How To
14 min read

How To Write A Screenplay

Francisco Quintas

June 10, 2022

If you dream of writing a screenplay but think you have too much on your plate, don’t worry. The key to any project is breaking it down into smaller pieces, making even the most daunting assignment doable—and even more importantly, enjoyable. 

By the end of this guide,  you’ll be 100% ready to bring your ideas to life in a killer screenplay.

black flat screen tv turned on at the living room

What goes into a screenplay—step by step

Creating an outline is the foundation of any type of content, and an extremely powerful tool when developing an outline for a screenplay. If you’re reading this, you probably already have a general idea of what your screenplay will be about. Moving from there, defining your genre and your story is critical. 

Start by reading similar stories and scripts in the same genre. That way, you’ll get to know some common points in past screenplays, and it will help you come up with fresh ideas of your own. But before writing your actual screenplay, you’ll need an outline.

Outline

To start your writing journey on the right foot, you need to write down every event in your screenplay. While brainstorming ideas, you don’t have to jot them down in order. However, it is fundamental to position every event chronologically when your outline starts taking shape. This process alone will save you valuable time when you’re adding details to your story, preventing unnecessary rewrites by keeping a broader picture of the play in mind.

Treatment

The treatment is essentially an intermediate step between the outline and screenplay. At this stage, you’ll be adding a little more meat to the outline and introducing artistic components into the text. 

Think of the treatment as a summary of your screenplay. Of course, you don’t need to take it as seriously as you will further down the road, but at this point, it should start to feel like a short story.

First draft

When you’re done with the treatment, the heavy lifting is just around the corner. The first draft is where you add your dialogues, descriptions, action, and everything in between. 

Remember to give your full effort right from the start. The first few pages are often the most critical. You want to capture the audience’s attention and draw them into the story through compelling writing. There is no point in saving your creativity for a unique final act if no one will sit through your play in the first place.

While we’ll get to the specifics later in the guide, you should know that the first draft is where you start introducing the elements of a screenplay into your writing. And screenwriting is quite a distinct writing genre.

1. Script format

During the first draft, you’ll start taking the script format into account. 

A newbie might think that formatting is just an instrument of style and not that important to the final product. It’s not. Your first draft will transpire amateurism if you don’t follow the appropriate format. Whether you like it or not, you’ll need to be familiar with terms like sluglines, action lines, and character cues, among a few others (don’t worry, we will touch on those later!).

While screenplay writers back in the day needed to learn the ins and outs of every formatting detail, writers today have it a bit easier. Investing in screenplay formatting software will do wonders for your writing. It will help your screenplay come to life in a professional way, making it easier and more compelling to read from its inception.

2. Step outline

This is one of the aspects of screenplay writing that is very different from most genres. The step outline is a step-by-step (hence the name) supplement accompanying the narrative.

If you're having trouble grasping its purpose, picture a storyboard that gives you present tense cues of what is happening throughout the story. It is essential for people on the outside to know what’s going on.

While you know your screenplay inside and out, editors, producers, and other people in production will find value in the step outline. The step outline will help them follow the story and tie every event together through flashcards.

Script doctoring

What do you do when you’re ill? You go to the doctor. When your screenplay needs fixing, it goes through script doctoring.

Before a play goes into production, an outside, typically anonymous, ‘script doctor’ will add the finishing touches and elevate the screenplay.

brown and black typewriter

The three-act structure

The final piece of screenplay fundamentals is knowing how to structure your narrative.

The most common way to tell a story is the three-act structure. Since the beginning of time, stories have been told roughly the same way: beginning, middle, and end. And the three-act system carries that legacy into the present day.

Traditionally, the three acts in a story consist of:

  1. Act one - Setup
  2. Act two - Confrontation
  3. Act three - Resolution

Act one

This is where the audience gets familiar with the characters, locations, and challenges the protagonist faces. 

Since it's the first act, it's essential to fill it with character development so that the audience connects with the story from the start.

Also included in the first act is the first incident. This is the plot point that unfolds the rest of the story. Without it, the character wouldn't have to overcome any challenges and there would be no point in telling their tale.

Act two

The second act is usually the longest. In this section, the characters carry out an action previously set up by the incident in act one. 

Also, this act contains another crucial plot point. Here we find the protagonist well on their way to the main goal, only for a surprising turn of events to knock them off their path.

Act three

This is the resolution. The protagonist inches closer to the main goal in the final act and the story reaches its climax. This is where your writing should rise to the occasion.

In the final act, there is also room for a sub-section called denouement. In it, the story takes another turn if the climax doesn't coincide with the character achieving their primary goal. If there is room for a sequel, this is where the writer hints at it.

Now that you know the basics of a screenplay structure, let’s move on to the details.

What is a logline?

A logline can make or break your chances of turning your screenplay into a big production. Think of a sentence in which you describe your screenplay. A brief teaser of what it’s about, your characters, story arch, and setup. That’s precisely what a logline is.

The logline is that enticing summary that will ideally make anyone who reads it want to know more and dive right into your screenplay.

While you will need to have your creative juices flowing, you should keep in mind a few guidelines to maximize your chances of making an impact.

How to write a logline

First, your logline should include the four following components:

  • Main character
  • Incident
  • End goal
  • Conflict

These four elements don’t need to be placed in this exact order. You can move them around in any way you want. The goal here is to convey urgency to know what your screenplay is about.

Another important logline aspect is the length. And that’s often what most writers struggle with. But, as with most writing genres, keeping it short is an art, and keeping your logline around 30 words is no picnic.

Take, for instance, this logline:

The aging patriarch of an organized crime dynasty transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant son.

Can you name the movie by the logline alone? You’re right on the money if you guessed The Godfather (1972)! This logline is short and sweet, just as it’s supposed to be. It gives you a general idea of what the movie will be about and compels the reader to watch it.

In marketing, the same psychological principles are expressed in a hook, both designed to hook the reader by enticing them to continue moving forward towards their goal or interest.

One thing to note is that loglines and taglines are not the same. They actually serve two different purposes. If you come across a shorter version of the logline, you’re most likely reading a tagline. The main difference between the two is how descriptive they are.

Loglines should be more of a description, while taglines are supposed to be provocative. For instance, the tagline for The Godfather is much shorter but just as enticing:

An offer you can’t refuse.

Now that you know what a logline should look like and how to write one, you’re one step closer to delivering a killer screenplay—but there’s still a long way to go.

What are sluglines?

Sluglines are sentences within a screenplay script that draw attention toward a specific piece of information. They’re the first element of a scene. And because they're meant to attract the reader to a particular aspect, they are generally written in all caps (but don't necessarily need to be).

Because sluglines are so crucial to capturing the audience's attention to a certain element, they're commonly referred to as scene headings. However, while this terminology is correct, these scene headings are not your average heading in a blog post.

A typical use for sluglines is pointing the reader to a specific location. Still, there are other occasions where a slugline fits perfectly. For instance, they're also great for establishing a pace and breaking up a scene.

In a scene where someone is shooting a gun and runs out of bullets, a slugline could be:

CLICK-CLICK.

This technique helps the audience connect with the setting and gives the reader an essential piece of information: the character is out of bullets.

Another example of a slugline not being restricted to location cues would be the following:

IN OUR POV

In this case, the slugline changes how the narrative is told. This slugline alters a scene's point-of-view (POV), and by doing so, the whole dynamic of the story shifts along with it.

Sluglines are vital pieces of a screenplay. Every seasoned screenplay writer prides themselves on using them well and taking advantage of what they offer.

What are action lines?

If the slugline is the first, action lines are the second element of a scene. Think of action lines as sentences where you describe on-screen action. Everything that is happening and is shown on screen is in the script as an action line.

Action lines should include characters, locations, sounds, and scene props. All those elements combine and interact as the scene progresses. Every bit of that information is contained in action lines.

Since action lines describe what is happening in the present moment, they’re written in the present tense and in the active voice. So, instead of writing this action line:

He shot the basketball. (Wrong).

The screenwriter should write:

He shoots the basketball. (Correct).

What are character cues?

Another fundamental aspect of a screenplay is how you add details about a particular character and convey emotion through them. Character cues are the means to this end.

Character cues are descriptive and help the actors and directors understand the character on a deeper level. They can take several forms:

  • Physical cues

This type of cue includes anything related to how a character moves and physically acts throughout a scene.

  • Emotional cues

Anything related to sensory stimuli is conveyed through emotional cues. Sight, smell, touch, hearing, and taste. These cues give critical information about something that the character can’t say.

  • Dialogue cues

Finally, dialogue cues help the viewer understand something about the story. Dialogues should only be used if absolutely necessary to add essential information that would otherwise remain unknown.

Of course, using dialogue cues only works if you know the whats, whens, and hows of a dialogue.

What is dialogue in a screenplay?

We engage in dialogue pretty much every day, and you should be no stranger to its definition. Dialogue is no more than a conversation between two or more characters. Now, while the definition is straightforward, coming up with engaging and memorable dialogue is no piece of cake.

Here are some tips to take your dialogue to the next level:

  1. Keep it real

Take inspiration from real-life dialogues. Your script should feel real all around. Having an unnecessarily complex conversation might take away from your screenplay instead of adding to it.

  1. Recite your dialogue

After penning your dialogue, make sure you read through it out loud. Reading silently can give you an idea of whether the dialogue will work, but nothing beats reading it aloud.

Does the conversation flow? Is every line necessary and natural? Some of these questions can be answered if you read your text aloud.

  1. Don't write dialogue

It might sound counterintuitive, but 99% of the time, it's best to convey a particular emotion by action rather than dialogue. For example, if a character is angry, let their actions show it. 

Some newbies might fall into the trap of having their characters express how angry they are by words. Still, action will paint a much clearer picture than a line of dialogue.

Developing your dialogue writing skills will take time, but the key, as with most things, is practice. And while the dialogue quality will most likely develop over time, your formatting should not.

Screenplay dialogue follows several strict rules you should abide by. 

First, you should understand that a screenplay dialogue doesn't run like a prose dialogue. In a screenplay, the dialogue is preceded by the speaking character's name in caps.

The only thing that stays the same between the two mediums is punctuation. So, write your screenplay dialogue with the same periods, question marks, and exclamation points as you would in a prose dialogue. Also, remember to use the same font as the rest of the screenplay.

Finally, one thing that is specific to screenplay dialogue is the formatting. Dialogue should be centered and sit one inch from the margin on the left.

What are extensions in a screenplay?

Screenwriters use extensions to indicate that a specific action is performed in another setting.

It’s an abbreviation placed by the right side of a character’s name and can take two forms:

  • Off-screen (O.S) - you should use this extension type when the character speaking isn't in the camera scope. You should add O.S as an extension when you're writing dialogue for a character that remains unseen.
  • Voice-over (V.O) - this extension is used when a narrator speaks. However, there are other circumstances, like reading a text, flashbacks, daydreaming, and a few other instances where the extension V.O can come in handy.

Parentheticals

When writing a screenplay, you're trying to convey dramatic effects using nothing but words. To increase the chances of getting your message across, you need to give a few pointers to the actors so that they better portray what you pictured. Parentheticals are among the best features to achieve that.

As the name implies, parentheticals are written in parentheses and offer a line of direction. They give the actors crucial information about how they should conduct themselves in a scene. A simple parenthetical can completely alter the mood of a scene and can be a game-changer in a story.

They can be used for:

  • Communicating an emotion (amazed)
  • Physical actions (pulling out a gun)
  • How a line of dialogue is delivered (screaming)

These parentheticals are placed right below the name of the character. With them, the actor can bring new life to an otherwise bland line or situation.

Screenplay transitions

The way different scenes fit together is an often overlooked aspect of a screenplay. Poor transitions can be awkward and confusing. There is nothing worse than a great story with poor editing. And even an untrained eye can spot an amateur transition. Hence, as the screenwriter, your job includes giving pointers to editors about how you want to piece your shots together.

Here are a few of the significant screenplay transitions and what they actually mean:

FADE IN / FADE OUT / FADE TO

Historically, FADE transitions were used anywhere in a screenplay. Whether it was in the beginning, between scenes, or at the end of the play. Nowadays, FADEs are not among the popular transitions anymore and are used essentially in the first and last shots. 

DISSOLVE TO

To take the place of FADE transitions, contemporary editors have come up with DISSOLVE. In this type of transition, a scene fades out while another fades in simultaneously, giving you a DISSOLVE effect. It's mainly used in settings where the passage of time is implied between shots.

CUT TO

This is perhaps the most used out of all the transitions. A CUT TO is a simple change of scene in one frame. While it can be used in virtually any setting, a CUT TO can amplify character changes. Whether emotional changes, physical changes, or simply to add a dramatic effect to a scene.

SMASH CUT

This type of transition can be used for extreme dramatic effect. SMASH CUT is used when the viewer least expects it. When a scene abruptly comes to an end, and another takes its place, you're in the presence of a SMASH CUT.

If you've ever watched a horror movie, you've likely come across a SMASH CUT transition. It is often used between violent and peaceful scenes in the horror genre. The goal is to give the audience a switch from one extreme to the other in a split second, adding thrill to the storytelling.

FLASH CUT

When a shot comes onto the screen only to go away in the very next frame, you're in the presence of a FLASH CUT. This transition can be used to preview something that will happen down the road or for subliminal effect (David Fincher's Fight Club has many of these, for example).

MATCH CUT

Imagine two different scenes connected by a common action or character. The new scene can occur in a distant galaxy, at different times, and with other characters, but there's continuity between the two. If you think you aren't familiar with this transition, watch this.

Shots

A screenwriter should emphasize what type of shot they need in a scene. Different shots convey different emotions and can help lead the story where you want it to go.

Here are a few of the primary shots you can use in your screenplay:

Establishing shots

Whenever you see an outside shot of a place and the next scene takes place inside it, that’s an establishing shot. It’s a juxtaposition of the exterior location with the interior one and can help provide some context to the scene.

Master shots

These are a life-saver. The master shot captures the entirety of the scene continuously. So why is it a life-saver? If you need to bridge any gaps in your editing, you can always resort to a master shot.

In its purest form, a master shot needs to cover every movement, dialogue, and detail a scene contains for it to officially be a master shot.

Close-up shots

A close-up is self-explanatory. You get up close and personal with an object or character. This shot can help the audience catch a detail that otherwise could go unnoticed.

Point of view shots

This shot puts the audience in a character’s shoes.

Two-shots

When two people appear on the screen, you’ve just witnessed a two-shot.

Insert shots

Insert shots take the audience to a book page, text message, or note. Screenwriters often pair this type of shot with a voice-over.

Over-the-shoulder shots

For dialogues, this is one of the most famous shots. You'll usually have some part of one of the character's bodies in the frame (head, shoulders), and the other character engaging in the dialogue is in the frame as well.

Extreme wide shots

This type of shot helps the viewer get a better sense of the whole picture and can be used to convey grandiosity in an outdoor setting.

There are several other types of shots, but if you master the basics and perfect the shots we just discussed, you'll have all the tools to create a masterful piece.

Montage

A sequence of shots used to show the passage of time is a montage. The assembly of images can introduce a comedy element to the story, show a large chunk of time passing in a shorter amount of time, or tie pieces of the story together.

One of the most challenging aspects of a montage is how much you show and how deep you go into it. It can also be tricky to decide when you want the montage to start and when to end it.

Montages are often used to portray a specific location throughout a timeframe. For instance, in this scene in The City of God, the story of an apartment is on full display. You can see how the physical location changes and how the people living in it evolve over time.

It's a static shot that emphasizes the degradation of the house and its features. The story is told as everything happens inside it throughout the years. This masterful use of a montage adds to the screenplay in a big way.

Formatting a montage is pretty straightforward: you write BEGIN MONTAGE as a subheader and include every shot you want for the montage. Then you end the sequence with an END MONTAGE at the bottom.

Lyrics

If a song comes up in a scene or a character is singing, lyrics are an integral part of the script. Therefore, they should be preceded by the parenthetical "singing" to ensure it doesn't go unnoticed. You should write the lyrics in italics and set them off from the body of text with a double space.

black remote control on white textile

Chyrons

Have you ever seen a movie where a character is texting, and the messages appear superimposed on the screen? That's called a chyron. They're nothing more than captions that help the audience gain a better perspective of a scene or important information about a character.

While chyrons are not that popular, some genres use them more than others. For example, documentary scripts often use them to introduce a location or someone. Also, you come across chyrons every day when you're watching the news. Yes, those text boxes at the bottom of your screen are also chyrons!

Using them couldn't be simpler: write the word 'chyron' in caps at the beginning of an action line, followed by the text you want to appear superimposed on the screen. If, for instance, the chyron is a text message, you can format it like this:

CHYRON (Kate texts): Are you free on Friday?

Key takeaways

It can take months of practice before you feel comfortable writing your screenplay. Having creativity alone won't cut it. Screenwriting is such a unique genre that you need to learn all its fundamentals and intricacies if you want to be successful.

With this comprehensive guide, you have the foundation you need to start experimenting. If you feel that all the formalities are taking away from your creativeness, just stick to it. The more familiar you become with the boring but necessary stuff, the more you’ll understand that it all actually helps you deliver a polished final product.

The name of the game is practice, so get to work!

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