These are the Things that Writers Say Make Up a Great Screenplay
- Correct formatting
- Flawless spelling and grammar
- New concept
- Gripping storyline
- Compelling main character
- Escalating conflict
- Three-act story structure
- Snappy dialogue
- Lean script
- Realistic production values
- Unbeatable logline
- A sprinkle of magic dust
If you’re a first-time screenwriter and want to get your script noticed by the Hollywood elite, you’re up against stiff competition. There are a bajillion screenwriters out there who all want to see their feature film on the big screen at a film festival.
Thankfully, we’ve got a bunch of screenwriting tips from expert filmmakers that’ll help your script leap to the top of the pile. This guide covers all the nitty gritty stuff people learn at film school – like script formatting, right through to the juicy details like loglines and first drafts.
Let’s dive in.
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Scriptwriting is hard work. But one part that’s pretty easy is making sure that your script follows standard movie script formatting. If it doesn’t, then it almost certainly won’t be considered by a script reader, production company or film exec.
In the simplest terms, your script should be a printed document that's:
- 90-120 pages long
- Written in 12-point Courier font
- Printed on 8.5" x 11", white, three-hole-punched paper
The film industry’s love of Courier has a reason: one script page in 12-point Courier is roughly one minute of screen time. That’s why the page count for an average screenplay should be between 90 and 120 pages, although this differs by genre.
A romantic comedy is usually shorter (90 pages / 1.5 hours), while a sci-fi script can be a little longer (120 pages / 2 hours). A short film will be shorter still. But you already knew that.
If you’re planning to use screenwriting software (like Celtx, Fade In, Final Draft, or others), then these programmes will handle all the formatting for you – so you can concentrate on writing your blockbuster.
If you want to learn how to format a script from scratch, check out our guide for all the details: How to write a script.
Flawless spelling and grammar
Much like your English teacher, the film industry doesn’t take kindly to typos or grammar errors. As a scriptwriter who wants to get their spec script noticed, you need to ensure it’s spotless on the spelling and grammar front. A script with typos looks amateurish and makes a bad first impression.
Make sure you use spell check in your programme of choice, or run the whole document through Grammarly. If you want to generally tighten up your writing, the Hemingway Editor helps you write a bit more like Ernest himself.
A good script doesn’t need to be a story that’s never been heard before. But you do need to bring something new to the scriptwriting table – a fresh take or unique twist. Your synopsis should show that you’re doing something different, and leave the reader eager to know what happens.
Every good screenplay grabs your attention from the start and holds it until the closing credits – Oscar-winning blockbusters and TV series alike. Whether you choose to open your script in the present day or with some juicy backstory, make sure that your opening moments suck the viewer in.
Compelling main character
Your audience needs a main character to drive the story forward and give them someone to root for. While there are a million different characters out there, they all tend to fall into one of 12 character archetypes. So if you’re stuck for inspiration, those archetypes a great place to start.
When writing your main character, it’s a good idea to think about these key questions:
- Who is this character?
- What do they want?
- How are they going to get it?
- What happens if they don’t?
Try to answer these questions within the first few pages, otherwise you risk your audience becoming disengaged.
Every great script contains escalating conflict, with each new event pushing your main character into sticky new situations. Just think about the embattled Rocky Balboa in Rocky IV, who not only has to fight tough Russian Ivan Drago, but also has to cope with the death of his best friend, Apollo Creed. Each new piece of conflict takes the filmmaking drama to new heights.
Three-act story structure
Great screenplays come in all shapes and sizes, but they all follow the same structure. It’s an ancient system, dreamt up by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who said that the perfect story structure is a three-act affair:
Also known as the ‘inciting incident’. This is the moment when your story's set in motion.
This is when your characters start going through big changes (also called character arc) as a result of what's happening.
Also known as the resolution, this is when your characters confront the problem, the story comes together, and you tie up the loose ends.
If you follow this structure, your story’s guaranteed to have a solid foundation.
Writing great dialogue is an art form. Just ask Aaron Sorkin, who’s famed for his work on The Social Network, Moneyball and Steve Jobs. On MasterClass, Sorkin recommends reading your dialogue out loud to test how it feels in a physical setting. And while it’s important to make sure it sounds realistic and believable, Sorkin also says it’s okay to take a few liberties – screenwriting is an art, after all.
A great script is only as long as it needs to be, and no longer. It should never go over 120 pages. If your first draft’s a little long, get the red pen out and start cutting anything that’s not vital or feels fluffy. And if you’re struggling to “kill your darlings,” ask a friend to help with the edit. They’ll be able to look at the script with a fresh eye and help you to start picking it apart. Remember: writing is rewriting.
Realistic production values
We all want to create the next Fast & Furious franchise. But if you’re a first-time writer, you might want to set your sights a little lower than a multi-billion-dollar blockbuster series. By removing the sports cars and myriad guns from your script, it’ll be much easier for a script reader to imagine bringing your vision to life without breaking the bank.
A logline is a one-sentence summary of your movie that entices someone to read the entire script. If your logline is a corker, it'll help you stand out from the crowd.
A logline has four ingredients:
- Inciting incident
- Main character
- Central conflict
Once you've got those four ingredients, you can put them together in different ways. Like this, for example: When inciting incident happens, the main character decides to do central conflict against antagonist.
Most screenwriters advise writing loglines that are only one sentence long. Some people say no longer than 30 words. But if your movie is on the complicated side, you might need to stretch your logline to a couple of sentences.
A sprinkle of magic dust
Following all the rules in this article is just the start to writing a great screenplay. It’s going to take trial and error, bags of inspiration, and a little luck to strike gold. But with perseverance and a lot of rewriting, we’re sure that a little magic dust will appear. We believe in you!
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