How to become a screenwriter - everything you need to know

Do you have a knack for telling a story, or are you an avid reader and film fan? If so, screenwriting might be something that you have considered before, or maybe it has not crossed your mind until now. But screenwriting is a hugely rewarding career, both creatively and financially. It can be a tough industry to break into, but with guidance you can take the right steps to give yourself every chance of success.

What is screenwriting?

Screenwriting is in essence the art of storytelling for screen. That is both cinema and television. It is far more than just writing the dialogue for the characters. Screenwriting involves writing about the time, location, characters state of mind and basically everything that is happening in the scene. Take the following scene from James Cameron’s Aliens for example: 

As we can see here, the writer has described the type of shot used and how it changes from cutting in on the action to a wider shot. We have very little dialogue in the scene but it is full of detail and is very clear in showing how capable Ripley is and how Hicks and Apone are impressed. It is written as though we are actually watching the scene.Screen writers do more than just write scripts and duties can include: 

  • Writing scripts for TV shows and feature films
  • Developing and researching original ideas
  • Writing and adapting engaging stories into scripts
  • Pitching ideas to production companies and film executives
  • Blending together plot, dialogue and visual elements to create compelling scenes
  • Working with producers and directors to revise scripts

Now that you know what a screenwriter does, is it a worthwhile career path to follow? How much does a screenwriter make? Well there is no straightforward answer as it really depends on the types of projects you are working on and the budgets involved. It also depends on your own level of output, the more scripts you put out that are used, the more you will make. But as an example: 

Per the Writers Guild of America West, the minimum amount a script writer can get paid for a low budget (less than $ 5 million) feature-length film excluding treatment is $ 41 740. For a high-budget film (exceeding $ 5 million), the minimum amount a script writer can get paid is $ 85 902. Of course, screenwriter pay varies significantly in between and above those rates for both TV and movies. (SoCreate – Screenwriting for Everyone, 2021)

For a consistent income, getting a role as a screenwriter on a TV series is the best option, it will give you lots of experience and allow you to develop your own style to apply to cinematic scripts that you want to create.

How can you become a screenwriter?

Start writing

It may seem very obvious but you need to write, write and rewrite to develop your ideas and hone your storytelling skills. Screenwriting is a very visual way of telling stories and takes time to learn. You may have great ideas for a movie or television show but if you cannot communicate the minuscule details then the script is open to errors and plot holes. You also need to learn how to tell a story within a set amount of pages and time, one that is engaging and entertaining.

Learn how to craft a script

As to the point above, a script does not follow the traditional format of storytelling. Typically a script will be a set number of pages and have 3 acts. The page amount will vary from 90 pages for a comedy to about 110 pages for a drama. Each page should cover one minute of footage. There is also a very particular format that you must follow when writing a script, otherwise studios won’t even look at your script. Thankfully it is not too hard to follow.

The basics of script formatting are as follows:

  • 12-point Courier font size
  • 1.5 inch margin on the left of the page
  • 1 inch margin on the right of the page
  • 1 inch on the of the top and bottom of the page
  • Each page should have approximately 55 lines
  • The dialogue block starts 2.5 inches from the left side of the page
  • Character names must have uppercase letters and be positioned starting 3.7 inches from the left side of the page
  • Page numbers are positioned in the top right corner with a 0.5 inch margin from the top of the page. The first page shall not be numbered, and each number is followed by a period.

This is merely the correct presentation of a screenplay. There is more to this. As mentioned, movies typically have a 3 act structure. 

The three-act structure is a model used in narrative fiction that divides a story into three parts (acts), often called the Setup, the Confrontation, and the Resolution. It was popularised by Syd Field in his 1979 book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. (Wikipedia Contributors, 2022)

Nearly every western movie follows this formula. You will need to learn about other aspects of cinema and tv to incorporate them into your own stories. 

If you feel that this is a lot to try and remember, there are software programmes out there that will help you with the basic formatting of the script, but only you can tell the story.

Learn how the industry works

It would be naive to expect that if you write a screenplay that it will be picked up and made into a successful film or show. The industry of film and TV is always changing, it follows trends and is full of different steps that you need to take to even get your screenplays seen. The best way to learn how the industry works is to read books, like the aforementioned Syd Field book, follow filmmakers on social media and take a course in filmmaking and script writing. We are also in an era where the very way we consume film and TV is completely different to how we did only a decade before. If you write a screenplay, where will it even be seen? This is an important consideration as the line between the quality of cinema and TV has narrowed, and in a lot of ways, TV allows a lot more room to tell an expansive narrative.

Learn and upskill

Taking a course in film or/and writing is highly recommended to perfect your skill. You may have great ideas but as already displayed you need to know how to communicate it correctly, be prepared for a lot of rewriting and know the language and terminology associated with cinema and TV.

Follow your Idols

There are hundreds of resources out there when it comes to this subject but likely there are filmmakers that you admire and want to emulate. Follow them, find them on social media if they are on it. Look at their movies in a different way, from a filmmakers perspective. Many DVDs will have commentaries on how a film was made, these can give great insight into problems that filmmakers overcame to get a film completed.

Other skills you will need as a screenplay writer

Beyond these skills, which are only the tip of the iceberg, there are many other skills that you need to develop to be a successful writer. 

An understanding of literature and language

This is something that you will always be developing, but reading, writing, watching films, TV and plays, will all help you to come up with your own ideas and inform your writing. The more you understand language the better that you will communicate with your audience.

Observational skills

Many screenwriters base characters, plot lines, and much of the dialogue of a script on real events, places, and people they’ve observed in real life.

Creativity

Scriptwriters are typically creative individuals who use their imagination to develop characters, establish clear settings and tell engaging stories in their scripts. Their creativity can help them invent original content, portray complex issues through characters and storylines and tell dynamic stories that connect with their audiences. Creativity can be an important skill for scriptwriters to develop original ideas and write satisfying endings to their stories.

Working with others

You might be surprised but it is unlikely that you will be working alone when you submit a script and it is accepted. Especially in the case of television you will be working with a team. There will be a lot of input on your work and many changes will be made, so you will need to learn to accept it. But remember you will be working with other professionals who are there to improve your story. 

Whilst this all seems like a lot of work (it is) it is absolutely achievable with the right steps, skills and education. You never know, you may write the next billion dollar franchise! 

Start your screenwriting career here with our Screenwriting Course.

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