Below is a short and concise - but hopefully
useful outline on how to write a script. It is by no means comprehensive and is a mish mash of various teachers' and theorists'
ideas and work. See this as a simple crash course. Hope it helps. Here we go.
Writing a script (especially a feature length one) is not
as easy as many seem to believe it is. Compared to the novel or traditional prose, the script is a unique animal. Ultimately
most see a script as not a thing in itself but rather like an architect's plan for a building. In the same way that a building's
plans are not the building itself - the script is ultimately an aspiration towards making a film. However increasingly scriptwriting
is being considered by some as an art unto itself and one that is often read and appreciated regardless of whether it is produced
There are a considerable amount of rules and conventions
you are expected to follow when writing a script. Some are annoying and some are downright stupid. But if you want to have
your script read you should try and follow as many of these conventions as possible. Script readers, commissioning editors
and producers who have an intimidating pile of scripts on their desk tend to first throw "unconventionally" formatted and
styled scripts straight into the dustbin without even reading them. To them this is a time saving way of weeding out the amateurs
from the professionals or serious writers. Never make it obvious you're new to the game - even if you are.
Many of these conventions are largely based on Classic
Hollywood Realism - the style of the vast majority of American films. But even if your script is to be the ultimate surreal,
Dadaist, art-house experience, conventional wisdom tell us that it's nevertheless useful to learn these "rules" anyway. The
logic is that you've got to know the rules before you can subvert them.
The first thing to do is to work out what your script is
going to be about. This is your business so figure it out yourself. (Although bear in mind what is written below because it
does impact in the type or idea you will want to develop). Then you need to create a plot - i.e. basically what happens in
your story and in what order.
The traditional Hollywood script plot structure is often
called the three-act structure. Another way of looking at it is what I call the "balance-imbalance-balance" concept. These
concepts work pretty much the same - focusing primarily on a central character. The Balance/Imbalance/Balance structure works
in the following way. (We'll call our central character "X").
1 - Balance: This is the initial state of your main
character: X is a content dog trainer living with her dog Shoop. She avoids men because of previous affairs gone sour.
2 - Imbalance: A challenge or obstacle is foisted
onto our hero which she undertakes to do something about. This changes her life: Shoop is stolen by a rival dog training
company. Lonely and her spirits low, X spends her time searching for Shoop. She begins to lose customers as a result. Along
the way she meets a helpful, sensitive policeman with buns of steel who embarks on the dog searching journey with her. Eventually
she and Mr Buns of Steel track down Shoop and rescue the canine.
3 - Balance: Things are restored back to order but
with something gained: Having rescued the dog, X returns to her life of contented dog training now with the addition of
a well hung policeman in her bed. She has also overcome her fear of taking romantic risks. Together with the help of her beau
her business has taken off like never before. Our hero has learnt something and gained from the experience. In other words she has developed.
The most dramatic elements occur in the "imbalance" section.
The challenge and what our hero does to overcome it is the "meat on the bones" of our story.
If I were to ask what X's primary challenge is, you might
say that it is to find her dog. I might disagree and say that her primary goal is actually to overcome her loneliness and
fear of men. In this way scripts can have different levels of meaning.
X's story could be a comedy, a serious drama and even a
feminist comment on the way women are expected to conform to patriarchal society in which life without a man is seen as meaningless.
It's your choice.
Now how does the plot become a script? Follow the easy
Clearly write out your concept in a couple
of lines: eg: "This movie is about "X, a happy dog trainer whose life is thrown into disarray when her faithful doggy companion
Shoop is abducted by a rival dog training company." This sets out what your story is about as well as who your primary characters
are. You should also try and figure out if this will be a comedy, a drama or horror story. This is called the "genre" of the
film. (Producers need to know this or they get very confused.) However today we see more and more mixing of genres in the
same film. No dialogue should be added until STEP SEVEN
Write a paragraph outlining the story
in a little more detail - this time adding in a few more characters and important events. Get a stronger feeling for how the
thing will play out. We find out X has actually been rather lonely, we learn that there's a hot policeman in there too and
there's a climatic shootout towards the end when Shoop is rescued. One could call this paragraph a short synopsis of your
Write a longer outline of your plot.
Depending on you, this can be anything from two to twenty pages. (You can also break this step into more steps and write increasingly
longer outlines before proceeding to Step Four.). This pretty much establishes the basics of your plot and many of the twists
and turns that may take place. Some also call this the "beats" of your script. You can add in stuff about the bad guys, who
they are and their motivation for their actions.
Take your long outline and begin to
break it up into one-or-two line paragraphs. Each paragraph should be a particular unique event. Eg:
What once was:
||"X is woken up in the morning by Shoop's long tongue
in her face. Later X drives to her dog-training school with Shoop panting in the back." |
Paragraph one: X is woken up in the morning by Shoop's long tongue
licking her face.
Paragraph two. X drives to her dog training school with Shoop
panting in the back.
Fill in more paragraphs to make the
story flow well and add any other paragraphs needed to fill out the story and expand elements that need it. The paragraphs
should include more detailed actions on how things happen.
Turn these paragraphs into scenes. The
concept of a scene is very difficult to explain and almost needs to be intuitively understood. I've never seen an adequate
explanation or definition to-date. It helps a great deal to read as many scripts as possible to get a feeling for this. Nevertheless,
roughly, a scene is an event that happens in a unique place and time. E.g. The paragraph description:
Paragraph Sixty Five X arrives at the factory and after looking
around discovers Shoop's dog leash in the bathroom.
Could be broken down into:
EXT. ABANDONED FACTORY. DAY X looks up at the front of the abandoned
factory. A sign atop reads "NUWARE TILES". X walks up to the front door and opens it.
INT. ABANDONED FACTORY FLOOR. DAY Walking through the dark factory
building it becomes clear that there is no-one here anymore. Rubble and trash are strewn all over the floor.
INT. ABANDONED FACTORY TOILET. DAY X opens the door to a filthy
toilet and looks in. About to walk away she sees something. A dog's leash. Bending down she picks it up and realises that
it is Shoop's leash.
INT/EXT: This refers to the location of the scene. If it is inside
it is INT (for interior); if it is set outside it is EXT (for exterior). This should be followed by the location e.g. ABANDONED
DAY/NIGHT: This refers to wether the scene occurs in the day or
night. This follows the location.
Start filling in dialogue as well as
more detail under each scene. You should have a first draft completed by the end of this process.
STEP EIGHT, NINE, TEN, ELEVEN etc... There's a corny
but valuable saying about writing that goes: "Writing is not about writing - but about re-writing". The first draft will almost
always be shit. It's in the refining, re-writing, re-plotting and fine-tuning that great scripts get made. Congratulations
- you've written a script! Now wasn't that fun?
OTHER HANDY HINTS
order to gauge more or less how long a film a script will make (very useful for producers), there are certain standards in
formatting. Avoid these at your own risk. Americans especially are very rigid about this. These standards allow us to measure
a script's length by saying that: "a page of script equals roughly a minute of screen time". This is a very rough guide (often
action films scripts are short but take longer on screen than a dialogue based script) and not to be completely trusted.
should use Courier (or New Courier) Size 12. This is a fixed-width font, which many believe makes it easier to read. You'll
be surprised how picky some readers are about this.
fall between 90 to 120 pages. Anything longer and your chances of being read begin to diminish. Dumb huh?
numbering scenes unless it is a shooting script which will only be seen by yourself or when actually shootingthe film. Script
readers don't like them.
script layout should look something like this. Some will demand exact measured layouts but few are very sticky about exact
distances from margins etc. (Note that it is difficult to display exact layouts on web browsers - this is only a rough guide.)
INT. WAREHOUSE. DAY
Fred walks up to the fiendish looking
man in the suit. The fiend holds a dog collar in his hand. Fred aims the gun at the man.
Where is he?
Where is who?
The place is surrounded. If you
give me the dog, we'll take
him the hard way. Your choice.
one is a toughie. It's very hard to teach dialogue. One has to develop an ear for the way people really speak and not how
we think they speak. Listen to people from various backgrounds and in various situations talk as often as you can. You'll
probably notice that people are not very eloquent in general. They don't express themselves very well vocally and a great
deal of what is NOT said is just as important (often more so) than what is said. Bring these thoughts to your scriptwriting
process. And again read lots of scripts and watch many films to become more sensitive to dialogue.
An important thing to remember is that scripts are the
basis of the visual medium of film. An old adage is: never say what you can show instead. In other words if a character is
angry don't have her say "I'm angry!", show it to us. E.g. have her smash a window with a chair instead.
is almost always a central character in a Hollywood movie. That is because Hollywood films work on the basis of the audience
being able to identify with a character and his or her experiences. More than one central character tends to confuse the viewers
(at least according to many studio execs).
Characters are expected to be three dimensional and rounded.
By that it is meant that we should get a sense of their history and how it has affected them as well as understanding why
they do what they do (usually called Motivation). (E.g. X avoids men because of a previous heartbreaking episode). This is
based on the idea that we do things for knowable reasons. Modern psychology came up with this somewhat na‘ve notion. However
we rarely actually have access to the full reasons why we, others (or ourselves) do what we do. Nevertheless Hollywood believes
This convention often leads to some awfully contrived scenes
in which characters reveal really corny back-stories and traumatic past events. This is also called "exposition" and is very
difficult to write without being obvious or corny. Exposition should happen organically and without the audience realising
it. Some filmmakers such as David Cronenberg don't allow us to get close to their characters and we rarely know why they do
things except for the obvious. Unlike in most Hollywood films we are not participants in Cronenberg's films - but voyeurs
watching the action from the outside.
Nevertheless it often helps to create back-stories for
your characters. These are basically histories for your characters - their life experiences, social and economic background
etc. This doesn't have to all be obviously present in the script but helps to craft more real characters.
Part of having a three dimensional character is that we
see him or her develop across the course of the script. They should change in front of our very eyes. Again remember these
are all conventions for a conventional style of film.
It's usually not appreciated that you include camera movements in your scripts. There are ways of getting around this
in sticky situations. Sometimes it can't be avoided. Tarantino's scripts on the other hand are full of camera directions.
If the script is going to be pitched to outside producers and script-readers try and avoid it. If you are going to direct
the thing yourself than go ahead and put them in.
The most useful advice I can give however is to read as
many scripts you can lay your hands on - either on the Internet or at your local bookstore.