Ten Steps to Completing Your Screenplay

By Michael Schilf · April 1, 2011

Screenwriting is a skilled trade, and a good screenplay must be molded and managed with craftsman hands. But the hard truth is that good screenwriting is a “nose to the grindstone” occupation. And if you want to be a serious screenwriter, you must make the commitment. Be disciplined, get organized, prioritize, and above all else, write. So if you’re willing to do the work to turn your idea into a competed screenplay, follow these ten key steps:

1. Choosing Your Material

Your foundation is you. There are stories in all of us, and you are what you write, so writing from within is always a good place to draw from. It’s usually a mistake to write out of your realm, especially for the beginning screenwriter. And writing a screenplay is no easy task; it takes months, sometimes a year or longer to go from conception to final draft, and you don’t want to work with material you don’t enjoy, so be smart and write what you love.

2. Getting Started: The Idea

Screenplays evolve essentially two ways: story drive (often called High Concept), when a writer plugs original characters into a tailor-made plot, or character driven, in which the plot is born organically from the characters, usually an unforgettable main protagonist. But regardless of the approach, a screenplay often sinks or swims on the idea alone. So have lots of ideas. Lots of them! And make sure they are fresh, original, and unique.

3. Character Development

There are many ways to go about creating characters – using a character questionnaire, doing character exercises, exploring your hero’s top ten rules, or even applying our 7-day character schedule – but regardless of how you research your characters, you must always ask yourself the why: Why do your characters ask to be in a story? What do they want? Because then you begin to find out why you want to write the whole story, and story starts with character.

4. Story Development

Screenwriting is telling an exciting story about an interesting character, who wants something badly, and is having trouble getting it. Here’s the equation: [(Character + Want) x Conflict = Story]. And asking questions is the key. Using a Story Questionnaire to help you clarify key story elements, such as theme, location, population, and situation, will help you understand the world of the story, create polarity, and apply plausible obstacles.

5. Learning the Genre

Film genres (and sub-genres) are important because people rarely go to the movies to be surprised. The audience knows the girl will get the guy in the end, the villains get their just deserts, and that rom-coms are nothing like reality. In the real world, love is hell and sometimes the bad guys win, but in the movies, love is pure and the hero always saves the day. Screenwriting is not about reinventing the wheel. The key is to understand the genre and meet the expectations of its audience.

6. Understanding Your Audience

All good writing is crafted with the audience in mind, but simply understanding your audience and the rules of the genre you’re working in means next to nothing if you fail to connect with that audience. If your audience isn’t invested in the story, if they don’t care about the characters, if they are not intimately involved, anticipating, reaching conclusions, and adding it up… well, then you’re in trouble, riding a sinking ship.

7. Planning Your Foundation

You are the architect of your screenplay, but before you FADE IN on page one, you must do the prep work and plot out your story. Sure, you can build something without a blueprint, but you can build something so much better with a clear, organized plan. And this is your Outline. The perfect outline is unique to each writer, but it should include at the very least how the story ends and begins, as well as the screenplay’s five major plot points.

8. Building Your Structure

This is the hammer and nails part – the rough carpentry. Every script from every genre is built from Three-Act Structure: Act One (set up), Act Two (obstacles), and Act Three (resolution). The total number of sequences included is debatable, depending upon the genre (every Action film has an extra sequence as it begins with the end of the last adventure), but the Eight Sequence Structure is a good universal standard to build from.

9. Applying Your Detail

This is the craftsman work. It’s one thing to have a great story idea with unforgettable characters and a crystal clear plan, and it’s another thing entirely to apply it in screenplay form, maximizing the visual page. But you must also write with an original voice, while delivering concise scenes that reveal character and move the story forward. And then there is the dialogue: Show, Don’t Tell. Film is a visual medium, not verbal storytelling through talking heads.

10. Completing Your Script

Writing a screenplay is a marathon, not a sprint. And the goal is to complete your screenplay, not to make it perfect. You’ll have plenty of time for improvements in the 2nd, or 7th, or 17th drafts. Writing is rewriting, but you can never honestly call yourself a screenwriter until you first complete a screenplay. So create a practical writing schedule and stick to it. Dedication, fortitude, and simply showing up everyday to write… now that is the secret.