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November 12, 2021

How To Write a Script for a Movie

Maybe you’ve always known, since the first time you ventured to a movie theater, or perhaps you’ve finally seen enough blockbusters to realize that you too have a film inside of you. Either way, once you’ve decided that you want to write your first screenplay, the next stage is to stop dreaming and begin writing your movie. So how write a script for a movie?

Here’s what you need to know about writing a screenplay for a movie and some easy mistakes you can avoid.

How to write a script for a movie

First of all, you need to establish exactly what your idea is? Are you writing a TV series or a movie?

The difference between writing for TV and writing movies

TV series are episodic. Drama series generally last for one hour, and the story arc concludes in the final episode of the season with the potential for this to continue into the next season. A film is self-contained and generally lasts longer than one hour.

While sequels to films and film franchise series like the Marvel universe are increasingly popular, the story arc must generally conclude at the end of the film. The sequels begin a new story.

TV series allow for greater depth of character development and are more slow-burning. Films generally have to move faster and pack a lot more in.

The division between a film and a TV series is generally becoming less well-defined in the era of streaming services. Still, a movie, in general, is more of a singular event. It requires a more significant time commitment to the audience and is generally watched in one sitting. Some films like The Irishman had an initial cinema release followed by a release on Netflix shortly after. This is becoming more common.

Decide what category best fits your story or, if you haven’t yet come up with an idea, construct an idea around the format of a film.    

Getting your structure right: planning

Your first task after having your initial idea is to get your structure right. You need to make sure your film grips your viewers right the way through from the opening until the very last second.

The only way you can successfully do this is to plan comprehensively. You need to know where your film is going and how your characters are going to play out. There is no right or wrong way for how to go about planning your script.  

Some writers like to write their entire first draft first and then go back and deconstruct it with a plan. Others will write a basic step-by-step out on a piece of blank paper, while some writers will plan in complete detail for months before they start writing.

Screenwriting software like Arc Studio has built-in story-building tools to make planning your script easy. Take advantage of these if you have industry-standard software available to you to write your script.

Consider whether you will use a three-act or five-act structure and where all the components of your story fit into it.  

Write your first draft

Writing your first draft should be a creative process. It would help if you resisted the temptation to edit as you go along and make every page perfect. Get your ideas down on paper first, capturing every piece of raw dialogue you can hear in your head.

Try to channel how real people speak. If in doubt, think about real people you know. You could even go and sit in a coffee shop for a while, writing down honest conversations you can hear.

Writing the first draft is just about getting to the finishing line. Therefore taking action is the most important thing you can do. Write a little bit every day if you can, and set yourself up a writing schedule.

Do what works best for you. Some people like to write in the morning when they first get up; others want to scribble their ideas down in the evenings. Some writers occupy tables at a coffee shop for most of the day, while others need their home office comforts.

Relish in the sense of achievement when you finish your first draft, regardless of how good you think your manuscript is. Most people give up before they get to the end and let self-doubt get the better of them.

Make structural edits

The next step to getting your script made is to make structural edits. You need to take an honest look at your script. Read it back and consider whether your twists and turns come early enough. Do the character arcs make sense? Will a viewer feel satisfied by the ending? Are there any plot holes? Could the opening be tighter? Are you even starting your story in the right place?

A key trick many editors often suggest is seeing whether your script would still make sense if you cut the first few scenes and started it later? If the script still makes sense, then you should start there instead.

If you have plans for sequels, you should consider fleshing these out a little bit to hint at them at the end of your first film.

Structural edits can take several rounds of revisions. Don’t try to make all the changes in one go if you see multiple problems with your script. Make the significant changes one draft at a time.  

Polish up - line editing

Once you’ve worked on your structure, it’s time to get your script into the best shape it can be. This is the stage of editing where you scrutinize every line of dialogue and every scene heading to make sure they are crisp and sharp.

Read your script out loud or use dictation software so that you can hear the dialogue spoken.  

If you’re unsure about formatting issues, be sure to study other scripts to see how other writers have represented issues on the page. Try Googling the script of the film you want; otherwise, here are a few scripts to study for yourself:

A Few Good Men by Aaron Sorkin

UP by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson & Thomas McCarthy

Psycho by Joseph Stefano

Once your script is in pristine condition and you’ve done as much work on it as you think you can by yourself, it’s time to start getting some feedback.    

Get feedback from professionals

Treat feedback from industry professionals like gold dust. Use every contact and resource you have to get as much of it as you possibly can. Network as widely as you can.

Take what industry professionals say about your script seriously and try to implement their feedback, but only if in your gut, what you think they are saying about your script is accurate.

It may feel frustrating to have to do another round of redrafting when you think you have completed your script but implementing feedback from professionals can help your script stand out and might mean the difference between your script getting made and getting rejected.

Now the hard work begins...

Now that you know how to write a script for a movie and it is as great as you can make it, it’s time to start sending it out to agents and executives.

And so begins the next stage of the process as you try to sell and market the work you’ve spent months or even years polishing.


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How To Write a Script for a Movie
Harry Verity

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen using Arc Studio. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. His journalism has appeared in The Guardian, Readers' Digest and Newsweek, amongst many other publications. He has just finished his second novel for young adults, set in a boarding school. He holds a BA in English from Loughborough University.

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