How to write a screenplay in 10 steps

By:

Writing a screenplay can be intimidating, even if you’ve done it before. It’s a lot of time, a lot of brainpower and a lot of staring at a blank screen. But don’t stress out! Here are 10 simple steps you can use to guide you through the process.

Harrison Ford in Blade Runner. Photo courtesy: Warner Bros.

No. 1: Create your logline

A logline is one to two sentences that teases what we can expect from your movie. It is a snappy who, what and where that also tells you the genre.  Let’s look at the logline from Blade Runner:

A blade runner must pursue and try to terminate four replicants who stole a ship in space and have returned to Earth to find their creation.

Who: “A blade runner”

What: “terminate four replicants”

Where: Well, Earth – in the future. But there’s no need to stay “a futuristic Earth” because words like “replicants” and “ship in space” say it for you. Those words also tell you the genre – sci fi, so you don’t have to say the genre.

By starting with a logline, you’ll have clarity on the story you’re trying to tell. And, your logline is the one thing most producers will read!

Photo courtesy: Disney Pictures

No. 2: Get to know your protagonist and antagonist

This is the most important relationship in your screenplay. Your antagonist must be stronger than your protagonist until the third act. Make your antagonist very good at what he or she does. The Queen/Witch from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs uses powerful magic to control Snow White, but ultimately, it’s magic (and a little love) that defeats the Queen. Think about ways in which your protag will finally take down your antag – and get creative.

Anne Hathaway in Becoming Jane (2007). Photo courtesy: BBC Films

No. 3: Three act outline

This doesn’t have to be elaborate, just one to two paragraphs for each act. See if you can determine your inciting incident and what happens at the end of the first act to put your protagonist in a whole new world. Then get a general idea of what’s going to happen in your second act, including determining the midpoint or turning point for your protagonist. Try to include the “all is lost moment” where the worst thing next to death happens to your protag. It’s OK if you don’t know exactly what your mid-point or “all is lost moment” is going to be, but take a guess and put in a placeholder at the very least. Then move on to the third act and determine how your protagonist is going to defeat the antagonist.

Adaptation. Photo courtesy: Columbia Pictures

No. 4: Step outline

This is a more detailed version of your three act outline. Write down a few sentences about each big step or big event that takes place. In a rom/com, it may include the cute-meet and what obstacles are keeping the would-be lovers apart. You may have three steps in your first act, six steps in your second act and two steps in your third act. You’re just trying to connect the dots as best you can.

The Exorcist. Photo courtesy: Warner Bros.

No. 5: Vomit draft

This is where you give yourself a set period of time – perhaps two or three weeks – to just vomit out the entire story.  In this draft, we’re not worrying about page numbers or even act breaks. By now, the main events should be imbedded in your mind, so just write it. Don’t edit as you go – force yourself to keep moving forward until you get to the end. It may be too short, or it may be too long and that’s OK. The point is to get as much of it out on paper as possible.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Photo courtesy: Warner Home Video

No. 6: Genre research

Take a break from your script and watch every movie you can find in your genre.  As you watch these films, take note of their structures. Do they use a circular structure? Is there an unreliable narrator? Become the expert on what has already been done in the genre and hopefully this phase will give you ideas on how to fix any story problems you may have.

Blue Velvet. Photo courtesy: 20th Century Fox

No. 7: Do a “character” pass

Now’s the time to go back and really do the hard work: character development. What events in your characters’ past have led them to where they are today? How do they react when they are backed into a corner? How does your character express love? Track your main characters – what does your protag want? Does every action and piece of dialogue have a motivation connected to that want? How can your differentiate your antagonist from other antagonists? The more complex characters you have, the better the conflict will be.

Fargo. Photo courtesy: Working Title Films

No. 8: Do a “dialogue” pass

As the great UCLA Film and Television Screenwriting Chair Richard Walter always says, dialogue should be “Just the headlines.” Keep it short. Audiences today are incredibly savvy so you don’t need to spoon-feed them a lot of exposition. If a character has three lines of dialogue, see if they can say the same thing in two. If a character has two lines of dialogue, see if they can say the same thing in one. If a character has one line of dialogue, see if they can say the same thing one word. Also, does each character have their own unique vocabulary? Does the dialogue ever get repetitive? Make your dialogue zing.

Vertigo. Photo courtesy: Paramount Pictures

No. 9:  Do a “visual” pass

Take the time to really understand your images.  Is there some kind of theme or style you’re trying to evoke? Are there motifs that repeat? Find the spots where you can “show” and not “tell” with dialogue. Find actions that can replace dialogue.

The Shining. Photo courtesy: Warner Bros.

No. 10: Rewrite!

Rewrite to your heart’s content and hopefully, you’ve come up with a title. When you feel comfortable showing a draft to another writer, do a script exchange where you each evaluate each other’s scripts. Take the notes you like, dump everything else. If it’s a comedy, get some people together, order a pizza, and do a live reading.

What screenplay are you planning to begin?

author-avatar

Shanee Edwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for SheKnows.com. She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer. Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera's Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards

10 Replies to "How to write a screenplay in 10 steps"

  • comment-avatar
    William Sowles September 1, 2017 (4:17 pm)

    Nice.

    • comment-avatar
      Mike Laman September 1, 2017 (5:01 pm)

      very helpful advice–wish I had it three years ago. Thanks for posting it–it will help me a lot.

  • comment-avatar
    Richard Moore September 1, 2017 (4:53 pm)

    I took a screenwriting course with Hollywood Scriptwriting some years ago.
    Could you recommend a screenplay writing course that I could enroll in as I am interested in taking up the craft again.
    Thank you,
    Rick Moore
    Deepsprite@aol.com

    • comment-avatar
      Jenna Milly September 1, 2017 (7:16 pm)

      Yes! We would love for you to join us for a super useful and informative class at ScreenwritingU.com. https://www.screenwritingu.com What stage in your writing are you? Do you prefer a genre class or something more advanced? Would love to chat more!

  • comment-avatar
    G Robert September 2, 2017 (12:53 pm)

    I think this was a vomit draft of an article. Could use some editing. Good advice overall though. 🙂

    • comment-avatar
      Shanee Edwards September 2, 2017 (1:35 pm)

      Thanks G Robert – hopefully, I fixed all the typos!

  • comment-avatar
    spike September 3, 2017 (12:11 am)

    to a professional, this article is amateurish. imagine doing character development after you’ve written a first draft! any other harebrained ideas?

  • comment-avatar
    Anton S.Jayaraj September 3, 2017 (7:20 am)

    Thank you for a very nice, inspiring and helpful article. I am writing two screenplays of totally different genres. Your article acts as a good guide to me in my endeavors.

  • comment-avatar
    Sandra September 3, 2017 (2:43 pm)

    Wow! This information was right on time. I just sat down to take the story I wrote and decided to turn it into a screenplay. It left me pondering where do I go from here. This is so helpful. Thanks again for the guideline Shanee.

  • comment-avatar
    Florin September 21, 2017 (4:46 am)

    Thank you ever so much! It’s most helpful!

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.

Join Our Magazine
Get a free subscription to ScreenwritingU Magazine and download over 40 Academy Nominated screenplays.
No Thanks
Thanks for Joining ScreenwritingU Magazine!
We respect your privacy. Your information is safe and will never be shared.
Don't miss out. Join today!
×
×