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When you really think about it, our expectations of scripts are weirdly high: They’re an unpolished part of the process that we often expect to stand in for the finished product. But once you start learning how to write a script, you realize the limitations—and benefits!—of the script format pretty quickly.
There isn’t just one type of course: There are different things to bear in mind when learning how to write a movie script versus how to write a play script or how to write a script for a comic. But across the board, it’s about learning how to show but not tell. Whether you’re working on your screenplay or your pilot, the things you put on the page should be exclusively those things your audience can actually see—and that are necessary to the scene. (So things like spoken lines, stage directions, and basic descriptions of the environment rather than character motivations, a soundtrack, or a long-winded list of camera angles.)
If you’re lucky and your project gets made, all these elements will get added in later. But for the moment, try thinking of your script as a skeleton: You have to get it balanced on its own before layering on acting, lighting, staging, and sound design, or you’ll end up with a messy pile of disconnected bones.
Will you witness these basic rules being broken almost constantly if you study screenplay format or read script examples? Absolutely. Do I have trouble not breaking them myself when I switch from content writing to movie scripts? Double absolutely. But especially as a beginner just starting out with how to write a screenplay, for example, they’re extremely helpful to bear in mind to avoid getting overwhelmed.
What Are the Different Kinds of Scripts You Can Write?
Before we learn how to write a script, let’s talk about the different types you might encounter.
This is a great type to study because there are so many screenplay examples out there. (Reading Die Hard and the other free offerings at the Internet Movie Script Database is a great place to start.) Obviously, the elements of a screenplay will differ from script to script and between genres, but in general, movie scripts are between 90 and 125 pages, with comedies trending shorter and dramas trending longer.
If you’re hoping to break into Hollywood, this is where your focus should be to start. Typically coming in at around 25 to 45 pages for a half-hour show, spec scripts and original pilots are frequently used as tools to evaluate the skills of a prospective writer. In some cases, you might be asked to provide a full hour (45 to 75 pages) example as well, but it’s less common.
Playwriting is a whole different animal; often much closer to a novel than how to write a script for a movie. Ranging from one-acts to multiple evenings of entertainment, scripts for plays can vary widely in length, and typically feature longer scenes than movies or TV because of the difficulties of transporting the audience to a whole new setting.
This is a great way to get your feet wet, because with comedic sketches, the shorter the better, honestly. Aim for a two to five-page length, with a laugh every three lines or so, and you’ll be absolutely golden.
Write Your Own Screenplay!
A Step-By-Step Guide to Screenwriting
How to Write a Script in 5 Steps
Step 1: Read Everything You Can Get Your Hands On
The first step in gaining any new skill is immersing yourself in it fully, and script-writing is no different. Whatever type of script you’re trying to write, it’s time to read dozens—at a minimum—of examples of it until you eat, sleep, and breathe the format. Try The Script Lab for screenplays, this site for pilots, and this excellent resource for free plays to read online.
Step 2: Invest in a Script-Writing Program
Trust me: Don’t be a hero and try to mimic all that formatting in Microsoft Word or Google Docs. It’s not only a waste of your time, but it will irritate anyone who reads it. If you’re willing to spend a little dough, FinalDraft is the industry standard, but there are great options like Highland 2, WriterDuet, and Slugline available for free that are a massive help for learning script formatting.
Step 3: Outline Your Story and Characters
Set yourself up for success by having the basic arc of your plot laid out before you put pen to paper or fingers to keys. Create an escalating series of tentpole moments—where something happens to your characters—then resolve that situation and give them something bigger to deal with, and so on and so on. Repeat until you’ve tied up all your loose ends: about 10 moments for a pilot, and maybe 20 for a feature.
Step 4: Add a B-story
Now that you have your plot outlined, you can weave in supporting characters and storylines to give your audience a break from the main action. Follow the same tentpole process as above, but keep the stakes lower and lighter so as not to distract.
Step 4: Fill in the Blanks
Transfer your outline into your script software, and start filling in the missing pieces. That means indicating the location and time of day for each scene (like EXT. RESTAURANT, DAY, for example) and of course, the dialogue. This can feel like an overwhelming part, but since you did such a great job with your outline, it’s going to be a breeze.
Step 5: Polish
It’s going to be hard, but hold off editing until you have your entire first draft down. But now that you do, you can make multiple passes back through to add in anything you need—whether that’s jokes, character clarification, or to improve flow. It may never feel quite finished, but at some point stop: you’ve got yourself a completed script!
Ready to Start Your Script?
Learn Screenwriting By Writing One Scene in a Screenplay Format