How To Write a Script: A Step-by-Step Guide to Crafting a Successful Screenplay
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 8 min read

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How to Start Writing a Screenplay

Writing a script is the most exciting step in the filmmaking world. The script is an essential centerpiece and a constant presence in the filmmaking process, especially since you are creating a blueprint for the world the film will live in. This is where most of what the audience will see and hear in the film originates from.

Writing a script for a movie must be part compelling narrative and part instruction manual for the cast and crew who will make your story into a film. You must engage the filmmaker’s imagination as you inform them as to the film’s inner workings.

Balancing these two mandates when learning how to write a script is the secret to writing a screenplay. Successfully blending your creative spirit with the technical aspects of screenwriting yields a powerful tool of artistic expression.

What follows is a step-by-step guide on how to write a script. From the basic technical fundamentals to the creative process, here’s everything you need to begin learning how to write a script.


Screenplays are the roadmap to the story you will see on-screen and must follow traditional script format. Standardized terms and page margins inform filmmakers and accurately set the length of the final product.

In the proper format, one page of screenplay roughly equals one minute of film. The sweet spot for a feature-length film is 90-120 minutes. Therefore, your script should be 90-120 pages.

Software programs will have the script format all laid out for you. Final Draft is the industry standard, but there are others you can use, such as Movie Magic, Squibler, and Fade In. Read a few screenplays before writing your own to get used to the format and become comfortable using the software.

Element Terminology

There are a number of terms needed to write a script. The following terms are employed for key screenplay elements. Headings are written in ALL CAPS. Everything else is handled in normal sentence case.

Scene Heading: This is at the top of every new scene, signifying the place and time. This defines whether you are shooting exteriors or interiors (EXT, INT), the location (i.e., HOUSE, ZOO), and the time of day (i.e., DAY, NIGHT), as seen in the following examples.

This scene takes place inside Bob’s house at night:


This scene takes place at a zoo during the day:


Action Paragraph: Below each scene heading is an action paragraph. Here you will concisely explain what is happening on screen. Following the zoo example, the structure looks as follows.


Bob enters the zoo grounds. The sounds of animal calls fill the air. He walks quickly to get to his meeting, looking behind his shoulder to see if he’s being followed. Then he sees Mary waiting for him. He approaches her.

Character, Parenthetical, and Dialogue Paragraphs: Dialogue follows the action paragraph, centered below. It starts with a character paragraph, which names the speaker. A parenthetical paragraph may follow, elaborating upon the dialogue’s tone. A dialogue paragraph falls below with narrower formatting, written in sentence case. Now the zoo example looks like this:


Bob enters the zoo grounds. The sounds of animal calls fill the air. He walks quickly, trying to get to his meeting, often looking behind his shoulder to see if he’s being followed. Then he sees Mary waiting for him. He approaches her.



Mary! Where in heaven’s name have you been?

I’ve been looking everywhere for you!

The above is a typical example of the narrative flow of a screenplay in format. Other critical script element terms are included below.

Transition: a transition from one scene to another that isn’t a standard cut. The most common transition types are FADE IN, FADE OUT, DISSOLVE TO, and MATCH CUT TO.

Shot: a particular type of shot the script requires. If it is essential to the storytelling, use terms like CLOSE UP, LONG SHOT, MEDIUM SHOT, and POV (i.e., character’s point of view).

V.O./O.S: dialogue directives for VOICEOVER and OFF SCREEN. Voiceovers are typically narration. Off-Screen is for unseen speakers (i.e., on the other end of a phone or closed door).

The :Logline: The Seed of Your Idea

The logline is how to start writing a screenplay. A logline describes your idea in a one-sentence explanation less than 50 words long. In that short space, you must answer the question: What is the story about?

Here are a few popular movies and their loglines as examples:

Spider-Man: A teenage boy from Queens is bitten by a genetically altered spider, gaining superpowers, which he uses to fight criminals and protect his girlfriend from a supervillain.

Erin Brockovich: An out-of-work single mom goes from humble legal assistant to fighting a modern-day David vs. Goliath battle as she single-handedly takes on one of California’s worst polluters.

The Godfather: A 1950s New York mafia boss struggles to control his criminal empire as his favorite son, a war hero, is reluctantly drawn into the family’s dangerous business.

Logline Do’s and Don’ts

Now that you understand how to condense your favorite film into a logline, you can do the same for your own.

Here’s what you DO to write your logline:

  • Explain the basics of what happens in the film.
  • Immediately transmit who your protagonist is.
  • Describe the main challenge which fuels the story.
  • Quickly brand the world your story happens in.

And here’s what you DON’T do:

  • Name the characters (historical figures can be an exception).
  • Include any spoilers, i.e., whether the protagonist is successful in their struggle.
  • Stray from the main focus of the story by including plot details.

The Outline: Fleshing Out Your Beat Sheet

The next step in screenwriting is to create an outline. This chronological scene-by-scene breakdown hits each “beat” of your film. Each beat is a point that moves the story forward.

In the film Star Wars, for example, the first few beats in the outline might look like this:

  • The Imperial Star Destroyer captures the Rebel ship holding Princess Leia.
  • Leia entrusts the secret Rebel plans to her droids, then is captured by Darth Vader.
  • The droids land on the desert planet Tatooine, bicker and become separated.

Each beat will usually carry about 2-3 pages of script. Sixty outline beats approximate a feature film’s length.

Beats are traditionally written on index cards and hung up on boards. Digital index cards or even a bulleted list on a document also work. Each beat will shape each scene in your script.

The Treatment: Your Film in Short Story Form

Next, write a treatment for your script. Treatments are prose summaries of a film. They are useful to flesh out the narrative and to lay out your idea to filmmaking partners.

Following the Star Wars example from above, you can take the first few beats and boil it down to start your treatment:

An Imperial Star Destroyer overwhelms a far smaller Rebel ship, capturing it in a massive hangar. The Rebel fighters guard a portal that is breached by attacking stormtroopers. The droids R2-DC and C3-PO manage to avoid being fired upon until they reach Princess Leia. Leia entrusts them with a copy of the secret rebel plans. She is captured by Darth Vader. The droids escape to the desert planet Tatooine. There, they bicker and become separated.

As you can see, the treatment expands upon the outline, adding heft to the narrative and making the action clearer. For a feature film, treatments should run 4-5 pages.

Write Your Own Script, Part 1: First Draft Fundamentals

First Draft Fundamentals

Now that you’ve learned the format and terminology, fleshed out your outline, and written your treatment, it’s time to write the screenplay. Your first draft should be your boldest, where you take the biggest risks. Follow these basic rules when you write.

Build the Narrative

Follow the basic five-act structure of narrative-building. In feature films, it works as follows:

Act 1 – Sets up the story, the protagonist, and their world. An initial incident sets things off, revealing the central problem the protagonist must confront.

Act 2 – The action starts rising. More incidents compel the protagonist to face their conflict.

Act 3 – The action builds to a climax. A defining incident will lead the protagonist towards making a choice.

Act 4 – The action starts falling. Additional incidents draw the protagonist closer to their ultimate fate.

Act 5 – Resolution is achieved. The protagonist has changed by either achieving or failing their goals.

Show, Don't Tell

Film is a visual medium. Avoid characters explaining the narrative. Show it in action as much as possible.

Present Tense

Everything in a script must be written in the present tense, aside from dialogue.

Write Your Own Script, Part 2: Editing Your Script

Now that you’ve written the first draft, go back and reread it objectively. Refine the work so it will be as effective as possible. Don’t be discouraged if you face many changes; writing a script usually requires at least three or four drafts. Here’s what to watch for as you edit:

  • Adding and subtracting scenes. Cut out any scene that is redundant, repetitive, or adds nothing important to the narrative. Introduce new scenes if you identify a good way to better tell the story.
  • Clunky dialogue. Dialogue should be crisp, natural, and clear. Character voices must be consistent throughout the film and avoid excessive exposition.
  • Excessive description. Action paragraphs should be short and to the point. Avoid character interiority, unnecessary descriptions, and too much camera direction.
  • Unclear motivations. Character decisions must make sense. If they don’t, either elaborate or have them make different choices.
  • Forced resolution. Whatever the resolution of your protagonist’s journey, it must be the result of organic character evolution clearly shown in the narrative.
  • Script length. Remember – you want a feature script to be 90-120 pages. If you’re far outside that range, adjust accordingly.
  • Grammar counts. Script readers can lose interest in your work if they keep stumbling on misspellings or improper grammar. Be sure it’s all correct.

The Reading: Hearing is Believing

Hearing is Believing
Hearing is Believing

While this step is optional, having actor friends do a script reading of your screenplay can be very helpful. That will help you understand what works and what doesn’t work, allowing you to improve on previous drafts. It’s not an essential part of the screenwriting process. But if you can arrange a reading, you will get a far better idea of what you’ve accomplished.

Now that you’ve taken the first steps in understanding how to write a script, dive even deeper into this wonderful world. Head to Daisie for courses taught by industry leaders in film. Ask questions, discuss and learn together with like-minded creators.