When I first sat down to write a screenplay, I was in my junior year of college. The University of Oregon in Eugene, in case you were wondering. I had always fashioned myself as a writer, but looking back on that time now, I knew very little about the fundamentals of storytelling and even less about how to write a competent screenplay. Completely unaware of the things to know before writing a movie script, I was, as they say, flying blind.
Walking into the classroom a few days later with twenty terribly written and constructed pages in hand, I was, quite unbeknownst to me, following in that most hallowed of creative traditions – starting out on a creative endeavor without knowing anything in advance. Inspiration had taken hold.
What was I going to do? I followed the muse.
Here is something I think you should know though. A year later, after diligently studying my craft and committing to the fundamentals of movie script writing, that same screenplay became a semi-finalist in the Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. Don’t know what that means? Look it up.
Was that a humble brag? Maybe a little. Here’s the point though.
The same fundamentals that applied then, way back in yesteryear of 1999, still exist today. Yes, stories have changed. So has Hollywood’s taste (if we can even refer to what ‘Hollywood’ wants anymore). The package of storytelling essentials, however, has not.
WRITING A MOVIE SCRIPT: Fundamentals
There are, before you start, some basic screenplay fundamentals that you need to understand. Like a novel, screenplays allow the screenwriter some room for style. More than a novel, however, that sense of style needs to conform to some basic fundamentals.
Here are a few of the basic screenplay fundamentals.
If you’ve ever looked at a screenplay page, you know that it has a certain look to it. This is because a script is made up of a limited number of what the experts call elements.
Every screenplay scene starts with a slug line. This is made up of a delineation between inside or outside (INT. or EXT.) a general location (Office or Street, for example) and the time of day (Morning or Night). These are examples that should illustrate how general the slug line needs to be. All it is there to do is orient the reader to where the scene is taking place.
INT. OFFICE – MORNING
The next element is action. If we use the example above, the reader knows the scene takes place inside of an office in the morning. But that’s pretty limited right? This is where you, as a writer, describe the office in the most basic terms necessary for the reader to understand.
Is the office upscale or run down? Are the cubicles full of workers busy working the phones or is it still empty? Is there a large, ominous sign on the wall that says “Staff Meeting Today”? In one or two lines, using only necessary details (more on this later) you should be able to describe that setting so that a reader can create a picture in their head.
The last of the critical elements, which stay forever married in your script, are the character and dialog. If Jeff, the boss in our fictitious office walks in, steaming coffee in hand, and starts talking about changes coming down from corporate, you create lines of dialog indicating that.
There are other elements screenwriters can use (transitions, parentheticals and titles) but these, for the most part, are the critical fundamentals. Once you master these, how they balance and work together, you can start creating scenes to tell your cinematic story.
Things To Know Before Writing A Movie Script
Screenplays are visual.
There is nothing more critical than this understanding here. When you write a screenplay, regardless of the genre, your objective as a writer is to orient the reader to what they see.
What does that mean? Well, for starters, scenes are described in largely physical terms. That little scene I concocted before, the one where Jeff prepares to address his staff, needs to be told visually. Aspects like what he looks like, how he walks, and how the other workers receive him are told through action.
Is he disheveled? Does he storm into the room with gusto? Do the other workers scoff at him?
These are the terms we use to tell our story. The orientation to visual storytelling means that we don’t explore how he feels, unless we can see that. We have to rely on the physical signs to let us know that.
Your Secondary Sense Is Hearing
To the previous fundamental, you might have been saying, but wait, people talk in screenplays.
You would be right about. Your characters will end up talking quite a lot. This is why I like to say that after visual elements are established, the secondary storytelling sense in a screenplay is sound.
Jeff is going to address his staff. He just stormed into the room, coffee in hand, ready to deliver them the news. What does he say though? Is he well-spoken and confident? Does he stutter or stammer when he lets his workers know there will be cutbacks?
All of these audio cues lead us further into who Jeff is in our story (and, more importantly, where he might be going before it’s over).
Beyond dialog, sound is a major factor in screenplays because it serves as a wonderful means of changing directions. What do I mean? Well, if Jeff is ready to deliver the bad news about layoffs and he hears something from the back room, say a crash, you know things are about to change.
What would your impression be if, before he started speaking, someone in the office scoffed at him? You’d sense that he isn’t respected.
One of the things to know before writing a movie script is beyond focusing on what you can see, what you can hear is invaluable to your story.
Arrive Late and Leave Early
Your best advice for party going also applies to screenplay scenes. Start the scene late and, whatever you do, get out of there as soon as humanly possible.
Screenplay scenes, for the most part, should be in the neighborhood of three pages. In screen time terms, that’s three minutes. I know what you’re thinking. You can probably list a dozen memorable, even classic, movie scenes that went on longer. Every time I write or give that advice, I think of many of my favorite movie scenes, all of which go over three minutes.
The fact is that, for a first time or relatively new writer, someone still trying to prove their storytelling and screenwriting chops, follow the three page rule. The last thing you want to do is have your screenplay rejected by someone who believes in following that to the letter.
Be Careful About Looking At Movies For What Works In A Screenplay
This rule follows closely on the heels of the last. Most of us get into screenwriting because we love watching movies. That’s great. Just don’t look at those movies for signs of how to write screenplays.
What? That doesn’t make sense? Allow me to try and explain.
For me, Pulp Fiction is a great example of this idea. One of the most memorable movie experiences of our lifetimes, filled with great scenes, dynamic performances and style to boot. Whether or not you like the movie, it is a bona fide classic. No one can argue against that.
If you, a newcomer, tried to break in with a script like that, you would struggle. Even if it was every bit as good as Quinten Tarantino’s script.
Movies like Pulp Fiction are the product of original geniuses at work. He is a singular creator. He is someone who, because of his name and prestige, is allowed to make movies that break the rules. When you’re Mister Tarantino, it’s more accurate to say, you make the rules of cinematic storytelling.
This advice can really cool a young writer’s jets. Don’t let it. As a screenwriter, you have some ability to play with the rules, writing longer scenes here and there, perhaps taking other chances. You just have to be more careful when you do.
One of the key things to know before writing a movie script is this: the rules of the craft are the rules and they definitely apply to you. Until you create something that gives you permission to break them.
Scripts Beyond Draft One
By now you know enough to be dangerous, right? With a basic understanding of what the page should look like and some knowledge of essential principles, you’ve got enough to write that first script.
One of the key things to know before writing a movie script is this little nugget of wisdom – draft one is never done. It’s only the beginning, to be honest, the first step in the eventual creation of a work you can sell or, if you’re ambitious, direct and produce.
Writing is rewriting. The best writers, the ones you’ve heard of, or those that have written scripts for movies you’ve seen, rewrite over and over again until the story is absolutely perfect. Scenes change. Characters evolve between page one and one hundred and often for the better. Dialog that sounded good in the beginning can, upon review, feel clumsy or off-tone on later review.
If you find yourself with the first draft of a movie script in hand, let me be the first to congratulate you. In my experience, for every finished draft one, there are dozens of good ideas that never reached the finish line. You will have to re-write that script, however, understand that the fundamentals you need in order to write your first script continue to apply.
Refocus. Refine. Rewrite. If you reach a point where you feel lost in that process, reach out to someone in the industry. Screenplay consultants and ghostwriters can be instrumental in getting you from first to final draft in style.