How to Write A Screenplay
Even if you've never written a screenplay before, you could be up and running within 24 hours just by using this guide. Follow this simple step by step system, which will take you from idea, to polished draft through to the final sale. I will make recommendations at various points, suggesting books or software that will help you on your way, but remember, this is just to make your life a lot easier and you can get started with a pen and paper.
I've Got This Great Idea!
Okay, so you have an idea that will make a great movie, you just don't know where to start or even what a screenplay looks like relax, you've just completed one of the hardest steps...you've already got the idea. The craft of writing a screenplay can be learned, but it all starts with an idea and good ideas are like gold dust in Hollywood.
Your idea has probably come from one of four sources:
- It's original and you thought it up on the way to work in the car, or in the shower one morning.
- It's a book - you just read a great book and thought that it would make an equally great movie
- It's a magazine or newspaper article - you just read a great article and it's the basis for your idea
- It's someone's life story - someone famous or otherwise has inspired you
If your idea is original, no problem, write away - the idea originated with you, hence you own the rights.
If your idea is from source 2 or 3, then you're going to need to secure the rights. As a general rule, all written works published before 1923 are in the public domain, which means you do not have to seek permission from the copyright owner. Works published after 1923, but before 1978 are protected for 95 years from the date of publication. Works published after 1978, are protected for the life of the author plus 70 years. Phew! To make absolutely sure, I recommend contacting the U.S. Copyright Office to see if a copyright exists - if it does then you can approach the author and reach an agreement allowing you to write a screenplay, if they so wish. For authors - you can find their details through their publisher, for journalists - you can find their details through the respective magazine or paper. Often, you will be informed that the film rights have already been sold to someone else, but there's no harm trying. Copyright law can be tricky and you should take particular care when dealing with this issue. Don't proceed until you're sure and remember that copyright law can be different from county to country and may only be the life of the author plus 50 years - don't miss out.
If your idea is from source 4, then they are probably a private individual, a public figure or an historical figure. If it is a private figure, then you should approach them or their heirs and reach an agreement with them for the film rights to their life story. Although this is not always required, it is a courtesy that the person or their heirs would appreciate, before seeing their life story on the big screen. It may also uncover whether exclusive rights have been granted to someone else and if not, then a whole wealth of information could become available to you, giving you a unique personal story. Use a legal resource, as you want this document to be secure, so that the time and effort you invest in your screenplay is not wasted, when someone else comes along and shows interest.
If it is a public figure then you have to be careful not to write any defamatory material or reveal any intimate details of their life that would be considered an invasion of privacy. You can write the story, but you have to be very careful what you write. You might want to get an entertainment lawyer to look through the screenplay. Of course, you can always try to obtain the rights to their life story, but be prepared for some legal wrangling, even if they're interested.
If it is an historical figure then you're luckier, because you cannot copyright historical facts - just make sure to tell the story in your own unique way and not based on someone else's interpretation.
The above is a general rule of thumb and legal advice on copyright issues is always a good idea.
So, take your idea and run with it - this is where the screenwriting process begins.
Recommended buy - TotallyWrite 3-hour screenwriting crash course CD and Workbook Package by Alan Schechter - 'a dynamic system that teaches you how to examine your story ideas, determine if they're worth writing in the first place and then shows you how to break those ideas down into the major storytelling moments shared by the most popular movies of all time' created by successful screenwriter Jeffrey Alan Schechter.
I'm recommending the above package, because you can use it all the way from your very first attempts at screenplay writing through to your professional career.
Write A Treatment
Write out your treatment. This is essentially a 30 page outline of your screenplay idea, broken down into concept, plot, basic characters etc. Don't worry about how it looks, these are just your ideas on paper. Now, how does it read? Any big gaps in the story or does it flow smoothly? Do your characters sound interesting? Are your main characters engaging enough to keep an audience interested for an hour and a half? If you have the TotallyWrite package, you can use the workbooks to guide you through this process in detail.
Most writers do not protect their work until they have at least a first draft, but, remember what I said about good ideas being like gold dust in Hollywood? Be aware, that you can protect your work with the WGA (Writer's Guild of America) - even at this treatment stage - and they will hold it as a sealed document for you. In the event of a dispute, the WGA will provide evidence of your work and when you registered it with them. You can now register and pay online for a fee of approx $20. You can skip this stage and wait until the finished screenplay to register the work, the choice is yours, you can do both or just the final step!
Read A Book
It's at this stage that a little savvy reading could save you a lot of wasted time and effort later on. Do you know how long a screenplay should be? Do you know what a screenplay page looks like and why? Do you know about character arcs and subplots?
Recommended Buy - Screenplay by Syd Field - One of the best selling books on the art of screenwriting. Amazon - 'From concept to character, from opening scene to finished script. Here are easily understood guidelines to make film-writing accessible to novices and to help practiced writers improve their scripts. Syd Field pinpoints the structural and stylistic elements essential to every good screenplay. He presents a step-by-step, comprehensive technique for writing the script that will succeed.'
Don't waste your time with complex books at this stage. You need to gain enough knowledge to know what to write and how to write it, which brings us to the next stage.
Software - Formatting
A screenplay is essentially a working tool to transpose the story to the screen and roughly speaking, one page equals one minute of screentime. Your screenplay shouldn't run longer than 120 pages and should have enough detail to tell the story accurately without telling the director his/her job. It's for these reasons and more that a screenplay has a very specific format and the industry sticks to this format like glue. Any screenplay that isn't presented in the correct format, will be rejected immediately, don't even waste your time. If you think your amazing story will win them over and they'll reformat it themselves, then you don't know the speed with which a reader or executive can frisbee your script into the waste basket. To be honest, Hollywood is even a lot fussier than that and you should check out our column on How To Make Your Script Look Professional for the full lowdown.
There are a variety of software formatting packages out there, ranging in price from $79 to over $300, but the top selling packages are our -
Recommended Buys -
Final Draft -- 'Final Draft is the writer's secret weapon. It works, it's simple, it evolves and it's supported. It belongs, with the pen, in the list of essentials.'
- Anthony Minghella - Academy Award Winning Writer/Director, The English Patient
Movie Magic Screenwriter -- 'Too bad Producers, Directors, and Studios aren't as easy to work with as Movie Magic Screenwriter.'
- Jim Kouf - Writer, Rush Hour, Stakeout, Con Air
A software formatting package takes all the guesswork out of formatting and offers a myriad of options to make managing your script and its storyline a lot easier - they are universally recognized as worth their weight in gold.
Okay, I can hear you gasping at the price from here, but most people spend more than this on their hobby, games or dvd collection and it boils down to this, are you serious about screenwriting? If you are, make the investment, it's a valuable and necessary tool and will pay off in the long run - after all, you're asking a film executive to consider buying your finished screenplay at today's market rate of approximately $60,000 and upwards!
Let The Writing Begin
So, now that you've laid the groundwork, you can actually begin to write your screenplay. It's important to keep your enthusiasm up at this stage and set yourself realistic goals, such as one page a day. This might not sound like much, but, like the fable of the Hare and the Tortoise, you will finish in the end and avoid burnout. A typical screenwriter often laments that they will rush through a few pages every day for the first week, but then suffer burnout and be disinterested in writing for days afterward. Be constant and be regular, let this be your mantra.
Now you have your first draft written, take a break and I mean a real break. Go to the movies, play games, read magazines, hang out with your friends and do everything but think about your screenplay. A couple of days later, you can pick up your screenplay and do a first read through from beginning to end. Did any problems jump out at you? Did you find any loose threads that unravel the whole story? Okay, now do the second read through and this time make notes as you go, not only on story problems, but also on spelling and formatting errors etc.
Sit down and incorporate the changes you've decided upon.
Software - Story Writing
This is purely optional, but there is software out there that will work through story development with you in great detail and if you're having problems at this stage, this might be something you want to take advantage of.
Recommended Buys -
The Writers Dreamkit - 'a complete step-by-step fiction-writing system designed for the aspiring writer.'
Dramatica Pro - 'a virtual creative writing partner with a totally unique approach to story development. Together you'll solve the theme, plot, and character problems that prevent good ideas from becoming great stories that sell. Remove ineffective clutter and wasted time with a dynamic environment of analysis, workspace, and input that supports you from inception to final plan.'
Don't feel pressured - all these options are pure choice and sometimes it takes a new writer a little time to build up all of his or her eventual tools.
Get Protection (again?)
Protect your final work by registering it with The US Copyright Office. Although this might not be the final version of your screenplay that you go out with to sell, the idea is to protect it before everyone starts reading it. Never send out unprotected work - it's not a risk worth taking for the sake of $20.
All Important Notes
If you have a couple of friends whose opinion you really trust, are intelligent and movie savvy and can be completely unbiased in commenting on your work, then now is the time to let them have a look at your finished masterpiece. Give them a reasonable deadline to let you know their thoughts, so that you're not anxiously hopping from foot to foot every time you meet. Once they tell you what they think, remember this, you don't have to listen to or incorporate anything they say - every member of Joe Public will have a different thing to say, just listen to the crowds as they spill out of any movie. The idea is to see if anything they say, jumps out and strikes a chord with you.
Get Professional Help
I'm not talking about a therapist, that can come later when you're wondering why your latest movie only did $90 million at the box office and not $110 million like the one before it.
I mean a trusted professional who reads screenplays all day, every day and knows what works, what doesn't, why and most importantly of all - how to fix it. We do offer these services here, under our coverage and story development notes and we employ the top readers in town, who do this all day for a living - not just for us, but for the top studios and agencies. Our coverage acts as a simulated industry submission, so that you can see what will happen when you submit it, but without the risk. Story development notes scour through your script with a fine toothcomb and bring all the problems out into the open and then offer suggestions and ideas to fix them. These services are well worth the fee. Too many writers rush their script out, long before it's really industry ready and they suffer rejection as a result. Of course, then they try and make changes, but the problem is, the industry isn't stupid and they know they've already rejected your script and they're not about to give you a second try. A lot of writers don't understand how the industry networks together and a script rejected anywhere notable, is as good as rejected everywhere - they all talk to each other. Oh yes, and the old trick of changing the title - remember, I said they're not stupid.
Take all your notes and re-write your script once again. Your script should now be tighter, far more interesting and better paced as a result. Read it again and you should see that it's reading like a real screenplay now, a real movie! Don't make changes just for the sake of it, only incorporate the ones that actually move your story along and contribute in some way.
Get It Out There
This is the final step that can lead to either representation by an agent or a sale, probably by way of an option agreement.
An agent is not easy to come by, the good ones anyway. Check out our column on How To Get An Agent, for all the ins and outs of this process. It's by no means easy, if it was everyone would be a screenwriter, but it is possible and if you've written something good then it will be that much easier.
An agent has contacts in the film business that can turn your screenplay into a movie, i.e. he/she will know executives at the studios and production companies and independent producers. They act as your access into Hollywood and if they sign you, then you will pay them 10% of your writing income.
Another way, is to get your script directly to the executives, because if they're interested and want to purchase your screenplay, you can bet an agent won't be far behind. This is harder than it looks, you can't just go through a directory and send out your screenplay to anyone and everyone, there are submission guidelines and most executives will not accept unsolicited submissions i.e. if it's not coming to them though someone they know, it's going straight in the waste basket. They simply won't waste their time.
We offer a service, our online Script Marketplace, based on the principle that Hollywood can't come knocking on your door if they don't know where you live. You are invited to set up home with us and allow executives to view your logline, synopsis and brief info. If they see something they like, they get in touch with you and request a copy - simple as that! This system works because executives can look through material extremely quickly, with minimum exposure - they're in, they're out. Here's the secret, Hollywood is well aware of the changing role of the internet in screenplay acquisition - they don't have to wait for projects to come to them anymore, they can get out there and find them. Why didn't they do this before? - for the simple reason that any office would be overrun with envelopes containing screenplays and they would never have a chance to read them, also, most of them would probably have arrived without signed release forms - a legal nightmare. The internet has simplified the process and now they can check out screenplays when and where they want!
Another service we offer, the Script Express is the fastest and most comprehensive e-query service for writers - your screenplay pitch could be making the rounds in Hollywood the very next morning - it's that fast. An e-query is a lot like a query letter, except of course it's sent by e-mail and is generally far more concise and dynamic in its content. A lot of industry professionals like e-queries, because they are quick, easy to respond to and don't take up a lot of valuable time. In fact, Hollywood has become more switched on to the idea of e-queries and now new screenplays and writers are being discovered every day.
Okay - so there you are - a step by step guide to get your ideas out of your head and on to the silver screen! Good luck.
I mentioned two legal terms, an option agreement and a release form, what do they mean?
An option agreement signifies that you, the writer, have given exclusive permission to a production company or producer to try and set up financing and get your screenplay turned into a movie. The option agreement will specify the final sale price of your screenplay and the amount of time that the production company or producer has in which to do this, normally six months to a year. A sum of money usually changes hands, anything from $1 to $5,000 and up, but the idea is to keep your eyes on the goal post i.e. what will your screenplay actually sell for. Always have a legal eye review any agreement like this.
A release form protects whoever is reading your screenplay. You'd be surprised how many screenplays dealing with the same theme, are circulating around Hollywood at any one time. If, whoever reads your screenplay, already has a similar project in development, they don't want you accusing them of theft later on, when their original movie hits the multiplexes. As a general rule, no-one will read your screenplay without you signing a release form - but make sure that's all you're signing!