wrote speeches for Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

How can you get stuff written when you’ve got a day job, and maybe family responsibilities as well?

The obvious answers are:

  • Get up early or stay up late
  • Write on weekends
  • Write during your breaks and lunch hours
  • Write on vacation
  • Write on the job – if it’s OK with your boss (see below)
  • Write during your commute – as long as you’re not driving

I wrote the first ten pages of my first screenplay under idyllic conditions – on a porch overlooking a meadow next to a creek at my in-laws’ off-the-grid ranch high in the mountains of Southern Wyoming.  I had three kids under six at the time, but there were lots of relatives around to prevent them from falling in the creek.

I wrote the rest of the first draft in a spiral notebook on the subway on the way to and from my lawyer job in downtown LA. Then I wrote my second draft in Final Draft while taking a rewrite class at UCLA Extension.

Day Jobs

Finding screenwriting time when you’ve got a day job is especially important for a small-time professional screenwriter, since it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever be able to support yourself from screenwriting alone.

What kinds of day jobs are best for screenwriters? There are many possibilities:

  • Jobs that are very undemanding and allow you to write on the job. For example, I once had a summer office job that required only about 30 minutes a day of actual work. The rest of the time I was free to write.
  • Freelance jobs that pay well on an hourly basis, so you don’t have to work too many hours to support yourself and can spend the rest of your time writing.
  • Jobs in the entertainment industry that expose you to contacts who can get you gigs (although these are often low-paying and exhausting).
  • Jobs that involve writing of any kind, so you can get better at it.
  • Jobs that develop your expertise in an area (e.g., the military, espionage, law, law enforcement, medicine, etc.) so that you can write about it realistically. You can also market this expertise to potential clients.

The worst type of job for an aspiring small-time professional screenwriter is:

  • low-paying,
  • physically and/or mentally exhausting, and
  • unconnected with writing or entertainment

If you’re stuck in a “worst” job, you could focus on getting a “best” one as part of your small-time professional screenwriter career path.

Reclaiming Your Screen Time

If you don’t think you have time to write, check how much time you’re spending farting around on your phone every day.

iPhones have the Screen Time function, and there are lots of apps that can measure how much time you’re frittering away.

You can set Screen Time limits and use apps like Forest (simultaneously, if needed) to break your phone addiction and free up your time and mental bandwidth for writing.

Hitting a Deadline

One nice thing about screenwriting contests, labs, etc. is that they have deadlines, which can be very motivating for some people.

Taking a class, finding a writing buddy, or joining a writing group (where you’re scheduled to present your pages for discussion on a specific day) can also compel you to get work done.

There’s also WRAC:

What do you do when you can’t get the words on the page and no one is around to keep you accountable? WRAC, Writer Accountability, was created to help writers set goals, be accountable and share tips and advice in a supportive community.

And if you feel like you’re suffering from writer’s block, check out this article.

How long does it take?

Big-time professional screenwriters typically get 12 weeks to write a first draft, as John August notes in his excellent blog.

Shorter deadlines may be compelled by production requirements.

For example, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber wrote The Fault in Our Stars in six days. John August wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in three weeks.

On the other hand, Dan Gilroy noted in this interview, “If I had a year, I’d spent 11 months thinking about the idea and then four weeks writing.”

When I’m paid by the hour to write scripts, I need to keep track of my time. For example, it took me 67 hours (spread over several weeks) to go from a client’s basic idea (mail order brides + neo-Nazis in Ukraine) to a detailed treatment and then to a first draft of the script Odessa.

As with many things related to screenwriting, there’s no one right answer to the question, “how long does it take to write a script?”

Fantastic Ideas and Where to Find Them (STPS #5)

People on Quora and other discussion boards are constantly asking where they can sell their movie ideas, and people like me are constantly explaining that’s not a thing.

Yes, Joe Eszterhas once sold a script pitch written on the back of a cocktail napkin for $4.7 million, but he wasn’t just selling the bare idea – he was selling his services as a hugely successful screenwriter to go with it.

If any mere mortal (i.e., non-screenwriter) has managed to sell an “idea” to a movie or TV producer, I haven’t heard of it.

Yet the belief that bare “ideas” have commercial value persists. And, like with many other things connected with screenwriting, there’s an industry that takes advantage of this fantasy.

For example, there are sites like this one, where for “only” $7,000, the team will help you  develop your TV series idea.

Commas and Shit

Sites like Craigslist are full of non-writers who have “great ideas” for movies and “just” need a little help with the details. For example, here’s a recent ad:

Just need someone to translate my ideas into a script form and fill in the gaps with strong dialogue, characterization, pacing, etc.

“Fill in the gaps…”

In other words, DO ALL THE ACTUAL FUCKING WRITING.

Usually, the people with the “ideas” think those ideas are worth at least as much as the labor the writer would contribute. As Damien Owens describes the pitches he gets from wannabe “co-authors”:

I have loads of ideas for books. How about you do all the commas and shit and we’ll split the profits 50-50?

Also, the ideas usually suck, because if you’ve never written a script you have no idea what kind of idea is solid enough to support a full-length screenplay.

Collaboration

I raised this issue for discussion on the Done Deal Forum, and one person commented:

[the belief that] them bringing “the idea” and someone else bringing “the writing” somehow amounts to equal weight on the creative scales is monumentally delusional.

And as someone else noted,

In the real world, collaboration should be between two people who can each bring equal (or nearly equal) value to the table.

In short, no one is likely to take your great idea and turn it into a script for free.

If you want to do something with that idea, you’re either going to have to pay someone real money to write a script (which is a terrible investment), or you’re going to have to learn to write for yourself.

Finding Ideas

If you’re paying any attention to the news, or if you read books or magazines, you’re constantly bombarded by interesting screenplay ideas. You just have to recognize them when you see them.

The Scriptnotes podcast has a great recurring feature called “How Would This Be a Movie?”  A recent installment is here.

One point that the hosts make is that some news stories are more suited to features, some are more suited to TV, and some might make for great documentaries. Some news stories might be interesting in themselves, but not necessarily dramatic in structure, or they might lack a viable point-of-view character.

I’m always seeing stuff in the news that I think would make for a great movie or at least a story element or plot device. I can’t possibly write up all these stories, so I often share them on Twitter under the hashtag #plotdevice.

For example, here are a few recent ones:

The ones I keep to myself I save in a Word doc that now has more than 100 entries – including potential titles and loglines and links to source material.

If you build your own idea/story collection, you’ll never run out of stuff to write, and you’ll always have something new to pitch if the occasion arises.

High Concept

There’s a lot of disagreement about what “high concept” means.

Here are a few definitions:

  • High-concept is a type of artistic work that can be easily pitched with a succinctly stated premise. It can be contrasted with low-concept, which is more concerned with character development and other subtleties that are not as easily summarized.
    High-concept narratives are typically characterized by an overarching “what if?” scenario that acts as a catalyst for the following events. Often, the most popular summer blockbuster movies are built on a high-concept idea, such as “what if we could clone dinosaurs?”, as in Jurassic Park.
    Extreme examples of high-concept films are Snakes on a Plane and Hobo with a Shotgun, which describe their entire premises in their titles. (Wikipedia)
  • “High concept” is sometimes described in terms of [Successful Movie #1] meets [Successful Movie #2]. For example, my script Orbit could be described as Gravity meets Armageddon.
  • A “high concept” can involve putting a successful movie concept in a new setting: “Die Hard on a bus/train/boat/elevator/etc.”
  • “High concept” movies often involve gimmicks – often of a magical nature. For example, “What if a man had to live the same day over and over?” “What if a successful woman was transformed into a little girl?”
  • A “high concept” can also involve irony – “Brothers rob banks in order to pay off a loan to a bank and save the family farm.” (Hell or High Water)

A high concept can, in theory, make it easier for a script to get read. Once a movie’s been made, a high concept certainly makes it easier to market.

However, having a “high concept” is neither necessary nor sufficient in order to write a great script.

Low Concepts, Great Stories

Look at the recent nominees for the Best Picture Oscar. Most aren’t what I’d call high concept, but a few of them are.

For example, I think the following movies are at least arguably high-concept:

  • A Black police officer infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan. (BlacKkKlansman)
  • A man falls in love with an AI operating system. (Her)
  • A CIA agent pretends to be making a making a cheesy science fiction movie in order to get American hostages out of Iran. (Argo)

However, a lot of my favorite recent movies (and Best Picture nominees) aren’t high concept at all. For example,

  • Two ladies-in-waiting vie for the affections of an ailing queen. (The Favourite)
  • A small-town woman seeks justice for her murdered daughter by putting up billboards. (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)
  • A high school girl has romantic relationships with two boys and longs to escape from Sacramento. (Lady Bird)

New Stories and True Stories

I’m a big fan of true stories. They’re also popular with big-time professional screenwriters and often do well at Oscar time. In 2018, six out of eight of the Best Picture nominees were based on true stories.

If you just start with an “idea,” you’re starting with a blank page. There’s a ton of work involved in turning that idea into a story.

If you start with a story from the news or history, then the characters and basic plot points get handed to you. Of course, many dramatic true stories have been turned into deadly-dull movies – like the $120 million snooze-fest I watched last night.

Some people love the freedom and challenge of a blank page; others find it intimidating.

Some people (like me) love doing research. Others find research boring, and just want to make shit up.

Making shit up can work fine when you’re inventing your own fantastical world or situation – if you’re writing an Avatar or a Get Out.

However, it’s usually not a good idea to make shit up when you’re writing about a real environment (the military, a hospital, a submarine, etc.) with which you’re not familiar. Making shit up in that context often results in scripts that ring false and recycle movie clichés about those worlds.

One reason I love doing research is that the details I find are often cooler than anything I could have invented. For example, I could never have imagined the pickled corpses featured in my script Treasure Road.

Adaptations

When you adapt something that already exists in dramatic form (such as a play or novel), you know it already “works” as a story, and often it already has a large audience.

This is why adaptations of comic books and best-selling novels, and remakes and reboots of movies and TV shows, are so popular with big-time Hollywood – they’re considered “safe bets” (even if that sometimes turns out to be wrong).

If you’re a small-time screenwriter, you probably can’t afford the rights to a big-time piece of IP, but there’s a planet-full of literary works in the public domain.

As of January 1, 2019, works published in 1923 and earlier are in the public domain in the US. Every January 1 from now until 2073, another year’s works will become available for screenwriters to freely adapt.

However, doing a literal adaptation of a piece of literature can be a bit like paint-by-numbers. Yes, you still have to decide what to include and what to leave out, but when you get TOO much handed to you there may not be enough room left for your own voice and originality.

One compromise is to take elements from existing IP and update them. For example, my script First Lady is inspired by Macbeth, and Two Pair is loosely based on The Comedy of Errors.

Which idea to pick?

So you’ve got a bunch of ideas and/or stories. Which one do you turn into a script first (or next)?

Lots of people ask whether they should write for “the market” or for themselves.

This article lists some reasons not to try to write “high concept” or for “the market.” For example:

  • You don’t know where “the market” will be by the time you finish your script.
  • Your heart might not be in it, and that will show in the writing.
  • High-concept premises are often just one-joke ideas or gimmicks that can’t keep a reader engaged.

Also, this script probably isn’t going to sell, no matter how “commercial” it is. (See STPS #2, Tell Me the Odds.)

If you’re writing for the sheer love of writing, write something you’ll love to write – whether or not you think it’s “commercial.”

Writing a script is hard. Most people give up before they finish their first one.

If you write something that’s fun for you, and/or that you’re passionate about, you’re more likely to:

  1. finish the script, and stick with it throughout all the necessary rewrites;
  2. produce a strong writing sample that could get you small-time screenwriting gigs; and
  3. do well in the few contests that matter, which will look good on your resume when you pursue those small-time gigs.

How to Become a Screenwriter in Five Minutes (or Less) (STPS #4)

I sometimes get asked on Quora questions like “How do I become a screenwriter?”

So here’s an answer you can read in five minutes or less.

Read at least two screenwriting “how-to” books

For example, you could try:

I think it’s a good idea to read more than one book because you don’t want to get the idea that there’s only one right way to write a screenplay. Different authors have different approaches that you may find more or less useful.

TAKE NOTES ON WHAT YOU LEARN.

Read at least five professional scripts

You can often find them by googling the name of the movie along with “PDF.”

You can also try Simply Scripts and The Internet Movie Script Database (IMSDb).

Your reading list should include scripts for movies that have been made in the past five years, so you can see what styles are current.

TAKE NOTES ON WHAT YOU LEARN.

One thing you should notice is that professional scripts have certain things in common. For example, they almost all have sluglines that look something like this:

EXT. RAIN FOREST – DAY

Some writers put sluglines in bold (which is a current fashion), and some don’t.

You should also notice that other things are different. For example, some writers use CAPS for objects and sounds a lot more than other writers do. Some writers write long, detailed descriptions of locations; others don’t.

One reason for this exercise is to get a sense of what a professional script looks like – what’s “standard,” and what’s more a matter of individual taste/style.

Another reason to read a lot of scripts (especially award-winning ones) is to get a feel for what “good” looks like.

Think about how these pro scripts follow (or not) the “rules” in the books you’ve read.

Follow along in the script as you’re watching the movie

Notice how words on a page translate into sights and sounds on the screen.

Notice how much detail is written out by the screenwriter, and how much is left to others (like the costume designer, set designer, or fight choreographer).

Come up with a screenplay idea/story

A good source for help with developing commercial story ideas is Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds.

It can be helpful to put your idea into logline form. One basic model for loglines is:

[Type of person or group] must [do or overcome something] in order to [achieve some goal].

You can also add details about where and when the story takes place, if relevant.

For example:

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a restless farm-boy must rescue a princess and learn to use his supernatural powers in order to defeat an evil empire.

Create a beat-sheet

A beat-sheet is a short (1-2 page) outline of what happens in your script.

For example, you can use the famous/infamous Blake Snyder “Save the Cat” Beat Sheet.

The books you’ve read may have other models for this.

Some people don’t like outlining. They just like to jump right into the story and start writing. How you work is up to you. But you may find that having an outline will let you know if you’ve got enough story (or too much), keep you on track, and save you from wasting time.

Write a treatment or a scriptment

A treatment or scriptment is a longer kind of outline.

Again, you may prefer just to dive in. It’s up to you.

Try to write a screenplay

It’s a good idea to get script formatting software, like Celtx or Highland or Final Draft. If you try to write a script in Word or another standard word processing program, you may drive yourself nuts dealing with format issues, and the end result may not look professional.

Or, just can write your first draft in a notebook, and do your second draft using formatting software. (I decided I wasn’t going to spend money on Final Draft until I proved to myself I could finish a first draft by hand.)

If you finish, congratulations. You’re now a screenwriter. Most wannabes never make it to that point.

However, your script probably isn’t very good. Most first scripts are awful.

What if you want to be a GOOD screenwriter?

Then you’ve got a lot more work ahead of you.

Put the script aside

Don’t work on it for at least a week. You want to be able to see it with fresh eyes.

Don’t show it to anyone yet, however much you want people to tell you how awesome it is.

This would be a good time to start working on your next script.

Rewrite

Look back at your notes from the screenwriting books and scripts you read. Think about what makes a script good.

Compare your script to the professional scripts, in terms of format, structure, dialogue, pacing, description, action, etc.

Re-read the chapters on revisions in the books you read.

Read a book like Making a Good Script Great and apply what it suggests.

Rewrite again and again and again until your script is as good as you think you can make it.

Get feedback

Do NOT get feedback on your first draft. Get feedback on your BEST draft.

So where do you get feedback?

  • You could try Zoetrope.com for free (swapped) peer feedback or pay a screenwriting consultant (like me, ScriptGal, or Screenplay Mechanic, or check Sites, Services, Software, & Supplies) or put your script on The Black List.
  • Some screenwriting contests, like the Nicholl and Austin, also offer feedback – but you may have to wait quite a few months to get it.
  • You could take a screenwriting class – in person or online – and get feedback from your teacher and classmates.
  • You could form or join a screenwriting feedback co-up and swap notes with fellow writers.

Whatever you do, don’t be a douche about the feedback you get. Accept it with THANKS and graciously, even if you think the reader is an idiot for failing to recognize your genius.

And before you ask anyone for free feedback, read this – and don’t be that guy.

Rewrite again and again and again

Again, in between rewrites and while you’re waiting for feedback, put your first script aside and work on more scripts.

You could experiment with different formats (feature, TV, short, webisode, etc.), genres, and styles. Discover where your strengths and interests lie.

Get more feedback; revise; repeat

Repeat as needed until people who know what they’re talking about (not your buddies, not your mom) say it’s good, and/or you start placing in contests like the Nicholl and Austin and/or getting 8s and up on The Black List.

Keep in mind that it may take years, and many drafts of many scripts, before you get to this point… if you ever do. (Most people don’t.)

If you do make it that far – congratulations again!  You’re now a pretty good screenwriter.