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What is a Screenplay? An Introduction for Aspiring Screenwriters

what is screenwriting

Most films or shows wouldn’t exist without a screenplay. Screenplays function as the blueprint or the bedrock of any visual narrative. And despite common assumptions, they contain far more than just character dialogue. 

Not only do screenplays outline character interactions, but they also feature detailed descriptions of settings, scenes, and key visual elements. In addition, there’s a wide range of screenplay styles and major variations in how directors choose to utilize them. 

But before we get carried away, let’s address the elephant in the room: if you’re reading this blog post chances are you’re very new to the world of screenwriting. 

Luckily for you, we’ll be breaking down everything you need to know about screenplays in this post!

A History of Screenplays

The history of screenwriting dates back to the origins of filmmaking itself, which arrived as a revolutionary new medium in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During this time, silent moviemakers were using basic written outlines – yet to be dubbed “screenplays” – to guide their productions. Since filmmaking was in its infancy, these outlines were used to sketch out staging for simple scenarios. 

By the 1920s, screenwriting had begun to develop as a standalone craft and occupation. One of the main factors contributing to this jump in evolution was the introduction of sound near the end of the 1920s. Sound introduced a new level of complexity to the moviemaking process; for the first time, films could include full-blown dialogue and sound effects, which, of course, needed to be noted in scripts

Over the following decades, screenwriting became increasingly standardized. This standardization allowed for greater collaboration between studios, directors, writers, and actors, leading to increasingly bigger and better motion pictures. 

What Goes into a Screenplay?

Every great screenplay is made up of three key elements: plot, theme, and characters. 

Plot

All screenplays require a plot. Plots function as the glue that binds a script’s sequences into a coherent narrative. It is within a story’s plot that tension emerges, conflict unfolds, and resolutions are reached. 

While a well-structured story typically follows a plot with a beginning, middle, and end, exceptions to this basic rule are common. Films such as Christopher Nolan’s Memento daringly flip cause-and-effect logic to challenge narrative conventions, while others, like many of the French New Wave films of the 1960s, deliberately attempt to discard plots altogether. Regardless, even these experimental offerings inevitably present a sequence of events, which constitutes a plot.

Theme

Next up is the theme, a vitally important ingredient in the alchemy of every great screenplay. Far more intangible and nuanced than the plot, a screenplay’s theme is a central message or idea that underscores a film or show’s narrative. It recurs throughout the story like a unifying melody, weaving its way through the plot, characters, and dialogue. 

A screenplay’s theme can be a philosophical question, a moral lesson, an exploration of a specific emotion, and much more. A strong theme provides a screenplay with greater depth and meaning, so be sure to take your time developing it!

Characters

If you want to pen a strong script you’re going to need well-developed characters. Characters bring your story to life; they’re the vehicle from which your screenplay’s plot and theme unfold. 

Because of this, your characters should be three-dimensional and complex. Each character  should have unique personalities, interests, desires, and motivations, and you should think carefully about how their various arcs intersect with one another. 

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How to Write a Screenplay

There’s a lot more to writing a screenplay than sitting down and pouring out the prose. It is a multi-stage process that includes brainstorming, outlining, drafting, and revising. Some of the most crucial elements in this process include:

  1. Brainstorming and Ideation: This is the earliest stage of screenplay writing and involves taking the idea you have in your head and exploring and expanding upon it via brainstorming sessions. 
  2. Story Development: Once you’ve begun to narrow in on a specific story, you will need to thoroughly iron out its concept and theme. Make sure to tackle this stage early in your process, as your overarching concept and theme will act as the foundation from which you can build out your characters and narrative structure. 
  3. Character Development: During this stage, think about every character involved in your screenplay and thoroughly explore their background, motivations, and individual arcs. Outlining: Create a highly detailed outline of your story structure. Include a beginning, middle, and end. Treat your outline seriously, as it will become a resource that you can turn back to as you write your first draft.
  4. First Draft: During your first draft, focus on getting your ideas down on paper and pushing the writing process forward. Provide yourself with enough freedom to explore your characters while trying to stay within the confines of your outlines. During this stage, write knowing that you will return to polish your work. 
  5. Feedback: Once you’ve finished your first draft, seek feedback from your peers and mentors. You might also consider paying a professional screenplay reader to provide you with a thorough critique of your script. 
  6. Revisions: Carefully revise your script and ensure that you’ve addressed the issues identified during the feedback stage. Keep in mind that the revision process is all about refining your plot, theme, and characters, and will likely involve multiple drafts.
  7. Submitting: Once your script is revised and properly formatted, you’ve reached the final stage! It’s time to start submitting and pitching your screenplay to agents, contests, and producers. 

Tips for Writing a Screenplay

If you’re an aspiring screenwriter, it’s important to continuously develop and refine your skills. Of course, this includes embracing useful writing tips!

Taking a Screenwriting Course

If you’re serious about launching a career as a screenwriter, you’ll need to learn everything there is to know about screenwriting as both a craft and a trade. Without a doubt, the most efficient and effective way to do this is by enrolling in a screenwriting course. 

While a formal education in screenwriting isn’t necessary, a proper education can give you a significant advantage. This is because high-quality screenwriting courses provide their students with more than just formal training in the fundamentals of writing. 

For example, Toronto Film School’s Writing for Film & TV Diploma and Writing For Film & TV Associate Diploma (offered online) offers students a specialized, industry-focused curriculum. Screenwriting students at TFS hone their skills while receiving feedback from accomplished screenwriters. They also have the chance to network with industry professionals and build a portfolio of work tailored to prospective employers. 

Use Screenwriting Software

Another great way to boost your productivity and develop your skills as a screenwriter is to utilize software! 

Instead of penning your scripts in Word or Google Docs, we recommend that you opt for a dedicated screenwriting software program like Final Draft or Celtx. Hands down, this is one of the simplest and most effective ways to streamline your writing process. 

If you don’t know where to start with screenwriting software, check out our blog post on the 5 Best Screenwriting Software Programs For Screenwriters.

What to Avoid When Writing a Screenplay

If you’re new to screenwriting, sometimes a good starting point is understanding what NOT to do. Here are three common mistakes you should avoid when writing your first screenplay:

  • Cliches: Ditch the cliches – keep your story fresh and original. Avoid writing stories that use common tropes such as the “Chosen One” or “Love at First Sight”
  • Improper Formatting: Be sure to follow industry-standard screenwriting guidelines. Poor formatting will significantly reduce the chances of your script being picked up. 
  • Excessive Exposition: Beginner screenwriters tend to overuse dialogue and narration, making their screenplay feel unnatural. Avoid this mistake by thoughtfully balancing dialogue with character development and action. 

Learn How to Improve Your Screenplay

Ultimately, the first step to becoming a screenwriter is understanding what writing a screenplay actually entails. Once you understand the nuances of a screenplay’s structure you can then begin mastering the art of screenwriting as a craft and a trade. 

This includes learning and practicing how to write a strong plot, theme, and characters, while also being open to ongoing learning. Embracing cutting-edge screenwriting tools or signing up for an industry-focused program like Toronto Film School’s Writing for Film & TV Diploma are learning experiences that can certainly propel you forward in your screenwriting journey. 

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Niko Pajkovic
Niko Pajkovic is a marketing copywriter at the Toronto Film School. He’s also an academically published author whose research focuses on algorithms, AI, and their intersection with film and television. Niko holds an MA in Professional Communication from Toronto Metropolitan University and a Hon. BA in Communication Studies from Wilfrid Laurier University. His freelance bylines include Film Threat, Independent Australia, Film Matters Magazine, and Film Cred.

Niko Pajkovic

Niko Pajkovic is a marketing copywriter at the Toronto Film School. He’s also an academically published author whose research focuses on algorithms, AI, and their intersection with film and television. Niko holds an MA in Professional Communication from Toronto Metropolitan University and a Hon. BA in Communication Studies from Wilfrid Laurier University. His freelance bylines include Film Threat, Independent Australia, Film Matters Magazine, and Film Cred.

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