How To Write A Screenplay

Apr 17, 2020 | Screenplays and Screenwriting, Tips and How To

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How Screenplays Work

Getting the idea out of your head and onto the page is a challenge for any writer. Even the best of them. This is especially challenging for screenwriters, am I right? Why is that? I think it is because screenwriting is, at its heart, a visual storytelling medium. The pictures seem so real, you can almost touch them. Learning how to write a screenplay is a process of taking those vivid, exciting images in your head and giving them to someone else.

Ideally, it’s a producer who can get your script made, passing your story onto millions. Here are four tips on how you do that.

How To Write A Screenplay: Story In Pictures

In theory, a screenplay is a document used by a whole host of professionals, from producers to actors, to make the movies we see. You need to write your screenplay using a language that those professionals understand.

What is that language though?

That language comes down to writing in pictures. Scenes in screenplays are action-based and set in visually interesting locations. Unlike a novel, your scenes need to be about external actions. They cannot be about what the characters are thinking.

Instead, scenes need to be about what they’re doing. The screen character’s thoughts are relayed through action.

It’s All About Time

Understanding that a screenplay is a working blueprint for a movie, you need to understand that time is of the essence. What do I mean by that?

Ask yourself, how long was the last movie you watched? One and a half hours? Two hours? Maybe a little longer.

Feature-length films, the ones released in theaters, generally run from 90 minutes up to, at most, 180 minutes in length with an average of 110 (if you’re writing an indie film, the shorter the better). One screenplay page is one minute of screentime. 

Shorter movies make sense, right? The shorter a movie is, the more showings a theater can book. The more showings, the more tickets… you get the idea.

Producers that pick up a screenplay that is too short (or too long) recognize that the work simply does not fit the mold. Too short (probably) means it’s not a substantial enough story, or not well developed; too long means, well, bloated and undisciplined writing.

Even if the writing is good, too long means more expensive. Producers hate that.

Stay in the expected lane on screenplay length. Learning how to write a screenplay is a lot about mastering time.

It’s All About Time: Part Deux

Now that you know a screenplay’s eventual end length should be roughly 110 pages, just short of two hours, it’s time to talk about scenes, dialog and descriptions. Those elements need to follow strict time rules, too.

When I learned to write screenplays, I learned a simple rule. Arrive late and leave early. That means, show me only what needs to be shown in a scene. You don’t need to show the car drive up, the driver park and get out, to walk up to the door for a confrontation.

Cut that. Show only what’s interesting. Start where he’s banging on the door, demanding to see his daughter.

There is a rough “rule of threes” that exists in screenplays. Scenes should be no longer than three pages. Dialog blocks should be no longer than three lines, the same as scene descriptions. Keep things moving. Keep them changing.

You’ll probably say, wait, that Oscar-winning speech was like, two minutes long. You’re right. Many screenplays break these rules, but the trick to follow enough rules in your script, and you do a good enough job, that you can break a few now and again.

How To Write A Screenplay: Bottom Lines

It is important, when writing screenplays, to stay within the lines. I know, that sounds so tame and boring, the opposite quality of great movie making. Those screenwriters who are said to break the rules, however, aren’t really breaking the rules.

What they’re doing is finding new ways to follow those rules.

Download screenplays on-line. Read them and learn the proper screenwriting format. Watch how movie stories are told in pictures. Understand that action is the name of the screenwriting game.

If you follow the rules, you’re more likely to get your screenplay picked up.