Close up of hand typing the words "Fade In:" on a retro typewriter on a desk covered in books, writing materials and screenplay pages with a film reel and clapperboard sitting on the background.

How to Start a Screenplay: The Comprehensive Step-by-Step Guide for Beginners in 2024

Do you dream of seeing your story on the big screen? Do you finally want to write that movie script that’s been kicking around in your head for years?

If so, congratulations – you’ve come to the right place. Writing a screenplay and getting your film made is an incredibly rewarding creative process. But of course, like with any monumental project, it’s essential to start off on the right foot.

This definitive guide will walk you through how to start a screenplay step-by-step. Let’s dive in and get those creative movie ideas flowing!

Prepare the Groundwork for Your Screenplay

Before you sit down to write “Fade In:” on that first scene heading, it’s important to make sure you’ve conducted research, outlined your story concept, know your characters inside and out, and familiarize yourself with the proper movie script format.

Research Story Ideas and Genres Thoroughly

Screenwriting begins long before you type the first words. Creative ideas are a dime a dozen – it’s research into story themes, concepts, the market, and case studies that separate the good scripts from the also-rans.

Here are keys areas to focus your research:

  • Research Your Genre: Study the story structure, characters, visual styles, and conventions of genres like drama, comedy, horror, etc. Know what tropes to embrace or subvert what audiences expect.
  • Research Existing Works: Read produced screenplays in your genre. Analyze how they brought fresh takes to established genres. Watch films and breakdown story structure, character arcs and dialogue.
  • Research the Market: Understand current demands among studios, production companies, agencies, and online reading services. Identify buyers interested in stories in your genre or style. Know what’s selling and how competitive your concept might be.

Researching deeply into screenplay conventions, commercial viability and unpacking the creative process of hit films arms you with knowledge to elevate your script above the noisy fray of competition.

Encapsulate Your Vision in a Logline

Once your creative juices are flowing after consuming a steady stream of movies, screenplays, and online screenwriting blogs – it’s time to encapsulate your movie concept into a tight logline.

A logline is a brief 1-2 sentence summary that sells the core premise of your film. For example:

“A computer hacker learns from mysterious rebels about the true nature of his reality and his role in the war against its controllers.” – The Matrix

While the logline won’t encapsulate every story twist and turn – it’s designed to pitch the protagonist’s quest or transformation, the central conflict standing in their way, and the unique world backdrop.

Nail your logline early and keep it front and center as you develop characters and story beats. It will help you filter out distractions and shape scenes to drive towards this North Star vision.

Know Your Target Audience and Market

In addition to crystallizing the story premise – smart screenwriters also research and define the target audience they aim to please. Building personas for that ideal viewer or reader profile ground creative decisions and gives the script a better chance to excite industry gatekeepers.

Questions to ask when focusing on your audience profile include:

  • What demographic facets describe my target (age/gender/ethnicity)?
  • What are their primary moviegoing motivations and needs?
  • Do they prefer certain genres, budget sizes, or franchises?
  • What recent comparable titles made an impact on them?

Of course, great films can transcend any one audience segment. But being laser-targeted with early development and marketing makes breaking through the clutter far more likely – especially for unknown screenwriters.

Understanding audience psychology, pain points and amplifying elements that made comparable films resonate also enables you to better tweak characters, scenes and emotional triggers throughout subsequent drafts. The time spent now pays dividends for years.

Outline Your Screenplay Story Beats

Armed with research, genre conventions, a killer logline, and audience targeting – it’s finally time to map out the story skeleton that will guide your screenwriting. This doesn’t need overly complex or detailed at this phase – simple bullet points or brief paragraphs for key scenes can suffice.

Essential elements to outline before writing page one include:

  • The opening scene setting the protagonist’s status quo world
  • Inciting incident that disrupts equilibrium and kickstarts the quest
  • 1st act turning point where protagonist commits to change
  • Midpoint revelations that alter the quest direction
  • Main story beats involving primary supporting characters
  • Subplots impacting inner/outer conflicts
  • Low point where all seems lost to achieve goal
  • Climax where major questions/conflicts are resolved
  • Note ideas for key locations, set pieces or visual gags

Following classic three-act structure is not mandatory. But understanding expositional information needed upfront, rising conflicts in act two, and satisfying climactic payoffs will strengthen story cohesiveness in later drafts.

The imagined scenes and sequence ideas churning make now also make tangible writing targets as you flesh out that first vomit draft.

Define Your Core Cast of Characters

As a final step before diving into actual script writing – it’s essential your core cast of characters feels fully formed with layered histories, motivations, and personalities beyond mere names on paper.

Well-conceived characters write themselves naturally through strategic story situations as you draft later acts and embody a large chunk of a film’s appeal and resonance.

Flat characters that merely serve utilitarian roles in pushing the plot forward fail to create lasting emotional connections. Audiences, actors and executives crave bold, complicated creations crying out for their story to be told.

While minor players may only demand a few bullet point descriptors, here is some of the criteria needed to develop intricately conceived leads:

  • Core desire, need, and external goal
  • Flaws, fears, insecurities and sensitivities
  • Endearing traits, quirks, behaviors, and worldviews
  • Backstory timeline mapping key life events
  • Temperament spectrum across confident, anxious, and moody states

By constructing character profiles covering emotional drivers along with signature phrases and actions tied to key scenes – you build connective sinew keeping the story events feeling believable and integral to their personal growth arc.

Round out leads with crisp dialogue elements echoing their vocabulary styles and cultural influences. Choose character names carrying symbolic meaning or ironic commentary on their natures as clever Easter eggs.

Vivid, dimensional players acting as critical story gears and mirrors reflecting theme earn people’s attention regardless of effects-fueled premises – transforming casual watchers into passionate advocates.

Understand Screenplay Structure and Format

You’ve conquered the conceptual prep work of research, loglines, and outlines. The creative fire burns hot to finally start your screenplay. But first, let’s quickly review common script structure and format basics essential to structured writing.

Ignore these industry standards at your own peril!

The 3 Act Paradigm

While not universally mandated, most films follow the template of the 3-act structure:

Act 1 – Set Up: We meet heroes, explore their ordinary world and kick events into motion. The central conflict is introduced and protagonist drawn into a new journey, ending in a first plot point.

Act 2, Part 1 – Response: Tension escalates as the hero pursues solutions, reaches their lowest point and seems farthest from their goal at the midpoint.

Act 2, Part 2 – Resolution: Fortunes reverse, and glimmers of hope emerge for protagonists to achieve their quest aided by lessons learned earlier.

Act 3 – Climax: Final skirmishes with antagonistic forces play out, questions are answered, conflicts are resolved and characters show how they’ve grown from experiences.

While execution takes vastly different forms across genres, understanding the conventions of the 3 act structure blueprint can strengthen pacing and character purpose.

Master Screenplay Format

Equally as important as nailing story beats is to ensure your script presentation adheres to industry format expectations. You’ll lose credibility fast with sloppy or confusing structure. Standard screenplay format includes:

  • Scene Headings: ALL CAPS indicating interior or exterior, location and day or night.
  • Action Lines: Paragraph description of what’s unfolding visually.
  • Character Names: CAPS on first mention then lowercase.
  • Dialogue: Formatted to proper script font like Courier.
  • Parentheticals: (wryly) useful to modulate dialogue rhythm.
  • Transitions: CUT TO, DISSOLVE TO, SMASH CUT guide story flow.
  • Shots: When useful, visually evocative sequences labeled. LONG SHOT reveals scale.

Follow screenwriting software defaults to effortlessly nail formatting needs. Just focus your mental bandwidth on the creative story writing process.

Write a Strong Opening Scene

The first 3-5 pages of a script dictate whether most Hollywood readers will continue on or add your masterpiece permanently to the circular file cabinet.

Regardless of genre, nail these functions in an opening scene:

Introduce Lead Characters

Literal first impressions matter. Even before dialogue, oriented the audience on your protagonist’s everyday world, background, temperament and wakeup call triggering abnormal events.

Telegraph Genre Style and Tone

Is your concept a brooding noir, quirky romantic comedy or visceral thriller? Use iconic conventions like mysterious narration, tongue-in-cheek workplace banter or violent altercations recognizable to respective genres.

Hook with a Bang

An inciting incident, attack or unusual revelation shakes up the status quo and presents dramatic story questions demanding answers. The hook captures attention and invests audiences in characters’ ensuing journeys.

Set Act One Stakes

Clarify central character motivations and the cost of potential failure from the jump. Hints of backstory foreshadowing bigger meaning down the road adds intrigue.

Visually Inspire Imagination

Paint scenes utilizing full sensory details. Describe compelling images, production design cues and convey scale via camera perspectives. This grants more directorial flexibility later.

While screenwriters can’t dictate exact shot choices – vivid action writing transports readers into experiencing events through characters’ eyes. Remember, scripts get adapted through multiple ideation phases. Capture essences now and let others focus on specifics after purchase.

Expand Story, Build Character Arcs

You’ve hooked attention with a knockout opening sequence. Time to evolve protagonists and escalating stakes across the script’s second act bridging setup with climax resolutions. Savvy ways to add dimensionality within these middle miles include:

  • Deepen Backstories – Well-placed flashbacks showing critical memories provide context to current behaviors, pressures and worldviews. But use sparingly to avoid heavy exposition.
  • Heighten Internal Conflicts – Layer struggles between lead character desires, evolving goals and beliefs for tense personal dynamics beyond external plot threats.
  • Build Supporting Character Roles – Surround leads with distinctive mentors, sidekicks, nemeses and orchestrators representing theme perspectives.
  • Develop B and C Stories – Subplots layer emotional intricacy by challenging heroes in fresh contexts. These narrative branches cross-pollinate to build exciting climactic collisions.
  • Sprinkle in Timely Social Commentary – Thoughtfully explore relevant cultural themes around complex issues like discrimination, redemption, or societal inequalities that uplift your premise to resonate deeper.

By exploring layered character dimensions against increasingly insurmountable external/internal conflicts – your second act stays engaging until the curtain call of the climax resolution.

Conclude Your Screenplay Satisfyingly

After an enticing setup and mountainous obstacle course for heroes to traverse in act two; the finale’s climax, resolution and epilogue provide gratifying payoffs for audiences to feel the journey with characters was worthwhile.

Maximize conflict intensity in this final arc:

  • The Climax – Main story questions are answered definitively. Protagonists and antagonistic forces square off in an epic final confrontation with themes personified in both perspectives. Emotional and mortal stakes run high in this ultimate crucible testing heroes one final time.
  • The Resolution – With the dust settled from climactic battles, show protagonists emerging to new normal lives forever changed by the impactful odyssey experienced. Character arcs reach completion but life’s next calling beckons just around the bend.
  • The Epilogue – Consider a narrative bookend showing the full contrast of heroes transformed from who we first met via an analogous scene to the opener. Alternatively extend story questions to launch prospective sequels and spinoffs.

Sticking the landing on satisfying audience catharsis cements your screenplay and film’s lasting impact once the house lights go up and popcorn tubs empty. Spend time in finale execution since the peak moments most directly correlate to box office returns and critical acclaim.

Start Writing Your First Screenplay Draft

Hopefully, this comprehensive guide has equipped you to commence writing that brilliant first draft masterpiece and avoid common beginner pitfalls. Follow the tactile tips step-by-step:

  1. Immerse Again in Film Research Inspiration
  2. Review Story Beats and Character Notes
  3. Set Manageable Daily Word Targets
  4. Silence Inner Perfectionists To Start
  5. Celebrate Hitting “Fade Out” On First Draft!

Remember, rushed art rarely realizes its potential. But resist editing yourself into creative inertia. Follow guidelines of trusted mentors and push beyond fears by hitting keys.

Stay true to the inspiring film ideas and complex characters first sparking your passions. Protect that vision in later drafts but polish imperfections gently through thoughtful layers of refinement.

The screenwriting marathon demands perseverance, but each day moves you closer to fulfilling that Hollywood dream. Soon you’ll have the satisfaction of hearing…


And bringing phenomenal story visions to vivid reality onscreen.

We wish you the best of luck writing, pitching and hopefully directing or producing that breakout script creatively fulfilling lifelong passions. Please let us know in comments your own biggest takeaways starting the screenplay journey or lessons learned from personal projects! Just remember, finish that first draft first!

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you start writing a screenplay?

To start writing a screenplay, research your story concept thoroughly, envision engaging characters, outline major plot points following 3-act structure, familiarize yourself with proper screenplay format, and just dive into writing that opening scene. Establish the protagonist and their world, telegraph the genre style through description, introduce the central conflict, and set stakes to pull readers into the rest of the script.

How do you start a screenplay idea?

Great screenplay ideas often start with questions – an unusual “what if” scenario that introduces high stakes inner and external conflicts compelling to explore through an imagined character journey. Study commercial and critical success stories in your genre, isolate engaging themes and spiritual cousin films, and crystallize your entire concept into a one sentence logline encapsulating your “what if” premise from hook through fulfilling resolution.

What is the #1 rule when writing a screenplay?

The number one rule when writing a screenplay is to maintain reader interest through carefully crafted intriguing characters and escalating, causally-linked conflict. Every single scene should advance the central story questions focused on transforming the protagonist or pushing them closer to (or farther from) their external goals and self-realizations. Any dialogue or action that doesn’t tie directly to unraveling the drama must be cut.

Can I write a screenplay with no experience?

Absolutely. Many fantastic screenwriters come from non-traditional backgrounds and channels. Launch into your first screenplay by studying story structure and script format guidelines, outlining key plot points, consuming comparable genre films, and embracing creative writing basics. Then flesh scenes out sequentially by imagining compelling fictional people navigating dramatic situations. Stay open to feedback and keep skills sharp with each subsequent script while building a portfolio.

How do I get my script noticed?

To get your screenplay noticed, pursue top placements or wins at reputable screenplay competitions to leverage that credibility into getting read. Strategically research production companies accepting submissions and pitch managers. Expand your filmmaking network through introductions or referrals. Make visually engaging collateral like sizzles and lookbooks to demonstrate cinematic vision. Be open to smaller budget productions as proof points. Most overnight successes took years of perseverance.

How long is a script for a 90 minute movie?

Most standard screenplay page counts equate to roughly one minute of screen time. So a feature film script running 90 minutes with credits would generally be about 95-125 pages. Much shorter page lengths often experience pacing issues with too little detail. Significantly more than 125 pages risks losing interest on slower dramatic works or suggests extensive editing cuts needed. The 90-125 range hits the script sweet spot for balancing scene richness with concision.

Can you just write a screenplay?

Anyone can write a screenplay simply by opening their favorite word processor and start imagining dramatic situations showcasing intriguing fictional characters. But getting that script read, sold, produced and embraced by audiences demands far more perseverance, skill and understanding of industry conventions. Immerse yourself in film studies, script analysis and writing courses to refine concepts and style. Network aggressively to put your creation in the right hands. Remember screenwriting itself is just step one. The real work begins long afterwards.

How much can I sell my first screenplay for?

How much a first-time screenwriter sells their inaugural script can vary immensely from high 5 to occasional low 6 figures…but likely expect modest 4 figures absent serious competition wins or deep previous industry ties like top agency representation built from prose fiction publishing traction. More “commercial” genres like thriller, comedy,action and horror and especially contained locations/casts offer higher ceilings. But without credits, focus on getting produced, not money.

Is it easy to sell a screenplay?

No – it is extremely challenging for amateur screenwriters to officially sell scripts unless navigating the exhaustive gauntlet of writing festivals, competitions, querying producers and managers, or leveraging previous success in adjacent creative fields. Less than 1-2% of registered Writers Guild candidates ever sell a screenplay. The best strategies involve moving to Los Angeles, aggressively networking while constantly generating new scripts and collateral to showcase inner cinematic voices. Perseverance against unrelenting odds remains fundamental.

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