How To Write A Screenplay In 12 Easy Steps
There are many myths about screenwriting. The most widespread and pernicious insists that screenwriting is all about rules, and that you can’t succeed without meticulous planning, plotting and outlining and without attention to things like beats, plot points and three-act structure.
You will read versions of that myth in most books about screenwriting, and you will hear it in many courses, workshops and seminars.
It isn’t true.
So what is the process to write a screenplay, you wonder?
Let’s learn how to write a screenplay
Yes, there are guidelines that you would be wise to follow if you want your feature-length screenplay to be considered for production. The most important of these, however, relate to format and presentation. They have nothing to do with content.
“So if there are no rules to follow,” I hear you ask, “how do I write the damn thing!?” I’m going to show you how — in 12 easy steps.
Before I do that, though, let me tell you a quick story.
Some years back, when I was getting ready to write my first screenplay, I went to the local bookstore to search for how-to books on screenwriting. What I found left me profoundly discouraged: Nearly every book focused on rules and structure, offering an approach to screenwriting that felt more engineered than creative. To use a building analogy, it was as though all aspects of a skyscraper’s design were being left to the building contractor and none to the architect.
Screenplays, it seemed to me as I thumbed through book after book, were built, not created, and that was an approach that I knew would never work for me.
In the end, I not only found my own way to my first screenplay but wrote my own book on the subject, “How to write a screenplay”. Today, three of my four screenplays are in development, and there is keen interest in the fourth. And my book, Organic Screenwriting: Writing for Film, Naturally, has been by enthusiastically welcomed by screenwriters keen to focus on storytelling instead of rules.
12 easy steps to write a screenplay
Screenplay writing is a large undertaking. But where do you start? Okay, let’s get on with the 12 steps on how to write a screenplay…
1. Forget the Rules. All of them!
There is nothing wrong with planning, plotting and outlining and with letting tools like index cards help you organize your scenes and characters. If you find these to be helpful, then by all means use them. But you don’t have to!
I have never plotted or outlined a screenplay and I have never used index cards.
Nor have I paid any conscious attention to beats, plot points and three-act structure, terms you will hear frequently in the rule-bound world of screenwriting.
Your screenplay and its structure exist to serve your story and its ultimate translation into film, not the other way around. Story is king, not structure.
So, forget the rules. All of them.
2. What’s the Idea?
You don’t need a fully fleshed-out story in order to begin writing your screenplay. All you need is the vaguest notion of a plot.
Frankly, you don’t even need that.
You can start with a simple scene, even if you don’t know where that scene will lead or what the full story is about.
You don’t have a simple scene? Conjure up a character (or, better yet, let one come to you), place that character in a setting and see what happens as those elements interact. Better yet, add a second character and see what develops between them…and do what Step 4 tells you to do. But first…
3. Learn Screenplay Format
The first thing to know is that format matters in your screenplay, but not in your screenwriting.
What do I mean by that? Of course, you will want to make certain that the final draft of your screenplay adheres to strict industry requirements regarding font and format. However, you don’t need to worry about those dictates while you are screenwriting.
At the same time, it’s helpful to know some of the basics as you are telling your story. My go-to resource for formatting guidance remains David Trottier’sThe Screenwriter’s Bible, in its sixth edition as of this writing. But there are many other books, as well as free websites, that will show you those basics. And if you use professional screenwriting software like Final Draft, Movie Magic or Celtx, these applications will help remove some of the guesswork from the process.
4. Start Writing
Just start. Don’t worry about format. Don’t worry about structure. Don’t worry about scenes. Don’t worry about beginnings. Don’t worry about endings. Don’t worry about anything. Be the storyteller you are and just start your story. Anywhere.
The foundation of everything I teach, coach, mentor and write about writing is a technique I call “writing on the Muse Stream.”
What’s a Muse Stream? It’s an unstructured, uncensored, right-brain outpouring of words, sentences and scenes.
If you have ever written morning pages or experienced free writing, stream-of-consciousness writing or automatic writing, then you have already dipped your toe into the Muse Stream. But while those other techniques are prescribed primarily as personal-growth exercises or to prime your creative pump, the Muse Stream is much more than that. In fact, if you let it, the Muse Stream can write the first draft of your screenplay for you.
How? By doing what the Muse Stream is all about:
- writing without stopping to think, correct or edit
- writing without stopping to obsess over proper screenplay format
- always moving forward in your writing and never looking back at what you have already written — an approach, by the way, that is favored by Francis Ford Coppola
You’re skeptical. Don’t be. I wrote all three optioned screenplays in my Q’ntana Trilogy of fantasy stories on the Muse Stream. And even though I had drafts of the MoonQuest and StarQuest novels to guide me through those first two scripts, I knew nothing about the SunQuest plot when I began; I wrote it as an original screenplay.
What about format? Manage your script’s format as best you can while writing and in your early revisions. Later, devote a draft specifically to tidying up your format to meet industry standards.
5. Keep Writing
Most screenwriting books and instructors advise you to set ambitious daily goals as a way to keep you on target toward your script’s completion. Those goals are often centered on word counts or a certain number of completed scenes. Those same books and instructors urge you to set up a fixed, butt-in-the-chair writing routine: In other words, sit down to write at the same time every day, preferably in the same room in the same chair.
My approach to goal-setting and writing routines is radically different. It is also much more sustainable, which makes it much effective in getting your screenplay finished.
First, I would encourage to not set word- or scene-count goals right away. Rather, I would encourage you to set writing-time goals.
Ask yourself how many hours you can realistically devote to your writing each week, recognizing that, for most of us, whether we have full-time jobs or not, not every day is the same. Now, ask yourself how best to divide up those hours.
You do not have to be writing every day! You do not have to be writing at the same time every day. You do not have to be writing in the same place every day. But you do have to be writing.
Once you have determined how much time you can devote to your writing and on which days you will write, cut that goal by at least 25%. Why? We have been trained to set ultra-ambitious, often unrealistic goals. That’s what most teachers, coaches and how-to books insist is the only to guarantee success.
The problem with that approach is that when we set ambitious goals and don’t meet them, it’s easy to get discouraged. When we’re discouraged, it’s easy to want to give up. When we give up, we abandon our screenplay.
The solution? Set goals that you are absolutely guaranteed to achieve. Achieve them…and exceed them. Then, every time you achieve your goal, set a new goal, a higher goal. Not a much higher goal; just high enough that, once again, you’re guaranteed to achieve it…and exceed it.
The best way to guarantee that you will finish your screenplay is to feel good about the process. The best way to feel good about the process is to meet your goals. And the best way to meet your goals is to set goals that you can and will meet!
Finally, don’t feel as though you must be chained to your desk. If you have laptop, tablet or smartphone, take your screenplay on a field trip — to a park, cafe or library. Or to a different room in your home. Or to the zoo! Altering your routine can be a great way to prime the creative pump.
6. Don’t Judge
It’s easy to fall into a place of self-criticism and judgment. It’s easy to worry whether your story is good enough, whether your format is correct, whether you’re following the three-act structure spelled out in so many books. As writers, we never lack things to worry about!
One of the advantages of writing on the Muse Stream (and I encourage you to write as much of your first draft on the Muse Stream as you can) is that it keeps you out of anxiety, out of self-judgment, out of self-censoring and out of self-criticism and keeps you in the flow of your creativity and storytelling. It helps you get past the writer’s block.
You will have plenty of opportunities to discern (not judge) what works and what doesn’t as you move through the revision process (Step #8).
But if you let judgment guide your writing, it will strip the heart and originality from your screenplay.
7. Give Your Story the Freedom to Tell Itself
By the time you finish your first (or final) draft, some (or all) of your characters may have strayed from your initial conception of them. Antagonists might turn into protagonists. Men might turn into women. Locations may change. Your ending may change. Your beginning may change. Everything may change. That’s okay.
When we write on the Muse Stream, we free our story to guide us toward its perfect expression.
That expression is always more original, more creative and more compelling than anything we could have crafted had we stubbornly stuck to our written outline or unwritten “plan.”
The thing is, we are all innate storytellers. If you get out of your own way and trust the Muse Stream to tell your story for you, you will intuitively write the script that best serves your story. And, more likely than not, it will naturally hew to a traditional three-act structure.
Even though I paid no attention to three-act structure when writing my screenplays, the final drafts are all conventionally structured. It didn’t happen because I shoehorned my stories into a predetermined form. It happened naturally and intuitively. It happened because I let the stories tell themselves.
8. Revise, Revise, Revise
The first draft of your screenplay is never your final draft. Not ever. Rather, it’s the initial paving stone on your path toward a final draft. Even that final draft will more than likely go through additional changes if you are lucky enough to be optioned and have your screenplay go into development and production.
Editing and revision tips are beyond the scope of this article. But the bottom line is that you owe it to your story, to yourself and to your ultimate viewers to do the best you can to make this the best screenplay you can write, as the writer you are today.
There is no rule as to how many drafts it will take to get there. However, it’s safe to assume that the number will be higher, rather than lower!
Along the way, consider getting feedback from a writing group focused on screenwriters. Consider, too, having friends (or actors, if you know any) do a table read of your script. It’s one of the best ways to discover if your dialogue works.
Finally, as I noted in Step 4, devote a draft to making sure that your screenplay’s formatting meets industry standards.
9. Declare It Finished
No screenplay is perfect. In fact, nothing in life is perfect.
Your job as screenwriter is to strive for excellence, not perfection.
Your job is to do your best on each script and, when it’s time, let it go so that you can create a new one(Step #12) and do your best on that one as well.
10. Pitch it
How do you get your finished script in front of producers? That’s another topic that’s too broad to cover in a brief article like this one. Our “Writing Mastery” masterclass delves deeper into the details. In short, though, one of the best ways is to attend writers’ conferences that focus on screenwriting and that offer “pitch sessions.”
Pitch sessions are opportunities for you to present your story to producers and directors.
You may only have five minutes (more, if you’re lucky, but never more than 12 to 15), so craft a compelling presentation that meets the time requirement, and be sure to rehearse it often before “showtime.”
Another option is to seek out a literary agent who specializes in screenplays. Look for directories of literary agents online or in your local bookstore or public library. When approaching a literary agent, alway follow the submission guidelines outlined in the directory.
11. Rejected? Don’t Be Dejected
Because of the collaborative nature of filmmaking, screenwriters are more likely than most other kinds of writer to experience rejection. When it happens, don’t bottle up your feelings. Cry. Curse. Yell. Scream. Throw things. Throw up.
Then get past the rejection and move on.
Don’t let one rejection — or one hundred or one thousand — stop you.
12. Write Another Screenplay
The best way to become a better writer? Keep writing.
Once this screenplay is finished, do it again!
Write another screenplay and then another, and continue to seek out ways to become a better screenwriter and to get your screenplays produced.
The art of book writing or writing for a screenplay can be intimidating. But now that you learnt the 12 easy steps on how to write a screenplay, give it a shot and bring out the hidden screenwriter in you. Good luck!