Maybe you’re thinking about writing a screenplay, but don’t know where to start. Or you’re interested in following in the footsteps of creators like Issa Rae (“Insecure”) or Rachel Bloom (“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”) and using YouTube to launch your career. Whether you’re an aspiring playwright or an actor looking for a more hands-on approach to your craft, this guide will break down the basics of how to write a script—whether that’s for film, television, web, or theater.
Script ideas are conceived in different ways for everybody, but it all starts with thinking about what you’d like to write about in the first place. Once you plant that seed in your mind, you’ll start to draw inspiration from everything around you, including your own life. Think back on your childhood—your favorite memory or your worst memory could be the beginning of a story. Think about the people around you—is there someone you can base a character on?
If your own life (or other’s lives) aren’t inspiration enough, you can always do research. Maybe there’s a specific event or person in history that has always sparked your interest; maybe you really love a certain country and its culture. Begin researching these subjects and you might find that your story will start to develop itself just through the things you’re learning.
The best thing to do during this brainstorming process is make sure you write everything down. Even if the idea for a great conflict pops into your brain in the middle of the night—type it down on your phone! All your notes will come together into a draft later on.
Writing a screenplay for a film is going to be different from writing for TV or theater for multiple reasons. Film writing focuses a lot on what you see, obviously, since you’re visually writing for a big screen—your narrative needs to unfold through a lot of events. Theater writing, on the other hand, is more focused on the narrative unfolding via dialogue—much of what is happening is in what’s being said. TV is a mix of both, since your characters and narrative have to develop much slower over several episodes. TV writing is all about breaking down a big story, as opposed to film, where that story begins and ends in one sitting.
In general, film scripts tend to be about 120 pages. Each page usually equals about one minute of screen time. Even if you think you’ll have a big action scene or smaller dialogue scenes, the timing should even out, give or take. Writing that many pages may seem daunting, so to make this easier, break down your story into three acts. A good rule: Devote 30 pages to Act 1, 60 pages to Act 2, and 30 pages to Act 3.
In the first 10 pages, you’ll want to establish your main character and their basic story. After that, delve into “the incident”—what is the main problem your character is going to attempt to resolve by the end of the script? By the end of Act 1, the main obstacles that will challenge your character’s goal should be established.
Act 2 is all about obstacles and disasters; this is where you flesh out the first plot twist, and then enter an even bigger one at the midpoint. Your action should continuously ascend until you reach a climax, which will bring you to the resolution in Act 3.
If you’re looking for more formalized instruction, “Save the Cat!” by Blake Snyder is a best-seller and favorite for those interested in screenwriting. If you’ve got your eyes on Hollywood, “Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting” by Syd Field is another best-seller.
A TV script isn’t all too different from a movie script, but some of the biggest differences are length and act numbers, depending on if you’re writing an hourlong show or a 30-minute sitcom. An hourlong episode will vary between four to five acts, plus a teaser (a short opening introducing the characters), while a half-hour episode only has two acts and a cold open without a “teaser.”
You’ll still want to establish your characters and introduce conflict, but unlike a film script, the main problem in your TV script won’t be resolved by the end, since you’re going to be creating scripts for several episodes. However, smaller problems and plot twists you introduce can (and should!) be resolved by the end of a script if necessary.
To hone your craft, try analyzing the work of some of the best TV writers of the past few decades to see how they approached a script:
- Aaron Sorkin: You may know him from films like “The Social Network” and “A Few Good Men,” but he doubles as a TV writer you can study as well. He’s responsible for “The West Wing” and HBO’s “The Newsroom.” Sorkin excels in both his dialogue and monologues.
- Shonda Rhimes: Best known for “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” Rhimes has built an empire from her shows, so you might learn a thing or two from her. We can’t wait to see what she does on Netflix.
- Larry David: He wrote “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Need we say more?
If you want to write a web series, you’ll find that you can’t just take an idea you originally had for TV or film and chop it down. Web series episodes are quick—you need to catch your viewer’s attention within a few seconds and keep it there for the next few minutes of your episode. Keep in mind that your viewers are watching this from their laptops or phones! Your script needs to dive into the story right away.
Always start with an engaging scene, and end somewhere that will make your viewers excited to watch the next episode. Your characters are more or less going to be the most important part about your script, so make sure they really come to life, are relatable, and keep your audience engaged. Create stories and personalities that people will want to keep up with.
All the goodies found in film and TV writing (plot, story, conflict, and resolution) are also essential to theater writing. A good play has solid exposition, rising action, and resolution development, so fleshing that all out before diving into writing is a smart way to start.
If you’re new to playwriting, you might want to consider starting with a one-act play so you don’t have to worry about intermission or length. One-act plays can vary in time, from 10 minutes to just over an hour. These plays are on the easier side when it comes to costume and set changes.
Most plays are two acts, which includes an intermission. With this kind of script, you’ll want to structure your plot around the intermission to keep your audience curious and in suspense. Though there’s no rule on how long each act should be, you should make sure the incident and conflict of the story happen in the first act. The second act should revolve around the tension of what happened in the first one, which should continue to rise until the climax of the play. As with film and TV scripts, you don’t have to have a happy ending, but make sure you relieve your audience of that tension by the end somehow.
Three-act plays require more experience to write (and to write well) but it can be done! Prepare to have more than one intermission in this structure, since you might have a two-hour play on your hands. Your exposition should take longer than usual (the entirety of the first act) in order to really set your audience up for the elaborate story they’re going to experience.
For playwriting, “The Art of Dramatic Writing” by Lajos Egri is highly recommended if you want to learn the basic techniques successful playwrights often use. For something straightforward, simple, and quick, try out “Playwriting for Dummies” by Angelo Parra.
There are so many great playwrights one could study, it would take forever to list them all. Everybody knows the classics like Shakespeare and Anton Chekhov, but if you want a more modern approach, check out this list of six young playwrights every actor should know (and this list of the 25 most influential modern and contemporary plays).
The writing process can be a tough one. It might take a while before you figure out what works best for you in terms of developing your scripts. Many scriptwriters turn to outlining. You can do this by focusing on the big parts of your script—the characters, story, plot, conflict, resolution—and bullet-pointing the main ideas you want to portray for each. Some people hate outlining and just jump right into writing. You might find you can’t jump into writing until you have a certain part of your story completely fleshed out, whether it’s the characters or the plot. Find what works for you by trying it all—outlining, drafting, jumping right in, stream of consciousness, or working on one part first. No process is better than the other!
If you’re looking to have control over more than just the initial creation of your content, consider taking a seat at the helm. Here’s what you need to know.
Becoming a director could be a natural progression if you’re already an actor, like it was for filmmaker Amber Sealey. Going into directing means finally being able to create your own vision and see it through until the end—but that comes with a lot of responsibility. “The challenge of directing is that it’s a very lonely job. The decisions start and end with you. Even though you're collaborative, at the end of the day you have to think fast and have answers,” Sealy told Backstage. “You have to have a lot of patience, because the energy of the project rests on the shoulders of the captain.”
If you want to get the full immersion, look into schools that offer film production. A bachelor’s degree isn’t mandatory to become a director, but completing a degree program will help you delve into the technical, creative, and historical aspects of the job. It’s also a chance to get a lot of networking and personal shorts done.
Start working with a production crew—even if it’s as a production assistant. You might not see how getting coffee for the set and being in charge of various tasks will help you on your journey to directing, but it’s one way of getting your foot in the door. Plus, any kind of production experience is important.
Take advantage of your connections. Who do you already know that can help you take the next step? Or, who do you know that can introduce you to someone who can help you take the next step? Reach out to anyone you’ve collaborated with who can assist in reaching your goal.
As you start directing, you’ll get a taste of what it is other directors look for in their actors. By sitting in the director’s chair, you see the whole picture and what it means for directors to trust their actors in performing their vision. This will ultimately better your own acting skills.
Looking for remote work? Backstage has got you covered! Click here for auditions you can do from home!