As an aspiring writer with the world as your oyster, there are a lot of ways you can draft your first screenplay. That is always intimidating for not only new people but also experienced writers starting on a new script.
Even honed directors have confessed to jitters when beginning a new project. All you got is an idea, and lots of white space in front of you.
It’s hard to become a working a screenwriter.
❓ How do you take an idea and mold that vision into a series of sequential and interesting events?
❓ How do you structure a logical story that resonates with your viewers?
Some have no problem doing that. Certain writers wake up one morning and conjure a seamless story without trouble. Such talent is not easy to come by and the majority depend on strategy and technical know-how.
To write your very first screenplay, you start with an idea and then mold that idea into a fully fleshed story of about 100 pages. You’ll need developed characters. You’ll need conflict. And most of all you’ll need a plan of attack.
My goal in this article is to give you a headstart and link to our resources on how to get started on that first screenplay.
Let’s do this! 🙏
Before jotting anything down, research is in order. You need to put in the study hours to make a world or character that the audience can believe.
Research goes beyond uncovering the history of the subject and terminologies. It’s more than just verifying the accuracy of your in-movie facts.
Once you’ve settled on a particular genre, watch several films in that field. Read the produced scripts behind them or watch Netflix with the subtitles on.
Here’s a website with tons of produced scripts from many movies you’ve watched over the years.
Here are suggestions of screenwriters to study –
👉 For dialogue tips – Cohen Brothers, Aaron Sorkin, Quentin Tarantino, Diablo Cody.
👉 For plot structure – Any Pixar movie, William Goldman (Princess Bride in particular).
A good reference for superhero sci-fi films is The Matrix. This movie adheres to Blake Snyder’s 15-beat breakdown of a plot, which we shall take a look at shortly.
Remember to keep research simple and organized.
You don’t need to go into comprehensive details that’ll confuse the audience.
Finally, study your favorite movies.
💭 Ask yourself – what makes them so memorable? Watch the movie with subtitles on. Then read the script.
You’ll find the shooting script is different than the actual film. Figure out why certain scenes were cut and why.
In other words, be a student of cinema. Love it. Learn it. Work at a video store (if you can still find one).
It worked for this guy 👉
Screenwriting is not like algebra, where every problem has a formula that works it out. It is a vast field where the possibilities are limitless.
However, many writers over the years have attempted to work out a clear path from start to finish. There have been some great books analyzing the basic ways of coming up with a script from scratch.
💭 Ever get that deja vu feeling when you watch certain movies?
It’s like you’ve seen this plot before but you could swear it’s from a different movie. Even a different genre.
It’s because Hollywood films have a particular pattern to them. Some may do funky stuff with it like Quentin Tarantino (sequences out of order) or David Lynch (really weird and scary).
But every auteur respects certain aspects to the movie making formula. If not, they lose the attention of the viewer and the movie will have no beginning, middle and end.
Let’s take a look at two acclaimed screenwriting methods that you can use in your first screenplay.
Story beats are like checkpoints in a film structure. Every script is broken down into scenes, acts, arcs and beats. A beat is the smallest element among those.
It is an event that signals a change of pace in the story. That may occur if a character figures out something shocking, for example.
Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat has lit the way for novices around the world, breaking down a screenplay into a 15-step beat sheet.
He had a successful career as a screenwriter, selling 13 original screenplays. His first script was the subject of a $500,000 bidding battle, and he is considered extremely successful.
Save the Cat breaks down a storyline in 110 pages. A page in a screenplay is about 1 minute in film time so 110 pages is about 2 hours – a typical, traditional Hollywood movie.
Here’s the beat sheet or breakdown from savethecat.com:
Now, let me walk you through an example using the pilot from Breaking Bad. The pilot is only an hour long but it closely follows Blake Snyder’s formula.
A better example would be to use any Pixar movie, but I wanted to show Breaking Bad as I will use it as an example for the Sequencing Method (later in this article).
Here is the pilot script if you wish to follow.
The Opening Image is beat 1, and it sets the mood of the story, drawing viewers into the world. In Breaking Bad, we get the flash forward scene where Walter White drives his RV in his underpants and we get the famous shot of him in his underwear with gun in hand.
Here it is on page:
Here’s the iconic Walter White introduction:
The Theme Stated is the next step where the protagonist is told in dialogue the theme of the film.
This is literally what happens when Walter White makes a recording for his family, as he believes he will either die or be caught by the police.
Here it is on page:
He doesn’t quite get it yet but it becomes clear as the plot unfolds. Blake Snyder considered the first ten pages as Set-up Pages (beat 3). This third part introduces major characters important to the main story beats.
In Breaking Bad, we see Walter White in his mundane world. He has a paraplegic son. He works as a chemistry teacher, but obviously doesn’t earn enough.
He has a side job cleaning cars. To highlight his plight even further, we get a scene when he cleans the BMW of one of his students.
Here it is on page:
An inciting incident (beat 4) follows known as the Catalyst, and it disrupts the life of the protagonist. He is forced into the story by this event.
In Breaking Bad, this occurs when Walter learns his DEA brother-in-law confiscated $700,000 worth of cash in a recent drug bust. Walter is intrigued. $700K could sure help his son Junior.
Here it is on page:
Beat number 5 is the Debate which takes place between pages 12-25 on a normal script. That entails the protagonist’s self-doubt. Since this Breaking Bad pilot is only 57 pages, this only occurs in a few pages.
Walter White has a health breakdown and learns he has terminal cancer. He thinks about life and death. He catches his son, watching Scarface. It got him thinking.
When the hero is past his doubts, next comes the choice that propels him into the story. This beat is called Break in Two.
In Breaking Bad, this occurs when Walter calls Hank to tag along a drug bust —
When Hank and his team busts down the door and go after the bad guys, Walt stays behind. He notices a familiar character Dupree (who is JESSE PINKMAN in the show) sneaking out the window. He knows this young man —
Walt tracks down Dupree and blackmails him. He wants Dupree to help him sell drugs and earn money. This ends the Break Into Two section of Breaking Bad.
The seventh beat is a B story. This is a secondary story that emerges to complement the primary theme. It could be related to the main plot and have further consequences down the line.
It could also be related to the love interest. 💖
There are 2 instances of this from Breaking Bad. First, there is the character Emilio. He gets caught in Hank’s raid, and he sees Walter with Hank (associated with the DEA agent).
The second B-Story that has ramifications down the line is related to Skyler, Walter’s wife. Skyler talks to Marie, her sister, about her love life and perhaps Walter hasn’t been a dashing hero in between the sheets —
Fun and Games, beat 8, take up pages 30-55 in a normal 100 page script.
In a superhero flick, this is where our hero plays around with his newfound powers.
But again, Breaking Bad is a TV script so it takes place earlier. This is when Walter cooks up a plan to make meth. And decides on how to actually fit drug dealing in his schedule:
The ninth step is the Midpoint where the protagonist faces the consequences of his choices.
Walter reaches the midpoint when he takes out his life savings and hands it to Dupree to buy an RV.
It culminates when Dupree asks Walter why he’s Breaking Bad at this point in his life.
Next beat is the Bad Guys Close In. That’s literally the name of the 10th beat. In the pilot, the main conflict is internal.
Walter White is about to shed his do-gooder self and become someone else. Someone to be feared.
We see this when he fights with the thugs, making fun of his son:
The All is Lost beat sees the protagonist lose something valuable that shocks him. For example, the death of a mentor. In the case of Walter White, it’s death of one and the birth of another.
Walt, a do-gooder, all his life has gotten to a point, where he is in an RV cooking meth in his underwear. One can argue this is symbolic. He’s shed what’s left of his old self (and humanity) and embraced the life of crime. He has taken the first step to becoming Heisenberg.
Dark Night of the Soul is the 12th beat. At this point, the protagonist reaches rock bottom. Everything seems to be going wrong and there’s seemingly no way out for the protagonist.
This occurs when the meth is finally cooked. And it’s not just any meth. It’s the purest meth product Dupree has ever seen.
Break into Three follows. Here, the hero finds a ray of light in the darkness around him and stands up against the odds. However, Walt’s trajectory is downard. In other words, he further transforms himself into a criminal.
This occurs when Dupree brings Krazy 8 to help distribute the product. Krazy-8 brings his partner Emilio to check out the cook.
Yes, that same Emilio from the B Story beat from earlier.
The Finale is the 14th beat. Our protagonist and antagonist embark on a final showdown, the former fueled by his newfound belief or revelation.
In Walt’s case, this is when he is forced to kill Krazy 8 and Emilio and drives off frantically in his RV (going back to the flash forward from the opening).
Then the famous scene in his underwear with a gun in hand. Then the recording to his family.
To his relief, the sirens in the background is not for him and he escapes all consequences for his actions – the drug dealing and the killing.
The story then ends with the Final Image, beat 15. This summarizes the theme, what has happened, and our hero’s next journey. It should be in line with the story theme.
So the scene ends with Walter in an intimate moment with Skyler. They are in bed and he makes an aggressive sexual advance to her (remember the B Story about Skyler’s bashfulness regarding their sex life earlier).
There’s no bashfulness here. Walt is a new man with a new purpose. No longer a meek man – he’s transformed into a drug dealer. Someone of power.
And it was all done for the love of his family – a theme that will persist throughout the series.
So that’s roughly Breaking Bad in the Save the Cat formula. There’s character. There’s a plot. There’s guns and bad guys. But most of all there’s structure to bind them all.
The Sequence Method is not too dissimilar from Save the Cat. As a whole, it follows a traditional three-act structure.
The sequence method breaks down screenwriting further into eight major parts. It confines the plot within these 8 sequences, ensuring it doesn’t meander off in the wrong direction. It
Here’s a rough guideline of how this looks like in Breaking Bad (see below). Please note this is a rough guide on how sequencing works for this pilot. I used Breaking Bad to stay consistent and as a comparison to Save the Cat, mentioned earlier.
✅ Again, as a reminder, the script has the name Dupree. This is Jesse Pinkman in the actual show.
The first sequence encompasses the World Building and Inciting Incident. It offers exposition and paints the Status Quo.
Walter White is a chemistry teacher who shines cars as a 2nd job. Gets caught cleaning one his student’s car – a Corvette sports car. At home, he has a paraplegic son. Inciting Incident – Walt diagnosed with terminal cancer. Walt ponders his future.
A Point of Attack or Predicament follows, paving way for the second sequence.
Our protagonist attempts to regain the disrupted life and the main conflict becomes clear.
In Breaking Bad, Walt goes on a drug raid with his brother-in-law. Discovers a former student who escapes the raid.
Finds out how much money drug dealers make. Walt blackmails Jesse into helping him make/sell drugs (rising tension).
Sequence one and two are in Act 1.
Here’s a graphic for review:
In the third sequence, the protagonist encounters an obstacle and stakes are raised.
This is a point when protagonist has to make a choice to commit further to his/her journey.
In Breaking Bad, Preparations are made to prepare for the “cook”. Walt as a chemistry teacher has a technical approach to making meth.
Pinkman is a day drinker who we learned was flunked by Walt in high school. They are like oil and water. They need a place to cook meth.
That happens once more in the fourth sequence. Our hero fails yet again in restoring the Status Quo. This part also features a big revelation, and it brings to light the risks.
In Breaking Bad —
Walt meets Jesse outside of a bank. He gives all his savings to Jesse to buy an RV so they can continue with their plans.
Scene culminates with Jesse asking Walter why he is “just gonna break bad.” Walter responds succinctly, “I am awake. Buy the RV.”
Here’s a graphic on Sequence 3 and 4:
The consequences follow in the 5th sequence, and new characters come into the story. Major subplots like romance are exploited. Stakes are raised.
In Breaking Bad, this aligns with the shopping scene.
We see more of Walt’s family life. Shopping with his family in a store, Walt finds a group laughing at his son. He physically attacks the biggest person and dares him to a fight. Shows aggression he’s never displayed before.
In the 6th sequence, the protagonist embarks on the tough road to victory. There’s no easy way out and the protagonist experiences a character change, akin to the “Dark Night of the Soul.”
In Breaking Bad —
Walt meets Jesse at the RV in the middle of the desert. He takes off his pants for first time, and we see Walt cooking meth in his underwear. He officially becomes Walt the drug dealer.
Here is a graphic of sequence 5 and 6:
In the 7th Sequence, stakes are raised even further or a twist added.
In Breaking Bad, With Meth cooked, Walt tasks Pinkman to use his connections and help sell the product. Pinkman goes to Krazy-8 (likely a gang member) who can help with distribution.
Jesse, Crazy-8 and Emilio meet Walt in desert. Emilio recognizes Walt as part of the drug bust, early in the episode.
Walt avoids death by promising to teach Crazy-8 recipe. All hope seems lost.
As the name suggests, the 8th sequence is the finale and the ending image.
In Breaking Bad —
Walt takes Crazy-8 and Emilio in the RV. Creates a chemical reaction, escapes RV and traps the gang members in the RV. They are killed by chemical reaction.
Walt drives off with RV frantic. Sirens in the distance. He goes on the road in his underwear, ready to face the consequences. But sirens are not for him.
Closing image of him in bedroom with wife in an intimate moment. Wife says, “Oh my God. Is that you.?” Subtext is he is a changed man.
Here is sequence 7 and 8 in a graphic —
Sequence 7 and 8 fall into Act 3 of a three-act screenplay.
And that in a nutshell is the Sequence Method with Breaking Bad as a rough example of how to do it.
Whether it’s Save the Cat or the Sequence Method, you need a way to structure your story. It’s very hard to just start on page 1 and “wing it”.
You need to leave bits and pieces along the way and bait the reader to continue reading. Then along the journey, let your character grow. Raise the stakes. Make bigger lasers. Blow up bigger and bigger things.
If you don’t like these rigid structures then break it down into a 50 point outline. Since most screenplays are 100 pages long, each point roughly equates to 2 pages of written text.
Then for every 10 points, change the narrative somehow or create a twist. In other words, raise the stakes or push the character further and further until you get to point 50 on your outline.
Then Luke becomes a Jedi. Or Walter White transforms from mild-mannered teacher to infamous, drug dealing Heisenberg.
So do these screenwriting methods mean that your screenplay needs to fit into a certain number of pages or ideas?
The beauty of screenwriting lies in the freedom of expression and creativity.
These formulas serve only to guide, but you should trust in your gut and abilities. It helps to look at other perspectives from successful writers as well.
That way you can mix things up and find the spark that gets you started.
To help you on your journey to write your first screenplay,
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