How to Start Writing a Screenplay

TYPEWRITER Photo by Florian Klauer

Photo by Florian Klauer

There are a lot of screenwriting gurus. That’s because there are so many people who want to write screenplays and are scared to death about doing it wrong. It seems that, for every 100 people who are afraid of the number of brads that must be in a script (two), the typeface that must be used (Courier 11 or 12), the right software (FINAL DRAFT for $$, CELTX for free), and every other element that they think is the key to the magic kingdom of screenwriting success, there are at least a couple gurus who have all the answers.

That’s all good, but it seems to me, from the comments I always hear from people who want to start writing screenplays, the ‘take-away’ is always wrong. The wrong “rules” are assumed to be the most important.

So, I’ll throw my hat in the ring as a ‘guru’ (I’m not), and will tell you for free the most important rule:


Tell a story about people who are fascinating, about love that makes us swoon, about hate that makes us fearful, about events that astound us. Let us see a person whose life changes before our eyes. Don’t be boring. Don’t over-inflate the myopic significance of your own life (please!). Write a story that will fascinate others.

After that, then you learn the craft of screenwriting. It is a craft, it needs to be learned, but it is something that you apply to a fucking great story.

That’s it. That’s my contribution as a screenwriting guru. For free.

And this: This is a verbatim conversation on Twitter from Friday, October 28, 2011, between me (@mrbarnard1) and Raven-Lee Royal (@Raven2BME).

Raven said: I read your post [The Movie That Needs to be Made], and I really hope you can get this movie made for all of us out there. … So are you still trying to shop the film around?

Michael said: “So are you still trying to shop the film around?” [THAT WOULD BE INCREDIBLY SELF-DESTRUCTIVE OF ME!! SO…YES.]

Raven said: haha Well I hope you reach success. Still trying to form the right idea/story for me to write.

Michael said: Good luck. (Hint: Figure out EVERYTHING about your main character, the story will evolve from that person.)

Raven said: So in order to get a story, I need to form a character and his wants/needs first?

Michael said: Well, you have an idea you like. It will evolve as you learn about your character, WHY he would react, etc.

Raven said: Oh okay. Well right now, I am starting from scratch, as my great grandmother would say. (first person to tell me stories)

Michael said: Great place to start! =} Remember: Have character face a problem, send him up a tree, then throw rocks at him, then get him down.

Raven said: That’s good advice and all, but man, I got nothing.

Michael said: Here’s a thought: Search for a real-life story of a gay man serving in Vietnam war, use as inspiration.

Raven said: A gay man serving in Vietnam? Really?

Michael said: Why not? That’s what had your interest originally. REALITY is a good place to start.

Raven said: How did you know what had my interest? haha

Michael said: HAH HAH HAH Either I’m psychic, or it’s because you DM’d me about it! (I *am* psycho…not so different)

Raven said: Oh I did?! haha I don’t even fucking remember!!

Michael said: That’s cool. I’m so damn INVISIBLE and EASY TO FORGET. You are not the only one.

Raven said: lol Yeah

Michael said: I create characters by starting with a birthdate and its horoscope (I hate horoscopes). Then, an address.

Raven said: How does that help?

Michael said: You need to create real characters with whom you can identify and understand their motivations and fears.

Raven said: Okay, so then what after the character is created?

Michael said: What do you want him to do? Save a little girl? If you know your character, you can create the girl. Or…

… Do you want him to fight injustice? Either he’s the victim (less likely) or he becomes aware of the problem.

Raven said: Oh okay I think I get what you’re saying. I like how you were inspired to write you script by what you saw.

Michael said: You MUST make the distinction between EVENTS and CHARACTER. Focusing on EVENTS makes cartoonish movies.

Raven said: So I have to focus on character?

Michael said: If you want to make a film you are proud of, start with CHARACTERS, then have them react to events.

… If you want a “popcorn” movie, focus on EVENTS and throw in caricatures to react in stereotypical ways.

Raven said: No, I want a badass movie that has potential to be recognized by the Academy.

Michael said: Hah hah Then you can go either way. ;-} But, I think you want a life-changing movie. Go for CHARACTER.

Raven said: Yes, a definite life-changing movie. ;-}

Michael said: Create 3 characters: Protagonist, Antagonist, love interest. Add characters to interfere or enhance them.

… Get to know these characters as if they were part of your family, so you know how they SHOULD react.

Raven said: I just hope I can make it as original as possible.

Michael said: If you create real characters, the movie will be as original as each one of us is.

Raven said: Yeah. It sounds easy, but it’s not.

Michael said: It is a lot easier if you start by knowing your characters. If you know them, then you can predict their behavior.

Raven said: Well I don’t have to predict their behavior, I should already know it. The writer is the story’s God.

Michael said: Even GOD is limited to what a person’s reaction will be. That’s free will.

Raven said: haha True.

Michael said: Big point: know your characters well enough so that THEY WILL TELL YOU how they will react.

Raven said: Okay, still trying to come up with an original story. Ugh, getting aggravated.

Michael said: Look at the world around you. Your story is lurking in small details that you usually overlook.

Raven said: Really? Because the details of my life are pretty boring. haha

Michael said: If you think your life is boring, you are not looking at the details. ;-} Look deeper, wider, slower.

Raven said: Trust me, dude. If my life were a western, it would be a ghost town, hands down.

Michael said: THEN WRITE A WESTERN ABOUT A GHOST TOWN! What do you WISH would happen in that ghost town??

Raven said: haha Hell if I know, not a western person! lol

Michael said: How about if ALIENS ATTACKED your ghost town?? Hmmmmmmm??

Raven said: You just described the plot to COWBOYS AND ALIENS

Michael said: (EXACTLY MY POINT)

… How about if bad guys killed your wife in that ghost town??

… How about if a teacher arrives in a ghost town by mistake???

Raven said: My only real film like interests are: gay, geek, action, drama, romance, history ….

Michael said: Before everybody became homophobic, “gay” wasn’t so odd in A WESTERN GHOST TOWN. Figure it out!

Raven said: So maybe a gay saloon film?

Michael said: Well, Gays LOVE to drink, so, sure!! LOL

Raven said: haha Funny!

Michael said: If you’re in L.A., go to West Hollywood, hang out at The Abbey, imagine it 175 years ago.

Raven said: 175 years ago?

Michael said: or 125, or 100. Whatever rings your bell.

Raven said: Wonder what would happen back that far?

Michael said: That’s why God made google and libraries.

Raven said: haha

Michael said: So, create two characters, give them birthdates 150 years ago, read their horoscope, start researching!

… Here’s the Number 1 secret to being a successful writer: ……

… it is: WRITERS WRITE. Start writing.

Raven said: Okay, I’ll see if I can come up with something. How long are you going to be on here tonight?

Michael said: I hope to get to work on my own projects now, so hope to sign off for a while.

Raven said: Okay. This was a nice conversation though.

Michael said: Yeah, I enjoyed it. Good luck.

6 thoughts on “How to Start Writing a Screenplay

  1. I’ve only written one screenplay in my life. I wrote it for a part of a computer communications class around five years ago. I remember the process being highly reppetitive, having to run back to scenes and edit and then figure out how everything ties in as well as keeing it in a certain amount of words. I did realize that there was a lot of effort put into movie production, at least a lot more than I had thought.


  2. All right I’ll be the asshole here. I hope it works out for Raven but to paraphrase Martin Scorsese – (There are a lot of people making movies these days that don’t really have anything to say. I think it’s important to have a definite point of view and a definite story that you must tell. If not, then why bother.)


    • Hi Justin!

      Raven has a few stories he’s passionate about, as do many new writers. The issue is, how does a new writer begin to conceptualize their stories and move them toward a functional screenplay. I wanted to give him concrete, actionable steps that lead to forming a passionate viewpoint into a cohesive story. Every writer has to start at a point similar to this.


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