How to Write a Movie Script

What your scripts turn into

Writing screenplays is as old as the movie industry itself and people telling you how to write a movie script is just as old. There are some general guidelines you must follow, but style, organization, and idea-generating are all yours.

What is Movie Script?

Script, screenplay, and teleplay: they all represent a story for the screen. A screenplay typical runs 90-120 pages and each page corresponds to approximately one minute of screen time. For example, comedies average around 90 pages and epics push the 150 page mark. When you're thinking of how to write a movie script, keep note of the genre you are writing in and stay within the page range on your first draft. Watch your favorite movie or movies in the style you like and take note of how long they run.

Average Page Length
Comedies 90 pages
Action 110 pages
Adventure 120 pages
Horror/Thriller 80-95 pages
Epics 150 or more pages
Drama 100 pages

How to Write a Movie Script with No Ideas

Writer's block wastes time. If you're a writer, you probably had writer's block at some time and found yourself pulling your hair out just to get a few words on the paper or screen. Below are some ideas to get those creative juices flowing.

The Character Method

Most stories, whether novels or screenplays or epic poems, are about motivation and change. So what's involved in those two aspects? A character. Somebody has to be motivated or changed. With that in mind, begin sketching out a character. Don't be afraid to draw inspiration from your life or your friends. Start with the basics: name, hobbies, job, possessions, etc. Next, start brainstorming the meat of a person: his or her past, family, relationships, life goals achieved or not achieved, and maybe some things proud or not proud of. Within that character, you may find a back-story you can explore or a relationship that he or she must reconcile. Do remember one important thing: make sure that your character is interesting.

People Watching

This is another idea maker similar to the one above. Go to a popular setting with a notebook or journal, like a coffee shop, a bookstore, or the mall. Just sit and watch people. Watch couples, families, and people by themselves. Watch how they interact or are withdrawn. Guess at who they are or what they are thinking. If you can, listen to what they are saying and jot down anything that you come up with that is interesting.

Adapt a Story

Take a short story and adapt it to the screen. Don't try a novel since you are just trying to break writer's block or wanting to write something fresh. Why adapting a story often works is because usually in the midst of writing, your brain will think of other, cooler stories it would rather have you write. When this happens, and you are adapting a story, you won't be 100% invested and you can switch over to your new idea.

Story Organization

Writing a movie script can be tedious and time-consuming if you don't prepare. Before you even put one word on paper or type one word on the screen you should organize your thoughts to make plots coherent. One of the best methods out there involves using 3x5 index cards. Think of your movie as scenes. Each scene will go on a numbered index card. Each card represents about three pages and you should have around 35-45 cards.

At the top of the card is a short scene title, which you can reference quickly. Then you fill up the card with who's in the scene, what they are doing, and possibly why. When you have completed all the cards you need, spread them out numerically on the floor and read through them. Then, ask yourself these questions:

  • Does the story flow?
  • What happens if I a move card or switch these two cards?
  • Do I need to add scenes?
  • Are the main characters represented equally?
  • Do my main characters change?
  • For action or thriller movies, do dialogue scenes break up intense action scenes?
  • For drama or comedy, are there interesting scenes breaking up the dialogue?

The index card system is very flexible as you can add and remove cards at will. Some screenwriters also have character cards, which they add to the pile where the character is introduced in the story. This process provides you some flexibility in your planning.

Formatting the Movie Script

Honestly, the easiest way to format a script is to use screenplay software. There are tons out there, basic ones like Sophocles and Rough Draft and fancy ones like Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter. If you use Word, you can also find style templates to work for you. To write a script with a program, it's sometimes as simple as hitting tab and enter to move around the screen.

If you do decide to write your screenplay like the golden years of cinema, then adhere to the guidelines below:

  • The left margin is 1.5", leaving room for the braid fasteners
  • Stage direction (exposition, scene headings) begins at the left margin
  • Character names are centered 4.5" from left side of the paper
  • Dialogue begins 3" from the left side and should not extend beyond 2.5" from the right side of the paper
  • Make sure you double space between action and dialogue. The actual action and dialogue paragraphs are single spaced.
  • Parentheticals (direction to actors) start at 3.5" from the left side
  • Capital names are used for sound effects, the name of a character mentioned the FIRST time in the script.

Related Links

Have you started your script yet? Still need more guidance? Check out the links below for more in-depth information about organizing techniques, screenplay software, and brainstorming ideas and you may be sitting in the local theatre watching your movie play out.

How to Write a Movie Script