How to Write a Script

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Photo Source: Jesse Balgley

As any aspiring screenwriter knows, the process of writing a script isn’t easy. But if you break it down into its discrete parts—the type of script, a strong premise, solid plot, believable characters, and clear structure—scriptwriting becomes less daunting.

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How do I come up with a script idea?

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Write what you know: 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?

Research: 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.

Write it out: 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.

How to start a script

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1. Decide which type of script fits your concept: No matter what type of script you’re writing, it’s a good idea to abide by industry standards for acts, action, and length. 

  • Film: In general, film scripts tend to be about 90–120 pages. Each page usually equals 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 act, 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, establish the main obstacles that will challenge your character’s goal.

    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.
  • TV: 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 cold open 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.
  • Web series: 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, so 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.
  • Play: 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, so it's best to flesh that all out before you start writing.

    If you’re new to playwriting, you might want to consider starting with a one-act 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 somehow relieve your audience of that tension by the end.

    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.

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2. Ensure a strong premise: You likely already have a good idea of your premise if you want to develop it into a script. A great way to ensure that your intended premise is strong is to consider themes and genre, and then try and summarize it into a logline.

  • Consider theme and genre: Come up with your theme (love, growth, existential grief) and genre (romance, coming-of-age, character drama) before putting pen to paper. Then, consider examples and general guidelines to solidify your script. If you want to write a coming-of-age script with growth as its thematic focus, watch several projects with the same genre and focus, and then read their scripts. Although it might feel solitary at times, writing is a collaborative process—so allow the collective knowledge of scriptwriters past to inspire you.

  • Write a logline: The 25-to-50-word logline introduces a script’s major elements and the reasons it deserves to be made into a film. Your logline should include primary character(s), the inciting incident, your protagonist’s goal, and any conflict and stakes. Use active voice to introduce protagonists and portray the inciting incident. Here are a few examples of loglines that indicate a script has a strong premise: 
    • “North by Northwest”: When an innocent advertising executive is framed for murder by foreign spies, he must evade the authorities for long enough to uncover the spies’ plot, and save the enigmatic woman who is mixed up with them.
    • “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”: A toon-hating detective is a cartoon rabbit’s only hope to prove his innocence when he is accused of murder.
    • “The Silence of the Lambs”: In order to catch a killer who skins his victims, a young FBI cadet must seek help from an incarcerated and manipulative killer.
    • “WALL-E”: In the distant future, a small waste-collecting robot inadvertently embarks on a space journey that will ultimately decide the fate of mankind.
  • Above all, the logline should succinctly summarize your script’s premise and create an intriguing, open-ended narrative. If you find it difficult to write a logline for your script, that might be a sign that the premise isn’t strong enough. Play around with plot and stakes to see what you can come up with that allows for an enticing logline.

3. Outline the plot: Start by writing out the major events—such as the inciting incident, rising action, falling action, and climax. To help you visualize and switch around the story, write these beats on to note cards, and then arrange them so they take place logically in a way that progresses the plot. Then, break your sections down into individual scenes—get out more note cards, if needed!—with a brief description for each of what needs to happen, what the audience will learn, and how your protagonist’s journey might change. Jot down any snippets of dialogue you may want to insert later, particularly pieces of exposition that will explain your setting and characters to the audience. 

It can be helpful to use scriptwriting software such as Final Draft, WriterDuet, or Celtx that let you seamlessly outline and rearrange the plot.

4. Create believable characters: Believable characters are usually sympathetic yet flawed, with clear motivations and a central conflict driving their actions. Ask the following questions to help craft your characters: What’s their backstory? How does it affect the person they are today? Who do they love, who do they hate, and why? What’s their daily routine? What are their dreams and desires? What’s the obstacle that’s stopping them from reaching their goals? Remember that every good script has a protagonist that the audience supports (even if they’re a villain), as well as an antagonist who gets in the way of the protagonist achieving their goals. Ensure that your characters in some way change and grow throughout the course of the script to keep things interesting.

5. Write: Once everything is planned, outlined, and ready to go, it’s time to write. Remember that the writing process can be a tough one, and it might take a while before you figure out what works best for you in terms of your writing process and style. Read the screenplays of your favorite movies and see how professional writers craft compelling action lines, captivating dialogue, and natural character arcs. Ensure that your script is properly formatted—that means everything from 12-point Courier font to an appropriate amount of scene transitions (don’t go overboard). 

As for your writing routine, understand that it will take a while to know what works for you, and only you. 

“I used to be really obsessed with the idea that to be a real writer, I had to write every day.... Do it your way, of course, but if you’re not writing at all, and then the time comes to do it and you put the work in, that’s fine,” says writer and showrunner Bisha K. Ali (“Ms. Marvel,” “Loki”). “You’ve got to let yourself be in the moment and try not to overregulate yourself.... You can be messy as hell and get really far if you’re persistent. Meeting those deadlines and being creative and having something to say is a bit more important than things like using the right software.”

6. Revise: Although it might be tempting to feel like you’re done once the script is fully written, rewriting is one of the most important parts of the process. Take a day or two off, then return to your script with fresh eyes. Make a note of any problem areas such as telling instead of showing, unrealistic dialogue, and plot holes. Spend time rewriting and revamping until you’re happy with the script.

7. Submit: Finally, the moment you’ve been waiting for—if you’re confident in the strength of your script, it’s time to start submitting

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