How to Write a Screenplay: The 5 Steps Most Beginners Skip.

Which results in unoriginal, tired concepts, characters and plots that don't grab the reader.

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by Script Reader Pro in How to Write a Script
November 2, 2021 137 comments
How to write a screenplay

How to write a screenplay: the 5 steps most beginners skip.

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

Learn how to format a screenplay…

Write a logline, synopsis and treatment…

Write a first draft, then rewrite it, then rewrite it again…

And this is often where the advice ends. In a vague kind of “That’s all there is to it, now go!” kinda way.

This isn’t to say this advice isn’t true. It is. The problem is, it tells you what to put in a screenplay, but not how to write a screenplay.

Any new writer can grasp the basics of formatting, loglines, treatments, structure, etc. in an afternoon and start knocking out scripts to their heart’s content. But… without really knowing how to write a screenplay.

Feel free to skip this section if you’re a newbie who already knows this stuff, but here are the basics you need to master first.

How to write a screenplay: a quick n’ dirty guide to the basics! 

Learn how to format a script for the spec market.

Ditch MS Word (please, please, please) and get hold of some paid or free screenwriting software.

Master your concept and how to write a logline with our ultimate guide.

Get to grips with how to write a screenplay outline.

Immerse yourself in our blog category on how to write a script (dialogue, characters, scenes, structure, theme, etc.)

But you want to move beyond the basics, right?

The difficulty lies not in writing screenplays—anyone can do that—just like anyone can write a song, or paint a picture.

The difficulty lies in learning how to write a screenplay that blows other people away when they read it.

Way too many aspiring writers stop at the basics of formatting and rudimentary characters and scenes, and fail to do the most important thing of all when writing a movie script:

Push their imagination as far as it’ll go in order to blow the reader away.

The screenwriters who truly learn how to write a script are the ones who push their imagination in all areas of the screenplay.

And that’s what we’re going to show you how to do in this post via five steps that most beginner writers (and intermediate, for that matter) skip over.

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How to write a screenplay step #1: lay a foundation for your craft. 

Here are some steps within a step. As a new or fairly new writer, you want to make sure that do these five things that most other writers don’t.

1. 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.

2. Read great screenplays. Download and read as many as possible (each screenplay example is in PDF format). Our list of 50 of the best screenplays to read is a great starting point. Or if you want to know how to write a screenplay for a TV show, we have 50 of the best TV scripts to read too.

3. Read screenwriting books. The best screenwriting books out there will acquaint you with a wide variety of screenwriting theories. They all more or less say the same thing, but in a different way, and you should absorb them all.

4. 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.

5. Write outlines of movies. 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 screenplay. If you want to learn how to do it, grab a copy of our free Structure Hack pdf.

Do all five of these things continuously every week for six months and you’ll already be leaps and bounds ahead of the average aspiring writer.

How to write a screenplay step #2: start thinking about how to push your imagination. 

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 screenplay.

There are, of course, a number of obvious reasons why some screenwriters become successful while others don’t.

These include:

Hard work






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…

What do you mean “push my 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 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.

As we’ve already said, writing a script is relatively easy. 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.

They’re the ones who give us something different that we haven’t seen before.

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 flat and predictable.

Photo - Master Screenplay Dialogue pdf

How to write a screenplay step #3: push your concept as far as it will go.

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 have been a lot of films, for example, involving vampires living among humans. There have been countless films about young lovers not being approved by their parents, or about 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: 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.

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 that’s 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.

(Granted, The Silence used this exact same concept and almost made the same film. But its unoriginality is part of the reason why it only scored 28 percent on

5 key tips on how to shake up your concept/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 concept and story are as original as possible.

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.  Follow the link for a selection of screenplay treatment examples.

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 Synopsis/Treatment Coverage service in which one of our pro writers can give you feedback on your logline and/or treatment.

How to write a screenplay step #4: push your characters as far as they will go. 

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 Indiana Jones himself. If he was an unsympathetic or boring character, we wouldn’t care as much if he gets his hands on the Ark before the Nazis or not.

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 all the characters we’ve seen on screen 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. One 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.

• Family orientated. He has a loving wife and kids.

In other words: 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. There’s nothing here that will make us remember him long after the credits roll.

Why are characters often boring in spec scripts?

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 idiots.

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 law codes.

• 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 1980s-style Sony Walkman headphones. All of this adds another layer of personality to his character.

Compare this list to the previous list of the bland lawyer’s character traits.

The second one obviously makes for a much more interesting lawyer. Gilroy has taken the stock character of an idealistic lawyer, put a spin on him and given us someone we’ve not seen before in a movie.

Push your imagination when it comes to your characters. Then push it some more. 

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.

4 key tips on how to write imaginative characters.

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. Add a character arc. In most cases (but not all) you’ll want to make sure your protagonist has a character arc. They should change 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.”

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How to write a screenplay step #5: push your scenes as far as they will go.

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 have 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 meets each other for the first time. And let’s say the scenario is this:

Set up: a young man and woman meet and fall in love while on vacation in France…

They meet somewhere obvious, like in a bar or at the beach.

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 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 death to a spec screenplay (and for a writer’s career)—until, that is, they learn how to write a screenplay 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 is 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.

The opening sequence to Take This Waltz.

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. A man in the crowd heckles her, which she doesn’t appreciate.

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

On the plane, Daniel’s seat is right next to Margot’s and he teases her about her wheelchair. They flirt.

Back in the USA, 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 from her.

Take This Waltz opening sequence analysis.

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 screenplay by putting your characters under pressure and by pushing yourself to surprise the audience every step of the way.

5 key tips on how to write imaginative 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.

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Frequently asked questions on how to write a screenplay.

Q. How do you write a screenplay with no experience? 
A. Just start. As the old saying goes, it’s a marathon not a sprint. Familiarize yourself with the basics of screenwriting as outlined at the beginning of this post. Then, once you know what to put in a script, learn how to write a screenplay by implementing the ideas outlined in the rest of this post. Never stick with your first idea. Push your imagination. Never be boring.

Q. What are the basic elements of a screenplay? 
A. It depends if you mean on a technical level or on a story level. On a technical level, a screenplay is made up of 1. Scene description. 2. Dialogue. 3. Transitions. On a story level, it consists of a protagonist and antagonist fighting over whatever’s at stake—often personified in the form of a stakes character.

Q. How do you start writing a screenplay? 
A. Again, it depends. Some writers start with the idea/concept and formulate this into a logline. Others start with a character or set of characters. Or even a theme or vague idea about the kind of issues they want to write about. Figure out which method works best for you, and get brainstorming. Or try a mix of all three.

Q. What font do screenplays use? 
A. Screenplays are always, always, always written in Courier 12 pt. It doesn’t matter if it’s Final Draft Courier, or MM Courier or John August’s Courier Prime, it’s never Times New Roman, Helvetica or anything other than Courier.

Q. How do you write a perfect screenplay? 
A. Give up trying, because there’s no such thing. All you can do is write a screenplay that’s good enough to garner some attention from the industry and it’ll be taken from there.

How to write a screenplay: conclusion. 

There is no one definitive answer to the question of how to write a screenplay for a movie.

Beyond the usual advice on how to format a script, “write a treatment” “take a break after your first draft, and then rewrite it,” etc. every professional writer out there has got where they are by pushing their imagination as far as it will 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.

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.

Screenplay coverage service

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