6 Tips to Write a Great Screenplay

Whether it’s for a film class or a passion project, writing your first screenplay can be a daunting task. It may not be as easy as tapping on the keys until a story pops out, but facing the blank page with a story in mind is the first and most critical step. Once you have that, everything else is a process of refining that story into a professional-looking narrative with a lot of depth that will elicit a reader’s emotions. Okay, so it’s a lot. Here’s how you get started.

Take Notes and Outline

You shouldn’t expect the blank page to fill up with dialogue and action right away. Before you draft the script, take plenty of notes and try to form them into an outline of major events in the plot. Flesh out the outline with more and more acting scenes. Don’t be afraid to add too much. It is much easier to cut a scene than it is to write a completely new one without notes.

One of the most important things to plan out before you write are your characters. Many writers use character sheets, which force them to answer important questions about their characters’ history, desires, fears, and other traits. Make sure that your characters have conflicting interests to help create drama and clarify which character is the protagonist and which is the antagonist.

Add Structure

Events that take place in your screenplay should fall into a pattern that helps keep the reader engaged. Most scripts follow a three-act structure, with important plot points coming at the end of the first and second acts. Your script doesn’t have to follow this structure exactly, but in order to maintain the right level of drama, you should make sure to alternate positive and negative events. Your protagonist should always be struggling, but only sometimes meeting with success.

Consider the Theme

In literature and film making, the theme of a story is synonymous with the moral. All stories send a message, whether they intend to or not, about how the story applies more broadly to life. While you’re still in the planning stages of your script, don’t neglect the theme, or you may find out by the time you’re done that the story sends a negative or inappropriate message.

Know Your Formatting

When you get down to the nitty-gritty of actually writing, make sure to properly format your screenplay. Character names are centered in all caps before dialogue, centered in specific margins. Action description is left aligned and goes all the way across the page. You can use screenplay software like Final Draft or Celtx to automatically format your work.

Use Active Voice

This is the thing most beginning screenwriters get wrong. You may have heard the adage “show, don’t tell” when it comes to screenwriting. This applies to both what and how you write. What you write should make the story move forward with action and reserve dialogue for building characters. How you write should feel action-packed. Avoid boring verbs like is, sits, walks… If the words are boring, the story will seem boring, too.

Keep Things Brief

A scene always had more punch when it cuts right to the chase. Editing your script should involve cutting the beginnings and endings of scenes or entire scenes and seeing if the story still makes sense. No scene should be over five pages before a change in location and no dialogue should be over five unbroken lines.

Of course, these rules are made to be broken. Once you begin to master the craft of screenwriting, experiment with them and see what works for you. If you need more advice, go to Lessons.com and search for lessons on writing and film making. Don’t let your story go untold.

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