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How To Plan A Screenplay

3 Steps To Take Before Your First Draft


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May 17, 2018 0 comments
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(The following is a guest post on how to plan a screenplay by Stephen Stanford, a product specialist and writer-in-residence at Celtx.)

Crafting and planning a screenplay can be a daunting task. Of course, any undertaking in creative writing has an intimidation factor, but screenwriting has an inherent aspect that sets it apart: a lack of freedom.

This isn’t to say that there is a lack of creative freedom—quite the contrary—but there is a definitive, regimented structure that is ingrained into the minds of producers, filmmakers, and audiences alike as to how a cinematic story needs to be told. This makes the screenplay an inherently constrictive medium.

Even after one masters the idiosyncratic formatting, gets comfortable with the present-tense, and trains themselves to “show, not tell”, they’re still going to find themselves struggling to keep their story on target.

A screenplay needs to command attention, move briskly, and not meander. Every stitch of writing needs to be in service of the plot, and the end result has to be just the right length.

how to plan a screenplay

For first-time writers, the typical impulse is eschew too much planning of their screenplay, take their idea, dive headfirst into a script editor, and simply wing it.

For a lucky few this method works but, for the rest of us, the result is typically a script that grinds to a halt after thirty-odd pages (or a script that is bloated beyond usability).

Both of these outcomes stem from not understanding the story that you’re trying to tell.

So, how do you blaze the trail that will eventually become your screenplay? How do you plan a screenplay effectively? The answer is committing yourself to doing most of the heavy lifting before you write that first scene heading.

By taking a step-by-step approach to planning your screenplay, establishing your premise, characters, and plot, you’ll be able to answer the challenging questions that will arise as you delve into your script.

How to plan a screenplay: Step #1 Establish your premise

Everything begins here. Your first step should be distilling the essence of the story that you want to tell into a short, concise, and easy to understand premise.

These are often referred to as loglines, and yours should contain everything that is essential to motivating and informing the rest of the writing process.

A useful way to conceptualize it is defining the critical components of your story, principally the setting, the protagonist, the central conflict/antagonistic factors, and the goal (not necessarily in that order).

If you can condense your story into a single sentence that includes this information and captures your imagination, you’ve successfully created a reference point that will guide and ground you through the rest of the writing process.

Once you have a good one, keep it at the front of your mind.

How to plan a screenplay: Step #2 Spend time with your characters

What Is an Inciting Incident in a Screenplay

The dramatic interaction between interesting, believable characters is the engine that drives a great story.

No matter how spectacular or dazzling the settings and action you intend to describe will be, flat and underdeveloped characters will subsume the entire effort into boredom and drudgery—both for you and the reader.

The key to making your characters engaging is by developing intrinsic motivations for everything they do: the way they carry themselves, how they speak, the manner in which they interact with others, and most importantly, what they want.

Take the time to write a biography for every major character in your story. A highly effective way to accomplish this is by using a ‘character questionnaire’ (several excellent templates for these can be found online).

This method will prompt you to ask simple, direct questions of your characters ranging from their physical descriptions to their personal histories and philosophies.

By going into as much detail as you can stand and keeping the answers consistent to the whole, and you’ll end up with a sophisticated reference for how your characters should walk, talk, behave, and react throughout your story.

Remember, all of the background material you create for your characters doesn’t necessarily need to appear or be referenced in the screenplay itself.

The objective here is to bring these characters to life in your head. Don’t try to store it all there, though. As with all your story planning work, write everything down.

How to plan a screenplay: Step #3 Outline your plot

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While the concept of “story” is somewhat abstract, your plot is highly tangible. Specifically, it refers to the the sequence of events and decisions that carry your characters through the narrative.

The importance of a well-constructed plot in screenwriting cannot be overstated. After all, a screenplay is not a piece of work that serves itself—it is a blueprint, a hybrid of creative writing and technical specification that is designed to be turned into something much larger.

You do not have same luxury of a novelist to explore the inner thoughts of characters, to explain the story directly to the reader, or to segue into tangential narratives.

At the end of the day, a screenplay is a description of a series of events, and these events need to occur within a framework. An outline is a point-by-point breakdown of these events, around which you can begin to craft scenes.

An outline is essentially a blueprint for your blueprint. At this point, your objective should be to envision every important event in your story. There are a multitude of different screenplay treatment and ‘beat sheet’ templates available online that you can use to help you get started.

The level of detail that you go into with your outline is up to you. Some writers prefer to stick to the broader, major turning points in their stories (we’ve got a template for that over at the Celtx Blog). Others prefer a highly-detailed bullet-point approach.

Whichever you method you choose, the end result should be an actionable, beginning-to-end game plan that will guide you through your first draft with confidence.

How to plan a screenplay: Conclusion

Following these steps will provide you with in-depth knowledge of how to plan your script—your story goals, plot structure, and characters.

From here, all that’s left is the invigorating, painful, but always rewarding process of writing the screenplay itself. The material you’ve created in your story planning will back you up every step of the way.

Nothing you establish in your script planning process should be considered sacrosanct or set in stone. Despite the rigidity inherent in screenwriting, storytelling is always an organic process.

Inspiration can strike at any time, and you shouldn’t be afraid to throw a wrench into the machine you’ve constructed for your script if it feels right.

Should that moment arise, your screenplay planning work will still be useful—it will actually make it easier to track the potential effects of a new idea and adjust things accordingly.

If you’re looking for writing tools to assist you in your script planning work, Celtx’s Story Development plan upgrades our free script editor with premium tools (like integrated index cards, Read Through, and script analytics) that are purpose-built to assist you in taking your story from concept to completion.

Stephen Stanford is a writer-in-residence and product specialist at Celtx.


If you’d like some hands-on help with learning on how to plan a screenplay and a review of your outline, treatment or synopsis, check out our Story Analysis service.

how to plan a screenplay

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