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How To Write a Screenplay: The 5 Step Process

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.

how to write a screenplay

Photo by Punk Toad (creative commons)

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:

  1. Title of the Film
  2. Logline
  3. Synopsis

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.

5. Edit

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?

PRACTICE

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.

Note: Some of the links above are affiliate links. We only recommend books and tools we’ve used and found helpful, and by purchasing them, you help support this writing community. Thanks!

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

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  • Elise White

    Here’s my attempt:
    When her father suddenly moves the family from their peaceful country home to the chaos of the inner city, Ainsley is faced with the realities of life outside of her small town and falling in love in spite of herself.

    • Margaret Terry

      I like this Elise, feels like it could be a TV series – it would help to have an adjective for the father (distant?
      irresponsible? perfectionist?) and for Ainsley(shy? only child?) to help me get a better picture
      of the two of them and this new adventure…

      • Elise White

        Thanks for the feedback! How about this:

        When her idealistic father suddenly moves the family from their peaceful country home to the chaos of the inner city on a mission doomed to failure, sheltered Ainsley is faced with the realities of life outside of her small town and falling in love in spite of herself.

        • Margaret Terry

          Better, but don’ think you need the “doomed to failure” Tells us too much.

    • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

      Add the descriptions. Sounds like an interesting story.

  • Margaret Terry

    from my WIP called “The Year of Letting Go”
    A recently widowed woman who discovers she is bankrupt reflects on her checkered past as she sells everything in her house in a desperate attempt to keep it.

    • Elise White

      Sounds like an interesting story! I could see that being an interesting movie, as well.

      • Margaret Terry

        thx, Elise!

    • catmorrell

      Margaret, this scarily sounds like my life. I look forward to reading this especially since I so strongly identify with your character.

      • Margaret Terry

        Thx, Cat…it’s bit like mine right now too…

    • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

      Lots of turmoil immediately. Husband passing away. Fear of losing house. Selling things that she probably doesn’t want to sell.

      Very traumatic times for this character.

      • Margaret Terry

        Thx, James. But, where oh where are my “James” edits? :)

        • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

          You’re a special case. :)

          *recently-widowed

          • Margaret Terry

            Haaa!

      • Leftcoast

        But I want to see even more turmoil still from her checkered past! Prosecution, vengeful ex-business associates of the dead guy, prostitution…give us something! Certainly incorporate losing the house into the story, but perhaps there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow…or bricked into a basement wall.

    • Victoria

      Your logline makes me want to read the book!

      • Margaret Terry

        Thx Victoria-I hope I finish it and you get to do that!

    • Leftcoast

      Sorry for the double-post, but I didn’t realize this response went to James.

      But I want to see even more turmoil still from her checkered past!
      Prosecution, vengeful ex-business associates of the dead guy,
      prostitution…give us something! Certainly incorporate losing the house
      into the story, but perhaps there’s a pot of gold at the end of the
      rainbow…or bricked into a basement wall.

      • http://www.margaretterry.com/ Margaret Terry

        Wow! Thx, Leftcoast. I really love your comments – I’ve known I needed more conflict for my main character and you just gave me a feast! (the business associate idea is grand)

  • Brianna Worlds

    My attempt. I’m hideously terrible at concise writing, so let’s see how this goes…

    Jane’s previously standard life is turned upside-down by one crucial Change: that of a changed species from a human to Vampire, riddling her life with literally a world of problems suddenly her own.

    • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

      Concise writing is really not as hard as it seems, just starting cutting stuff.

      1. Previously-standard life doesn’t add much
      Jane’s previously-standard life is turned upside down..

      Jane’s life is turned upside down…

      2. Don’t use the same word twice in the same sentence. Scratch crucial. If one change turns someone’s life upside-down, we already know it is crucial.

      by one crucial change: that of a changed species from a human to a vampire

      by one change: species.

      3. Honestly, open ended is usually a little better. Does it leave the reader with a question? We shouldn’t have to tell the reader the drama, such as “riddling her life with…”.

      Concise:
      A shy girl’s life is turned upside-down by one change: her species.

      Tell me what you think…

      • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

        Naughty me…. That leaves passive voice

        A shy girl’s life turns upside-down during one change: her species.

        Though in this case, I think I like passive better. It has its time and place.

      • Brianna Worlds

        Thanks! The one thing is Jane is far from shy :P She’s… Bold, clever, sarcastic, stubborn, stoic but not shy. But this is really helpful, thanks!!

        • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

          I picked a random adjective, I figured you had a better one. No problem, glad to be helpful.

  • http://www.christian-dorr.com/ Christian D.

    First time post at one of these.

    A newspaper reporter is tasked with getting to the bottom of a anonymous document that indites the natural gas industry and their fracking practices.

    • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

      Sounds interesting. Could be more concise and you are using passive voice:


      A newspaper reporter, tasked with uncovering an anonymous document, indites the natural gas industry and their fracking practices.

      And if the anonymous document causes the inditing…

      After uncovering an anonymous document, a newspaper reporter indites the natural gas industry and their fracking practices.

      Little changes can make big differences.

      • http://www.christian-dorr.com/ Christian D.

        James,

        Thanks for the comments and the thoughts. I’ll be the first to admit I got a LONG ways to go to be where I need to publish anything. Thanks again for the comments/thoughts.

        • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

          Don’t worry about how close you are to publish.
          Here are the three things to worry about
          1. Character
          2. Plot
          3. Setting

          Notice, I didn’t list active/passive voice or any of the other. That stuff is easy and can come later. You’re doing great and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Anyone that has the courage to write and chases that dream of being published is doing better than most.

        • Leftcoast

          I believe a good working-title might be, “Wholly Fracked!”

          “Completely Fracked” would work as well.

          Keep at it, Christian, and remember the quote from Henry Ford: There is no man living who isn’t capable of doing more than he thinks he can do.

  • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

    Okay, now that I’ve edited everyone else’s logline (I know, I’m silly right), I’ll post mine:

    A grieving dwarf struggles with shattered memories of his late father, a foggy past, and visions of an age-old enemy.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Nice James. Not many fantasy stories (at least I’m assuming this is fantasy) have dwarves as the protagonist. That should be interesting!

      • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

        No. It is nonfiction! You don’t believe in dwarfs? :P

        The hard part, for me, is pulling off the story in the story without crippling either story. The relationship between the stories is the key to the whole book.

        Thanks Joe!

        • Leftcoast

          Joe Bunting, do you have Peter Dinklage’s number handy?

  • Adam

    First time posting on this site :D Love The Write Practise. Here’s my log line for my WIP:

    A young endurance runner living in the slums of a terraformed mars flies across the solar system to compete in a 400-mile run through jungle, tundra and desert infested with horrid monsters for a prize of $5.5 billion dollars.

    • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

      Excellent details and vivid.

      Living in a dump on terraformed Mars, a crafty athlete competes in an inter-solar run through intense terrains infested with horrid monsters for a prize of 5.5 billion dollars.

      That’s all I got.

      Welcome to the write practice! The more the merrier! I hope to hear more from you and hope this magical place helps you grow as a writer, as it has done for me.

      • Adam

        Thank you for the feedback! Taking in your advice

        After losing half his family in a dreadful accident an ambitious athlete competes in an planetary run through intense terrains infested with horrid monsters for a prize of 5.5 billion dollars and the chance to escape from a life of poverty.

        • Leftcoast

          I like the concept, and believe James Hall nailed it. The only thing I might contribute is that by the time we have slums on Mars, a billion dollars might not be worth quite what it is today. You might want to use something else…’Credits’ perhaps, you use? [/Yoda]

    • Margaret Terry

      Hi Adam – welcome! I’m not a big sci-fi reader, but I do love sci-fi movies and I think your log line has blockbuster all over it. I have 2 sons in their twenties who would LOVE this concept – I hope you keep going with this!

      • Adam

        Thank you Margaret! So glad to hear someone would be interested in it!

  • Victoria

    This really helped me to narrow down what my story is actually about, even though I’m not really planning or hoping for it to be a movie :) Here’s my logline:

    Before she can grasp the brightening future, an unsatisfied banker must acknowledge her hidden past and face the revengeful man who has returned to uncover it.

    • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

      Tastes like adjective. All the nouns have an adjective. It makes it read weird and harder to process.

      Before she can grasp a brighter future, an unsatisfied banker must acknowledge her past and face the vengeful man who has returned to uncover it.

      I think that might help it a bit… Second opinions? Anybody?

      • Victoria

        Thanks for pointing that out. Thinking of different ways to put it… This is less adjective-y although slightly more wordy:

        Before Justine can move away from four years of dissatisfaction and grasp the brightening future, she must acknowledge her past and face the revengeful man who has returned to uncover it.

        • Leftcoast

          I mean really WTHDIK, but to quote James T. Kirk, “Not exactly a love song, Spock.”

          I would take James Hall’s advice…dissatisfaction and brightening have to stay gone, as the flow is a little clumsy, and detracts from what you’re really trying to convey to the reader.

          Keep at it though, please; I want to hear more! GL

  • Michael Marsh

    This novel is in its third draft. It is hard to capture the essence of a complex story in one sentence.

    After his Venezuelan girlfriend of 10 years abruptly leaves, Random, a 35 year old research assistant, discovers a dream world parallel to his own, with animal spirits both helpful and dangerous, as he goes in search of his lost love and discovers his lost life.

    • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

      Sounds interesting and unique. I especially like the search for lost passion for living. That sells me on it.

    • Sulaer

      A parallel dream world certainly catches my attention. I’d be interested in learning more about that.

  • TheFlash1984

    Hi, great write up.
    However, do you do Character Bios, or write up Backstory Essays?
    Also, what about research, this is where I struggle, as unsure when to do it. After a first draft, in the index card stage, after the first spark of the idea.
    Then I get lost about what to research, for instance if I wrote a Sci-Fi piece, like Star Trek, do I need to research ‘Light Speed Travel’? Or is it something, as long as I set it up, that the audience will just accept.
    So, using Star Trek as the example again, what would have been the primary elements you think were researched? Sorry for the over the top questions, but research side is got me stuck with me screenplay, I find I question myself, if I am even asking the write questions to research, so then don’t get much written as worried not done the research…a frustrating circle.
    Any Thoughts or Opinions about how to do it, and make sure you are aksing yourself the right questions to research to begin with?

    • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

      Its up to your characters. Write a “research paper” on your characters. What is their story? What do they like? What do they think is interesting?

      Then, once you have a sense for the characters, what do they find important, interesting, or worth learning about? That is part of my approach, though sometimes I just do research and research until I have an idea of what I want or how something needs or can work.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Too many questions here to tackle in one comment (or one post!) but no I don’t write character bios. I DO spend a lot of time thinking about my characters at every stage in the writing process though. But that doesn’t mean you should or shouldn’t do the same, just what I do.

  • Pingback: Monday Must-Reads [9/9/13] - YESENIA VARGAS

  • Goldn

    I realize this is an older thread but any thoughts would be welcome:

    A terrified young historian awakens in the ancient Roman Empire. Stranded, he must use his wits, strength and knowledge of what is to come to navigate the horrors of war, survive the intrigues of politics, remake an empire and save the one man who can lead it into the future.

    • vermis

      Perhaps:

      ‘A young historian, stranded in Ancient Rome, must use his wits and knowledge of what’s to come to survive the horrors of war, navigate the intrigues of politics and save the one man who can lead the empire into the future.’

      • Leftcoast

        I believe Goldn neglected to make clear that the terrified young historian is from the future, somehow awakening in Ancient Rome.

        So:

        A resourceful, young historian from the 21st century, inadvertently caught in a tear in the space-time continuum, awakens in the ancient Roman Empire. Stranded, she must use her wits, strength and knowledge of what is to come to navigate the horrors of war, survive the intrigues of politics, remake an empire and save the one man who can lead it into the future.

  • Mcorcoran15

    A comeback story about a high school football coach and his injured star quarterback who must find hope and redemption in eachother in the face of adversity.

  • Alissa Gosse

    First time posting, first time sharing my idea actually. I haven’t gotten to the point where I’m ready to show my work but I have to start somewhere. hope you guys like it.

    Two years after starting college, Faith tragically looses her best friend. As she battles her pain she reflects on the past two years and the choices she made along the way.

  • vermis

    Hope this thread isn’t completely dead yet:

    ‘A young man faces his first days of homelessness in the wake of the financial meltdown.’

  • anonymous

    What do you guys think of this? Blank (dont know name)is a schizophrenic cryptozoologist whom spots a UFO. Nobody believes him when he says he saw it,they believe he was hallucinating. A few days later, the same UFO appears again.And the cryptozoologist is abducted.

    • MB

      Sounds like a psychological thriller.

  • Margie

    This is my first time attempting to write, so here it goes:
    A young soldier with a rare gift of prophetic ability sees his own death in a dream prior to his first deployment. His mother knowing the power and accuracy of his gift intercedes in prayer in order to change predicted outcome…

  • Sulaer

    As society adapts to Earth’s recent alien inhabitants, news of an impending invasion forces headstrong but brilliant genetic chimera, Sera Cross (26), to team up with government officials-including her estranged creator and “father”-to infiltrate and destroy enemy forces before Earth is harvested.

  • Iskren

    A detective (along with his partner), who used to investigate the most influental crime organizaton controlled by 9 crime lords starts killing them one by one 10 years after the organizaton split up, but what are his intentions….?

  • Michael Pingel

    Dirtirious Joseph Pimp III (Dirty Pimp) , a retired bounty hunter
    with a 100% recapture rate and now turned ordained minister, comes out of
    retirement to help find the kidnapped daughter of Los Angeles’ most notorious
    crime boss Jorges Del Rio of the Del Rio crime family who has an axe to grind
    with the Columbian Drug Cartel. Pimp soon finds out that she is the victim of
    human traffickers hired by the cartel to get back at Del Rio for the killing of
    3 of the cartel crime soldiers in a drug deal gone awry. The unlikely duo team
    up to infiltrate the seedy underworld of human trafficking as they go on a
    no-holds-barred search and destroy mission to find Del Rio’s daughter. But Del
    Del Rio also soon learns that there is more to Pimp than meets the eye.