How to Write a Movie Script

“You should do whatever keeps your creative juices flowing. Whatever gets your draft done. Trust yourself, and own your unique creative process.”

If you want comprehensive insights into the indie filmmaking process, then you’ve come to the right place! We’re proud of the depth of teaching you’ll find around our blog for ambitious storytellers here at Lights Film School. 😃

Today, though, I’ve got something a little different for us.

Instead of diving deep into the nitty-gritty, let’s borrow a phrase from our cinematography friends and “zoom out”.

Because I want us to get a bird’s-eye view of the screenwriting process from start to finish, so that new screenwriters can feel confident as they begin to write their movie scripts. This teaching also may serve as a roadmap for screenwriters with more experience. Sometimes when I feel stuck, I find it helpful to “zoom out”… To remind myself that I’ve been down this road before, and am on track!

So, let’s embark on a bit of an adventure, shall we?

When you set out to write a screenplay, what does the path ahead look like? Where exactly does it lead you…?

Let’s find out!

Do note that, by and large, we’ll discuss screenwriting in context of a spec script, here. A movie script written for hire often has a timeline and/or workflow prescribed by whoever’s in charge.

But now, without further ado:

Your screenwriting journey begins with an idea…

Ideas come from many places. They find their way to us in many forms.

Sometimes they arrive well-defined, with an already fleshed-out structure, compelling protagonist, and worthy antagonist all raring to go.

Other times, an idea occurs to us as more of an amorphous concept… A world we want to develop, character we want to get to know better, or issue or theme we want to investigate through a story for the screen. It reveals itself to us slowly, in fragments.

Either way, this early on, many writers choose to explore. And so they kick off the prewriting process.

Prewriting looks different for different people:

Some love to tease out ideas freeform. There are those who prefer to try full scenes on for size. Others create outlines and plot their entire film in an organized fashion. You could even go so far as to develop an actual treatment!

…And carries you to a First Draft of your movie script!

Once you’ve done your prewriting, it’s time to dig into the first draft of your movie script.

A screenplay has a very specific format that follows a very specific set of rules. You can learn more about those here. Also, traditionally, a screenplay is structured into three “Acts”. Which means you need to understand not only how to format a screenplay, but also how to apply the principles of classical storytelling – something we cover clearly and extensively in our indie Filmmaking Program.

Even for those of us who have a solid foundation in both the theory and technicalities of screenwriting (anyone else ever get the urge to write things like, “INT. LIVING ROOM – DAY” when composing an email to a friend?), the nitty-gritty of the drafting process varies from person to person.

For example, some writers write out of order. Others write strictly in order, one scene at a time. There’s no “right” way to do this. You should do whatever keeps your creative juices flowing. Whatever gets your draft done. Trust yourself, and own your unique creative process.

Whatever your method, I’ve got a few pointers for this leg of the journey, though:

Just. Keep. Going.

Have you heard the old adage, “Writing is rewriting”?

Your movie script will improve exponentially the more you revise it, especially after a first draft.

In fact, some writers feel that it doesn’t actually matter how good or bad the first draft is, so long as it gets done. Just beat that inertia, and get it all down on the page! You can’t fix a house if it isn’t built yet.

But like everything else, this isn’t a “one size fits all” approach.

I once attended a writing seminar where a woman got downright offended by the idea of throwing caution to the wind, trusting the draft to get better later. “That just doesn’t work for me,” she said. “I want it to be good NOW.”

Fair enough.

But in my experience, it’s wise to acknowledge how perfectionistic tendencies can paralyze you… If you stop yourself for fear of your movie script not being perfect, then you risk delaying your first draft. Or even missing out on ideas that could be discovered in a rewrite. Do what you can to get out of your own way, whatever that means for you.

Build a routine.

We’re big on routine here at Lights Film School. Routine helps you get into a groove, keep up momentum, and get things done.

So set writing goals for yourself: “I’ll write (x) hours each day”; “I’ll write (x) number of words, pages, or scenes each session”; whatever makes sense for you and your schedule. Because by and large, regular writing is the best – only? – way to get a really big project done!

Just keep swimming going.

Yeah, I said this already. But I want to make sure it really sinks in for you.

Look, writing a screenplay can feel super daunting. There almost certainly will be days you get stuck. You might even want to give up.

Don’t give up.

This is where zooming out can help us!

When you feel hopeless, look back at the ground you’ve already covered. Appreciate how far you’ve come in the screenwriting process! Remember how excited you were, say, all the way back when you were doing your prewriting? Allow yourself to relive those emotions.

That excitement is not insignificant, friend.

Even if you’re not feeling it right now, keep going. Because you’ll get there again.

Write a second draft of your movie script. Get a second set of eyes.

When you finish the first draft of your movie script, you’ll reach a crossroads:

You can start rewriting, or you can get feedback right away.

Oftentimes, it’s wise to do at least a little bit of rewriting, since a first draft tends to be rough around the edges – and since you only get one shot at a first impression, after all!

One technique I find helpful is to do several passes looking at only one aspect of the script each time. So for example, I’ll do a pass where I focus on the protagonist’s dialogue and fine-tune it to ensure that it’s true to her voice. Then I’ll do another pass where I pressure test all of the scene descriptions, to ensure that they’re clear and concise.

By breaking down the work into a series of laser-focused drafts, I can evaluate the script’s individual elements with fresh perspective, and ensure that they’re the best possible versions of themselves.

As letters form words, so characters, scene descriptions, and other individual parts form a movie script.

When you feel confident in the quality of your draft, you should seek input from readers. If you’re not ready for that just yet – meaning, if you know what needs to be done with your draft before you give it to other people for their perspective – no worries. Do that first.

But eventually, it will be time to loop in a second set of eyes.

What is a “reader”, anyway?

A reader is someone you trust creatively – a colleague, a friend, a classmate – who’s willing to read your movie script and provide feedback.

We’ve covered how to get notes on your script in the past, but briefly, what you want to do first is help the reader understand what sort of feedback you need. For example, you could ask:

  • What did you find compelling?
  • Were there parts that dragged?
  • Was it clear that [character] is the protagonist? What made it clear to you?
  • What would you define as the protagonist’s goal?
  • When did you feel like we were moving from the end of the first Act into the second Act?
  • Was it clear that [character] is the antagonist? What made it clear to you?
  • How would you describe the central conflict of the story?

Such specific questions can help you focus the conversation around feedback that will be helpful and constructive.

Here’s why feedback matters.

It also reminds both you and the reader how the primary purpose of the feedback is to help you gauge the degree to which your writing reflects your intentions. Especially with first drafts, the creative vision you have in your head isn’t necessarily clearly expressed on the page.

So much of screenwriting is about communicating your vision to someone else – and eventually, to many other people! – so that they can bring it to life. You want what you envision to match what they envision based on your words. A reader helps you find out whether or not that’s happening.

Approach a conversation with a reader with curiosity, and as best you can, try not to take anything personally.

If what they see on the page isn’t what you’d hoped they’d see, don’t worry. Though it may feel like the end of the world, it’s not. Sure, it’s a bummer, but it’s also an opportunity to address problems!

So that the next time a reader dives in, your vision will be more clearly expressed.

Remember, "writing is rewriting". Your movie script will improve with each draft!

Go back to the drawing board.

Armed with your readers’ feedback, it’s time to go back to the drawing board. Chances are you won’t have to start from scratch! Instead, at this stage, you’ll discern which notes to implement, and how.

After you implement the feedback, you’ll put the new draft of your movie script out to readers again. And you’ll keep drafting as necessary, until the screenplay is where you want it to be.

Here, I’ll issue one small warning: Beware of overwriting.

I composed a memoir essay the other day, and I could feel myself going overboard. I was killing simple, effective sentences for more poetic ones. I was just not letting up and kind of ruining a good thing.

I’ve realized that sometimes I’ll do that when I’m trying to put off submitting a work, or when I’m just in the right (wrong?) writerly mood.

My advice on drafting – particularly after the first few drafts – is to do what’s necessary to arrive at a solid script, without overcooking it. Because you might undo some of your earlier inspiration and brilliance.

Your 3 ways forward.

With your finished draft, you’ve reached another crossroads. It’s time to decide what happens next. A screenplay is just the first step toward getting a film in front of an audience, after all!

At risk of over-simplifying, there are three distinct paths before you:

  • Independently produce your film.
  • Try to sell the movie script to a studio or production company.
  • Get an agent or manager to represent you; ie., sell the script to a studio or production company on your behalf.

Why would you choose to bring in an agent or manager if you can just sell the script yourself? Well, it’s tough to go it alone. Agents and managers have connections to the people who do purchasing. I’ve written about this in the past in one of our deep dives.

What path will you choose for your movie script once it's finished?

What happens after a movie script goes into production?

If your movie script goes the way of being sold and produced – congratulations! – it has a whole new journey ahead of it. One that, unless you’re directing, producing, or otherwise involved in actually making the film, may not involve you. But fear not, there are plenty of norms in place, here. For example:

  • Oftentimes, once a script gets optioned, it undergoes more revisions, since there are more players and money involved. You may do this, or a ghostwriter may be brought in.
  • After your script’s revised and considered “locked”, it will be turned into what’s called a “shooting script”. The main difference between the script you wrote and the script that’s used for production is how it’s notated. For example, numbers will be assigned to scene headings. This labeling system makes it easier for the film crew to budget, schedule, and prepare.
  • Typically, the screenwriter’s not on set day-to-day. Making a movie is an incredibly collaborative process, with each professional involved bringing a new layer of expertise and depth to the project. At this point, usually, the screenwriter’s job is over. They’ve cast the vision and set the foundation for everyone else.

Paths of Glory

It’s worth mentioning that you could choose to submit your script to screenwriting competitions, film festivals, and fellowships. All three could help you build credibility, connections, and momentum. In some cases, you could walk away with a monetary reward.

For example, if your screenplay gets named “Best Screenplay” by a reputable competition, then you have an accolade you could include in a query letter to an agent, manager, or producer, helping you stand out.

Many screenwriting competitions are conducted online and don’t involve an in-person component. But if you find a film festival with a screenwriting program, then it’s all about the networking.

The people you meet at a festival are likely to have similar interests. And since festivals tend to attract directors and producers especially, as a screenwriter, you could have a great opportunity to meet filmmakers eager to help you take your script (and/or future scripts) to the next level.

Fellowships often offer prize money you can use to fund your writing career, along with meetings with industry professionals. They can be extremely competitive, precisely because they can open so many doors.

It's a good idea to get the lay of the land before you embark on your screenwriting journey.

In Conclusion

And that brings us to the end of the road today!

With any luck, I’ve helped you get the lay of the land, friend. The screenwriting process can feel overwhelming, but I hope you’re armed with direction and a sense of the journey ahead.

All you need to do is take the first step, and then keep on walking. Keep going.

You’ve got this! If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to let me know in the comments below. I’d love to lend some further inspiration!

 Lauren McGrail, with

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