How to Write a Movie Script - Screenwriting Tips 1
This is Part 1 of the CWN series on how to write a movie script. Here you'll find easy tips on getting started, coming up with your screenplay idea and developing your story. At the bottom of the page, you'll find links to related pages with screenwriting tips and information about free screenplay software.
Is screenwriting for you?
Some aspects of screenwriting that are special:
- It's visual. Movies, above all, are series of images. Try an experiment: watch a movie on DVD with the sound off. I bet you can follow the whole story. More than theater plays, which tend to use dialogue to move their stories along, movies tell their stories in a visual form.
- It follows defined conventions. Novels come in many lengths. But a screenplay for a feature film is about 100-120 pages long. In terms of structure, screenplays also follow a clearer set of rules than novels or short stories.
Of course, as an artist, you are free to break the rules, in the sense that no one will come to your house and arrest you for doing so. But no one's likely to produce your screenplay either.
- It's collaborative. Before they're produced, screenplays are generally rewritten many times, by many different people. In fact, the screenwriter whose name appears on the final credits may not be the one who wrote the original screenplay. You can read interesting commentary about this on Alexandra Sokoloff's screenwriting blog.
- It's geographically concentrated. You can write novels from Alaska or Tokyo or from your cell in a federal prison and get them published. Your chances of becoming a successful screenwriter, on the other hand, are a lot better if you live in L.A..
How to write a movie script - getting started
If you've decided to write a movie script, here are some questions to ask yourself.
- What kind of script will you write?
Think about your favorite movies. Do you love a particular genre: romantic comedies, action films, horror? Your best bet is to write a movie script in the genre you like to watch. It's probably the one that you know the best, and your passion will come through in the writing.
- Who will your hero(ine) be?
Maybe you already have a clear idea for a movie and know exactly who it will be about. Otherwise, you can get ideas for characters in a lot of places -- people you know, people you read about in the newspapers or who catch your eye in the supermarket or the bank. Whatever your situation, it can be helpful to fill out a character profile to get to know your character better.
The details you write in the character profile won't all have a place in your film script. But knowing as much as possible about your character will help you think of him or her as a real person. Then, as you're writing the script, you will be able to ask yourself at every moment, "What would he or she do now? What would he or she say? How would he or she respond to that?" This will allow you to make the right decisions for your screenplay. Some writers even report that their characters seem to take over and do the writing for them.
- What is your conflict?
Movies are about conflicts, problems. If there's no conflict, if everyone's happy and there's peace and love on Earth, then there's no story. Nothing's happening. An audience has no reason to sit through two hours of nothing happening. They'd rather go back to their own miserable, but varied, lives.
How do you create a conflict? Think of something your hero desperately wants and put roadblocks in his path. Or give your hero a problem he has to solve urgently, and put roadblocks in the way of solving it. The movie will be about your hero's struggle to get past these roadblocks and reach his goal or solve his problem.
This means that the roadblocks have to be big enough to keep him busy. If your hero solves his problem in 5 minutes, you don't have much movie left (all this is assuming you're writing a feature-length film). On the other hand, your hero has to have an extremely good reason to go to all this trouble. If he just gives up and walks away (or if the audience thinks he should), then you don't have much of a movie there either.
Need ideas for conflicts? Download our fun Story Machine.
- What's your inciting incident?
Something happens in a movie that forces the hero act. Something yanks him off of his sofa, pries the beer out of his hand, and gives him no choice except to go after his goal right now. This event called the inciting incident, and it normally occurs between ten and fifteen pages into your screenplay.
Let's say your hero is happily watching a rerun of "Friends," when a spaceship crashes through his roof. Or he gets a phone call informing him his daughter has been kidnaped. Or the phone call is from his boss telling him he's fired. Or his beautiful new neighbor taps on his living room window, and he realizes that he's in love.
Any of these events is definitely going to get your hero off the couch. He can't just ignore the spaceship or the ransom call and go on watching his show to see if Ross and Rachel finally get it together. He has to react.
- What's the status quo?
Movies often open with the status quo, business as usual, the hero's daily life before the inciting incident bursts into it like a wrecking ball. Then the spaceship lands in his living room, and there's no way it's going to be business as usual after that. But what is business as usual for your hero? What kind of life does your inciting incident interrupt? Your character profile can help you figure this out.
- What is your story climax?
The story climax is the high point of your movie. It's the final showdown. It's when the hero finds his daughter's kidnappers in their hideout. Now it's either him or them. Either he gets his daughter back, or the kidnapers will kill both him and his daughter. Or it's when the hero of a romantic comedy rushes to the church to stop the heroine from marrying the wrong man (how many times have you seen this scene in movies? And as far as I can tell this never happens in real life. Not once have I been invited to a wedding where the bride ended up with someone different from the guy on the invitations).
If your movie is a series of battles between the hero and the roadblocks in his path, the climax is the decisive battle that wins or loses the war.
The climax takes place near the end of the movie. Everything that happens before it is building to that point. Afterward, the dust settles into place, and we see how things have ended up. The hero brings his kidnaped daughter home as the kidnaper is carted off to jail. The hero and heroine ride off together into the sunset.
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How to write a movie script - next steps
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