Every great screenwriter in film history started somewhere, tapping away on her or his very first screenplay. If you’re preparing to embark on your own screenwriting journey for the first time, congratulations! It’s an exciting (and frustrating) adventure, but if you stick with it, you’ll learn more about writing and storytelling than you would ever get from a class or book.
Before you type FADE IN, take a look at these six preparatory steps. They’ll help you make sure you know your story well enough to make it all the way to the end.
Write an Outline
Outlining your story is a great first step, since it gives you a chance to explore your story from start to finish without stalling on scene details or dialogue. Don't worry about structuring your outline in any particular format — whatever feels most comfortable to you and allows you to work quickly is the right answer. Try producing multiple outlines to continually refine your story until you feel confident about every twist and turn.
Put Your Scenes on Notecards
Once you have a solid outline, start mapping out your scenes on notecards. Use one notecard per scene, with the scene heading written at the top and a short description of what happens in the body of the card. When you have all of your scenes laid out in front of you, you'll have an easier time identifying holes in your plot, as well as ideas you had in your outline that are no longer needed. Try mixing up the order of your cards to see how your story plays out with unusual jumps in time.
Practice Pitching Your Story
It's important to surround yourself with a group of peers whose opinion you trust — family members aren't ideal, since they're likely to praise your ideas no matter what they are. Try pitching your screenplay to a friend or fellow writer, and see how it comes out when you feel the pressure of conveying your story concisely and evocatively. The more you practice, the better you'll get. Plus, you'll have a refined sense of what makes your story exciting to an audience before you sit down to write.
Study Your Climax
The easiest way to get started on a screenplay is to know where you're going. Spend plenty of time thinking about your story's climax: what happens, how does your main character grow, and how does your plot turn towards the ending. Know as much as you can about the key moment that represents the highest point of your story's arc, and that will guide your decisions when setting everything up along the way.
Rethink Your Beginning
Now that you know exactly where your story is headed, you can approach the beginning of your story with a clear sense of what needs to be established. Look for opportunities to foreshadow key plot points down the road. You may use the early scenes of your screenplay to mention a character's weakness, then show how that weakness is overcome on their journey toward the climax. Leave plenty of clues for your audience to find as they learn about your story's premise in the first act.
Get Back to the Idea
After all of this preparation is done, set your outlines and notecards aside for a short while before you start writing. Go back to the first notes you jotted down that led to the story you have now. Focus on the things that most excited you when you first came up with your concept, and try to harness the feeling that sparked your desire to write. That feeling what will energize you to make it all the way to the end of your script, and ultimately, it's the most important asset for a writer to have.