How to Write a Movie Script

Should you write a movie script?

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.

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.

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 better if you live in L.A.

It uses a specific format.

If you want to submit your screenplay to a competition, agent, studio, etc.,  you need to format it correctly. In most cases, you'll be submitting it as a PDF. You can use software like Celtx to give your script standard formatting.

movie theater in snow

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, there are many ways go get character ideas. You can base a character on someone you know, or imagine things about people you see on the street, friends of friends on social media, etc.

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 them as a real person. Then, as you're writing the script, you will be able to ask yourself at every moment, "What would they do now? What would they say? How would they 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's 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 their path. Or give your hero a problem they have 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 their goal or solve their problem.

This means that the roadblocks have to be big enough to keep them busy. If your hero solves their 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 they just give up and walk away (or if the audience thinks they should), then you don't have much of a movie there either.

Need ideas for conflicts? Download our fun Story Machine.

- 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's your inciting incident?

Something happens in a movie that forces the hero to act. Something yanks them off of their sofa, pries the beer out of their hand, and gives them no choice except to go after their goal right now. This event is 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 their roof. Or they get a phone call informing them their daughter has been kidnapped. Or the phone call is from their boss telling them they're fired. Or their beautiful new neighbor taps on their living room window, and they realize that they're in love.

Any of these events is definitely going to get your hero off the couch. They can't just ignore the spaceship or the ransom call and go on watching their show to see if Ross and Rachel finally get it together. They have to react.

- What's your story climax?

The story climax is the high point of your movie. It's the final showdown. It's when the hero finds their daughter's kidnappers in their hideout. Now it's either them or the kidnappers. Either they get their daughter back, or the kidnappers will kill both them and their daughter. Or it's when the hero of a romantic comedy rushes to the church to stop the heroine from marrying the wrong person (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 person on the invitations).

If your movie is a series of battles between the hero and the roadblocks in their 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 their kidnapped daughter home as the kidnapper is carted off to jail. The hero and heroine ride off together into the sunset.

Developing your idea

Screenplays typically follow a three-act structure, which helps to organize the story and keep the audience engaged.

- Act I (setup): Introduces the main characters, their world, and the central conflict. The inciting incident occurs here, setting the story in motion.

- Act II (confrontation): The main character faces obstacles and challenges while trying to achieve their goal. This act usually includes a midpoint that raises the stakes and a low point where the character seems furthest from their goal.

- Act III (resolution): The story builds to the climax, where the main character confronts the central conflict. The resolution follows, tying up loose ends and showing how the character has changed.

Learn more about screenplay structure here.

cinema facade

More tips for aspiring screenwriters

1) Learn the genre.

Read and analyze successful screenplays in your genre to get to know how they're put together. Then watch the films they're based on.  The International Movie Script Database (IMSDb) has screenplays you can download for free. 

2) Watch movies critically.

Pay attention to how scenes are put together, and how dialogue and action are used to move the story forward. 

When watching a movie, identify:

  • the main character
  • the main story conflict
  • the inciting incident
  • the story climax.

Ask yourself the purpose of each scene in the overall story. Why did the filmmaker include it? Does it reveal something about the main character and their dilemma? Does it move the character forward or backward in terms of their struggle?

3) Develop a writing habit.

Schedule regular writing time in your weekly schedule—even if it's just a few minutes a day. This will turn writing into a habit and train your brain to switch into "writing mode" on command.

The more you write, the better you'll get!

movie theater

Write a Movie Script - Next Steps