Every great film starts with a great idea. Writing (and finishing!) a screenplay can be a labor-intensive, sometimes complicated undertaking. You’ll need time, flexibility, creativity, and a healthy dose of perseverance.
The ins and outs of writing a successful screenplay vary from project to project, but there are tricks to help you along the way. Whether you’re just starting out, or have a few treatments already under your belt, here’s how to navigate the journey from page to screen.
“Entourage” Courtesy HBO
A screenwriter is responsible for completing the screenplay from its earliest draft to the final shooting script. Oftentimes, a screenwriter begins with a treatment, including a summary of the basic plot, a character breakdown, a logline, and a working title. A screenplay comes from an original idea or it’s adapted from an existing source such as a play or novel. Screenwriters may work independently, with a writing partner, or with a writing team.
A first draft of a screenplay includes the setting, action, character dialogue, and other information about the film’s plot. A screenplay also includes elements unique to filmmaking, such as a location (interior or exterior), sound-specific instructions (whether dialogue happens onscreen or as a voiceover), comments about editing, and shot details (for example: close-up or fade to black).
Screenplays most often include a title page (with information about the author, representation, and the date of the current draft) and scenes that clearly note location, character dialogue, and action within the script. Programs like Final Draft, which have these tools built in, can be an aspiring screenwriter’s best friend. You can also outline your screenplay by breaking down the plot into smaller units and figuring out how each piece fits into the overall narrative before putting pen to paper. You may find it easier to write a first draft from start to finish, and go back to edit as needed.
“Mank” Courtesy Netflix
Generally speaking, a feature film screenplay should be approximately 90 to 120 pages. Each page translates to roughly one minute of screen time. Most screenplays follow a traditional three-act structure, including exposition, character introduction, rising action, the navigation of a central conflict, a climax, and falling action toward the film’s conclusion.
“Hollywood” Courtesy Netflix
After you receive notes from a director, producer, or colleague, you’ll work on a second draft. This process continues until you and your colleagues are satisfied. Expect to write between three and seven drafts for a feature film.
Next, the shooting script is developed for production. Most often, the director and cinematographer are responsible for creating this document, but on smaller productions, the screenwriter helps complete the shooting script.
As the screenwriter, you may be called on to complete re-writes and develop new pages during filming. The amount of work you do during production will vary depending on the project and the specifics agreed upon within your writer’s contract.
“The Offer” Credit: Nicole Wilder/Paramount+
Just like other jobs in the film industry, most paths to becoming a screenwriter are nonlinear.
Many university film departments have dedicated screenwriting classes and degree programs that focus on writing for the screen. These classes and programs are often instructed by seasoned screenwriters who teach technique and provide practical, real-world experience.
Already experienced in the film industry? Actors, directors, and even crew members make great screenwriters because they often already know the difference between a truly great screenplay and a mediocre one.
You can still bring your writing skills to a screenwriting practice without having a film background. If you can construct a story, you may find your instincts naturally translate into the world of filmmaking.
Most successful writers have several unproduced screenplays for every one they’ve had made into a film. There’s no substitute for putting pen to paper and discovering what works and what doesn’t. The more you observe, read, and write, the more you’ll understand your voice as a screenwriter.
Based on WGA rates, a spec script should sell for between $72,600 and $136,000, with the average screenwriter’s salary being around $110,000. Of course, you need to factor in agent fees, taxes, the price of an accountant, and other expenses before calculating what you will take home.
A contracted gig has agreed-upon terms between you and the producers before the screenplay is written. A spec script, however, is written for free and on the writer’s speculation that it could be turned into a feature film. The finished product may be bought by a studio, but you are not compensated until that sale occurs.
If you’re a self-starter, the spec script market can be lucrative, albeit a gamble. If you’re excited about your solid idea, all you need is your ambition and a computer to immediately get started on the next great spec script.
“Barry” Credit: Merrick Morton/HBO
Talent, persistence, and ingenuity are the pillars of screenwriting success
It helps to be located in one of the main production hubs—such as L.A., NYC, and Atlanta—but information about craft and technique are more accessible than ever. There are countless YouTube channels that break down scripts and the screenwriting process, and virtual classes that offer the nuts and bolts to form your screenwriting practice.
Invest in scriptwriting software and share your writing with other creatives whose input you value. Also, be aware of industry trends: what types of films are being distributed, which writers are making deals with what studios, and which films are being picked up from festivals. All of this will help you build momentum as you begin your screenwriting journey.