While there’s so many scripts that are being written for TV, there’s still a good amount of a film spec scripts sitting in production studios just waiting to get produced. Before, I wrote about writing TV spec scripts, which are scripts written to showcase to agents, managers, and producers that you can write in a prescribed environment (such as a TV series, an established IP like a video game franchise, or even a comic book series).
But when it comes to writing an original film spec script, there are different conventions to be noted. To be clear, a film “spec” is a script written in the context of “pre-production”, the stage where the scripts are refined; the studio secures writers, directors, and actors; and financing is secured. A “shooting script” includes input from the art department and other departments as well as the director’s shots and transitions.
If you have any questions, comments, or concerns about the content of this post, please reach out to me. I’d be happy to help in any way possible.
"This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it's done. It's that easy, and that hard." - Neil Gaiman
Like all of my other posts involving screenwriting, my number one requirement is to read scripts. Think about some of your favorite movies and try to find the scripts for those. Take note of everything from character introductions, dialogue, action lines, and other elements. Use those scripts as an example to emulate. You can find a lot of scripts online by doing a quick Google search.
To write movies, you should watch movies—good and bad. And it’s even better if you can compare the script to the final version (spec scripts are altered during the production phrase to accommodate budget, director’s notes/shot list, etc.). Check out movies on streaming platforms like Netflix or Hulu (they produce a lot of content these days).
Writing a script can take a lot of time and energy, so be mindful of that going in. You must plan out your script with a treatment (a synopsis of the script) and a beat sheet (a scene-by-scene breakdown). I discuss those briefly here. So, take a moment to review some of those planning techniques. You don’t want to start writing without a clear plan.
Before diving in, there are a few things that would be beneficial for you to do beforehand.
Take a look at a previous blog explaining the most common screenplay mistakes. It will help you in avoiding, what I believe to be, the mistakes that most new screenwriters make on their first drafts. So, read the post to avoid making small mistakes.
Lastly, take a look at my outlining document to help you make a strong treatment for your screenplay. You don’t want to get halfway finished with your script before realizing you don’t know how it’s going to end.
Once you’ve done those two things, don’t forget to pick up a resource like Dave Trottier’s Screenwriter's Bible to guide in formatting your screenplay. Formatting is so very important, but you could also pick up other resources on storytelling, character creation, and others.
Don’t forget to take advantage of a screenwriting software like Final Draft, Movie Magic Screenwriter, Celtx, etc. Screenplays have specific margins and spacing that are difficult to set in word processors. So, to save time, pick up a screenwriting software. Many of them offer free trials, so you’ll be able to try each of them out before making a final purchase.
"Screenwriting is like ironing. You move forward a little bit and go back to smooth things out." - Paul Thomas Anderson
Write The Best Film Spec Script
Follow a 3-Act Structure
On your treatment, before you write, go ahead and write what happens in each Act:
Act I, ¼ of your script – Setup/Inciting Incident (introduction to character, setting, premise, genre)
Act II, ½ of your script – The “Rising Action” (Two parts after the point of no return; complications; stakes; and other issues)
Act III, ¼ of your script – The “Resolution” (Climax, resolution, “aftermath”)
*These are broad descriptions. A more detailed post will be made to break down the meaning of these terms. Refer to outside resources on the 3-Act Structure such as Hauge’s plot structure.
Of course, there are many ways to write a screenplay, but the 3-Act Structure is most common and the easiest to use.
Know the “Rules”
Just like TV writing, there are certain “rules” that apply, so keep in mind that there are rules that you must stick to as well in the case of writing a film spec script. A lot of these rules are conventions. Only the most experienced and well-known screenwriters have the liberty to break these. Either way, be mindful of the rules, or conventions, concerning the following:
INT or EXT
Master shot (Main location) + secondary location (if applicable)
NIGHT or DAY
V.O. as narration (most common use). O.S./O.C. if just off screen or off camera
About five lines of dialogue as a convention
On its own line under dialogue prompt (character name)
Short note to describe dialogue, but not outright direction for actor
“Beats” (not to be used excessively) or other notes necessary
What’s happening on screen in present tense, active voice
A maximum of 3 lines for newer writers
Should be spaced out to prevent large blocks of text (which makes the easier to read and for each department to parse out what they need to know)
Can interrupt dialogue to describe corresponding actions
When it comes to writing strong characters you must make sure that the character is flawed, has a history (past, present, and future), has an arc (a change that occurs by the end of the flim), and that he or she has a goal to accomplish.
If your character doesn’t have these things, he or she will seem one-dimensional or too perfect. Watch movies to get an idea of how flawed characters with a history change over the course of a movie and what goal they must accomplish.
With goals, something must be at stake if the goal is unmet. Think of catastrophes and relationships ending. The conflict occurs when the antagonist or antagonistic force is in direct opposition of the main character’s goal. Any and every obstacle in the way of the main character’s attempt to reach the goal causes conflict. Your script should have conflict.
"To make a fine film, you need three things: a great script, a great script and a great script." -Alfred Hitchcock
Writing a film spec script can be a huge undertaking, consuming multiple hours of time and a lot of mental energy. However, it’s also fun, and don’t forget to look at it that way. In fact, writing can be one of the best things you’ll ever do, but you must take it seriously. Keep a purpose in mind for your script. You are either trying to sell (option) your script or you would like to have it produced.
No matter which path you are ultimately going to choose, continue refining the script, making changes. Perhaps even find someone like me who can evaluate your script and check the formatting, storytelling elements, etc. Do your best. Always.
Shoot me an email if you have any questions, comments, or concerns.
How to Start a Script- Process Tips, Ideation Strategies & More by Michael Bodhi Green - Outline strategies and guidelines on how to start a spec script.
What do I Need to Know About Writing Spec Scripts? by Susan Kouguell - Common questions about spec scripts, answered.
How to Write a Spec Script: The Complete Guide to Writing on Spec by AJ Detisch - How to find inspiration and balance when writing a spec script.
SXSW: Mark Duplass' 8 Improvised Tips for Success in the Film Industry by Eric Kohn - Tips for success on breaking into the film industry.
What is a Spec Script? Everything a Beginner Needs to Know by K. D. Wilson - A beginners guide to what a spec script is and examples of how to format one.