How to write a feature movie script

This article is a compilation of ideas I had as I tried to learn how to write a feature movie script. Some ideas are based on my personal experience, but I also draw from the thoughts of others. I steal my ideas wherever I can find them, and don’t always remember where.

I originally wrote this about nine years ago, and while my views have evolved, I still find it useful to review from time to time.

What is a movie script anyway?

A movie script is a tool to help you make a movie. I think of myself as a filmmaker first and a writer second. The script is just one of many tools that you will have to make a film with.

You can make a movie with out a script, and this has been done. Many of Warner Brother’s cartoons went directly to a story board with no script. Many documentaries don’t start with a script either. A script provides a way to organize a movie, which is essential if you want the movie to be made. But, a script is not the only way to organize a film.

In the end, when we start to write a script we must remember that the final product is not a script, but a movie. A script is never finished, because work on the movie continues until the movie is done. The script is changed all the way through the process. At some point you no longer need the script to complete the movie and you abandon it.

A collaborative art

Making a movie is a collaborative art. Many people are involved from start to finish. Each of them brings their part of the puzzle. The director, the director of photography, the actors and many others have their parts to play.

What does this mean for the writer? You have to leave room for the others to contribute. You need to provide a strong framework that others can build on and expand on, but you need to allow them to make their contribution.

I wrote a scene for a film where I had the character talking on the phone. I just gave the dialog and nothing more. A reviewer criticised it saying that I should be indicating that the character was doing something visually while he was talking to maintain interest. I thought long and hard about that. First I was thinking about what to have the character do. Then I asked myself: is this my job as a writer?

As a director I know that during preproduction and then on the set the details of each shot are worked out. Sometimes little details, like what a character does when he talks on a phone are suggested by the director and sometimes by the actor. A line that looks good on paper gets reworded with each take.

When making my movies little bits of business for the actors have been suggested by other actors, the assistant director, the director of photography, the gaffer and a grip. A director needs to maintain control of the set, but he should be open to good ideas, wherever they come from.

Since I plan to direct the movies I write, I often confuse the two roles.

A writer needs to understand what everyone else does on a movie production. They should accept that what is written in the script is often taken as a suggestion and can be changed by any one of many people.

The role of the writer is to create a character that the actor can bring alive in performance. The role of the writer is to create the opportunities for fascinating images that the director of photography can seek and capture. The writer does not have to do everything. Others are there to finish the job. The writer starts it going.

Can’t you just read a book on it?

I have, several in fact. But, while I learned something from every one I read, I found that they didn’t help me write a script.

I am a filmmaker and made several short films. I wrote scripts for these films, so it isn’t a case of not being able to write, but the leap from a short script to a feature script was harder than I expected.

What was I missing from these books? I realised that they were in large part about analysis. Now I am a professional engineer and I am really into doing analysis, but I know that design and analysis are two different things. To do analysis you need a design or in this case a script to analyse. How do you get that initial script? This drove me to find my own way.

I think that every one who writes must find their own way. Books and what other writers say can help, but in the end you must find your own way into writing a script. I will tell you how my search has evolved.

Writing a script isn’t just writing a script

When making a movie, the script is only one of many documents that may be created. Depending on the film, some of these may not be useful and can be ignored. You may not even need a script.

Some books will tell you to write these in a certain order, but I jump back and forth between them.

One Line Description. This is the story in a nut shell. It can help you keep focussed during the writing. It can also be useful when pitching the script. I found I couldn’t write it until late in the process, and then it wasn’t all that useful.

One page treatment. This is a more detailed description of the story. It provides more detail about the characters and the plot. I find this a useful way to get my ideas down on paper.

Outline or Step outline. This is a longer and more organized telling of the story. It is usually broken into three acts and then into scenes or events. I have found this the most valuable tool I developing a script. It allows you to understand and revise the structure before you start getting into the details. Some people use index cards or post-it-notes to develop this document.

Shot list. This is a tool I sometimes use when writing. It is a simple list of the shots I want. I find this a good way to create the story. I then cannibalize it to create the Outline.

Detailed outline. This is developed from the Outline, and where one leaves off and the other starts is difficult to say. In this document I build up more detail for each scene/event. Some people describe this as writing what goes between the lines. I write what each of the characters is thinking and feeling, then how they interact. I don’t write any dialog.

Character list. This is a list of the characters. I also include lists of important locations, props and other things. I started doing this as a memory device, but found it useful for more than that.

Character back stories. This is more detailed descriptions of the characters. For me it evolves from the character list. It contains details of the history of each character and their underlying personalities.

Charts. I have also found it useful to draw charts and diagrams of the plot. These can be used to analyse the project and identify where more work is needed. This can include time lines and maps of what happens in the story. This is valuable if you decide to have a non-linear story.

Script. I guess you know what the script is. I found that if you have done a good job of the detailed outline, the script and the dialog are quite easy to write.

Storyboard. Normally this is a tool that a director will use when planning the shots for the film, but I have sometimes used it as part of the writing process. Film is a visual medium, and thinking in terms of images can make for a better film.

Finding your way into the story

Earlier, I talked about all the different documents that you might write in the process of writing a script. When done right, all of these will be tightly interlinked.

Where do you start to write?

Some people tell you to follow a particular order in your writing. I believe that you have to find your own way. People are different and how you create is also going to be different. Try different ways until you find a way that works for you.

Find an image

One approach that has worked for me is to start with an image.

For example, one day a friend asked me down to a building he managed. It was an empty bank. He wondered if I could use it as a film location. I didn’t have a film in mind that was set in a bank, but I wandered about anyway. There were all kinds of corridors, rooms, nooks and crannies.

The image that came to me was of a man being chased through the maze of rooms. I wrote down a list of shot ideas based on the images I had collected while wandering through the building. Then I started to arrange them in a sequence that made them tell a story of the chase.

So far so good, but this wasn’t a very interesting film yet. Now I started to write the character list. I had two characters: the man being chased and the person doing the chasing. I gave them names. Then I started to ask questions about them, as I answered questions about them, I started to create my character back stories.

Ask questions

The first question I asked was how did the man being chased get himself locked in a building with someone who wants to kill him? Someone smart enough to get out of this situation would be smart enough to avoid the situation in the first place. I realised that this is the critical question I needed to answer. There are many possible answers. In general the hero needs a flaw or weakness that causes him to make this choice.

I proceeded with the process of asking questions about how the characters got where they were and answering by adding new elements to the story and adding more information to the back stories. The shot list evolved into a step out line, then into a detailed outline.

Several times along the way I would analyse the story I had. This is where I would start to use charts to illustrate the plot. By looking at the structure I would see where I needed to add more and where I needed to take away. I will talk about structure more in a later article.

I moved back and forth between each of the documents, adding and taking away. The story took shape before my eyes. If it was a good story, it would start to have a life of its own.

Recommended books

Several books I read have been especially helpful to me.

Feature Filmmaking at Used-Car Prices by Rick Schmidt – This is the book that really convinced me that I could make a film. Mr. Schmidt background was in engineering, which is my background as well. The way he draws from his engineering background gave me confidence that I could do it too. The book’s primary focus is on how to make a film for next to nothing. Much of it is about the technical details of filmmaking. He talks about how the constraints of a low budget affect the kind of script that you write. I think this is an important lesson to learn.

Story by Robert McKee – I have found it very useful to browse at random in this book. I felt that I should read it cover to cover, but ended up buying an abridged audio book and listening to that. This is a widely recommend book, so he doesn’t really need my endorsement. He talks exclusively about writing and story telling. I incorporated a lot of his ideas into my own thinking.

From Reel to Deal by Dov S-S Simens – I read this book in just a couple days. Very inspiring. This book covers all aspects of making a film, and has several chapters on the script. His advice to not fall in love with what you have written is a lesson I have learned many times. He has a video of his 4 day course on making a film, but I am still too cheap to buy it.