If you’re creative and like to make your own stories then the idea of screenwriting has probably crossed your mind more than once. In fact you may watch a television show and wonder where the story comes from, what a script actually looks like and how does one go from writing a script to having their own television show. Well the truth is, it’s not easy screenwriting is not just about writing some witty dialogue and a few action scenes it is actually all about knowing the format and how much or how little control a writer has over the final product. This article is going to help you go through the steps necessary to create, format and even sell your own screenplay.
The Writing Process
The first step to creating a screenplay is to have an idea, every great television show, play, and movie starts with one great idea that then spirals down into a successful screenplay. It is important to note that whatever you decide you want to write for, you will have to know the specific format and style that the script needs to be in. But we’ll cover more about format later.
When you are creating your idea it is important to really dive deep and find out everything you can about the world you want to create, the characters you want to create and the story. Even if you cannot spend 30 pages of the script telling the back story of your character, knowing that back story will help you figure out how they would react to certain situations and it will help the actors and the director know how to treat that character.
For example in the movie Inglourious Basterds one of the main characters Aldo Raine (portrayed by Brad Pitt) has a very unique personality and a very interesting scar around his neck. Though the story of where Raine came from or how he got the scar is never directly addressed in the film, Quentin Tarantino knew that back story and used it to help Brad Pitt portray his character. The more you know about the characters the more emotion you will get from them and the more their actions will fit who they are, instead of being a random sequence of events.
One of the most important parts of the writing process is to read and rewrite everything. The more you read your work and have others read it, the more you will be able to see the story and see what needs to be fixed or changed. No script or story is perfect the first time out, and most writers will say a script is never perfect. So the goal is to keep rewriting until it is as close to perfect as possible and then you can try pitching your idea to the world.
Theories of Writing a Screenplay
Now when you go to plan out and eventually write your screen play it is important to be aware of the different theories and ideas about how a script should be formatted. Some of these theories come all the way back from the time of the ancient Greeks when they performed the first plays and still exist as guides for screenwriters today. Though these theories may not be appropriate for all types of stories and you may choose to use more than one or none at all. But knowing the theories can help you see how to organize your own story.
Three act structure
Most screenplays have a three act structure, the setup where the location and characters are introduced, the confrontation where there is an obstacle, and the resolution where there is a climax. For a average time film (2 hours) the middle act takes 1 hour with the other two acts splitting the remaining hour equally. Besides the three act structure, one could also use four or even five acts in a screenplay, though these would be used to suit longer stories than the classic 120 page format.
Formatting Your Screenplay
The format of your screenplay can sometimes seem just as important as the story and the idea itself. The reason for this is that when you go to find an agent to represent your screenplay to studios or you try and find other means to develop your screenplay (to be discussed later) if it is incorrectly formatted they will most likely reject the screenplay.
Why? Well the reason is that even though the agent will know that you are a beginning writer and may have a great idea, if you do not know what a screenplay entails, they will not be able to market your script. For example a screenplay needs to have some cues to let the camera know what to look at, it also needs to describe the characters, the scene, and the lighting, the mood…all those things need to find their way into the script so that the director and the actors know what to do. But on the other side of the token if you micromanage each shot and each movement the actor’s make your script will be unsuccessful.
So format is about creating a balance between letting the director and the actors know what is important to advance the plot and letting them use their own judgment and creativity. In the end the screenplay will only act as a guide for how to create the movie, play, television show, etc. So the other thing to realize about formatting your screenplay is that if you truly want to see it produced, don’t become too attached to anything, focus on the story as a whole and not the individual parts. In the end your favorite scenes may be completely changed or even cut, and you do not what that to ruin your ability to see the script come into production.
As I said before the writing style and format will change depending on what you are planning to write. Here is a brief overview of some of the different formats and options that are available to you.
Motion picture screenplays are intended for sale to studios for film making. These are normally between 90 and 120 pages long.
Tv writing is similar to movies with the big different that TV scripts have act breaks.
The script format for documentaries is different in that it must have a script for both the audio voice over as well as the moving picture content.
Other formatting issues
Now because formatting can be such a difficult task there are a number of books and even programs out there that can really help you. I highly recommend getting a book that will explain all the different cues, how to write your scene introductions, how to write action, and how to put emotion into dialogue. These are all very important parts of writing and formatting a successful screenplay. But as briefly explained in the headings above, every detail counts, such as knowing the fonts, the font sizes and even whether or not to hole punch the pages.
As far as recommending good books that can help you progress in your screenwriting ability the best suggestion is to find books that are used as textbooks for screen writing courses. The benefits to this type of books is that they are geared toward students who want to do screenwriting for a living so it will go through every detail in a simple to understand way. Some books to consider are The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier this is used in a number of schools and will cover everything you need to know about writing a script from beginning to end. It perfectly covers formatting and even has a section on how to sell your newly written screenplay. This book will typically sell for under $20 and is well worth the money. Another good choice is Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field. This book is perfect for helping you understand how to turn your story into a screenplay and even devotes an entire chapter to formatting. This book also sells for under $20.
Now if you are truly looking to become a serious screenwriter and do things right, then you may also want to look into some of the screenwriting programs that are available. One of the best and most popular is called Final Draft and there are a number of different versions with the newest being Final Draft 8. What is great about this program is there are over 50 different movie and television templates that you can choose from which will automatically take care of most of the format. What you have is a drop down menu for your different options such as SCENE, ACTION, and DIALOGUE. It is important to read through the manual to truly understand all the formatting option but often it will even have places where it will tell you where to put your title, where to put your name and it will even take care of fonts and indents for you. Perhaps one of the coolest features to Final Draft 8 is that you can assign computer voices to your script and listen as they read it out for you. Granted this does not offer much emotion or acting but it does give you an idea. This can be an invaluable tool but it will also cost you with this version selling for around $200. Older versions can often be found for cheaper but make sure you read up on the features because while you might save $20 you might miss out on something that could be useful later.
Once you finish writing out your screenplay it is important to note what your final format should look like. Here is a brief overview of that process.
Selling Your Screenplay
Now comes the hard part. If you thought writing and formatting your screenplay was hard…well you have not been through anything yet. When you try and sell your screenplay it is all about trial and error and there are a number of hoops to jump through.
Your first course of action is most likely to find an agent. This is someone that will read your script, and decide if it is something they can sell. If it is, they will take you on as a client along with as much as 15% and start finding networks or directors willing to take on your script. It is important to note that agents do not cost any money up front, any agent that asks you for money is a scam. The reason for this is that an agent should only get money if they sell your script, if they get your money before they do anything with the script, they have no incentive to keep working. So before you jump up and down at an agent accepting your script, make sure they do not ask for money and they are a reputable agent. A good resource is Writer’s Market. They publish a book every year with listings of reputable agents, publishers and even tips on how to write query letters and gain the attention of an agent. This book sells for around $20 but it is an invaluable resource once you reach this stage, because it also helps you identify which agents are equipped to handle a screenplay.
Now your first step is to write your query letter. There are a few resources online that will help you with this process and knowing what to say and what not to say. This can be very important because you do not want to turn off the agent before they even hear your idea.
The other route to go is sometimes more successful but also more difficult. Because the majority of agents do not represent screenplays many writer will choose to go to production companies and film studios themselves. If you choose to do this there are some important things to remember. The first is to always find out who at the company takes unsolicited screenplays, sending it to the wrong person can close doors very quickly.
The second thing to note is that they are not going to want your whole screenplay right away. First they will want a log line. A log line is very short (usually one line) synopsis that will get the production company’s attention. Make sure your log line is good because you only have one chance to win them over. If your log line is successful they will write back asking for more information and a synopsis of the script. Again the key is to be concise, give the high points and only what is important. If this round is successful then you might soon be on your way to your own movie or television show.
As with any new hobby or pursuit, the key is to keep trying and never give up. Most writers hit plenty of roadblocks and got plenty of rejections before they saw their scripts into production. But the most important thing of all to remember is to have fun!