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How To Write A Screenplay That's Better Than 90% of Spec Scripts

A Simple Guide To Pushing the Boundaries of Your Imagination

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by Joseph Farruggia in How To Write A Screenplay
December 6, 2018 49 comments
How to write a screenplay for a movie

How To Write A Screenplay For A Movie That’s Better Than 90% of Spec Scripts

You may have read a few posts on how to write a script that go something like this:

  • Immerse yourself in film script writing theory
  • Buy some screenwriting software and learn how to format a script
  • Write visually
  • Keep lots of white space on the page
  • Write, write, write, every day
  • Understand that writing is rewriting

And this is often where the advice ends.

This isn’t to say these points aren’t true. They are. And we’ll spend a little time in the first section of this post on how to write a movie script going into a bit more detail on a few of them.

However, many aspiring writers stop here at the basics, and fail to do the most important thing of all when writing a movie script:

Push their imagination

The screenwriters who truly learn how to write a script are the ones who push their imagination in all areas of the screenplay as far as it will go, and that’s what we’re going to focus on in this post.

Here’s what’s coming up:

  • First steps to writing a movie script: the prep work
  • Writing a movie script by pushing your imagination
  • How to write a screenplay by stretching the concept and story
  • How to write a movie script by creating surprising and contradictory characters
  • How to write a script by making scenes original and unpredictable

But let’s start by taking a quick look at some of the basics involved in learning how to write a movie script.

First Steps To Writing a Movie Script: The Prep Work

How To Write A Screenplay

Here’s a short non-exhaustive list of some of the first steps to writing a script you should take:

  • The first step is to commit to screenwriting. You’re not going to get very far if you don’t take it seriously and are prepared to put in the work. This post lays out how to become a screenwriter by committing to the craft.
  • Writing a good script means reading great screenplays. Download and read as many as possible. Our list of 50 of the best screenplays to read is a great starting point.
  • Read thebest screenwriting books out there in order to acquaint yourself with as many film script writing theories as possible.
  • Make a list of twenty movies you wish you’d written and rewatch them. Make notes on why you love certain scenes, pieces of dialogue, characters, etc. as you go. Immerse yourself in the classics of cinema by watching movies on some “best movies of all time” lists.
  • Writing a script outline of a movie as you watch it and then breaking it down, is an essential part of learning how to write a movie script. If you want to learn how to do it, grab a copy of our free Structure Hack pdf
  • If you haven’t already, purchase some professional screenwriting software and master the basics of how to format a script.

Check out more essential film script writing resources, which includes these posts on how to get a screenwriting agent and how to write for TV.

This above is kind of a How to Write a Script 101, that will set you on the right road, even if you’re a complete beginner.

So now let’s start with an overview of what we mean exactly by “pushing your imagination” when it comes to learning how to write a movie script.

Writing a Movie Script By Pushing Your Imagination

How To Write A Screenplay

Apart from the steps to writing a script listed above there are, of course, a number of other obvious reasons some writers learn how to write a screenplay for a movie over others.

These include:

  • Hard work
  • Dedication
  • Strategy
  • Connections
  • Personality
  • A little bit of luck

However, in this post we’re going to focus on writing a movie script by focusing on the one skill you need to develop above all others: pushing your imagination as far as it can go.

Many aspiring screenwriters study screenwriting theory to death and write every day, and yet still produce scripts that feel underdeveloped and “second-hand.” That is, they either produce material we’ve seen before, or it’s original but yet to be pushed as far as it could go. Instead, everything remains in a “safe area” in which the writer feels comfortable.

Writing a spec script is easy. Anyone can do it after reading a few books and purchasing some script writing software. But the writers who really learn how to write a screenplay—one that will help them break into the industry—are those who learn how to unleash their imagination and give us something different.

Let’s now take a look at how to do this by learning to never be satisfied with concepts, stories, characters or scenes that feel even remotely flat, tired or predictable.

How To Write a Screenplay: Concept and Story

How To Write A Screenplay

A particularly common fault of spec scripts is that the core concept—the overall idea behind the story as laid out in the logline—isn’t big enough. Many writers have good movie ideas, but fail to really dig into their imagination to really turn them into truly great, original and imaginative ones.

There are been a lot of films, for example, involving vampires living among humans, young lovers not being approved by their parents and ex-hitmen coming out of retirement for one last job. So if you’re going to write about these subjects, your concept must bring something original to the table while doing so.

If the concept remains unoriginal and predictable, chances are the story will turn out unoriginal and predictable also.

How to write a script concept and story like a novice (example)

Let’s say you want to write a movie involving a familiar set-up, like a family struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic world that’s populated by monsters.

The script logline might go something like this:

In a post-apocalyptic world, a family finds itself locked in an epic battle against a horde of man-eating monsters.

Fair enough. But this isn’t a pitch that’s going to get an exec’s teeth chattering with excitement to read the script.

How to write a script concept and story like a pro (example)

Now let’s take a look at how a recent movie approached the same overall idea:

In a post-apocalyptic world, a family is forced to live in silence while hiding from monsters with ultra-sensitive hearing.

This is the logline to the film, A Quiet Place, and all the writers did is put a twist on the concept by giving the man-eating monsters ultra-sensitive hearing. This leads to the idea of a family being forced to live in silence as the only way to survive and, voilà, you have a much more original concept.

The post-apocalyptic world isn’t original. A family being threatened by a horde of monsters isn’t original. But now the concept has a hook because the protagonists are being forced to survive in a way we haven’t seen before: by not speaking.

how to write a screenplay for a movie

How to write a screenplay by pushing your imagination with its concept and story

Take a good hard look at your overall concept and story. Does the logline really describe a situation or set of characters we haven’t seen before on screen? If you were watching this story on screen, would you be surprised at the direction it takes? If not, they both probably need more brainstorming.

Here are some solid steps you can take to learn how to write a script so your core concept and the story itself are as original as they can be:

  1. Think about the kind of movie you’d want to go see. What would surprise you? What kind of twist on a familiar concept would you enjoy seeing? What kind of twists in the narratives would make you sit up and take notice?
  2. Take your initial idea for a movie and brainstorm as many ideas as you can on how to switch it up and make it more original. Writing a logline that’s short and sweet can be hard but can be made easier if you remember it should encapsulate the conflict set up in Act 1 of the script.
  3. Read pro screenwriters’ treatments and story outlines to learn how to condense an idea down into prose form before you start writing the screenplay. John August has a selection of various outline and treatment examples on his site.
  4. Writing a screenplay outline is a recommended next step before you start on the actual script. Once you’ve written one, do a ton of brainstorming for the actual story too. If your characters aren’t shocked by events as they unfold, chances are the reader won’t be either.
  5. Get feedback on both your logline and treatment. Pitch them to friends, family and strangers. Refine until there are no more plot holes, and people respond with “Whoa. Then what happens?” Or words to that effect.

We can’t stress enough how important to nail your initial core concept and story and make them as compelling as they can be before you start writing. We have a Logline Analysis and Story Analysis service in which one of our pro writers can give you feedback on your logline and/or treatment.

How To Write a Screenplay: Characters

How To Write A Screenplay

When you think of your favorite movies, you’re probably often thinking about the characters in them, rather than the concepts behind them. For example, much of what many people love about Raiders of the Lost Ark is the character of Indiana Jones, not the fact he has to get his hands on the ark before the Nazis.

Many aspiring screenwriters, though, consistently create characters that fail to stand out as unique personalities on the page. Rather they end up as “stock” characters—facsimiles of dozens of protagonists we’ve all seen before.

How to write a script character like a novice (example)

Imagine a character-based script about an idealistic defense lawyer, intent on reforming the justice system, whose life unravels due to a very bad choice he makes regarding a client.

A writer who hasn’t properly learned how to write a script by pushing their imagination as far as it can go, might give him the following character traits:

  • Idealistic. He wants to change the criminal justice system
  • Helpful. He goes out of his way to help others
  • Friendly. He gets on well with his colleagues
  • Funny. Everyone laughs at his jokes
  • Hardworking. He’s the last one to leave the office
  • Determined. He’ll stop at nothing to win a case
  • Family orientated. He has a loving wife and kids

In other words, pretty bland. We can imagine a lawyer/protagonist like this in a spec script not being particularly interesting because there’s nothing original or surprising about him. Nothing that will make us remember him long after the credits roll.

Aspiring writers tend to create characters like these because they feel safe. They identify with the protagonist on a personal level and so don’t want to make them creeps or fools.

This also often means not letting anything bad happen to them either as, subconsciously, this would mean letting something bad happen to themselves. Put these two things together—a nice, bland guy who avoids anything bad happening to him—and inevitably you’ll wind up with a bland screenplay too.

How to write a script character like a pro (example)

Now think back to (or watch) Dan Gilroy’s movie, Roman J. Israel Esq. In this film we also have a protagonist, Roman, (Denzel Washington) who’s an idealistic defense lawyer, intent on reforming the justice system. And his life unravels thanks to a bad choice he makes regarding a client.

But Gilroy pushes Roman’s character beyond the obvious to create a protagonist who’s truly original and surprising. Here’s a list of character traits we can attribute to Roman in the movie:

  • Idealistic. But this is to the point of obsession. He’s eschewed any kind of meaningful relationship in his life in order to pursue his goal of reforming the system.
  • Helpful. Yes, he’s always lending a hand to friends and strangers, but again this is to a fault. He puts others’ well-being over his own, and this is what makes his helpfulness more interesting.
  • Socially awkward. Having spent years behind the scenes at a law practice, he’s hardly a people person. Subsequently, he somehow manages to rub most people he meets up the wrong way.
  • Humorless. He’s the kind of guy who makes people laugh without realizing he’s being funny.
  • Loner. His career has always come first and so consequently he’s reached late-middle age without a wife or kids.
  • Incredible memory. He has a remarkable gift for memory that borders on genius and is able to recite all the major codes of law word for word.
  • Music lover. He listens to music constantly while walking the streets, riding the bus, or relaxing at home. It’s part of who he is.
  • Retro. His hair is in an afro, he owns an old-school flip phone and wears the kind of headphones usually found on Sony Walkman’s in the 1980s. All of this add another layer of personality to his character.

Compare this list to the previous list of the bland lawyer’s character traits. The second one makes for a much more interesting lawyer, because Gilroy has taken the stock character of an idealistic lawyer and put a spin on him, giving us someone we’ve not seen before in a movie.

how to write a screenplay for a movie

How to write a screenplay by pushing your imagination with its characters

Firstly, take a look at your protagonist, antagonist, stakes character as they stand. Are they the kind of characters you can imagine audiences talking about years from now? Do they excite you as you write them? Are they unpredictable and flawed? Do bad things happen to them because of their flaws?

If you can’t definitively answer yes to these questions, here are some steps you can take to learn how to write a script so the characters are as original as possible:

  1. Get feedback on your main characters by describing them to your family, friends and anyone who’ll listen. See if they’re interested in these characters and keen to know what happens to them. Ask them if they feel fresh and original, or hackneyed, and tell them to be honest.
  2. Learning how to write a movie script is about giving your characters contradictions. This is what makes them feel three-dimensional and human. Part of what makes Roman J. Israel interesting is the fact he’s an idealistic lawyer who does something deeply unethical.
  3. In most cases (but not all) you’ll want to make sure each character has an arc and changes from a flawed individual to a more rounded one, or vice versa.
  4. Learn how to write dialogue between two characters by making it a verbal battle in which only one “wins.”

How To Write a Screenplay: Scenes

how to write a screenplay for a movie

The same thing happens when aspiring writers fail to push their imagination when it comes to writing scenes and sequences. Events and situations feel familiar—like we seen them before. Characters feel safe and in control of events and often we’re able to predict exactly what happens next.

How to write a script scene like a novice (example)

Take the classic example of a “cute meet” in which a romantic couple meet each other for the first time. And let’s say the scenario is this:

A young man and woman meet and fall in love while on vacation in France.

They meet somewhere obvious, like in a bar or a cafe.

The guy pursues the girl and maybe finds out they’re on the same flight back home.

On the plane he asks to swap seats so he can sit next to her.

Once they return home, he calls her a few days later and she reluctantly (but secretly happily) agrees to go on a date.

And so on…

The problem here is that there’s nothing original, surprising or imaginative happening during these events. We’ve seen this happen before and therefore can see what’s going to happen next.

This kind of writing is not good for a spec screenplay (and for a writer’s career)—until, that is, they learn how to write a movie script by pushing their imagination.

How to write a script scene like a pro (example)

Now watch (or rewatch) the opening scenes of the drama, Take This Waltz. The film is about a young woman named Margot (Michelle Williams) who’s happily married to Lou (Seth Rogen) but falls for an artist named Daniel (Luke Kirby) while on vacation in France.

Take a look at the opening scenes and see how the writer, Sarah Polley, takes the age-old concept of the cute meet and makes it something imaginative and original. Here’s the opening sequence:

Montage of Margot at home, cooking.

She arrives at a hotel in a sleepy French town.

While out sightseeing by herself, she stumbles upon a historical reenactment of an adulterer being publicly whipped.

She’s dragged into the spectacle and made to whip him too. Daniel heckles her, which she doesn’t appreciate.

In the airport departure lounge, Daniel spots Margot in a wheelchair being ushered to the front of the line.

Daniel’s seat on the plane is right next to Margot’s and he teases her about her wheelchair. They get to know each other and feelings develop.

Back in the US, they share a cab home and Daniel realizes they live “pretty close.”

The cab drops them off and Margot realizes he lives across the street.

Take This Waltz was the first movie to show a couple meet in this unusual way, and that’s partly why it made it onto the Black List in 2009 and got made into a movie.

Margot doesn’t just happily run into Daniel in a cafe and have a great time. Rather, each scene puts her under pressure in a different way:

  • She’s made to get involved with the reenactment
  • She’s heckled by Daniel
  • She riskily pretends to be injured and in need of a wheelchair
  • She’s teased by Daniel and caught off-guard by her emotions
  • She realizes he lives across the street and ends the sequence by saying “Oh, shit…”

This is how to write a script by putting your characters under pressure and by pushing yourself to surprise the audience every step of the way.

How to write a screenplay by pushing your imagination with its scenes

Read each scene in your story with a critical eye. Is the action exciting, moving and surprising? Would you be engaged if you saw these scenes play out on screen as written?

Here are some ways to learn how to write a screenplay for a movie so your scenes are as original and exciting as they can be:

  1. Write out each scene in an outline or “beat sheet.” Really dig deep to come up with ways in which they can subvert the audience’s expectations as much as possible.
  2. Give the end of each scene a “button”—that is a moment that ends it with a hanging question in the air. A moment that makes the audience wonder what’s going to happen next.
  3. Make sure your characters are pulled out of their comfort zones. If they’re just happily sitting around shooting the breeze much of the time, then you may need to inject some conflict and interest into the overall concept as well as the scenes.
  4. Shake up the locations and situations. If scenes are continually unfolding in predictable places, brainstorm all the different locations that could add more originality to them.
  5. Ask yourself if the characters themselves are being surprised by the events occurring in each scene. If they’re not, then it’s unlikely the audience will be either.

How To Write A Screenplay: Conclusion

How To Write A Screenplay

There is no one definitive answer to the question of how to write a screenplay for a movie. Beyond the usual advice to “read screenplays” “watch movies” and “write every day” etc. every professional writer out there has got where they are by pushing their imagination as far as it will go.

How long does it take to write a screenplay?

Realize also that your quest to learn how to write a script will never “end.” Neither will your screenplay ever be technically “finished.” What’s important is that you get it to the best possible state you can before entering it in a screenwriting contest or showing it to a producer, exec or manager.

We can help you with this with our range of script coverage services—all performed by a team of professional screenwriters. We also have a screenwriting mentorship program in which you can be paired with one of our team and talk with them every week about your work and the business. Feel free to contact us with any questions—we’d love to hear from you.

Writing a movie script and letting your imagination go

Follow the obvious steps to writing a screenplay—hard work, dedication, strategy, learning about theory, reading screenplays, etc.—but don’t fall into the trap of just learning screenwriting theory and forget the most important aspect of all: pushing your imagination.

Give us concepts, stories, characters and scenes that are original and compelling. This will guarantee you’ll be giving yourself the best possible chance to succeed in this business we all love.

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We hope this post has shed some light on how to write a screenplay for a movie for you. Let us know what you think of our approach and reach out with any questions you may have in the comments section below.

how to write a script

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How to write a screenplaySCRIPT IDEAS: 5 PROVEN WAYS TO
UNLOCK ORIGINAL MOVIE IDEAS

 

How to write a screenplayHOW TO WRITE A LOGLINE:
THE ULTIMATE STEP-BY-STEP GUIDE

 

How to write a screenplay35 COMMON WRITING STYLE MISTAKES IN SPEC SCRIPTS

 

How to write a screenplay16 SCREENWRITING TIPS AND TRICKS ON CONCEPT, THEME, CHARACTER, STRUCTURE, SCENES, DIALOGUE

 

49 Comments
  1. Jack Brewer says:

    Wow, this is awesome. Thank you guys.!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks Jack – glad you found it useful.

  2. Howard says:

    I have an idea of a movie

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      We have a concept analysis service if you’d like us to review it?

  3. Carolina says:

    Wow, I love this. Thanks so much, it’s amazing!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Carolina!

  4. Claire Shitery says:

    I’ve been wanting to start screenwriting but then I felt like I’m not really a writer. I hate writing. I have a lot of movie ideas and when I tell people they always tell me to write it down but I feel writing is really not my thing. What should I do?

  5. Esther says:

    Wow I. Know what to do now thanks a million

  6. Esther says:

    Wow thanks a million I HV an idea on what am doing now

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, good luck, Esther.

  7. Julien says:

    Most honest and comprehensive post ever about this topic. Well done!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Julien – glad you found it useful.

  8. Palash Ghosh says:

    Thanks a lot. It will help me a lot.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You’re welcome – thanks for reading!

  9. acrith says:

    I’ve been wanting to start screenwriting but then I felt like I’m not really a writer. I hate writing. I have a lot of movie ideas and when I tell people they always tell me to write it down but I feel writing is really not my thing. What should I do?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Having great ideas is only a fraction of the skill set required to be a writer. If you hate it and don’t feel it’s your thing, then it probably isn’t.

  10. pete says:

    absolutely helpful.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Pete!

  11. Rajesh says:

    Wow thanks a million I have an idea on what am doing now

  12. Evelyn Martinez says:

    Thank you. I’m trying to get the story of my family and myself written. I have been thinking about it for years. Really don’t know how to do it. This was helpful.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Glad we could help, Evelyn!

  13. Ireen says:

    Hello. I have been writing screenplays (sitcom) for a new series. I would love to get your feedback on one of the episodes I have written.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Hi Ireen, you can find our TV Script coverage service here: https://www.scriptreaderpro.com/tv-script-coverage/ Cheers!

  14. Edward says:

    Great advise

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Edward!

  15. Mike Baker says:

    This was super helpful, thank u

  16. Rachel S. says:

    This is probably the best guide I’ve ever read on how to write a screenplay. What a great read. Bookmarked!

  17. seshu says:

    Writing a screenplay is hard, but you guys give me hope

  18. Husky says:

    That’s incredible man. Its actually the best article on how to write a screenplay I’ve ever read. Thumbs up.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Husky!

  19. Mike says:

    Just wanted to say wonderful article! I’ll be following these steps with my next script.

  20. Makgatho nelson says:

    I whant to write a screenplay I have skill in writing but I don’t now how to start the key of writing a screenplay

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      I would recommend starting by reading some screenplays and also some of our recommended screenwriting books.

  21. Charles Joseph says:

    I want to write something unwritten till date

  22. Brenda Bassey says:

    Thanks for sharing this cos I find it very helpful.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Brenda!

  23. Gina says:

    Very helpful info for the beginner – thank you. You reference a “concept analysis service” in a comment reply above but I can’t find it on your site. Help!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Gina! Here’s the link.

  24. Sean E. Funston says:

    As always you provide great information and keep it positive. All of the links you provide in your posts are such an amazing set of tools to help anyone with their writing. Thanks a million!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Sean, really appreciate the comment!

  25. John Lovins says:

    Awesome

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, John!

  26. John Lovins says:

    Gets me going!

  27. Tünde says:

    Thank you so much, it’s amazing!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for the comment!

  28. Alicia says:

    Thank you so much for the advice, now I know where I stand in my life and what I really want to do. You have the best links and the answers to all of my questions.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Alicia! Really appreciate it.

  29. Alicia says:

    Thank you so much for the advice, now I know where I stand in my life and what I really want to do. You have the best links and all the answers to my questions.

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