How to write a screenplay

Hands holding a script and annotating it with a pen
Script With Pen
Type: Text
Category: Innovation, Industry insights

All the greatest films that you've ever watched started as a screenplay – but how do you write one? We caught up with Film & Television MA (online) module leader, Dr Jem Mackay, to discover the basics of writing a screenplay that's ready to pitch to industry.

Writing for the screen

One of the most important factors when writing a screenplay is to keep in mind that you're writing for the screen rather than a book or stage play. When writing your screenplay, you should tell your story as if you were a fly on the wall. You should include dialogue and describe the situations in which the dialogue is spoken but you should not include character emotions or feelings. What you write should suggest the emotions.

Your screenplay should be written in the third person, using the present tense. It helps to write in short, sharp sentences to keep the narrative moving.

How to format your screenplay

A screenplay is very specific in terms of how it is formatted. One page of a screenplay usually equates to one minute of screen time. For example, a 20 page screenplay would be a 20 minute film.

A screenplay is often used by a producer when making decisions on budgeting, time scheduling and location shooting for a film or tv series. Therefore, it's important that each scene is clearly separated in your screenplay.

You should have a scene heading (or a slug line) at the top of each section. The scene heading specifies if the scene takes place INT. (inside) or EXT. (outside) the location, and the time of day (day or night). The information in the scene headings helps the producer to go through the screenplay and quickly assess the operational requirements of the shoot.

How to structure a screenplay

If you're new to writing screenplays, then it's a good idea to start with a three-act structure, which is considered a golden rule for narrative storytelling. A traditional three-act structure includes the following sections:

  • Act I: Context: set the scene, introduce the characters and the goal of the protagonist.
  • Act II: Conflict: add the obstacles that are blocking the protagonist from achieving their goal.
  • Act III: Conclusion: resolve the conflict by either the protagonist achieving or failing to meet their goal.

At the end of each act, there is normally an inciting incident or plot point which starts the next act.

Each act is normally made up of several scenes and each individual scene should have a character that owns it, whether that be the protagonist, antagonist or even a supporting character. It's usually the character whose circumstances change the most who owns that scene. Every scene should have its individual objective that relates to the overall goal of that scene owner. Write each scene with a clear structure of introducing the setup, raising the stakes and finding the resolution - mirroring the beginning, middle and end format of your three-act structure.

When you put the scenes together there should be a wave-like motion of raising and lowering the tension, so the reader is naturally pushed onto the next scene. For example, when you think of high-intensity scenes, such as a battle scene, the scene that follows is often calmer and with less conflict between characters. These scenes help to balance out the conflict and tension and offers the viewer respite from the adrenaline-fuelled drama.

How to write a logline

A logline is a one or two sentence summary of your story. The logline sits on its own page, between the title page and page one of your screenplay.

When it comes to crafting the perfect logline, the first thing you need to consider is who you are writing it for. If you're using your logline to try and secure funding for a film or TV series that you're making, your logline should include a synopsis of the whole narrative as the funders will be assessing your ability to tell a good story. You really want to encompass the whole story in a couple of sentences. Use a three-part structure to firstly, set the context and introduce the protagonist; secondly, to describe the conflict and finally, how that conflict is resolved.

On the other hand, if you're writing your logline for the audience of your film, after you've made it, then you don't want to give away the ending. Instead, you should set the context of the narrative and convey the conflict and the stakes involved. In short, you should describe what your protagonist wants and what is stopping them from achieving it.

Elevator pitch

The logline is sometimes called an elevator pitch. This term comes from the concept of pitching to a busy producer in the time it takes to ride in an elevator from the bottom to the top floor of a building. Consequently, an elevator pitch can be slightly longer than a couple of sentences, but it should still crystalise your story into as few sentences as is appropriate.

The editing stage

After you finish the first draft of your screenplay, take a break from it before coming back to do a rewrite. During the rewriting stage, you want to hone down the different elements, such as tightening up the scenes and polishing the dialogue.

In terms of testing the pacing of your screenplay, this is where you need someone else to listen to it. By asking your peers to read it with you, by gauging their feedback and reaction to your story, you'll see which sections of your screenplay need to be refined.

A final word on pitching your screenplay

When it comes to pitching a screenplay, a lot of people assume it's a really intimidating experience, where you're trying to battle against a wall of indifference. However, this is a huge misconception; remember that both parties want the screenplay to succeed. A producer wants your screenplay to be as good as much as you do. If you've got a screenplay that you believe in, then get it out there and make it happen.

How will Falmouth University's online master's degree in Film & Television support students to write screenplays that are ready for industry?

As the Film & Television MA is an online course with a diverse community, students get the opportunity to take part in peer-to-peer reviews. Students are taught by lecturers with industry experience, who will look over their screenplays and give expert feedback through both formative and summative assessments.

Through a combination of lectures, webinars, guest talks, tasks and discussion forums, students gain a thorough understanding of industry expectations.


How to pitch your screenplay

Once you've perfected your screenplay, it's time to reach out to producers. Film & Television MA (online) module leader, Dr Jem Mackay, offers his top tips for pitching a screenplay to producers. 

Find out more
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