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by Script Reader Pro in Concept, Story and Theme
May 17, 2018 21 comments
how to plan a screenplay

How to Plan a Screenplay: 3 Crucial Steps to Take Before Your First Draft

Learning how to plan 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 how to format a script, writing in the present tense, “show don’t tell”, etc. 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.

Resist the Temptation to Dive in Head First

For first-time writers, the typical impulse is to eschew too much planning of their screenplay. Many want to take their idea 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 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 when learning how to plan a screenplay— establishing your premise, characters, and plot—you’ll be able to answer any challenging questions that arise.

How to Plan a Screenplay Step #1: Establish Your Premise

Everything begins here. Your first step should be distilling the essence of the story into a concise and easy to understand premise.

These are often referred to as loglines. It should contain everything that’s essential to motivating and informing the rest of the writing process.

A useful way to conceptualize it is by thinking about the critical components of your story. This means the setting, the protagonist and antagonist, the central conflict and the goal. (But 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.

Here’s more information on how to write a logline. Once you have a good one, keep it at the front of your mind.

how to plan a screenplay

How to Plan a Script Step #2: Spend Time With Your Characters

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

The key to making your characters engaging is by developing intrinsic motivations for everything they do. This means the way they carry themselves, how they speak, how they interact with others, etc. But most importantly, what they want.

The Character Bio

Some writers take a great deal of time writing biographies for every major character in the story. A “character questionnaire” can be useful with this method and several excellent templates 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.

The Enneagram

Another method (and our preferred one) is to use the Enneagram technique to flesh out each character and make them more believable.

We find this much more useful than creating character bios, but that’s just our call. Follow this link to find out more about how to make screenplay character development 100x easier.

Remember, whichever method you choose, all of the background material you create for your characters doesn’t necessarily need to appear in the script. Or even be referenced.

How to Plan a Script Step #3: Outline Your Plot

While the concept of “story” is somewhat abstract, your plot is highly tangible. Specifically, it refers to 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 don’t have the 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 is 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. (There’s a template for that over at the Celtx blog). Others prefer a highly-detailed bullet-point approach.

Whichever 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. 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.

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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

Liked This Post? Read More on How to Write a Screenplay… 

How to Write a Script Outline That Will Save You Months of Rewrites

High Concept: What It Is and How to Apply It to Your Story Idea

How to Use a Script Analysis Worksheet to Bulletproof Act 1

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21 Comments
  1. Mads says:

    Very good post, I liked that a lot. Will there be a part 2 on next stage of planning a screenplay?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Mads. So many posts to write, so little time…

  2. Barry B says:

    It’s very important for some writers, personally I prefer to dive straight in and spew out a vomit draft. Then I can go back in and edit. Just my 2 cents.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      If that approach works for you, go for it! Many screenwriters work that way and there’s nothing wrong with it at all.

  3. Clare says:

    Thank you for this post. Really helpful and a good reminder as to the importance of planning before you start writing.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Clare, glad it helped.

  4. Xavier Ramos says:

    This is so generic. Some guy from celtx wrote it and you can tell. Horrible software.

  5. Landon says:

    How can I call you? There’s no number and I want to talk about fixing my script. Rewrite polish take to the next level and get ready for contests and sale to major studio.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      We have a 1-hour Skype call service which you can find here. Or else feel free to email us.

  6. James Grant says:

    So true, not enough screenwriters spend time planning. I used to be one of them and would end up in all sorts of difficulties later on.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for the comment, James.

  7. Shawnee B says:

    Very good I am in the planning stage of my screenplay and this has helped me a lot.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Glad to hear it, Shawnee!

  8. Steve D says:

    I don’t care what anyone says this is the best screenwriting website out there. LOVE SRP!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for the shoutout, Steve!

  9. Inez says:

    Awesome! I feel like Ive got a better idea of what to do now before starting my script. Thank you so much.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Glad to hear it – thanks, Inez!

  10. Joel says:

    How do I sell my script to hollywood?

  11. Ray Zeleny says:

    I have just forwarded this onto a writer friend of mine, what a great find this site is. Keep it up!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      That’s great, thanks, Ray!

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