Whether you’re a veteran screenwriter or new to the process, getting started on a new script can be daunting. You have this great idea… now what?
It’s time to expand on your premise, shape it into a narrative, and get your story on the page! Let’s break it down, step-by-step, in the screenwriter’s version of a Couch to 5K.
Week 1: Logline & Beat Sheet
Before writing a single page of your script, make sure you know who you’re writing about and what story you want to tell.
A logline is your narrative distilled into one or two sentences. A great logline answers the questions:
- Who is my protagonist and what do they want?
- What’s the inciting incident: Why this story? Why now?
- What world does my story take place in?
- What’s my protagonist’s core conflict?
Quick Tip: For TV writers, writing seperate loglines for both the whole series and the pilot can be helpful.
A beat sheet breaks your three acts and B story into quick sentences.
- Act One: Introduce your protagonists, what’s normally happening in their world, and the inciting incident.
- Act Two: Show the result of the inciting incident, your antagonists opposing your protagonists, and the events that bring your protagonist to their rock bottom
- Act Three: Heighten to the climax, a win or loss that forever changes the life of your protagonist. End on their new normal.
- B story: An adjacent story with it’s own beginning, middle, and end, as well as how it ultimately affects the A story
Week 2: Outline
Let’s expand our quick sentences into something bigger: an outline!
An outline is a scene by scene breakdown of your script. They explore the action, characters and their relationships, and the causes and effects of the plot. My favorite way to outline is to sum up each scene with a slugline and a quick description. This setup makes it easy to dive right in and start writing.
Week 3: Getting Started
Now that you have your logline and outline, it’s time to get the story on the page! By now, you should have a pretty good idea of where to start.
Write without judgement. This draft won’t be polished yet, and that’s okay! Don’t let the fear of “bad” writing hold you back–a first draft that could use rewrites is better than no draft at all.
We don’t have to write the whole right this very second! Keep a steady pace with one act at a time.
Act One sets up the “who” and “what” of the usual world. Introduce us to your protagonist, what they want, and what they stand to lose if they don’t get it. In the middle of Act One, write the inciting incident. Remember: show the scene playing out in action, not by telling a recap of the events with dialogue.
End the act with a bang: after the inciting incident, show us how things will never be the same.
Week 4: Writing Conflict
You’re really getting in a rhythm now!
Act Two sets up the story’s conflict. What does your hero want, and why is it urgent that they get it? Think about your antagonist and their motivations. Act Two shows us the outcome of the inciting incident: how your protagonist’s life has changed and how it affects the world around them.
Revisit the story’s core conflict from your logline: decide how your protagonist can make active choices to get what they want, and how your antagonist can make active choices to oppose them. Then, ramp up the conflict between those forces.
The end of Act Two is where your protagonist is at their lowest low.
Week 5: Getting Unstuck
You’re doing great! Almost there! If you’re stuck, it helps to:
- Figure out what your characters really want. Characters like Kendall Roy (Succession), Don Draper (Mad Men), and Patrick Bateman (American Psycho): their want is to be successful. It’s what drives them and makes them strong chracters. Exploit your lead and side characters’ core motivations and fears to drive your story forward.
- Read scripts: Good ones to inspire you. Bad ones to remind you that you can do this.
- Explore theme: Why do you want to tell this story? This will help you fine tune your plot: what situations can you put your protagonist in that get to the heart of what you’re trying to say?
Week 6: The Finish Line
Time to finish strong!
Act Three centers around your story’s climax. Don’t be afraid to go big–this is a life changing moment for your protagonist. You’re writing the showdown. Reminding us of the stakes. Showing us if they win or lose, and why they’ll never be the same.
As you wrap up your script, it’ll be easier to see the through-lines in your narrative. Clean things up and go back to revise Acts One and Two with the context you’ve gained from finishing.
Et voila, your first draft is done! You’ve put in the work. You’ve accomplished what you set out to do. Celebrate! Tell a friend or loved one! Treat yourself! Cheers to you, writer! You deserve it.