Updated: Sep 25, 2022
This is my own personal writing process, so take everything here with a grain of salt. My brother has a different process that involves finishing a bottle of red wine and writing until the script is done. There's no wrong answers.
If you are a fellow Banana Slug Film Production Coalitioner, you might recognize this process. This was the process that I tried implementing into the Screenwriters' Group. I still think it's a quality process even though the Screenwriters' Group crashed and burned after a quarter or so. It's hard to compete with the draw of those Canon C100 Mk II's and the Rokinon lenses.
The very first thing needed is an idea. One of the best pieces of advice that I have received is to write what you personally want to see. If you don’t like the idea that you are writing about, then you’re not going to like writing the screenplay, and if you don’t like writing the screenplay, you probably won’t finish the screenplay, and if you do finish writing it, it will probably be shit. So choose an idea that resonates with you. Work on what you personally would like to see in a film or a show using this idea. If you don’t like your idea the first go around, choose another idea that interests you and do that one. I try to write one or two paragraphs on an idea. Just some basic concept of what happens; who the characters are; who the antagonist is; who the protagonist is. Things of that nature.
Going off the top of my head, this could be an example of a starting idea:
Two federal agents infiltrate a First Step potato gardening program, where convicted
felons released early can learn a quality life skill. The reason for their infiltration into
the group is that the federal government believes the charismatic programming
director is amassing a large militant arm of anti-government extremists, with most of the
former convicts staying long after their individual program has ended. Thinking a dangerous
cult is brewing of dangerous people, these two agents must infiltrate the group, find out any
potential plans of destruction, and exit the group all without being found out.
Now, this is all just made up off the top of my head and took maybe twenty minutes. But the main thing I want you to take away is that I used things in my life that I know and implemented them into the idea. And it's not just things that I know, but things that I am interested in. I'm currently thinking about a move to Idaho, which is known for potatoes. I also am wanting to learn how to grow potatoes on my own, so I have been researching a lot about potato growing. I also have been reading a lot about federal agents infiltrating all sorts of groups, whether the group be considered extremist or not, and some of the tactics that they use to infiltrate such groups. And I know for a fact that I am anti-government. No personal feelings against you if you are pro-government. I just feel that whenever government gets involved with trying to solve a problem, they tend to make things worse pretty much every time. These are all things that I have spent a considerable amount of time looking into. Now, have I grown my own potatoes yet? No, it's not quite the correct season for potato growing. But I will grow potatoes before my time is up on this Earth because first, I love eating potatoes. And second, you can grow a lot of potatoes all at once. And they can be very filling in case of a societal collapse. I'm a big dude, so living off of lettuce, carrots and arugula for an extended period of time sounds very tiring. Although, I probably do need to live off of lettuce, carrots, and arugula in regular, everyday society due to the ol' dad bod that is currently residing on my outer being.
The Beat Sheet/Treatment/Outline
After figuring out the basic premise of what you want to make, the next step is to create an outline. There isn’t really a wrong way to create an outline, although many professors and writing enthusiasts will tell you different. Just ignore them. The main thing to remember is that you are actively writing and creating. Fuck all those people who tell you that you are doing it wrong. If they can't get past a typo or a structural concept, that's their own personal problem. You will only keep getting better, while they focus on being a hater. This outline will be used to create your script and your script will be an outline used for creating the movie. You can write the entire outline in red crayon on notepad paper with scribbles all over the place if it helps you with writing the screenplay. And this goes for writing your screenplay. There are lots of rules from the gatekeeping industry that screenwriters are supposed to abide by. Fuck those rules too, especially if you are planning on making the film yourself. And really, most of the rules or guidelines in place for screenwriters are often broken anyhow. So don't get caught up in the technical, structural aspect. You just need to write and that's it. Now, with saying that, the story you write will never be finished. The movie you create will never be finished. I often go back to screenplays, and even our fully shot films and just start tinkering with them even after they've been released. I think it's because I see them with fresh eyes. Fresh eyes definitely help.
There are usually two ways to go about writing the outline for a screenplay. There is a treatment, which is sort of telling the story that you want to tell in prose, with possibly adding in types of shots and camera movements. And then there is the beat sheet, which is similar to the treatment, except that I find it to be a little bit more in-depth because it allows me to use scene headings to break down ideas into a more clear-cut scene. There isn’t necessarily any dialogue in either of these, unless there’s something that you specifically want your character(s) to say that you don’t want to forget. Pretty much anything you come up with that you don’t want to forget, write it down anywhere. And then just start organizing it into something understandable. The outline is here to help you write the screenplay and that’s it. You can forgo the outline entirely if you wish, but I have found it to be an incredibly helpful tool. Creating a story is this complex process, so there might be times where some ideas (especially ones that you love) fall through the cracks. An outline can save those ideas. There have been countless times that I've been driving around, or playing with my kids where an idea pops into my head that finally ties some story together. And then, I tell myself to go write it down. And then I don't, and I'm trying to figure out what that missing piece was later on, never quite remembering. So, if anything pops up in your head that you love, write it down literally anywhere. And try to be thorough. There's these little notes in one of my notebooks where it's a few words that I have no remembrance of, like "trial people fighting back" and I'm like what the fuck was I getting at.
There is no desired length for your outline, whether it be a beat sheet or a treatment. You should try to tell the story from beginning to end, but sometimes you don't have a beginning or sometimes you don't have an ending, but you love your idea so it doesn't matter anyways. You can be as in-depth as you want or be as brief as you want. The outline is just something to help you when you start the script. You don’t have to use an outline if you don’t want. Use whatever works for you. Most of the time, I personally write a beat sheet that is pretty in-depth for what my character(s) want in that particular scene, the main action that happens in the scene, and sometimes what they are thinking. I also have a section before my very first scene where I list out each of my characters, their physical descriptions, and maybe some brief histories.
These links here will give you three entirely different examples of a beat sheet/treatment. Use them. Don’t use them. It is entirely up to you, my friends. I tend to mix it up a bunch depending on what I’m writing, but use whatever you wish. These are probably copyrighted in some shape or form, so if you own the copyright, know that these are used for educational purposes only. That should be obvious, but I'm putting it out there right now, just in case.
After the outline, comes the screenplay. This link is where I learned the basics to formatting. The format of a screenplay is very unique and different if you have never seen it before. Give it a quick read through, it’s not too important to learn all of the formatting rules right away. The very last thing I want to happen is for you to focus on the formatting rather than the story. The story is far more important at this stage. Formatting is one of those things that can be learned over time. All scripts have formatting errors. My scripts have formatting errors. Don’t get caught up on whether or not something is formatted correctly. Focus on the story and the characters. And if there are some errors format-wise, hopefully you can iron them out for the final draft of the script. Read up on the beat sheet examples. Read up on the formatting of the screenplays. Or don’t read them and go straight to writing. Whatever process works that allows you to just start writing is the best process hands down.
A script is typically 90-120 pages. If you write one page a day, which might take maybe a half hour to an hour per day, you will have written a full-length feature screenplay in 3 months time. Most never make it that far. It's all about incremental, tiny-step habits. I remember watching this Youtube video of this girl dancing every day for an hour, and she went from "eh" to "hot dang" in that one year. I looked more into it and it was called the Seinfeld Method, which was incorrectly attributed to Jerry Seinfeld (allegedly). You can use it for anything really. It doesn't have to be for screenwriting. Just incrementally doing something for a small duration of your day, every single day, no matter what. There's also like a calendar thing with marking a big X on every day you complete the activity you want. That is also something that helps. I don't know, you'll have to look more into it if you are interested. It's what I use when I need to lose a few LBs, or if I really need to focus on finishing a script. It's all about building productive habits.
There are many types of screenwriting formatting software online. The one I use is Final Draft, which is sort of the industry standard, but it costs money ($199.99 as of this writing). There are also a lot of free ones out there that you can use to write a screenplay, but I’m about 74% sure (made up percentage) that you have to be connected to the internet to use them. Seeing as we have the Internet all around us, it’s not that big of a deal. There’s an extension in Google Drive that will help you format your script and it’s free. It was pretty time consuming back in my school days though. It might be better now some years later.
I prefer Final Draft. It is very easy to use that helps with all of the formatting bits, which allows me to focus on the story at hand rather than get caught up in the formatting process. But if funds are low, do not get Final Draft. Just use one of the free ones. If you make it big, then yes, you should probably get it, but until then I wouldn't worry about it. This isn't a paid advertising thing for Final Draft either. I just like what they made.
Last Pieces of Advice
You should come up with an idea with the thought in mind of using resources that you have access to, especially if you plan on making the film yourself. Everyone has access to some sort of nice camera on their smartphones, but that's about it, so I’d advise against having a serial killer addict trying to murder a man on a helicopter on the Golden Gate Bridge or anything of that sort (although that would be dope). That isn’t to say you won't have access to certain practical effects aspects. You can always Youtube things to learn how to do practical effects on the cheap, but always try to keep in mind how feasible some of your ideas are.
Dialogue - The best piece of advice I received about writing dialogue is that people almost never say what they want. Almost never (there are probably exceptions). Most of the time, people will say what they think will get them what they want. If that sounds like the same thing, I promise you it’s not. Now, this advice is used for adults. Kids absolutely say what they want 95% of the time (once again made up percentage), so take that advice and throw it out the window if you have a kid character in your script.
One page of the script usually averages out to about one minute of screen time, and one page usually averages out to about an hour of shooting time. So if you write a 11 page short, it will probably take 11 hours to shoot, with about 11 minutes of runtime for the final cut of the film. And finally, just start writing. I promise you that once you start writing, it will not be as hard as you thought it would be before you started writing (awkward sentence, I know). That’s the whole key out of this whole spiel that I’ve written to you. I just want you to start writing and nothing else.
P.S. You can find examples of screenplays on our site here at this link. You just click on the little image of each, and the script should pop up in a new window. These are all short screenplays that are a part of a larger project that we will one day shoot in the future.