How to Start Screenwriting

By Tracy Ruckman

I’ve been a professional writer since the 1980s when I received my first paycheck for a magazine article, but it wasn’t until about five years ago that I discovered a love of the screenwriting format. Once I learned the basics, I was hooked because screenwriting seems to come naturally to me. Making that statement sets me up for all sorts of comments, so I’ll clarify: just because screenwriting (or any other kind of writing) seems to come naturally doesn’t mean I can write them perfectly. I had to learn the craft, so I sought an MFA in screenwriting. (Not a path I necessarily recommend, but I loved all that I absorbed.)

Screenwriting comes naturally for me because I tend to think out scenes in the same format as a screenplay – letting the images carry the load, rather than bogging myself down with minute details.

But if you’re new to screenwriting, where should you start?

First, pick up the latest version of Dave Trottier’s The Screenwriter’s Bible. It’s now available in Kindle, but my print copy is so dog-eared, I’d recommend getting the paperback. It’s easy to use and as you write, you’ll need to grab something quick to find out how to format something from one scene to the next. The author not only provides instructions, but also the “why” behind the instructions, so you’ll understand the purpose. I’ve used this one book more than any other during all my screenwriting classes and all my script writing. (At this date, I’ve completed four scripts, and have five others in various stages of completion.) It is considered the industry-standard.

Second, you’ll need some screenwriting software. (Formatting becomes a breeze, so save yourself a few headaches and get the software instead of trying to format it yourself.) At one time, Celtx offered a free version but when I checked on it for this article, I learned they now charge. If you’re not sure if screenwriting is for you, but want to try it out, they offer a monthly subscription so you can try it for $20 a month.

But if you decide you like screenwriting and want to continue, I recommend purchasing one of two programs: Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter 6. I’ve had Movie Magic for years, and have loved it the entire time, but I loved it even more after I took a production class, because the software used in production works seamlessly with MMS6 – because it’s created by the same folks. (Final Draft gets a lot of mention, but as far as I can tell, MMS6 is the most user-friendly.)

[TIP: If you are a student or a teacher, or have a student or teacher in your household, you can usually get enormous discounts on software. You’ll just need to provide a student e-mail address, and sometimes (but not always, so ask rather than assume), also a student ID. I saved hundreds on all sorts of software while I was a student.]

Third, create an idea box. Thanks to a professor, my idea box is called the Baker’s Dozen after his assignment. This idea box should be big enough to hold index cards (you can use 3x5s or 4x6s). I use 3×5 color-coded cards, with each color representing a different genre, because I write different kinds of stories.

Image by <a href="">Bo Mei</a> from <a href="">Pixabay</a>The first time I was introduced to the Baker’s Dozen, the professor instructed us to come up with 12 feasible script ideas and one that was “way out there.” He told us the “way out there” could be an idea so crazy no one would listen to it, or a budget so big no one would consider it. The purpose of that 13th idea was to stretch our thinking, and it worked.

Once you have the Baker’s Dozen written on individual cards, let those ideas speak to you. Which character or story is calling you most? Pick the top three, and on the back of the cards, write a log line for that story.

A log line is short and sweet, but power packed – like those descriptions in TV Guide.

After you’ve written the log lines, one of those three should be screaming to write that story first.

Start writing.

By the time you’ve finished that story, others are calling your name.

Writing Prompt: Create your own Baker’s Dozen.

To help generate ideas:

  • What is your happiest/saddest memory? Put a character in that memory and create her own story from it.
  • Hunt down a short story in the public domain, and write your own story based on that short story.
  • What’s something you’ve always wanted to do but have never had the opportunity? Give a character that opportunity!
  • What’s your favorite Bible verse? Create a story using that Bible verse as the theme.

Tracy Ruckman owns TMP Books, a subsidy book publishing company. She is also a consultant and freelance writer and author. She and her husband are currently on a roadtrip of indefinite length, exploring this vast country. You can follow their #LeapFrogs adventures on her blog at and look for her latest book Go West, His Momma Said releasing summer 2019.

Click to Tweet: Screenwriting comes naturally for me because I tend to think out scenes in the same format as a screenplay – letting the images carry the load, rather than bogging myself down with minute details.