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How To Write a Movie Script: Script writing for Beginners

When I started to write scripts for movies, I was naive and complete illiterate about script formats and structures. I was 18 years old when I wrote my first movie script called “ Roshan.“ I wrote it for Salman Khan after Maine Pyaar Kiya was released. It was an eighteen-page action film, handwritten in Hindi.

I used to buy a Hindi film mag called Mayapuri. There was a small ad in the lower third of an article on Suraj Barjatya. At the end, he was inviting writers to submit their script for his next.(it was a sham I came to know after 20years). So I wrote a story of an orphan slum young boy who aspires to be a boxer. Because of his fighting skills, he becomes a head goon for a local gangster. Being on the other side of the law he has to give up on his dream, and when he tries to fight back, his world comes crashing down. The script was childish yet written from the heart. It followed no script formats and wasn’t even typed. My heart sank when the script returned after two months to my place at Umrer, some 50 km away from Nagpur.

My First Film Script that got Made

Almost ten years later, I wrote another script for a producer friend. It was his story. One day he shared a story premise, and I secretly wrote the whole film script. This time I was faintly aware of the script format. But, as naive as I was, I wrote – DAY. EXT. STREET – Time  5:15 pm- 5:17 pm. I was writing the duration of the scene…Lol. The scene was explained in detail with every shot break and camera movements. I was confident that no one would write such kickass script like mine. It was a one-night crime thriller when a stranger visits a couple on their anniversary night.

The film was first presented to Mazhar Kamran, known for shooting Satya and Kaun; He said he loved it and politely told me your script is very visual and different. (ROFL-ing inside maybe) I was dumb to take it literally. Later I came to know what he meant.The script had no structure and character motivations at place. It was just description of few camera angles, trolleys, zooms, and magnifications. The film was eventually made by Hansal Mehta called Anjaan. Yeah right, no writing credit for me.

Step 1 – Just Write

You may be wondering, why I am sharing my stupid stories. It is because some of you may be going through this phase right now. Though today you have many film schools and courses on filmmaking, that can’t make you a writer unless you write. Writing is a long imaginative journey for any writer. You can’t learn writing unless you put those journeys on paper or computer screens. Typing thousands of words for a story needs serious effort. Do it to become a storyteller first. You can’t be a screenwriter unless you become a writer.

Step 2- Watch Films

If you want to write a movie script, you need to watch films day and night. I was blessed with two friends in my college days in Nagpur (the late eighties)- Deepak Dogra and Shyam Ghorpade. Deepak Dogra was a cop’s son, and we used to bunk college and watch first-day first show as we could get our hands on the tickets, the constables used to seize from the black marketers. Shyam used to buy me film magazines and fend for my tickets as I was a hostel student with just thirty bucks as pocket money for the month. The tickets used to cost six bucks.  If I don’t splurge on chai or anything for a month, I could only manage five shows. So I used to buy two shows for them, and the rest 10 to 15 shows they used to buy my tickets.

Today, you have Netflix, Amazon and online sites with access to almost any movie on the planet. So before writing your first movie, don’t miss out on watching a ton of films. Why? Because screenwriting is different from standard storytelling. It is bound by time. An author can write endless pages for his novel. But, the movie script can’t exceed beyond specific pages. 90-120 is the norm. So, by watching movies, you will understand how a story can be told by not showing the most of the story. Screenwriting is all about picking those dramatic moments of your protagonist and not his whole life. As a beginner, we always fail to identify those phases and get carried away writing his journey. Screenwriting is about that journey but minus the non-dramatic moments.

Step 3- Make your First Attempt

It is the best approach to script writing for films especially if you have no access to any film school or courses or any mentor. What you have to do here is to get a DVD or a video file of your most favourite film. The film which you can watch 100 times and recall every scene and dialogues. However absurd the film may be, it is your favourite film, and your script will unknowingly have its streaks.

Now, Write the story in one or two sentences. Try to write it from the protagonist’s perspective. Who is the protagonist or the Hero? What does he/she want and what is stopping him/her from getting it? Try answering this three question in one or two sentences, and you more or less have a logline.

For Example :

Logline of The Matrix goes something like this:

A young computer hacker discovers that our world is a virtual reality, created by intelligent machines to enslave Mankind. Now, he must join humanity’s fight against the machines and accept his new role as leader of the resistance. 

Source – Class Act 

Then, try writing a synopsis of the film in one or two pages. Elaborate your character and mention about his present status, What disturbs his present status, what does he want and what is doing to get it. What is stopping him and why? How is he trying to overcome those challenges? Answering the questions like these will make your synopsis ready in no time.

Step 4 – Watch the Movie and Write the Gist of each Scene

Now, play the film and start writing every scene. Pause after each scene. You can scroll back and forth as much as you want but remain true to your intentions of writing every scene. Try to find the purpose of the scene and why is it written. Don’t miss out if you feel lazy. Take a break and start writing again. It is a tiring process but trust me; it is a fruitful one.

Now line up all the scenes and observe the scenes from the protagonist point of view. Here you get the complete treatment or story outline or in Bollywood terms-a one-liner. It is in the form of chapters, and you will find that all subsequent scenes can fit into little groups like how we create folders for similar files. These folders or group of scenes become your sequence. When you lay your sequence, you will spot certain turning points in the story. They become your plot points.  

Step 5- The 3 Act Structure

As a beginner, you usually have no idea of what a three-act structure is. Almost 90% of the films or fiction novels follow this structure. The practical way to deal with it is now cut the whole sequences into four equal parts. The first part is the first act or the setup. The second and third part is the middle act or the confrontation, and the last part is the third and final act or the resolution. Usually, a screenplay is structured in this way.

My assumptions may be off by few scenes, but for a beginner, this is the best way to understand the three-act structure. Every film follows this method in its writing so if you reverse engineer or dissect your preferred movie, you will understand where the first act ends and your brain will start to analyse a story and its structures. Also note, where the plots are placed in the timeline. Now you more or less have gained enough knowledge about a movie script.

Step 6- The Character Arcs

How you reverse engineer your favourite film into a structure, similarly now pick your protagonist or hero and start picking up only his scenes and line them up. Observe how it goes. You will notice the character reacting differently to different situations. You will find his character evolving with every obstacle he overcomes or falters. How he becomes a changed man in the end. This whole journey becomes his character arc.

Similarly, write for the Antagonist or the main villain, the heroine or love interest, the other characters who are essential to the protagonist and the antagonist. In no time you will end up with the character arcs of all the significant characters.

As a screenwriter, you need to know every characters’ needs, wants, conflicts, and beliefs. The clearer are you on those lines, the better drama due to the conflicts between them will emanate.

Step 7- Now Write your movie

Since you have been through the turmoil of how a script is written, now do it for few more films. You will start identifying the similarities in each script about the 3 acts, the plot points, and so on. Then slowly start putting your movie idea into words based on those lines. Write the logline, the synopsis, the outline and then the characters. Once they are laid, identify your three acts, your turning points and then put the sequences as per the plots and acts. Now within the sequences, start writing your scenes.

It is easier said than done. You will have to suffer a lot of hardships writing them in a structured manner! .. Hello… Just goddamn write it, this is your first script. Mistakes are bound to happen. Learn from it. But never stop writing.

Now you may ask, I didn’t mention a thing about screenplay layouts. That is the least of your worries. The problem is we think we are writers if we can write  

FADE IN.

DAY. EXT. BEACH HOUSE. And so on.. I committed that mistake too.

First, write your movie. Learning a layout formatting is no big deal. Write in your basic word file, and there are applications which can do the rest for you.

So  WRITE, SLEEP, EAT,  REPEAT