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The Blueprint of Blockbusters: What Is Screenwriting and Why It Matters

what is screenwriting

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Though often overlooked outside of the entertainment industry, screenwriting is an essential creative process in the development of movies, TV shows, and other visual stories we love.

In this guide we’ll cover:

  • An overview of the screenwriting process
  • Understanding screenplay formatting and structure
  • A glimpse into the future for screenwriters

Without talented screenwriters, there would be no compelling stories to inspire producers and directors. Screenwriters write the plot, characters, dialogue, and overall structure that provides the creative foundation for any film or television project. Learning the craft and formats of professional screenwriting is the necessary first step for any aspiring writer looking to break into the industry.

What is Screenwriting?

Screenwriting is the craft of writing scripts for feature films, television, and other visual media productions. Screenwriters create the blueprints that bring stories to life onscreen through plot, dialogue, and character development.

At its core, screenwriting is visual storytelling. Scripts describe the narrative action and dialogue in a format designed to clearly convey the writer’s vision while providing detailed instructions for how the story will be translated to film.

Screenplays require their own unique style and formatting to effectively achieve this goal. Understanding the specific techniques involved in writing scripts vs. novels or plays is key for screenwriters.

Importance of Screenwriting

Though often overlooked by the general public, talented screenwriting is essential to the entire filmmaking process. Here are some of the key reasons why it is such a vital craft:

  • Provides the narrative foundation for all films and shows. The script comes first.
  • Allows writers to share their creative visions and voice to wide audiences.
  • Crafts the characters, worlds, and memorable dialogue we love.
  • Gives structure and emotional impact to visuals through plot and pacing.
  • Sets the course for all subsequent production – acting, directing, cinematography, etc.
  • Connects viewers emotionally and mentally through storytelling.

Without skilled screenwriters to provide compelling stories and words, most films and shows simply could not exist. That is why talented screenwriting remains a highly sought after and valued skill in the entertainment industry.

Screenwriting Process

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The screenwriting process provides the step-by-step framework for writers to take an idea and develop it into a polished screenplay ready for production. Though each writer may approach things a bit differently, there are some core elements common to writing any strong script.

Craft a Logline

Before investing time in a full script, writers start by honing their concept into a one-sentence logline that captures the dramatic story and central conflict. A strong logline will quickly convey the protagonist, key relationships, the world they inhabit, the challenges they face, and what’s at stake. Refining the logline helps focus the overall vision.

Write a Treatment

The treatment expands the logline into a short 4-5 page overview that fleshes out the story, characters, setting, tone, and plot points. Treatments help structure the narrative and get early feedback before writing the full script.

Develop Characters

Now, the fun begins – bringing the characters to life. Screenwriters craft well-rounded, complex characters complete with unique voices, backstories, flaws, motivations, and character arcs. The protagonist and antagonist must be compelling and their conflict believable.

Plot and Outline

With vibrant characters in place, writers develop the plot points that drive the narrative forward through escalating conflict to the climax. Scene outlines capture the narrative flow and highlight key story beats.

Write a First Draft

After extensive planning, it’s time to dive into writing the first draft. This is where the story comes alive on the page using proper script formatting and prose that conveys both action and subtext.

Edit and Revise

Writing the script is just the first step. Revising and refining through countless drafts is where great scripts evolve. Writers polish the story, punch up dialogue, tighten pacing, and refine until the script is ready for the big screen.

The screenwriting process requires dedication and perseverance, but it provides the blueprint for bringing creative ideas to cinematic life. With a solid logline, treatment, unforgettable characters, and a compelling story flow – screenwriters can craft scripts that captivate audiences worldwide. The devil is in the details when transforming ideas into 120 pages that work.

Stages of a Screenplay

A screenplay undergoes an extensive development process, evolving through multiple drafts and revisions on its journey from initial concept to completed feature film. This collaborative process allows writers to refine their work while accommodating input from directors, producers, actors and other stakeholders.

The Spec Script

  • The starting point is often a “spec script” – an original screenplay written independently by the writer, on speculation of selling it to a studio or producer.
  • Spec scripts aim to showcase the writer’s skills in characterization, dialogue, plot, and structure.
  • An exceptional spec script with commercial appeal can launch a screenwriting career and lead to assignments or options for production.

Commissioned Scripts

  • Some screenwriters bypass spec scripts and pitch original concepts directly to a film studio or a production company to get “commissioned” to write a script.
  • Commissioned scripts allow a hired writer to collaborate earlier and receive payment upfront.
  • The right relationships and successful track record are required to consistently obtain commissions.

The Shooting Script

  • Once purchased, the screenplay enters the shooting script phase as preparation for production begins.
  • This draft is the same script as previously but contains technical information such as scene numbers, location details, and shooting schedules.
  • It evolves to match the vision of the director and accommodate production logistics.

The Production Draft

  • As filming commences, the director and actors will provide input to shape the script.
  • New improvised lines or rewritten scenes creating during the rehearsal process are incorporated.
  • This collaborative “production draft” reflects the needs and ideas of everyone involved.

Revised Production Drafts

  • Additional revisions occur throughout the intensive filming process, as scenes are altered or cut, new dialogue emerges, or sequences are reordered.
  • Constantly updating “revised production drafts” are circulated on set to keep everyone on the same page.

The Post-Production Draft

  • After shooting wraps, the editing process and reshoots will dictate final revisions.
  • The resulting “post-production draft” represents the screenplay’s final evolution – a blueprint for the finished film.

Understanding this extensive development process helps writers see a script as a living document, adaptable at each creative stage. A flexible, collaborative mindset allows screenplays to transform from “spec” to screen.

Screenplay Story Structure

Screenplays generally adhere to a fundamental story structure that divides the narrative into distinct acts or sequences. While there is some room for creativity, most successful scripts conform to established act frameworks. Two of the most common structures used in screenwriting are the 3-act and 5-act formats.

an illustration of the 3 Act structure

The 3-Act Structure

The 3-act structure is the most common screenplay story structure used for the majority of feature films. It contains three major sections.

  • Act 1 – The Setup (25-30 pages)
    • Introduces the protagonist and other main characters
    • Establishes the world, tone, central conflict
    • Builds to an “inciting incident” or first turning point that disrupts the status quo and hooks the audience
  • Act 2 – The Confrontation (60-90 pages)
    • The protagonist pursues their goals while facing escalating obstacles
    • New complications arise, stakes increase, tension builds
    • Often contains plot points like a “midpoint” and the “dark night of the soul”
    • Builds to a major turning point or “all is lost” moment going into Act 3
  • Act 3 – The Resolution (25-30 pages)
    • The protagonist perseveres for a final conflict and pursues their goal
    • Climax represents the peak of tension and leads to resolution
    • Loose ends are tied up, questions are answered, and character arcs are completed

This familiar beginning-middle-end framework provides a satisfying storyline suited to feature length.

The 5-Act Structure

The 5-act structure builds on the 3-act model by dividing the long second act into two parts:

  • Act 1 – Set-up
  • Act 2 – New situation, obstacle, or conflict arises
  • Act 3 – Complications escalate the conflict
  • Act 4 – Climax of the conflict
  • Act 5 – Resolution and denouement

The extra divisions allow for additional plot points and character arcs within the second act. This extended structure is often used in television writing.

While deviations can work, most successful scripts adhere to a clear three or five act structure. Mastering these proven frameworks provides a strong foundation for screenwriters before experimenting.

The Screenplay Format

an illustration of a typewriter and a book on screenplay formatting

Screenplays adhere to a very specific format that allows them to translate directly from the page to the screen. Learning proper script formatting is essential for screenwriters to communicate their vision.

Scene Headings

Screenplays are written in master scene script format, meaning that the script is divided by scene headings primarily. A scene heading is used to introduce each new scene and provide key context, like the location and time of day. They follow a specific structure, such as INT. JOHN’S HOUSE – DAY.

Action

Action lines describe what is happening visually in concise, present tense, active prose placed below scene headings. They provide essential stage direction without being overly prescriptive.

Characters

When characters first appear, their name is capitalized and accompanied by a short description of age and distinguishing details. Their names remain capitalized in all dialogue and action. This applies to the main character and secondary characters alike.

Dialogue

Dialogue moves the story forward and reveals the characters’ personalities through subtext. It is formatted under character names and centered on the page. Good dialogue has its own distinct style and rhythm.

Parentheticals

Small parenthetical phrases describe how a line should be delivered, like (sarcastically) or (slurring words). They can be used to provide clues to a character’s internal motivations. They can also be used to convey technical information, such as (O.S.), which tells the reader the voice is literally speaking off screen.

Transitions

Transitions like CUT TO: or DISSOLVE TO: guide the flow between scenes and shots within scenes. They should enhance the visual storytelling.

Adhering to proper screenplay format allows writers to succinctly convey their stories within industry expectations. The specific style and structure of scripts is an art unto itself for aspiring screenwriters to master. When done right, the reader visualizes the story unfolding naturally on screen.

Screenwriting Software and Tools

hands typing on a laptop keyboard

Screenwriters today have access to a wide array of software and tools to help streamline and enhance the script writing process. Choosing the right apps and programs can optimize productivity and organization.

Final Draft

The industry standard screenwriting software for decades, Final Draft provides professional script formatting and helpful writing features like autocomplete and tagging.

Arc Studio Pro

screenshot of Arc Studio Pro interface
A screenshot of the Arc Studio Pro interface

A newer cloud-based alternative to Final Draft, Arc Studio Pro also offers excellent formatting tools and real-time collaboration for co-writing scripts.

WriterDuet

This intuitive, affordable screenwriting program has robust collaboration options and unique tools like swapping character names across an entire script.

Highland

Highland structures projects by sequences and scenes to provide an efficient outlining and navigation system for screenplays.

StudioBinder

StudioBinder excels at formatting and organizing script revisions while also providing helpful production planning and scheduling tools.

Trelby

An open-source, free screenwriting program with the core capabilities needed for formatting and writing scripts. Great for beginners on a budget.

KIT Scenarist

This free, multi-platform screenwriting app offers cloud backups and an intuitive interface. Limited collaboration features compared to paid options.

The array of screenwriting programs provides options for all budgets and experience levels. As their toolsets improve, software can accelerate the process from outline to draft to revision. But no app yet replaces the creativity and perseverance needed to write an amazing script.

Types of Screenwriting

Illustration of a collage that divides the canvas into three distinct sections. On the left, a grand cinema hall with a marquee displaying 'Now Showing'

While the fundamentals remain the same, screenwriters tailor their skills to the different mediums of feature films, television, and video games. Each has its own storytelling requirements.

Feature Films

The prestige and big budgets reside in Hollywood features. Most follow a three-act structure in a 90-120-page script. Writers must master plot, sharp dialogue, and bringing characters to life within tight screen time.

Television Shows

TV provides more time to develop complex stories and characters. Writers create engaging episodes that advance season-long arcs. Pilots establish the television show’s world, tone, and hook. TV writers collaborate in a writers’ room.

Video Games

Interactive media requires thinking beyond linear narratives. Writers create branching stories, write ambient dialogue, and consider player agency. The format also differs to account for gameplay between story moments.

Though the mediums have their differences, skilled screenwriters can transition between features, TV, and games. Understanding each industry and its storytelling norms is key. But the same abilities to craft compelling characters, build layered and compelling plot arcs, and write snappy dialogue translate universally on the page and screen.

Screenwriters may choose to specialize in one area to start and build expertise. But exploring different genres, formats, and mediums makes writers more versatile and employable. Great screenwriting requires applying core dramatic principles while tailoring the presentation to each medium’s unique opportunities.

Screenwriting Techniques and Strategies

Illustration of a vintage typewriter with a screenplay page being typed out

Mastering key techniques and strategies allows screenwriters to transform ideas into compelling, cinematic narratives. Understanding the craft behind great scripts enables aspiring and established writers everywhere to hone their skills.

Structure is King

  • Screenplays adhere to a specific structure with plot points occurring at strategic moments. The most common formulas are three-act and hero’s journey.
  • A clear beginning, escalating conflict, and satisfying resolution are essential. Pacing builds steadily to the climax.
  • Deviating from conventional structures can work, but usually only after they are mastered.

Show, Don’t Tell

  • Screenplays are visual mediums, so action and imagery reveal information. Exposition through dialogue or narration should be limited.
  • Describe critical actions vividly through crisp, uncluttered action lines to engage the reader’s imagination.
  • Allow subtext and implication to convey deeper meaning. Trust the audience’s intuition.

Develop Memorable Characters

  • Complex protagonists and antagonists drive the narrative. They must be relatable yet flawed, with clear motivations.
  • Define characters through distinct dialogue styles and speech patterns tailored to each one.
  • Build rich backstories for main characters, revealing key details slowly to sustain intrigue.

Immerse Readers in the World

  • Establish the context and tone from page one through vivid descriptions of the setting and atmosphere.
  • Layer in subtle world-building details to make the reality believable without heavy exposition.
  • Use scene headings creatively to orient the reader and reinforce the mood.

By honing these techniques to craft well rounded characters, and making smart narrative choices, screenwriters can deliver scripts that immerse readers while conveying a compelling cinematic experience. Practice and study of the craft continually refine a writer’s skills.

Screenwriting Tips for Success

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Becoming a professional screenwriter takes immense talent, perseverance, and the right strategies to see your creative vision produced. Though the path is challenging, aspiring writers can set themselves up for success.

Practical Advice to Improve Your Craft

  • Read screenplays from films you admire to study format, structure, and prose
  • Take classes and workshops to get feedback from experienced instructors
  • Write every day and complete entire scripts, not just snippets
  • Immerse yourself in films and TV shows, analyzing what works and why
  • Learn basic principles of plot, character development, theme and dialogue
  • Join writers groups and network to gain access to producers and agents

The Importance of Perseverance and Continuous Learning

  • Develop resilience and a thick skin – criticism and rejection are part of the process
  • Be open to feedback and continually evolve your skills
  • Don’t get discouraged by early failures – even the greats faced years of struggle
  • View writing scripts as a lifelong journey of mastery, not a one-time event

Insights from Established Screenwriters

Veteran Hollywood screenwriters who have succeeded in the industry often share their wisdom and experience to guide aspiring writers. Here are some key insights:

  • Have a distinct voice and perspective – generic stories don’t stand out. Draw from your unique experiences and view of the world.
  • Master screenplay format and structure before breaking the rules. Know the rules well before you can effectively break them.
  • Be open to criticism and feedback. The development process involves countless revisions based on notes from producers, directors, actors, and executives.
  • Learn to balance your creative vision with the practical needs of the studio and producers. It’s a collaborative medium.
  • Great characters are key. Flawed, complex, relatable characters that actors want to play drive the most successful scripts.
  • Perseverance is vital. You will face rejection but must persist through self-doubt and early setbacks. Stay determined.
  • Align yourself with successful producers, directors, and collaborators who respond to your writing voice and can help champion your projects.
  • Understand that screenwriting is a business, not just an art. Deliver scripts on time, develop your career strategically, and adapt your writing while retaining your vision.
  • Continuously improve your craft through classes, workshops, writing groups, and reading scripts. Successful screenwriting requires a lifelong dedication to the craft.
  • Write every day if possible, even if just for 30 minutes. The strongest writing comes through daily consistency, not sporadic, intense efforts.

By learning from those who have paved the way and found success, new writers can absorb the wisdom needed to build sustainable, rewarding screenwriting careers. The path is challenging but navigable with the right preparation, persistence, and artistry.

The Future of Screenwriting

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Screenwriting is an ever-evolving craft. As technology and media continue to advance, the field will change and adapt in exciting ways.

Some trends that will shape screenwriting’s future:

  • More immersive, interactive storytelling mediums like virtual reality
  • Artificial intelligence tools to aid in plot, character, and dialogue
  • Increased international collaboration through cloud-based software
  • Greater diversity of voices and perspectives represented
  • New platforms for original content and distribution

The Impact of Technology

Advances will provide new creative opportunities:

  • More efficient outlining, writing, and revision tools
  • Ability to model alternative plots and scenarios
  • Seamless collaboration across distances
  • Real-time feedback and analysis of script strengths/weaknesses
  • Customized script formatting for any medium

But the fundamentals of captivating storytelling will remain essential.

The Future Screenwriter

Future screenwriters will need to:

  • Leverage new technologies while retaining creative vision
  • Understand how mediums shape narrative structure and technique
  • Collaborate globally across cultures and perspectives
  • Adapt writing skills to emerging formats and platforms
  • Remain flexible, versatile and open to experimentation

The core principles of character, story and drama endure. But screenwriting is evolving rapidly. The writers who will succeed are those able to balance a mastery of tradition with an enthusiasm to evolve their craft.

Conclusion

Screenwriting is an indispensable craft that brings stories to life visually. Though the writing journey is challenging, screenwriters create the narrative foundations that inspire and engage audiences globally.

The Importance of Screenwriting

Without talented screenwriters, the entertainment industry would grind to a halt. Their creative visions lead to the movies, shows, and games we all love. Screenwriters give a voice to diverse perspectives and let our imaginations soar.

The best writers have a calling to this difficult but rewarding profession. They feel compelled to bring their unique stories to the screen and touch people emotionally. Though invisible off-camera, skilled writers leave an indelible impact through memorable characters, witty dialogue, and compelling drama.

Tips for Aspiring Screenwriters

For any writer aiming to build a screenwriting career, here are some parting tips:

  • Commit fully and write every single day
  • Develop your own distinct voice and style
  • Master the fundamentals while taking smart risks
  • Learn from seasoned professionals, but stay true to your vision
  • Collaborate while protecting the integrity of your work
  • Persevere through inevitable rejection and setbacks
  • Remember that screenwriting is art and business – balance both

Screenwriting remains a challenging path. But with passion, dedication, thick skin, and mastery of the craft – emerging writers can make their mark. The blank page awaits. It’s time to bring your stories into the light.

FAQs

What Is the Minimum Education Requirement to Become a Screenwriter?

No specific degree is required to become a screenwriter; however, developing your writing talents through creative writing and understanding career prospects are essential.

What Are the Average Earnings of a Screenwriter?

The salary range for a screenwriter various widely. Network and pitch effectively to maximize your average earnings as a screenwriter. Take advantage of networking opportunities and hone your pitching skills to increase your chances of success.

What Is the Best Way to Develop Writing Skills for Screenwriting?

Develop your writing style and script structure for screenwriting by practicing writing, exploring genres, honing dialogue and character skills, and reading successful screenplays.

What are some of the Common Habits of Successful Screenwriters?

Successful screenwriters have a driving reason for writing, create compelling story structures, and trust their instincts. They set high standards, practice writing, and understand the rules of writing.

Are There Any Hollywood Programs or Fellowships for Screenwriters?

Yes! There are Hollywood programs and fellowships for screenwriters. Pitch your scripts to get coverage and network with industry professionals. The Warner Bros. Writers Workshop and Disney ABC Writing Fellowship are great opportunities to hone your craft and build your portfolio.

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