Illustration by Cynthia.

Illustration by Cynthia.

Blame my inherent bias for only liking movies starring Jennifer Lopez, but I think most new movies are terrible. If you too are a person with impeccable taste who likes going to the movies, you probably find yourself plagued by this problem. Maybe you also angrily throw the remains of your $11.95 child’s size popcorn in the trash as you leave the theater, like, Oh, wow, cool another film about a white middle-aged man who finds the courage within himself to teach math. I could write a better movie than that!

Instead of just grumbling about how everything sucks, today we’re going to do something about it! I’m going to help you get started on writing a screenplay of your own. Much like making friendship bracelets or doing the Cha-Cha Slide, screenwriting can seem intimidatingly complicated at first, but once you learn the mechanics, it’s not so scary. I’m still an amateur at this, but these are some basic guidelines and tips that have been very helpful to me in my journey to become a Jenny Award*–winning screenwriter.

*The Jenny Awards are what I will rename the Oscars in honor of Jennifer Lopez, once I outlive everyone and become in charge of Hollywood.

1. Learn How to Format

Unlike with an essay or a novel, a screenplay or script focuses solely on dialogue and actions. Some people think this makes scripts easier to write than books, but I think they’re both challenging in their own ways. For me, the most intimidating aspect of learning to screenwrite was the format. Like, what do all these weird abbreviations—INT.; EXT; O.S.—mean? (They mean interior, exterior, and offscreen!) Why are some characters’ names written in all caps, but not others? Can I write a script in Microsoft Word?!

Technically, you can work on a script wherever you want (and you should). You can write a note on your phone or in gel pen in the back of a Lisa Frank notebook! Jot down ideas and bits of dialogue whenever you feel like it. But you should probably download some sort of screenwriting software when it comes time to seriously drafting the script itself. Basically, the software takes a lot of tedious formatting work off by your hands by doing things like automatically spacing things the right way and numbering scenes, so you can focus on the content of your script. Final Draft is the standard software used, but it costs money. Adobe Story is a good free alternative, the only downside being that you can’t use it when you’re offline.

Once you’ve got some sort of script-writing software, refer to the April Rider script, a script for a fake movie that teaches you how to format a script correctly and what all those weird abbreviations mean. This glossary of screenwriting terms is also super useful for reference!

2. Study Your Favorite Scripts

You know that old saying that a good writer is also a good reader? This applies to screenwriting, too! I think the best way to get familiar with the formatting of a script is to read the scripts of films that you like to watch and see how the writer translated what they wanted to see on screen onto the page. You can find the script to nearly every movie on the Internet Movie Script Database (IMSDB). Take note of how writers succinctly describe characters and settings in just a few short lines!

Reading scripts is a good way to learn about dramatic plot, too. Figuring out how to pace scenes in a movie has always been challenging for me because, like many reality TV personalities, I’m not looking for drama! I could easily get carried away and write a movie that is just a single hour and a half–long scene of two women discussing candles (perhaps this is why I enjoy YouTube hauls so much). But most good movies that are interesting to watch usually have a strong sense of dramatic action and establish that there is something at stake for their characters. The scripts for Thelma & Louise and Juno were some of the first I ever read, and they’re both pretty illustrative of good story form.

Most movies follow a three-act structure and are about 120 pages each, which translates to roughly two hours of screentime (one page = one minute of a movie, typically), about 50 scenes or so, and look something like this when you break them down:

Act I

  • Set-Up (pages 1-30)

    This is where we introduce our main character(s): what their deals are, where they live, what their hopes and dreams are, et cetera. This is the part that’s like, “I’m just a small-town girl. Nothing ever happens in this boring old town. Plus, I don’t even have a date for prom!”

  • Turning Point #1 (around page 25-30)

    This is where the problem comes in. Let’s say an alien descends upon the boring old town! The main character’s outer goal is defined OR the means to achieve their preexisting goal are defined (“I don’t have a date for prom…maybe I could convince people this alien is a human boy, and take him as my date?”)

Act II

  • Obstacles (pages 30-60)

    The main character faces more obstacles standing in the way of their goal. We learn more about them and their motivations. (Maybe our main character performs a makeover on the alien. Then, girls all around the school start to compete for attention of the hot alien. Our main character gets jealous and starts to develop real feelings for the hot alien, et cetera.)

  • Midpoint (page 60ish)

    This is an interruption halfway through the whole script which totally changes the direction of the story. It usually tests the main character’s commitment to their original goal. Often, this is when everything seems hopeless. (The protagonist catches the hot alien making out with her best friend AND it turns out his evil overlords have come looking for him.)

  • Turning Point (page 90ish)

    This is an action or event that is like the light at the end of the tunnel! Some sort of alternative plan or new moment of inspiration occurs. (The hot alien reveals the only way to expose an alien overlord’s identity is by placing him directly under the light of a disco ball while the “Cha-Cha Slide” plays. They must get to prom in time and convince the DJ to play the “Cha-Cha Slide,” even though kids think it’s severely outdated, so they can expose the overlord).

Act III

  • Resolution (page 100ish)

    This is the race to achieve this new goal. (In this case, get to prom in time and expose the alien overlord to the public).

  • Climax (page 115ish)

    The main character confronts their biggest challenge, and learns a lesson or realizes their One True Goal all along. (The HIGH SCHOOL PRINCIPAL was the evil alien overlord. He is arrested by the Space Police.)

  • Conclusion (page 115-120)

    The part that’s like, “Happily Ever After,” OR presents entirely new questions. (Our main character dances in the moonlight with her hot alien date before he kisses her and goes back to Mars. She reunites with her best friend and they decide to never let a boy, alien or human, get in the way of their friendship.)

OK, so maybe Alien Prom King won’t be a hit film—these are just the bare bones of any movie. If you jot down what happens in each scene as you read a script, you’ll notice the film’s plot probably follows this pattern at least somewhat closely.