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All Hollywood movie magic starts with a first draft and evolves into a screenplay fit for the silver screen. Writing a film script for a feature film is a long and challenging process that requires a degree of technical knowhow. With sufficient study, practice, and a familiarity with the standard script writing process, though, you can master the craft of screenwriting.
1. Write Your Logline
A logline is a single sentence that answers the question: What is my story about? It should encompass the plot’s major dramatic question—although it’s not always posed as a question. This logline can be revised as you work towards a final draft of your screenplay, but it’s a helpful guiding light as you get deeper into the writing process.
Answer the following questions to help create a logline:
- How does your protagonist get involved in the story?
- What conflict arises to challenge your main character and move the story forward?
- What is the world of your story? What makes this story different, interesting, or suspenseful?
In 50 words or less, combine the above information into a single sentence. Try not to use your character’s name—say what they are instead, i.e. a poor student or a frazzled banker. Don’t give any spoilers. Use the samples below for guidance:
- The Magicians (2009) by Lev Grossman: After discovering that magic is real, a college student enters the world of his favorite childhood novels to fight a force of evil that has taken residence there.
- Silence of the Lambs (1988) by Thomas Harris: In order to catch a killer who skins his victims, a young FBI agent must develop a relationship with a serial killer who may be even more dangerous.
- One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) by Gabriel García Márquez: In a town closed off to the rest of the world, seven generations of the Buendía family live through births, deaths, marriages, and the devastating political turmoil that modernity brings.
2. Create an Outline
Begin creating an outline by writing down the main events of your script in order. You can do this in a traditional outline format over one or two pages, or if you have the space, you can write your sentences on index cards and post them on a wall to make it easier to view and manipulate the parts. Each event should be a single, short sentence (e.g. “Danny gets shot in the leg”). Your sole dramatic question is the force that will shape the main plotline of your story. Screenwriters calls this the throughline.
Learn about the basic structures that underlie most stories, as they will most likely save you from numerous re-writes later. Most screenplays take place over three acts, with an inciting incident leading to a conflict or struggle and ending with some kind of resolution or change.
3. Build a Treatment
Consider your treatment a beefed-up prose version of your outline, one that reads more like a short story. If you’re shopping your script around, a treatment is what you might use to gauge interest; it can also be a good exercise to see if the story works the way you’re hoping it does in your head. Your personal artistic vision comes into play with the treatment, so build out your world and your characters as lush as you’d like.
4. Write Your Screenplay
Happy with your treatment? Here’s where the hard work comes in. Try to remember all the rules you’ve heard before: Show, don’t tell. Write in the present tense. Adhere to proper formatting. Try not to do too much editing while you write. Let your ideas flow and then structure them once you’ve got everything on the page.
5. Format Your Screenplay
Script templates are easy to find online, and there’s plenty of screenwriting software that will automatically arrange your writing into a screenplay format. Final Draft is the tool of choice for most professional screenwriters. Industry standard for a script format is 12-pt Courier font, with a 1 inch right margin, 1.5 inch left margin, and 1 inch margins at top and bottom.
6. Edit Your Screenplay
Think Like a Pro
Aaron Sorkin teaches you the craft of film and television screenwriting.View Class
Author and screenwriter Neil Gaiman says that writing is a kind of explosion. When you get to the end of it, you get to walk around and look at the shrapnel and the damage it did. You get to see who died. And you get to see how it worked—that’s the editing process.
In the editing process, your goal is clarity. When you return to what you’ve written, pretend that you’re someone who’s never read it before. What would their response be? Don’t focus on perfection, keep your attention on the story. If you can’t get any objectivity, give it to a trusted reader. Ask them for advice, but don’t automatically accept their suggestions.
One method of editing is to identify problem areas that you’d like to improve, then mark all of those areas with a colored highlighter, and set a goal for yourself to get the entire script back to colorless. Look especially for sections where description is sloppy or overwritten, and reconsider sequences where someone acts out of character. Are you relying too much on narration for exposition? Try cutting all narration and see how it is altered. Does the narrative become easier to follow? Is it made less or more interesting by the elimination of narration?
6 Useful Terms Every Screenwriter Should Know
Screenwriting is a profession that involves its own technical language. Here are a few of the terms essential to understanding the craft:
- Scene heading: Also known as a slug line, a scene heading appears at the top of each new scene and includes the following information: “EXT.” or “INT.” (abbreviations for “exterior” and “interior”), the location, and the time of day. For example: “INT. ABANDONED WAREHOUSE - NIGHT”
- Action line: Action lines describe what a character is doing in a scene.
- Parenthetical: A parenthetical is a small direction included before a character’s line that suggests how the line should be delivered.
- Transition: “FADE IN” precedes the very first line of your script. “FADE OUT” marks the end. Other transitions, like “DISSOLVE TO” or “MATCH CUT TO,” may be used throughout your script.
- Voiceover: Abbreviated to “V.O.,” voiceover is used when an unseen narrator interjects into the scene.
- Camera angle: Though typically avoided by writers, camera angles can be noted in a screenplay if they’re essential to the way a scene unfolds, perhaps enabling the delivery of a joke or big reveal.
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