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  • Writer's pictureNishant D'souza

Writing a Feature Film Screenplay: A Step-by-Step Approach

Updated: Mar 4

Film overview cover page

Approaching a full-length feature film screenplay can be intimidating for a novice writer. I remember feeling overwhelmed three years ago as I stared at my empty Celtx file for days together, unsure of how to even begin my feature film screenplay. After a week of this, when I finally typed in the first words, “Untitled Crime Thriller Project by Nishant D’souza,” I knew I needed help instantly. That’s when I thought of doing this course on screenplay writing (thanks Priyadarshi Siddharth for the suggestion). While the course itself had very few tips on how to write a good screenplay, what it did best was offer a clear framework on how to approach the writing process week-on-week. Below is an attempt to condense all those learnings and my experiences.

Getting a Few Things Out of the Way

Before we delve into the steps themselves, I'd like to share three important macro aspects I learned from the entire process -

1. Developing the idea is more important than the idea itself.

I remember this very clearly because of the example the instructor gave. He talked about how even if the start of your story is as lame as "One day, James goes to Walmart to buy some new underwear," it can develop into something meaningful as and when more details are added, something like, "Just then, a robbery takes place leading to a chase and a gunfight, and James is mistaken for an accomplice. He is sent to prison where he eventually becomes close to a drug dealer who was wrongly sent to prison, too." Suddenly, the story starts coming to life from something as mundane as a trip to buy underwear.

2. Read as many film screenplays as possible to develop the critique in you.

Only by consuming content in this format can you develop the critical and analytical prowess required to write a screenplay. By reading the work of others and trying to construct meaningful feedback reports for screenplays, you can develop critical thinking skills that will directly impact your writing style.

3. The only way to become a writer is to write, write, write.

One important aspect of writing is the need for a schedule and the discipline to stick to it. Writing a screenplay or a novel is a tough task, and the only way your creativity can manifest into something meaningful is if you finish what you started. Give yourself a daily page count, and put that drama on paper, regardless of the personal drama in your life. A target as simple as just two pages a day, five days a week, is enough to get the job done.

Writer writing hastily gif

Setting the foundation

Before you begin writing your script, writing down some essential anchors will help keep the development focused. By no means does it mean that once you've documented them, they are locked for life. Of course, as you write your script, you will come back to them and make tweaks. Irrespective, having these guard rails at the beginning makes the writing process easier. These anchors include -

  • Logline

A logline is an effective tool to help you get a good grasp and understanding of what your screenplay is all about. It is a very short, very condensed version (just one sentence) of the story that describes the essence of the movie. The following is a possible logline for Romeo and Juliet -

Two young lovers from rival families in Medieval Italy take the dangerous decision to elope, when their marriage is outright forbidden by both families.

In one sentence, it attempts to share information about the main characters and the perilous risk in their action, sets the families as the villains, and gives a sense of time and place, which implies social and cultural restrictions. Not only does it not give away much of the plot's details, but more importantly, it does not reveal the famous dramatic ending.

Loglines are sometimes written after the project is finished. But condensing the essence of your story into a single sentence before you begin, will help chart a path to writing your screenplay.

  • Dramatic question

The dramatic question is the question you hope to plant in your reader's minds from the outset so that virtually everything that happens in your story keeps your readers engaged to find the answer to that essential question. For Romeo and Juliet, the dramatic question would be -

Will Romeo and Juliet find love together despite the fact that their rival families have sworn to keep them apart?

The idea is to ensure that the dramatic question is something that stays right till the end of the story.

  • Character profiling

The final anchor to tackle before beginning your screenplay is character profiling. Spend some time developing your main characters. They can be based on anything or anyone but basing them on someone you know is easier and more grounded. In fact, try your level best not to base them on existing characters in a book, movie, or TV show. I'm not suggesting that your cousin Tara should be the protagonist of your story, but you can build off of some traits that Tara has, like the way she speaks, her interest for video games, or her reckless driving.

Get to know who your characters are, and if you do, if you have a true understanding of who they really are, then everything they say and do will feel real. Here's a tiny snippet of the profiling table I put together for the characters of a film screenplay when I was just starting off (I know it's incomplete, but it did the job as an anchor) -

Way to better understand your character

Understanding the Three-Act Structure

Now that the anchors are set, a final piece we need to be familiar with before getting to writing the screenplay itself, is the three-act structure. If you're sitting down to work on your screenplay, then chances are that you already know all there is to know about the three-act structure, but since the writing approach and schedule are directly tied to the flow, I thought it'd be best to call it out once.

Every story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end; there's no way around it. This simple concept goes back as far as ancient Greece's description of the classic tragedy. Movies are an evolution of plays, and that's why they are called screenplays. The three-part structure applies to everything from short films to half-hour shows to full length feature film scripts. If you ever come across a five or seven-act structure, then know that they are an extension of the three-act structure itself with divisions based on other factors, not story structure.

Three act structure breakdown

The concept of the three-act structure can be extended to the smallest unit of writing. Each act itself can be further broken down into three sections. In fact, every paragraph, every sentence invariably will have its own beginning, middle, and end.

Act One - The beginning of this act must immediately capture the audience's attention and engage them in the story. The middle section should expand on the beginning and increase the characters' involvement. The end of the first act should have something significant happen, such as a surprise, twist, or unexpected incident that leaves the audience wanting more.

Act Two - This is typically the longest act and serves to propel the story towards the climactic final act. Unexpected events build upon the cliffhanger left for the audience at the end of the first act. Towards the end of this act, the characters may just have a way out from all the pain and emotion they've had to endure in this section.

Act Three - The end of the screenplay is all about redemption and the perfect ending for your story. Whether your script is an action thriller, a horror movie, an intense love story, or a romcom, the final resolution is inevitable. The pain and emotion introduced at the end of the second act serves as a catalyst for the story's climax, with the potential for achieving redemption remaining in question until the end.

In Conclusion

Assessing the structure for a feature film screenplay from a page count perspective would mean that the first and third acts should be approximately 30 pages each, with the second act at about 50 pages, totalling to 110 pages or so. That's a whole lot of writing, and requires fixing a schedule and sticking to it.

I thought I'd be able to squeeze in everything in a single post, but I guess another post is unavoidable. Having gone through all the prerequisites needed to write a screenplay in this one, the next post will explore the writing strategy itself, and how you can go about fixing a schedule to write 100+ pages of a screenplay.

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