Have you ever fantasized about writing a Hollywood movie? Or, with a bit of luck, create the next great TV series?
In a visual age, with the decline of traditional publishing, some look to writing screenplays as a way to create the “literature of the future.”
But what is the process to write a screenplay? How do you even begin? And how is it different or similar to writing a novel? In this post we’re going to look at the five step process professional screenwriters use.
Why I’m Thinking About Writing a Screenplay
Earlier this week, a friend who’s a lawyer approached me about a writing opportunity. He was closing a tragic but fascinating case, and he thought it had potential to be a major film. At first, I shrugged it off. Screenplays are like books, everyone thinks they have one in them, but then, he told me the story, and it was awesome—a family’s search for the American dream, drug dealers under the scrutiny of the law, police corruption, an adrenaline powered shooting, everything you could want in a major motion picture.
But still, I held back. The hardest part of making a movie isn’t writing a good story. It’s getting someone to fund the process of bringing the story to life (do you have a hundred million dollars lying around to fund a movie?). Fortunately, said the lawyer, he’s friends with several people at a major Hollywood studio. “We have everything we need… except for a great script,” he told me.
“Hmm…” I thought. “Maybe this isn’t a complete waste of time.”
In my experience, most writing projects like this don’t work out, but when they show up, it’s important to give them your best. After all, at the very least, it’s good practice.
How I Learned To Write a Screenplay
In college, I took a class with John Wilder, a veteran film and TV writer, who began the class by writing, “STRUCTURE! STRUCTURE! STRUCTURE!” on the chalkboard in big bold letters. “What’s the most important part of a screenplay?” he would ask at the beginning of nearly every class. It was obvious what he thought: Structure.
Afterward, I wrote three short screenplays, one of them with a producer of MTV’s Made. After getting my mind around the strange formatting, I learned how hard it is to create unique stories in such a compressed form.
But it’s been several years since I tried my hand at writing a screenplay, so before I began working on this new project, I had to re-familiarize myself with the process.
The 5 Steps to Write a Screenplay
Most screenwriting professionals follow these five steps to write a screenplay. While this doesn’t mean you should follow these steps exactly, hopefully this will be a helpful guide as you write a screenplay of your own.
1. Craft Your Logline
A logline is a one-sentence summary of your story, and they’re primarily used as a marketing tool. When a studio executive asks you to give him your best pitch, your logline is the first thing you’ll mention.
Loglines also function as a helpful guide to focus your writing on the most important aspects of your story. In other words, loglines help your story stay on track.
Loglines generally contain three elements:
- A protagonist
- An antagonist
- A goal
It’s also helpful to put a summarizing adjective in front of your characters to give a sense of their personalities. For example, the logline of Star Trek might be:
A headstrong orphan and his Vulcan nemesis must save the Federation (and themselves) from a revenge-seeking Romulan from the future.
Not too hard, right?
2. Write a Treatment: Your First Sketch
Also primarily a marketing document, treatments give executives an idea of whether the story is worth their money. However, like the logline, it also serves as a helpful tool for the writer, a kind of first sketch of the story.
For most of the history of art, paint was prohibitively expensive, and so before Monet or Picasso would attempt a full scale painting, they would do a “study,” a sketch of their subject (artists do this today, too, of course). If a sketch wasn’t coming together, they might save their paint and not make the painting, or else revise the study until it looked worthwhile.
In the same way, a treatment is like a first sketch of a film. Treatments are generally two to five page summaries that break the story into three acts. Here are the three main elements of a treatment:
- Title of the Film
Treatments may include snippets of dialogue and description, but the main focus is on synopsizing the story.
3. Structure Your Outline
In this step, you mine into the structure of the story. As Wilder said, the most important element a screenplay is, “STRUCTURE! STRUCTURE! STRUCTURE!”
The outline is the first step completely focused on creating. You likely will never show this to anyone but your writing partners. Most feature films have forty scenes, and your job in the outline is to map out the setting and major events of each scene. You might include major dialogue as well.
The best book to understand the structure of a film (and the best screenwriting book I’ve ever read) is Save the Cat by the late Blake Snyder. If you want to learn more about how to write a good screenplay, or even a good story, I highly recommend it.
Just remember your outline is primarily for you. Write as much or as little as you need to.
4. Write a Flash Draft
This is the fun part, your first real draft, and the same guidelines apply here as to your fiction writing:
- Write quickly
- Don’t think too hard
- Don’t edit
Wilder told me his goal was to write the entire first draft of a screenplay, about 120 pages, in three days. If you’ve done the hard work of structuring your story in your outline, this should be easy.
By the way, if you’re not sure how to format your screenplay, here’s a helpful guide. Screenwriting software can save you a lot of time with formatting, too. Final Draft is the industry standard, but Scrivener, which is what I use to write books, has helpful screenwriting tools, too.
As with books, I recommend doing at least three drafts. After you finish your first draft, read it through once without editing (you can take notes though). In your second draft, you can focus on major structural changes, including filling gaping holes, deepening characters, removing characters who don’t move the story forward, and even rewriting entire scenes from scratch.
In your third draft, you can focus on polishing, specifically, on making your dialogue pop.
Once your script is complete, it’s time to get feedback and begin sending it to studios. Good luck!
BONUS: If You Sell Your Script, Watch As It Gets Torn Apart
The film industry is collaborative. For most films, multiple screenwriters work on a script, and then, in the production process, the script constantly changes because of feedback from producers, actors, and the director. It’s not easy being a screenwriter in Hollywood. Often, the first writer on a screenplay won’t even get credit because so much of the original screenplay has been revised.
This is something I’ve been thinking about as I work on my new project. Even if our film is lucky enough to get bought, my chances of having my name on the film as a first-time write and industry outsider are still quite small. Fortunately, I learned this last lesson from John Wilder:
“That’s why structure is so important,” he would tell us. “They can completely rewrite the dialogue, the action, and the setting descriptions, but if you have a solid structure, you’ll still see your name at the end of the film.”
Wouldn’t that be a treat?
Have you ever written a screenplay? What is your process?
Write a logline, either for your work in progress or for a new story.
When you’re finished, post your logline in the comments section. And if you post, make sure to comment on a few loglines by other writers and let them know whether you’d like to see their film or not.
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