Whether you have been writing books your entire life or you've just started out - you've probably come to the realization that writing a screenplay is a whole different ball game!
And you are absolutely right. There are many things to consider if you plan on writing a good screenplay, so I am glad you stopped by.
Did you know that over 99% of screenplays get rejected? Yup, sad times... You needn't worry too much about that, though... with the help of this 10-step guide, you'll be well on your way to mastering the art of screenwriting and showcasing your story in the best way possible.
Let me start by outlining the steps so you know what to look forward to. Next, I will break each of them down into actionable tasks and tips, so you can easily work through them.
I highly recommend you download my free screenplay outline at the end of this post - if you don't know where to start, it's a great tool - you can then apply what you've learned in this post!
- Why Is A Screenplay Different To A Normal Story?
- 1. Choose Your Story Idea
- 2. Create a Screenplay Outline
- 3. Write a Compelling First Draft
- 4. Develop characters and their arcs
- 5. Focus on dialogue
- 6. Incorporate visual elements
- 7. Stick to industry standards (Formatting)
- 8. Polish and refine the draft
- 9. Make necessary revisions
- 10. Submit your screenplay (yup! I am not just going to let you sit on it!)
- Why Most Screenplays Fail
- Choose your story idea
- Create a screenplay outline
- Write a compelling first draft
- Develop characters and their arcs
- Focus on dialogue
- Incorporate visual elements
- Formatting (Stick to industry standard)
- Polish and refine the draft
- Make necessary revisions
- Submit your screenplay (yup! I am not just going to let you sit on it!)
Why Is A Screenplay Different To A Normal Story?
In all truth, it isn't.
It has a beginning, middle, and end, just like any other story. The difference lies in the medium it is being shared through.
If you are deliberately writing a screenplay, that means you are considering all the elements that will be needed in order to bring it to life on screen.
This includes not only the characters and plot, but also elements such as camera angles, scene transitions, and even sound effects.
You are now an author, producer, and director all in one - so make sure to keep this in mind as you write!
Now then, let's write a screenplay!
1. Choose Your Story Idea
First and foremost, you need to have a story to tell. That story can be a personal experience, made up, or somebody else's story - just make sure it's a good one!
Before settling on an idea, consider whether it has potential for conflict and resolution, as well as interesting characters and themes.
You can do some research to see if there is anything similar already out there. Not that that should deter you - it could give you some ideas on how to make your own unique twist.
2. Create a Screenplay Outline
Once you have settled on a story, the next step is to create an outline. You should spend a considerable amount of time in this phase as your outline is your roadmap to the finished product.
Start by breaking down your story into a beginning, middle, and end. Within each of those sections, jot down key scenes and plot points that need to be included in order for the story to flow logically and keep the audience engaged.
It can also be helpful to include notes on character arcs, themes, and any important background information.
Are there any subplots? What about flashbacks? These are all things you can throw in at this stage.
Don't worry about getting it perfect right away - your outline will likely change and evolve as you continue writing.
3. Write a Compelling First Draft
Now for the fun part - actually sitting down and putting words on the page! If you really want to make some strides here, learn about Zero Drafting; gamechanger.
You want to use this step to bring your screenplay to life, but remember to not get too attached to any one scene or line of dialogue. This is a first draft - it's meant for exploration and discovery.
4. Develop characters and their arcs
When it comes to screenplays, characters are just as important as the plot. Audiences want to see characters they can relate to and root for (or against!).
Think about who your characters are, their motivations, and how they will change throughout the story. Incorporate these aspects into your writing - let them drive the action and move the plot forward.
Likewise, when you're developing your characters and their arcs, it's important to remember that every scene should be the result of something that happened earlier or setting up something for later.
In other words, there should be a cause-and-effect relationship between each scene. This will help give your screenplay a sense of cohesion and forward momentum.
Additionally, each scene should contribute to the audience's understanding of the character's psychology and motivation.
5. Focus on dialogue
Dialogue is a key element in screenplays, as it helps to further the plot and give insight into the characters. Take time to really focus on writing realistic, engaging dialogue that doesn't sound forced or cliche.
Ask yourself questions like:
- How does this line of dialogue further the plot?
- Does it reveal something about the character or their motivations?
- Would a real person actually say this in this situation? (very important)
6. Incorporate visual elements
As I mentioned before, screenplays are meant for the visual medium of film. That means incorporating elements such as camera angles, scene transitions, and descriptions of the setting and characters that will bring your story to life on screen.
Think about how a scene should be shot and the emotions you want to evoke in the audience. Are there any specific props or locations that are integral to the story?
7. Stick to industry standards (Formatting)
I cannot stress this enough (I will stress it some more later, too) but keep your creativity OUT of formatting. Weird fonts, colors, and spacing will not make your screenplay stand out in a good way - it will just confuse and possibly annoy whoever is reading it.
Follow the industry-standard formatting. This includes things like scene headings, character introductions, and dialogue presentation. We have an industry-standard screenplay formatting guide if you need assistance.
Formatting is one of those things that may seem tedious and unimportant, but it really does matter. You also want to stick with the beginning, middle, and end structure, and a 90-120 page count.
8. Polish and refine the draft
You've written a draft of your screenplay and you're feeling pretty good about it. But before you submit it to anyone, you want to make sure it's as strong as it can be.
So what do you do? You polish and refine it, of course! This means making sure the dialogue is sharp, the characters are fully developed, and the plot is watertight.
It can be helpful to get feedback on your screenplay from someone whose opinion you trust, so that you can identify areas that need improvement.
9. Make necessary revisions
Use that feedback to make revisions. In some cases, this could be completely removing a character, so do not take revisions lightly. None of this should be a rushed process.
10. Submit your screenplay (yup! I am not just going to let you sit on it!)
You've completed your screenplay - congratulations! Now it's time to start sending it out to agents, producers, competitions, etc. right?
Yes and no!
A lot of people make the mistake of blindly sending out their finished screenplay without doing any research. It's important to make sure your script is a good fit for the person or company you're submitting to, otherwise you could end up wasting both your time and theirs.
Do some research on who accepts unsolicited submissions, or try to get personal connections through networking events or through writing programs.
I highly, highly, highly recommend you submitting your screenplay to competitions (that hyperlink takes you to a list I put together of the best screenplay and screenwriting competitions) as well, to get more eyes on your work and potentially win some recognition or even cash prizes.
Why Most Screenplays Fail
Now, back to that sad, sad statistic... The one where I mentioned 99% of screenplays failing.
Why is that? Surely there must be some insanely good ones being discarded in that bunch?
A lot of people say that the reason why so many screenplays fail is because they don't have a strong enough concept. And while that may be true to some extent, I think there's more to it than that.
I think a lot of screenplays fail because they don't take enough risks. They stick too closely to convention, and as a result, they end up being pretty dull.
If you want to make a simple boy meets girl romance more interesting, for example, you can mess with the conventional characters of the genre, such as making the girl a werewolf or making the guy a shapeshifter.
Cliche examples, but, in other words, subverting the expectations of the genre to create a more unique and engaging story.
Another reason so many screenplays fail is that they're reliant on that magic bullet or that game-changing formula.
Don't try to reinvent the wheel when it comes to structure...
Instead, stick to the good old three-act structure, beginning, middle, and end.