How To Start Writing A Script? Your Guide To Getting Going

May 28, 2024 | Screenplays and Screenwriting

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How Screenplays Work

Screenwriters think in pictures. We don’t just know what happens with our stories, we can usually see it. Movie moments are full of iconic images, but to make them really work, you have to go deeper and address how to start writing a script.

The great ape King Kong climbing the Empire State Building.

ET in a bicycle basket, ascending into the night sky, backlit by the full moon. 

Luke Skywalker staring longingly at the twin suns in “Star Wars”. 

If you’re a movie fan, which most screenwriters are, these are images we can see in our memory. One can only wonder what was going through the screenwriter’s mind as they sat down at the typewriter (fact: these movies are all old enough that they were written on a typewriter instead of a computer). 

If you’re a screenwriter, working on a screenplay and you’re toying what you see as an iconic image, you’re probably dying to know how best to bring it to life. It is my belief that although none of the moments I described came at the beginning of the film, what makes them work comes down to a strong story opening.

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That Iconic Moment Has Deep Roots

We can all agree that without context, without story, a great movie image is just that. The image of a massive ape climbing the Empire State Building is magnificent, but it’s easily ignored. What makes that unforgettable is the story that got King Kong there.

Screenwriters have the daunting task of winning audiences over from the movie’s opening scenes or sequence. Essentially you need to, in a few pages or minutes, to persuade a script’s readers, eventually the audience, that what they are about to see.

“King Kong” is about a magnificent beast, captured from a remote island and brought to the United States to become the main act in a circus-like show. The story opens with a worn out director, Carl Denham, desperate to find funding and support for his next act. That desperation and the blind ambition behind it, anticipates Kong’s unjust capture.

By the time King Kong climbs up the Empire State Building (a new, bigger than life icon at the time of the film’s production) it’s not just an ape. We know he is a character with feeling, equally desperate to escape the clutches of greedy showman. 

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How To Start Writing A Script: Think about The Characters

When I was a kid, I remember the “ET” moment. At six years old, I spent most of my summer afternoons on a bike. The idea of ascending into the sky was enchanting.

But what is really happening in that moment?

Screenplays focus on characters. They usually center on unexpected relationships that form out of a shared need. In “ET” the extra terrestrial needs Eliot to escape from the government, and the boy needs the alien to break out of his mundane, “little brother” existence. 

We know this because the screenwriter, Melissa Mathison working off of a story by Steven Spielberg, opened the story with creepy government agents extracting samples from a mysterious spaceship. Following that, we meet Eliot and learn that his parents are recently divorced and his life is about as humdrum as they get. 

A different opening might wow audiences for its special effects, or the sheer imagination involved, but the marriage of these character needs makes it unforgettable.

how to start writing a script

Screenwriters Are The Architects Of Worlds

For many kids, “Star Wars” planted the seeds of a lifetime of imagination. Whether that was playing with the figures, riding bikes and playing tie-fighters versus x-wings, or imagining better versions of those iconic scenes, the world of Jedi and Empire has enchanted us for almost fifty years.

You could dedicate a library to an exploration of what makes “Star Wars” work. I think, in a nutshell, that the key element is world building. Especially for the time, the Star Wars universe was vast, almost limitless, offering an ample place for viewers to play. 

After the iconic strike of John Williams’ orchestral score and text crawling up the screen, we get the unforgettable image of a tiny rebel ship speeding away, while a hulking Imperial cruiser follows in pursuit. Right away, we know the combatants: good guys versus bad guys with everything on the line. Then when Darth Vader appears, there is no doubt about the power dynamic. 

Luke Skywalker is a boy bound to a farm. What makes him unique are his dreams. He senses there is more to the universe and he wants to explore it. 

But tragically, Luke Skywalker has no idea the scope of what that really means.

When we see Luke Skywalker staring off into space, glimpsing the twin suns, it’s not just a handsome young actor set against an interesting scene. The story’s opening sets up the idea that what Skywalker is day dreaming about is out there and it’s dangerous. The world out before him, however much he wants it, is frightening and capable of swallowing him up. 

Nine proper movies, countless spin offs and television series, comic books and novels later, we’re still just getting a glimpse of what is out there.  In the modern age, the art of how to start writing a script really began with Star Wars.

How To Start Writing A Script: Opening Moments Matter A Lot

Understanding how to start writing a script takes some practice. The first step, for most writers, is identifying what the core story is really about.

“King Kong” is about rebellion from oppression.

The mutual need of the characters defines the “ET” story.

One could argue that “Star Wars” is ultimately about the universe. 

The writers of those three stories understood that in order to create their iconic moments, to truly capture their splendor, they needed to plant the seeds early. 

How early? Page one. 

Consider that your story is actually making a promise. If the screenwriter brought Kong to life started the story similar to ET, themes of ambition would feel muted. The same with “Star Wars”. Start with a single spaceship in a mysterious forest and the entire universe of consequences would not quite work. 

Figuring out how to start writing a script is the beginning of the dream about that big movie moment. If that iconic image keeps you up at night. If it gets you to the computer (because you’re not using a typewriter) then write it down.

Let’s go back to the beginning, to the story’s core conflict and promise. This is what resonates with readers and audiences. They are, after all, who we are writing for.