Script Writing Basics: How to Write a Screenplay
Middle schoolers across the United States (and many other countries) have spent hours upon hours in their language arts class learning how to write outlines for research papers or short creative stories, even books. I specifically remember handing in outlines to be graded before I could really even start writing my research papers or creative writing stories. Outlines are necessary. They help you craft your ideas, build your arguments or stories, and develop research and strategies for character development. Outlines help to take a lot of the guesswork out of your writing. But screenplay script writing for film is quite different from writing for tv and even more different from the book writing that we learned in school.
Today, we are going to build on that knowledge base and learn about crafting outlines specifically for screenplays for film. Making your script writing process faster and easier with a more “professional writer” feel to your script when you’re done. Your outline can serve as a quick reference guide that can pry you out of your writer’s block and keep you moving forward with your movie script.
3 Acts or 6 Acts?
Beginning in late elementary/early middle school age, we all began learning about the three-act play: the setup, the confrontation, and the resolution. Three Acts has been drilled into our minds, but those three acts can all be broken down further into a more distinct 6 Act structure which can really help to formulate an engaging story. As a quick reference, your script template should look like this:
Act 1 - Introduce the main characters and their not-so-ideal situation, as well as, the story world rules.
Act 2- The protagonist’s role changes and he/she must adapt.
Act 3- The initial conflict, usually by accident, the protagonist and antagonist meet/have their first confrontation.
Act 4- The protagonist implements a poorly crafted plan to resolve the problem and inevitably fails.
Act 5- Since the initial plan failed, the protagonist goes for the long shot and either succeeds (yay!) or fails (tragedy).
Act 6- Living in the resulting new world.
That is the basic 6 Act screenwriting outline. If you follow these steps to writing your screenplay outline, you’ll create a good movie. But if you want to create a great movie, keep reading.
Now that we have the basics of the 6 acts defined, let’s break it down a little further.
Each act has a goal, an ever-evolving goal that usually begins as something somewhat shallow- perhaps misguided and entirely too small. As the protagonist grows in understanding and character, so do his/her goals. The general sequence is as follows:
Act 1 - The initial goal. When we are introduced to the protagonist, he/she is working on or toward something. Whether that be a self-inflicted goal or something that has been placed upon them by someone else (a parent pushing the child into a certain career, for example). It is also important to note, at this point, a notion coined by professional scriptwriter and consultant Blake Snyder, “save the cat”. The term “save the cat” refers to this idea that when the audience first meets the protagonist, he/she should do something nice/genuine/heroic to instantly get your audience to root for your character. This, of course, depends on your genre, but it is a very common thing to see in films.
Act 2 - The transitional goal which usually brings the character into the preexisting conflict that he/she wasn’t quite involved in before. This goal is ill-formed and incomplete but ends up leading our protagonist to their destiny.
Act 3 - The false goal in which the protagonist believes he/she can solve the problem quickly and easily, tying the whole problem up into a neat little logical bow. (A+B=C, right?)
Act 4 - The penultimate goal is close to but smaller than the ultimate goal which is why it is often doomed to fail or not quite succeed.
Act 5 - The ultimate goal of the story is usually a larger scale of the doomed plan in the penultimate goal. Pro tip: The goal at the heart of the story should lie heavily in the character’s arc- who they are to become- who they were always meant to be.
Act 6 - Living in the success or the failure of the ultimate goal. If the protagonist fails, you have a tragedy. How is the character affected by the failure or how has the (story) world been affected by the failure or even, the death of their hero?
The opposition, goals, and character arc of the story walk hand in hand, pushing each other logically forward, creating cause and effect. If, when reading over your outline, you can insert “because of this, therefore this”, you’re on the right track. If you read through your outline and find yourself saying “and then”, you need to make some edits.
Act 1 - Oppression. Something is keeping the protagonist from reaching his initial goal. Could be laziness, poverty, lack of creative problem solving, anything really… self-inflicted or otherwise.
Act 2 - Incidental opposition. The character runs into a “roadblock” or confrontation that offers him/her a dose of reality and a wake-up call. This is where the fire gets lit inside of the protagonist and he/she becomes proactive rather than reactive, but generally assumes it will be easier than it is. Ready Player One is a great example of this. The main character, Wade, was content living in his fantasy world until he met someone who wasn’t, someone who challenged him.
Act 3 - Intentional opposition. This is where the protagonist gets the attention of the antagonist and the opposition comes directly from the antagonist.
Act 4 - Self-inflicted opposition, His/her eagerness for confrontation backfires, and in their desperation, they make mistakes.
Act 5 - Ultimate opposition. The strongest opposition he/she has faced.
Act 6 - The character has resolved the issue or lost the battle and must reconcile with that fact.
Each goal and opposition creates another turning point which leads the protagonist to a new goal and more opposition.
Act 1 - The first bit of opposition pushes the protagonist toward an action that begins to alter his/her initial goal.
Act 2 - The initial commitment that takes the protagonist through the story.
Act 3 - The plot twist is where the character makes a choice that will ultimately lead him to triumph or tragedy.
Act 4 - The catalyst, the low point. This is when the protagonist has suffered a defeat of some sort. He/she underestimated the antagonist. This is where the main character is “reborn” and connects all the pieces for the ultimate goal.
Act 5 - The final push. In this act, the protagonist is facing the ultimate opposition to reach his/her ultimate goal and decides to give it all they’ve got.
Act 6 - The new role. Whether the protagonist has succeeded or failed, this is where he/she lives in the new role or the new world.
The goals and the oppositions in each act create mini and major turning points for the protagonist that, in turn, create the following goals and oppositions. Each one pushes the next one, not unlike dominos. If one domino is out of place or even bumped wrong, the whole project can go awry. As a professional screenwriter, work logically (according to your story world rules) and understand human psychology and emotions. Writing stories is so much fun, but make sure you do your research on character development and the way different types of people process things. You must become an expert on cause and effect thinking from multiple points of view.
For example, maybe you’re writing some sort of thriller in which your protagonist is a paranoid schizophrenic. Their reasoning is going to be much different than if your protagonist is a young child. There are infinite possibilities of stories you can write based on the story world you create and the personalities you give each and every one of your script characters.
Pro tip: If you chose to make a world unlike our own, be sure to communicate clearly to your audience what the rules of that world are.
Time to write
Now that we have a firm understanding of the 6 act story structure and you’ve studied up on script format, it’s time to actually write the script outline or beat sheet. The fastest way to accomplish this is, to begin with, a premise line.
The premise line keeps you on track. The premise line contains the essence of your story, expressing its true nature in one or two sentences. When I’m writing and I hit a roadblock, I brainstorm multiple options then I hold each of the options against the premise line. If any of the ideas distract from the premise line, I throw them out. A lot of films have too many things happening. Write a tight script and then add on, if necessary. For example, the film 6 Underground (currently on Netflix). There’s a lot of action, great acting, wonderful cinematography, but the story is too big. It kept me wanting more, but not in a good way. Personally, I would have rather seen it as a tv series than as a feature film.
Once the premise line is well established, expand it into 5-6 pages, roughly one page per act. Detail the goal, opposition, turning point, and, if you want, highlight the cause and effect occurring in each.
Then expand again. Turn your 6 acts into 12 sequences. Between acts 1&2, you should have 3 sequences. Between acts 3&4, you should have 6 sequences- as this is the meat of the story. And between acts 5&6, you should have 3 more sequences. Aim for 7-9 pages per sequence. (I prefer to write a shorter first draft as it’s easier for me to add helpful content than it is to cut helpful content and refrain from having continuity errors.)
Now we start on the script by adding in the details. This is where script writing software like Final Draft will come in handy- because we’re creating scenes! For each sequence, write in the scenes (including the sluglines or scene heading for each scene), however many you need. A lot of script software options give you the ability to create index cards right in the app that you can adjust and move around. I like to create physical cards and tape them up on my wall to physically move around. It helps me to visualize the film and storyline, but that’s just a personal preference.
Pro tip: Limiting your locations can drastically cut down on your film budget. If you are a new scriptwriter with no budget or a low budget, consider places that you already have at your disposal like a friends business, your home, your car, the middle of nowhere, or a small town that might let you use their places of business at a reduced price and/or for advertising.
All that’s left now is dialogue. I like to leave the dialogue for the last bit because it’s easier to plan what the characters say to one another to push the story forward if I know what the story is in its entirety. A lot of the guesswork is taken out and I can write more freely, not questioning so much of what needs to be done.
The final secret to a great film
We’ve already lightly touched on cause and effect writing, but I wanted to make sure I hit that point hard. Many good films are situation based. “This” happens, then “this” happens, then “this” happens. It might be very entertaining, the dialogue between characters could be wonderful, but the film still hasn’t quite reached its full potential because it’s missing that “cause and effect” factor that keeps the film driving forward. Cause and effect keeps the audience engaged, the stakes are higher because of all the built-up anticipation, and the story, even though it could be a complete fantasy, is believable because real life is cause and effect. (If I choose not to eat breakfast, I’m going to get hungry and crabby and make a poor choice for lunch because I’m in a hurry to eat and the result will be my stomach churning because Snickers isn’t a meal...for poor example.)
Life is full of choices that have lasting effects and most are built on previous decisions we have made, whether good or bad. There’s an old adage that says, “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.” The same is true of your protagonist. The choices he or she makes must cause the effects he or she ends up dealing with.
The protagonist must be entwined with the story, a skeleton key, if you will, unlocking all the pieces of your story. A great story must be heavily centered around the character’s transformation. Can situations arise that they weren’t expecting where they simply become victims of circumstance? Yes, but that can’t be the majority of every sequence.
Don’t worry! It’s not like I’m not going to give you a list of screenwriting books to read and write reports on! This is fun homework. (You get to watch movies).
If you have a film script in your mind that you want to work out, take 5 minutes, right now, to write your premise line.
Now, think of 5 movies that are in the same genre and watch them.
Then watch them again, but this time, study them- become a film critic. Take notes on your feelings as you watch them. Write down their plot points. What could they have done better? What did they execute perfectly? What is the protagonist’s character development? What should they have added or taken away to improve the story?
Now, take the film that got the best score, in your opinion, and find the screenplay online, if you can. Read over it (perhaps even staging a script read with friends in the film industry) and note the goals, oppositions, and turning points of the film. What were the details that you (and your friends) were surprised by?
Now you, my aspiring screenwriters with all your story ideas, block out an hour of time, turn off your phone, pour yourself a glass of water, grab your premise line, and outline your spec script.
If you don’t have an idea for a spec script at the moment, consider writing something that would work well within the COVID safe set guidelines. Start with a short film script. As a writing prompt to get you started, right now, industry professionals are looking for film and tv scripts with a small cast and crew with minimal make-up and physical contact.
I recently sat down with Topsheet CEO, Caleb Pearson, to discuss the film, Napoleon Dynamite for our brand new podcast CineBiz where we discuss the outliers of film. The weird successes that beat the odds.
In the interview, Caleb said something that really stuck with me, “ What if we just said what we wanted to say?” Right now should be the age of the independent filmmaker. With so many streaming services available to us like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Vimeo, and even YouTube. And all the social media marketing opportunities to get eyes on our film projects, there’s no reason why we can’t just make the films we want to make and be successful at it.
Write well. Work hard. And go make some movie magic!
For more screenwriting tips, check out our other blogs on How to Pitch your Script for selling your script and networking well, How to Write a Fantastic Script that Sells, The Basics to Making a Low-Budget Film, and Formatting a Script: Turn your Story into a Screenplay that includes a list of screenwriting software and reviews as well as the industry standard for screenplay formatting.
Topsheet exists to make all productions run faster and more smoothly with our automated payroll, time cards, and call sheets. Topsheet is here to make filmmaking fun again.