Feeling overwhelmed with so much advice online on how to write a script? Welcome to the world of screenwriting! The reality is that, though extremely exciting and rewarding, screenwriting can be a hard nut to crack. Luckily, we have the best tips for writing a script that will help you stand out.
Whether it’s writing television shows, movies, or play works, knowing how to tell a story through the right writing process and leveraging the best tips transforms your script from just pieces of paper in your drawer into a next possible Hollywood favorite.
It’s even more rewarding when the writer combines these tips with the intangibles— yes, that special thing that makes you different from the rest. That tells you that screenwriting doesn’t have to be confusing. You only need to learn, hone your skills, refine them, and keep practicing.
Is that too much pressure? That screenwriting for you. Here is the thing; let’s talk about it. Forget about what naysayers and wannabe screenwriters have told you to the extent of calling it quits.
Understanding screenwriting needs a simplified, easy, and actionable approach. Here, we’ve broken down the screenwriting steps into 15 tips on how to write a script that gets a good read.
Are you up for the tips? Let’s get started!
15 Tips for Writing a Script
From the scriptwriting idea to the correct formatting, these top tips elaborate extensively on everything that you need to know when writing a perfect script from start to finish.
Simply put, these tips are a whole kit in a single post that educates and saves you time and money. How cool is that?
1. First, Have an Awesome Idea
Your scriptwriting idea is what motivates you to pen down your screenplay. The beauty of about getting an idea is that you can embrace inspiration from anywhere. Whether it’s a story from the current events, news, or anything out there in the public domain, it’s possible to actualize it.
What you need is a list of well-thought ideas to write once inspiration strikes you. That doesn’t mean creativity is not necessary. Out-of-the-box ideas and concepts will require you to be creative and come up with something the audience loves.
If you’re an avid viewer, you have enough exposure to get you the best scriptwriting ideas. You only need to expose yourself to the right content. Reading scripts from the best minds gives you both inspiration and ideas on what sells.
Can you pitch it? Research plays a vital role. Know what’s the audience is looking for and have an idea that you’d love if you’re part of the audience. With a basic understanding of human psychology and being up to date with the trends, it’s possible to read your audience’s mind. That way, you get to know whether the script idea is engaging or not.
What about writing your strengths? If you’re that naturally funny person, you can consider that virtue, and have it in your work. It doesn’t add up if you’re not a research enthusiast, then write something that will require twelve (12) years of research in the New York Public Library.
Have an idea you can put across without struggle and in a clear way. If you find it hard to explain your idea on a paper or to your friend, you’re not ‘ready’ for it.
More on that later. Keep reading!
2. Come Up With an Appropriate Story
Know that you have an idea, know the appropriate story to tell and get those words on the page. You can use “what if” question on your idea, and you’ll love how the script gets a natural flow. That a magical approach that pro screenwriters have leveraged for years.
Whether you’re focusing on family, love, or anything else, tie your script around your preferred theme or conflict, and be sure about everything. Know inside and out, and even those fine details. You might think no one cares, but that’s not the case.
For instance, if you’re writing about a mastermind involved in underhand dealings in a top insurance company, have comprehensive details. You’ll need to know how he speaks, the type of fraud committed, how he interacts with people, where he comes from, previous work history, and so on.
You’ve probably heard people say that they have ideas, but they can’t come up with a story. The secret is simple; come up with a story on what you know and have confidence in your abilities.
3. Settle on Your Preferred Story Genre
A genre will notify people about the story to anticipate. With an idea and a story, it’s easy to know where the story falls. It’s because you already know what you’ll focus on, and the style to embrace. Previously watched TV shows and movies will give an idea.
How do you pick a genre? Although your story gives you an idea, there are multiple considerations to weigh before deciding on a genre.
- If there are so many explosions and gunfire, go for action.
- If everything is exceptionally scaring and elicit fear, that’s a horror script.
- If it’s about family, love, relationship, and everything in between, go for romance, comedy, or drama.
- Are you writing about the future happening with so much tech? Go for science fiction.
Combine various genres to come up with a perfect story. It makes everything unique and exciting. For instance, you can write a romance movie with thrilling horror features.
4. Choose a Perfect Setting
Your preferred setting is the environment where your characters exist and need to compliment your script story genre or theme. A perfect choice and description make the entire story exciting, bringing about your imagination prowess.
For instance, if your theme is justice, you can opt for courtrooms as one of your settings. That shows the real picture. You can have 3-4 different settings where your characters will revolve.
When describing a setting, show the use of senses in the description and let the characters move to various locations. Connect characters with the setting, and have a detailed description of their feelings to keep the story moving.
Whether in the main or minor setting, a perfect choice establishes a situation or mood, which helps the audience know the lives and interactions of your preferred characters at a particular place within that time.
5. Write a Captivating Start (Logline and Treatment)
As you learn how to write a script, it’s essential to know how to start a story. Knowing how to write and place a logline and treatment helps you draft that movie or film script like a pro.
A logline is the foundational DNA of your script summed in a sentence or two. It’s almost impossible to have a great script if you don’t write the best logline. With it, your script conveys the story and its emotional context, getting the attention it deserves.
A wrong choice means issues with your story. Nobody wants a script with a start that can’t tell what the story is all about, the preferred style and emotions. Well-written loglines save you months of rewriting your script, making it easy to pitch managers and producers.
Treatment is a 2-5 page summary of your idea, styles, and characters within the story. Include the story turning points and main beats to showcase your story fully. With it, you get to know how the story goes on a page. That’s why producers focus on it heavily to know whether the script is worth it.
Creating a logline works perfectly well through the logline formula. Here, you introduce the protagonist, add antagonist, then show what at stake.
Now, let’s go deeper into writing a protagonist and antagonist.
6. Introduce a Protagonist
A plot, story, or concept without a protagonist doesn’t sound interesting. Whether you’re writing a script for short or a full-length film, your protagonist journey needs to be clear to stand out.
It’s not a must for them to showcase very attractive features, but simply an interesting journey. Your protagonist is the main character, and you’ll need creativity to name them. Think of a memorable name that the audience can grip easily.
When making a protagonist, focus on giving the character a goal they’re trying to achieve, not just at the beginning but also through the entire script. Introduce a character flaw at some point. Let the character experience some interesting change.
For instance, you can talk of a high-end FBI officer who transforms into a most wanted robber. With that, you add empathy and reality touch to the story. Coming up with interesting protagonists only happens when you have a perfect idea that gives your story a flow of events that aids in the transformation.
7. Create an Opposing Antagonist
Antagonists are the forces acting against your protagonist. Have an antagonist that’s quite engaging, such that anybody who reads that script or watches the final output can truly feel the tension and see the force between the two.
When it comes to assigning qualities, you can have both antagonists and protagonists share similar qualities, but change how antagonists view and approach them. Antagonists depend on the story.
For instance, a protagonist might be doing all they can to find a vaccine for spreading disease and save people, but the antagonists view a vaccine as a death trap and want the world to adapt naturally, and they’re ready to fight for it.
You can also decide how to perfect your antagonists. Among the best approaches is having perfect backgrounds, giving them appropriate virtues, and drafting catchphrases. That works magic, especially where there are episodes.
8. Outline Your Script
An outline is like a roadmap; it helps you figure your current position and your next destination. Section your story into various narrative-arc components and expound each beat in the particular scene. Beats are the plot points that tell the moment in the story.
Thousands of scripts are floating around Hollywood because of the scriptwriters’ poor outline that didn’t give the anticipated detailed spectrum of events. The following are ideas on how to write a script outline:
Have Your Ideas on Paper
It’s now time to have all your event ideas on paper. Detail them on index cards; it’s awesome. However, each idea must stand different. That way, you get to avoid confusion and mix up. More so, upon completion, you can reorganize your work and see what should come first, and at what point.
Pen every relevant idea. You might end up considering them later. Importantly, you can have those events in different places other than the index cards. Try out screenwriting software like Final Draft, Word document, or platforms like Trello.
Follow a Chronological Order
Now that you have events ideas on your favorite place, word or cards, go ahead and arrange them in the right approach. Following a chronological order makes it easy to flow the story. It might be challenging to form an order, especially if you’re doing it for the first time,
Focus on how events correlate and the need to appear early. If a certain event leads to another, it means there is a flow. If there is no sense, don’t panic. Keep them aside for a while and progress. You might find somewhere to fix them.
Weigh the Relevance of Events
Don’t just stick to the outline without getting the real picture and the flow. If you feel that a particular scene doesn’t make sense, do away with it. That’s after you have an assurance that those events don’t move your story forward.
For example, if one of your scenes talks about a character escorting a boss to the gate, you might remove it. However, if something that can transform events transpires on their way, it’s worth keeping.
Position Your Act Breaks
You can plan and structure your story in different ways, especially when doing a script for TV film episodes. Three-act structure (setup, confrontation, and resolution) that involves Act I, II, and III, helps you position the act breaks such that the story has exciting high and low moments.
9. Format Your Script
Format your script extensively before having someone review it for you. Hollywood leverages fairly strict rules of formatting, but a screenplay that doesn’t observe the basics will raise a red flag, and everybody will know that you’re not yet there.
Proper formatting eases visualization of your story because it makes everything engaging and enjoyable to read. Are you looking into having your script out there in the Hollywood space? Perfect your formatting! Here are ways to achieve an ideal format.
Perfect the Title Page
Creating and perfecting your title should not be hectic. Have your title in caps and centrally placed on the page, then add a break line. Go ahead and indicate the “written by.” After that, another break line comes in, followed by your name.
Again, don’t forget to indicate your contact details; those are the details that your producer or manager will use to get back to you. Write the phone number and emails at the bottom left margins.
If it’s the first time, scriptwriting software does the magic when creating a title. More so, if you’ve lifted your script from someone else story, give them credit.
Fix the Right Font
The right font is easy to read and follow. Scriptwriters use various fonts. However, the industry-standard font for your script is the size 12 Courier font, and you need to have it in the whole script.
Other formatting styles can apply. For instance, you can use bold words or underline where necessary. Please don’t overdo it; it might not bring a perfect picture. Again, perfect software like Adobe Story, Movie Magic Screenwriter, and Final Draft will help you fix those fonts automatically.
Perfect Your Scene Headings
Your scene heading must be visible enough. That’s why you have to write it fully in caps. Have your headings at the left margin at 1.5 from your page edge.
For a perfect script scene heading, indicate where it happens; that specific location. Is it inside or outside? That’s where INT. or EXT comes in, followed with day time of the event.
For instance, your scene heading can be INT. COURT – DAY. Such a simple heading makes it easy to understand. For a specific location, be precise. For example, INT. FAMILY COURT – JURY TRIAL – DAY.
Perfect the Action Blocks
Action blocks, fixed at your left margin on the page, help you expound on characters, action happenings, and location. Unlike the heading that embraces capital letters, action blocks follow the normal structure. However, if it’s introducing a character, embrace all caps.
Your action lines determine the success of your script, and that’s why you need to observe brevity, evoke a feeling, and create that visual image of a character or location.
Don’t write the thoughts of a character. In scriptwriting, you need not include what will not feature on the screen. Externalize the internal feeling and thoughts without overdoing it.
Center the Dialogue and Character Names
You’re not done with formatting until you have a dialogue character name at the center when they speak. Have a left margin of 2.5 for dialogue and 3.7 for characters who are about to express themselves. If you have to fix the emotions, a parenthetical after your character name is fantastic.
10. Focus on the Tone
The mood or attitude of your script will depend on your choice of words. It distinguishes a professional and a random spec script. You dictate the feel of your writing. Whether it’s a ruthless or comic tone, perfect it and let your story move forward with ease.
Other than through words, your character and location say a lot about your preferred tone. Your character is everything. Whether it’s a housewife or a banker, their role comes out interestingly when associated with a particular tone based on their actions.
For example, if a banker “loyal” to the boss siphons all the money in the private bank and acts as the most concerned person during the investigations that will depict betrayal.
Your tone passes the message by allowing your audience to have the right feeling at the particular occurrence, and nothing can change that. Remember that the visuals in your location give feelings, and that translates to a particular theme.
When choosing a tone, focus more on the adjectives. Some of the popular tones include caring, sad, comic, depressing, honest, ironic, and so on. You must be cautious because every choice will alter how the audience feels about the story. You can combine your tones when appropriate.
11. Write an Awesome First Draft
Now that you have your outline ready, it now time to have that descriptive action and dialogue on your script. Here, you’ll need loads of focus. How you deliver your first draft depends on how you’ve structured your story.
Remember that your first ten pages require exceptional attention, and they’ll determine if your script will sell. If everything is well put, with proper structure and interesting characters, you’ll deliver pure gold. If not, it will be tough and messy.
Writing the first draft is interesting when you have an idea of what you need. It saves you some major headaches. Having said that, let’s look at the key things you’ll have to address at this stage and how to go about them.
Have a Deadline
A deadline acts as a motivation. You get things done quickly. It’s because you have a goal you’re focusing on; to complete your first draft. Decide on the date you intend to start and finish. It’s recommended to take a period of anywhere between 8-12 weeks when working on your script.
Seek motivation and adopt strategies that will boost your morale towards accomplishing your goals. For instance, you can mark various dates, deadline included, in your phone reminder calendar, have stickers on your writing desk, or tell your friends about your journey to motivate you.
Plan Your Schedule
It’s hard to beat a deadline without a schedule. Depending on when you’re active and fresh in mind, set a few hours for writing a page or two daily. It’s easy to handle your work if you’ve set the hours
It’s also depends on what you’re drafting. Most TV scripts will require you to write 30-65 pages while feature scripts require 95-110 pages. That tells you that you might take 95 days doing a page a day for a 95 pages script.
Remember that you have a long way to go, and you don’t have to handle loads at a go. You’ll burn out. That’s why you need to know the right time to work and pages (sections) you can deliver with ease daily.
Let’s expound more on this next. Keep reading!
Write Section by Section (Step by step)
You’re not writing a college essay. A script requires you to write while following the sections you have on the outline. If you fail to stick on sections, it becomes hard for those on camera to comprehend the message and act naturally.
Your sections must have short conversational sentences. It’s not all about dialogue, but fine and through details without loopholes. Write these sections so that even when another person uses them, they’ll understand quickly.
Script every word! You might think that you only need to jot down a few things in your sections, and you’re good to go. Well, that means you’ve made communication harder, and you need to embrace yourself for lots of re-dos.
But one more thing; don’t give your character a unique voice. If you can identify characters through the voice in every section, you have done it right. In case you find it hard to know the voice without checking the names, revisit and combine complex characters with a unique voice for easy sections flow.
Be Able to Show
Show. Don’t tell. It’s better to show what a character feels or wants than telling. In scriptwriting, stating thoughts and feelings won’t make your script interesting. For instance, saying that someone’s anger is beyond control adds nothing in the script. Having the character smash those glass panes or phone with anger pass the message across better.
Show how you interrupt conversations among characters. That requires you to write between the lines and show the conflict. Imagine an instance where a character is telling a secret only for someone to interrupt and commence a different conversation. That leaves your script readers entertained.
Although we’re emphasizing on showing, don’t be too basic. People love movies because of the actions that take them out of comfort and show everybody wants to live and visit. Please, don’t be dull. Nobody wants to see a character who spends two hours peeling potatoes. Why would you even do that?
Callbacks and foreshadowing are among the ways to show more in your screenplay. Many screenwriters prefer callbacks, which is quite okay. One of the best films to check out callbacks is the L.A. Confidential. Focus on Rolo Tomasi, and you’ll love it. Let me not spoil it for now.
Have a Dialogue with a Natural Flow
Read as you talk through your sections. That helps you to feel the natural flow of the words that your characters say. Aim at having a flow such that there is no struggle to connect ideas throughout the story.
Reading to detail will indicate whether the dialogue goes as you anticipate. If you read and realize simple corrections, note them. Don’t assume anything that you feel needs correction. A forced flow shows your script is not authentic, and you’re after fillers to have your story complete.
Instances that have inconveniences or contradictions on the intentions, rhythm, and voice might alter the flow, and you must act right. Highlight the particular sections and give them absolute attention when revising.
It’s now time to revise your draft. But first, you’ll have to finish it. Let’s look at the finishing.
12. Finish Your Draft Like a Pro
Screenplay writing is not a walk in the park. Those moments between FADE IN and FADE OUT slug lines demand a lot of your time and effort. It’s even worse when you have other commitments that require your attention and time because you’ll find it hard to balance.
Keep writing to completion. Writing a film script will take most of your time when compared with short films and TV script. It’s because film scripts for a 1.5 to 2 hours film will require you to write 90-120 pages, short films go up to a maximum of 10 pages while TV script range from 60-70 pages for drama and 30-40 pages for a sitcom.
Many people spend years writing a script. Others are stuck on their ideas, and years have progressed without making a substantial move. The reality is that if you sit down, hit the keys, and complete your work, the better. You’ll have more time to progress on other things.
13. Ensure You Take a Break
Once you’re done writing your first draft, save your file in a secure and easy to retrieve place and do something else. You can work on your next idea or focus on a different thing. That will help you relax a bit. Whether you’re learning how to write a script or you’re a veteran in the industry, a break is ideal. It helps to refresh your mind and body.
A break doesn’t mean you need more months to relax. For some, a long duration will end up depriving the work morale and content mastery. One to three weeks are ideal. If you decide on two weeks, stick to that. Failure to which you’ll develop a habit of postponing.
When you come back to revise your script, you’ll have rejuvenated and with a fresh set of eyes. That means a better focus on your script.
14. Revise and Practice Your Script
You already know how to write a script, and you’ve just relaxed enough. It’s now time to read, practice and revise your script. Practicing helps you know whether the words look good on both the paper and on camera. When practicing, go through the script to know areas that you need to fine-tune the words and tone. It’s the best way to have a real picture of how the performance needs to come out.
Revising your script is a comprehensive task. Read it from the beginning to the end. As you revise, focus on those fine details. Is the story showing actions more than describing them? Is there a flow within the scenes? Is the story moving forward?
With that, it’s easy to know instances with confusion and any other features that don’t add up to the story. Remember that one of your main reasons for rereading your script and get rid of what doesn’t make sense.
If you feel it’s hard to revise on your writing software, print out your script. That gives you a chance to write with your pen where you feel there is a need for rectification.
15. Find a Second Opinion
A second opinion brings about a different perspective. Most often, there are things you’ll not emphasize on most because you think they’re perfect, but that not the case. A second party gives you honest views.
Pick someone you trust with your work. In case they have written a script before, the better, though not a must. Previous experience helps to check on the finer details, beyond the flow of the story. Take criticism and rectify where necessary.
Don’t settle on a person you know they won’t read between the lines. That’s a waste of time. So how do you know they’ve read everything? Ask questions on how they feel about your script.
Even with a second opinion, don’t stop perfecting the major and minor issues of your script, until you feel satisfied.
Importantly, don’t be a perfectionist. Read that again! Mistakes are obvious; learn from them. Remember you’re learning how to write a script. It’s not yet time to write an “Oscar script”.
Writing a Stellar Script for Your Project: What to Avoid
With the basics of writing a script, it’s now quick to maneuver throughout the screenwriting process. However, we want to emphasize some of the things that you need to avoid. That will help you write a stellar script.
Avoid Action Obsession
Don’t get obsessed with describing an action. So many details are not necessary. Be precise and stick to the point, without adding unnecessary characters and emotions. If need be, your producer or director has a chance to add specific details.
Avoid Overly Fancy Words
Your script must communicate in an easy and understandable approach. Extremely complex explanations complicate the character, and such a story is hard to follow through.
Don’t Confront Your Style
Follow a particular style of speech throughout the story. Based on the setting, you’ll find it easy to know the right style to adapt.
Keep Writer’s Block Perception Away
Have you ever felt that something isn’t fit for you? Like if you do that script, it won’t stand out? Well, that more than a writer’s block; it’s an imposter syndrome, which many scriptwriters struggle with. Please don’t act like a perfectionist or a super expert. Trust and love your work, and you’ll quickly get that script done!
Now, Get Your Script Ready
Your screenwriting journey will be full of ups and downs, and you must be in for it. Accept that, and get your script ready. We’re hopeful that our 15 tips on how to write a script will help you develop a perfect story, create interesting characters, and have a well-crafted and motivated screenplay that stands out.
Shawn Manaher is the founder and CEO of The Content Authority. He’s one part content manager, one part writing ninja organizer, and two parts leader of top content creators. You don’t even want to know what he calls pancakes.