If you’re a film buff, you might dream of writing the perfect screenplay. You know you have the talent, and joining the ranks of the most sought-after, established screenwriters has been a long-time goal. Or you just think it would be a cool thing to try; so many movies are disappointments, after all, and couldn’t you do it better?
Why not? Screenwriting isn’t any more—or less—difficult than writing a novel. It does, however, require just as much hard work.
I’m not a screenwriter, but I’m interested in it. In fact, while I was writing my novel Colors, I set up a couple of scenes in screenplay format. I’d heard it’s a good way to get to the core of a scene (or even the whole story) and figure out what to cut and what to keep.
Sure enough, that little exercise helped. And as I went along, I continually envisioned the novel on the silver screen. The thing is, in a movie, you can’t provide the detail that you can (and should) in a novel, and you’ve really got to zoom in on the action that drives the plot. By doing that, I was able to see parts I needed to cut and parts I needed to keep.
While screenwriting does have some important similarities to novel writing—basic structure, important scene elements, and dialogue essentials—some major differences set them apart.
Here are some of the best articles to get familiar with the art and craft of screenwriting.
Check them out, see which ones speak to you, and get to work. And be sure to scroll down for free, downloadable scripts and screenwriting software options to suit every budget.
1. Start with solid story structure.
Screenplays and novels are similar when it comes to basic structure. Just as a novel needs structure, a screenplay needs it too. And for both novels and screenplays, thinking in terms of three parts is common, but variations abound.
2. Learn screenplay formatting.
No matter what kind of renegade you might be, if you write a novel, you’ll use a format common to all novels. Paragraphs, chapters or parts, a title, margins, font size, page numbers, and so on.
The same goes for screenplays although the format is very different. If you’re a beginner, be sure you know the standard formatting for screenplays before you even begin writing. Don’t waste your time. Learning it—and using it—from the start can save a lot of work and hassle later on (and rejections).
3. Practice turning a novel, novella, or short story into a screenplay.
Don’t expect your first attempt at screenwriting to result in a box office hit. Dream big, but for practice you might want to try your hand at something short like a short story (1,500-20,000 words), a novella (20,000-50,000 words), or a novel that doesn’t run more than, say, 80,000 words.
If you don’t already have a novel in mind, try searching any online book retailer for your favorite genre whether it’s adventure, crime drama, romance, or literary. You’ll find the page count under “Product Details” (on Amazon), and you can figure about 300 words per page (for example, 272 pages x 300 = 81,600 words). And check out the two lists of short stories, novellas, and novels below if you want something really short.
4. Work on your scenes.
Each individual scene in a screenplay (and novel) is like a mini-story with a structure of its own: beginning, middle, and end. At the same time, it has to move the story from the previous scene to the next with information relevant to the protagonist’s (or antagonist’s) goal. You can’t just throw a scene in your screenplay for laughs, adventure, or blood and gore; it has to do some work.
How To Write A Great Scene (video)
5. Polish your dialogue.
Most people don’t speak with perfectly proper English (or other language). They use slang, incorrect grammar, and colloquialisms plus make noises and utterances that communicate something in person but are almost impossible to spell. And much of it, like slurring words together, wouldn’t usually work well in a movie anyway. “D’ja know wudimean?” (Do you know what I mean?) So you have to strike a balance between how a character might speak in real life and more formal language, retaining enough elements to make the actor’s speech believable and true to his or her character.
How to Write Unforgettable Dialogue with Oscar Winner William Monahan
6. Read scripts.
Just as a novelist needs to read novels, a screenwriter must read screenplays. If you don’t, you might as well compose a song without ever having seen sheet music. You can get as creative or as inventive as you like, of course, but if you don’t know what a standard screenplay looks like or how it reads, you might as well write for yourself. And that’s missing the whole point.
7. Write a treatment (or don’t).
A treatment is like an in-depth synopsis that’s used to pitch a screenplay. Just as a literary agent for novels may request a synopsis, a movie executive might expect to see a treatment before reading a screenplay.
Don’t confuse a treatment with an outline. An outline is used by the writer whereas the treatment is written to be read. Much like a short story, it’s written in prose and might actually help a writer improve the script as he or she evaluates and attempts to organize the screenplay into a story that packs a punch.
How to Write a Treatment (Script)
How to Write a Treatment (Movie Outline)
8. Use screenwriting software.
The main goal in screenwriting is to write a knockout screenplay. Of course. But you also need tools. If you’re handy with MS Word, you can surely produce a great script in the correct format. But many screenwriters want software designed specifically to do the job with all the bells and whistles that make writing easier.
Here’s a brief review of Final Draft (the high-priced industry standard) and three options I’ve listed below (Trelby, Celtx, and Fade In).
Free screenwriting software or software you might already have
Adobe Story (free for basic plan)
Highland (for Mac)
Final Draft Popular industry standard
Movie Magic Nearly as popular as Final Draft
9. Check this out.
Finally, to make sure you have everything you need to get started, here’s a big list of articles on screenwriting.
Overwhelmed much? Don’t be. While there’s a lot to learn, you don’t have to read every available article to become a screenwriting superstar. This list is a good start, though, with plenty to choose from on various topics. It’s not all inclusive, though. But if you select some favorites and set aside regular reading and practice time, you’ll be writing a killer screenplay and sending it off to Hollywood much faster than you would be otherwise.
Questions and comments are always welcome! And if you find this article useful, please share the love.