How to Write a Screenplay: The 5 Step Process

The article How to Write a Screenplay: The 5 Step Process appeared first on The Write Practice.

Have you ever wondered how to write a screenplay? Have you fantasized about writing a Hollywood movie or, with a bit of luck, creating the next great TV series?

In a visual age, with the decline of traditional publishing, you might look to script writing as a way to create the “literature of the future.”

But what is the process of writing a screenplay? How do you even begin? And why is it important to know how writing films are different, but also can be similar, to writing a novel?

In this post we’re going to look at the five step process professional screenwriters use to write a screenplay.

Learn how to write a movie script that filmmakers—and an audience—loves!


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.

Still, I held back.

The hardest part of making a movie isn’t writing a good movie script. 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. He told me, “We have everything we need . . . except for a great screenplay.”

“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 writing practice. And, like always, practice is always good for your writing process.

Are you thinking of writing a screenplay? Check out Oscar winner and TV hitmaker (The West Wing) Aaron Sorkin’s masterclass.

How I Learned to Write a Screenplay

In college, I took a class with John Wilder, a veteran Hollywood film and TV writer, who began the class by writing, “STRUCTURE! STRUCTURE! STRUCTURE!” on the chalkboard.

“What’s the most important part of a screenplay?” he asked at the beginning of nearly every class.

It was obvious what he thought. Not screenplay format. Not the industry standard. Not even main characters.

The most important part of screenwriting is STRUCTURE.

Afterward, I wrote three short screenplays, one of them with a producer of MTV’s Made.

After getting my mind around the strange script writing formatting (which is easiest to master by using a solid screenwriting software), I learned that creating unique stories for film production in such a compressed form is hard.

But it’s been several years since I tried my hand at writing a screenplay. My default is novelist, not screenwriter.

I needed a step-by-step process that would allow me to write a spec script I was proud to share, a good story that was worth a production company’s investment.

A good story that is worth a production company’s investment starts first and foremost with a solid structure.
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So before I began working on this new project, the one pitched by my lawyer friend, I had to re-familiarize myself with the script writing process.

I needed a plan that uplifted my friend’s pitch with an entertaining plot and STRUCTURE.

Something more than script format alone. (Although, since script format is important when writing a script, I will give you some tips on this at the end of this post.)

I came up with a process for writing a screenplay in five steps.

The 5 Steps to Write a Screenplay

  1. Craft Your Logline
  2. Write a Treatment: Your First Sketch
  3. Structure Your Screenplay’s Outline
  4. Write a Flash Draft
  5. Edit
  6. BONUS: Screenplay Format Must-Haves

Most screenwriters 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 how to guide as you write a screenplay of your own.

1. Craft Your Logline

A logline is a one-sentence summary of your story, and its 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. (It also should be used in your elevator pitch.)

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 (main character)
  • 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. This, actually, may even be more effective than using a character’s name.

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?

(Check out loglines on IMDB for other examples.)

For specific instructions on how to write loglines, visit my post on writing a story’s premise. This post also includes a premise worksheet to help you nail the three elements mentioned above.

2. Write a Treatment: Your First Sketch

Also primarily a marketing document, a treatment gives executives an idea of whether the story is worth their money. However, like the logline, it 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.

Filmmakers can review a treatment and have a good idea of whether your script is worth investing in (they can probably predict a ballpark range it will cost) and producing.

3. Structure Your Screenplay’s Outline

In this (extremely important) step, you focus on the structure of the story. As Wilder said, in order to master screenwriting, you must master STRUCTURE! STRUCTURE! STRUCTURE!

Your screenplay’s outline is the first step you should completely focus on creating. You likely will never show this to anyone but your writing partners.

Most feature films are from 90-120 pages, and have around forty scenes. These scenes also follow a strict 25-50-25 breakdown, with twenty-five percent given to acts one and three, and fifty percent taking up act two (which can be split into two even parts).

As the screenwriter, 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 most notable book to understand the structure of a film 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.

However, having spent many years in the writing world now, I do think you can take Blake Snyder’s fifteen beats a bit further.

I’ve spent a long time developing The Write Structure to do this, and while writing a feature film has its differences when it comes to certain details, like formatting, structuring stories has core similarities.

Regardless of what structure you choose, remember your screenplay’s outline is primarily for you. 

Write as much or as little as you need to.


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