How to Write a Screenplay That Sells

What you will learn:

  • Why emotions are important in screenplays that sell
  • 5 qualities your hero should have
  • 6 qualities all successful screenplays have
  • Types of characters surrounding your hero
  • Basic screenplay format used in successful screenplays
  • How to sell your screenplay

Why emotions are important in screenplays that sell

The main objective of any professional screenwriter is, you must know how to create emotion.

One of the main reasons audiences watch movies is so they can experience those emotions on a deep psychological level.

There are four stages to the process of how to write a screenplay:

  1. What is the story about?
  2. The characters who populate the story
  3. The plot structure. What happens in the movie and when does it happen?
  4. The individual scenes themselves

Within each of these four stages there are two primary facets:

  1. Brainstorming phase
    • A process in generating as many ideas as you can in a non-judgmental, freeform, free thinking way
  2. Editing phase
    • The judgmental, selective phase of going through all your brainstorming ideas and picking the ideas that illicit the strongest emotions

Every movie or TV episode can be reduced to a single sentence. “The movie is about _____ who _____.”

Every movie is about a character who wants something and is visible to the audience. This is the starting point of your screenplay that will develop the rest of your script.

5 qualities every hero must have

The following 5 qualities are REQUIRED within every screenplay format. Without these 5 qualities, you movie will fail financially and artistically.

  1. There must be a hero
    • A hero is someone who is visible on the screen most of the time. There ultimate desire/goal drives the plot forward. A hero that the audience can emotionally connect with.
  2. The audience must identify with the hero
    • A strong emotional connection between the audience and the hero. When the hero fails, the audience feels sad. When the hero succeeds, the audience feels happy.
  3. The hero must want something visible
    • As an audience, it must be plainly visible what the hero is desiring. Defeating the aliens, rescuing the princess, achieving happiness.
  4. There must be obstacles preventing the hero from achieving their goal.
  5. When overcoming the obstacles, there must be a need for courage.
    • It can be physical, emotional, and/or psychological.

If your movie does not have these 5 elements, it will fail.

6 qualities every successful screenplay have

The next 6 qualities can potentially increase the commercial success of your script writing: (The most important priorities are listed first)

  1. The story must possess a high concept.
    • Audiences will line-up to see the movie, simply on the basis of what the movie is about. That one sentence description that defines your movie. The cast and crew who are attached to the movie is irrelevant to a high concept story.
  2. The story must contain originality and familiarity.
  3. The audience must identify with the setting and the characters.
  4. The story must contain a second-level of sell and sub-plots.
    • A second-level of sell is another aspect of your movie besides the high concept that will help draw audiences to your movie. A second-level of sell can also be considered as a second visible goal the hero desires that is equally as important as the main goal.
  5. Your story must fit a commercial genre:
    • Action/Adventure
    • Suspense/Thriller
    • Comedy
    • Drama
    • Love Story
  6. The cheaper the budget, the greater chance of commercial success.
    • Things to avoid in your first screenplay:
      • Expensive special effects
      • Big cast
      • Period setting
      • Exotic locations
      • Intense weather

A list of the top 10 screenwriting resources.

Character Development

Your characters must be original, they must jump off the page/screen. Some tips on how to achieve this,

  1. Research
  2. Detail
    • Developing small nuance details about a character helps them become unique. Habits, their appearance, their behavior.
  3. Every character has 3 unique characteristics:
    • Physiology
      1. Determines the physical aspect of the character. Age, sex, etc.
    • Sociology
      1. Background, history and environment
    • Psychology
      1. Intelligence, personality. Aspects about the character that may not be visible, but are on the inside.


The following list are elements needed within your hero that allows the audience to emotionally connect with them: (listed by priority first)

  1. Sympathy
    • Getting the audience to feel sorry for the character, that they are the victim.
  2. Place the hero in jeopardy
  3. Likeable

You must apply one or all of these 3 elements with your hero, otherwise you will not establish a sufficient emotional connection with your audience. Establish these traits as soon as possible.

Motivation is an essential a part of your hero. Motivation is basically what your hero hopes to achieve by the end of the movie. There are two levels of motivation:

  • The outer motivation of your hero answers the question, what the movie is about, the visible goal your hero is trying to achieve. The outer motivation determines the actions your hero takes to answer that question. It also determines the plot of the story.
  • The inner motivation answers the question, WHY the hero wants to achieve the goal. The inner motivation is typically invisible to the audience. A psychological desire of the hero.

Motivation alone does not create an exciting story. This is why you introduce conflict and obstacles in your hero’s path to their motivation. Just like motivation, conflict also includes two levels:

  • The outer conflict prevents the hero from achieving their outer motivation. The outer conflict can manifest in two ways (or both), nature or other characters.
  • The inner conflict prevents the hero from achieving self-worth through their inner motivation. The inner conflict always manifests from within the hero.

The outer motivation and outer conflict is ESSENTIAL to your screenplay. The inner motivation and inner conflict is a deeper level that you may or may not want to explore.

Types of characters

There are four types of primary characters within any story:

  1. Hero (protagonist)
  2. Nemesis (antagonist)
    • The more formidable, provocative and engaging is the nemesis, the better the screenplay will be. Typically a stark contrast to the hero. The nemesis must be visible, and visibly confronted.
  3. The reflection
    • A character whose own outer motivation supports the hero’s. Typically, the outer conflict is also shared with the hero. The reason for a reflection character is to create a more believable plot. Another reason is that it gives the hero someone to talk to.
  4. The romance
    • The object of the hero’s outer motivation, sexually or romantically. Alternatively, this character supports the hero’s outer motivation, but also opposes it. No conflict within two romantic characters will die, it’ll be boring.


Basic screenplay format of most successful screenplays

The events of the movie and their relation to the story.

Proper screenplay format happens at the right place at the right time to illicit maximum emotion.

Every story has 3 acts, beginning, middle and end.

Act 1 (The Beginning)

  • Establish the hero’s outer motivation.
  • The first act is typically around 1/4th of the screenplay.

Act 2 (The Middle)

  • Build up the obstacles the hero must face to achieve their outer motivation.
  • The second act is typically half of the screenplay.

Act 3 (The End)

  • To ultimately resolve the outer motivation.
  • The third act is typically 1/4th of the screenplay.

Every structure must include the following:

  1. Every scene, event and character must contribute to the hero’s outer motivation.
  2. The conflict of the story must continuously build. Every obstacle the hero is faced with must be greater and more exciting than the last.
  3. Pacing of the story must accelerate.
  4. Peaks and valleys of the emotional level of the story.
  5. Create anticipation within the audience.
  6. Give the audience superior position. Tell the audience something some of the characters don’t know.
  7. Surprise the character every now and then. Something the audience was not anticipating.
  8. Create curiosity within the audience. Give the audience moments to question what is going on in the movie that has not yet been explained until later in the movie.
  9. Put a character in danger.
  10. Make effective use of time. It can develop suspense for example or allows the audience to become more emotionally engaged due to the race of time within the story.
  11. Make the story credible. A story that is logical and believable.
  12. Foreshadow important events of your story.
  13. Echo an event or events unchanged that demonstrates a change in a character.
  14. Create a big opening. The first 10 minutes/pages of your screenplay must get the reader/audience emotionally involved in your story and characters.
  15. An effective ending which includes,
    • An effective climax
      • Visibly resolves the hero’s outer motivation
      • Hero faces the greatest obstacle of the movie
    • The ending must be clear, not ambiguous.
    • The ending must be the most emotionally gratifying to the audience.
      • Typically, happy endings sell tickets.
    • Individual scenes. Several principles of writing effective scenes are,
      • Paint a picture in the reader’s mind that they forget they are reading words on a page.
      • Nothing is written on the page that won’t end up on screen.
      • A screenplay is a proposal script, not a shooting script.
      • Never submit or share a screenplay if you know you can make it better, or that is incomplete, or too long.

A list of the top 10 screenwriting resources.

Action Scenes

When describing action, keep it simple. Avoid going into too much detail.

The most common issue with scripts that are too long are action scenes and dialogue that are too long that don’t contribute to the hero’s outer motivation.

As a rule of thumb, 1 page of a screenplay equals to 1 minute on screen. So, if you are writing a 5 minute car chase, then there should only be 5 pages describing that car chase.

When describing action, be descriptive and not vague in the details. Be able to paint a picture in the reader’s mind exactly how it would look if they were watching it on a screen.

Dialogue Scenes

When you are having difficulty with script writing dialogue in a scene, ask yourself these set of questions,

  1. What is your objective for this scene? (How does this scene contribute to the hero’s outer motivation)
  2. How will the scene end?
  3. How will the scene begin?
  4. What is each characters objective in the scene?
  5. What is each characters attitude in the scene? (What are they feeling at the moment)

Dialogue writing is much less important to your screenplay than the structure or the character development. Dialogue can easily be fixed compared to other aspects of your story.

Business of Screenwriting

There is no single pathway to breaking it into the film business. But there are some principles that can help you find your way to success.

  1. Your objective is NOT to sell the screenplay, but to SELL YOURSELF. You are the valuable commodity, not the screenplay.
  2. Getting a development deal.
  3. Getting hired as a staff writer.
  4. Don’t listen to statistics. Such as, only 1% out of 15,000 made any money from their screenplay each year. Avoid any discouraging statements you have heard about getting into the industry.
  5. Knowledge is power. Find out who are the people making the movies you want to make, what are they looking for and where are they.

Your ultimate goal is to market yourself as a screenwriter, marketing your talent.

When securing a deal there are 4 individuals who can help you get that deal:

  1. Your agent/attorney
  2. Independent film producer
  3. Star or filmmaker with clout
  4. Film Investors (someone who has shown an interest in financing the entire movie)

Do not only write ONE script, but write 2 or more completed scripts.

Once you have finished your script here are some steps you should take next:

  1. Make 8 copies of your script
  2. Place the 1st copy in a secure/safe place
  3. Register the 2nd copy for copyright
  4. Register the 3rd copy with the writers guild
  5. Give the last 5 copies to people you know and trust their judgment

If, all of the 5 people say your script is not good, you must be willing to accept that and assume that the script is not ready to be shown to potential investors.

If, all of the 5 people say it is good, then it’s ready to be shown.

It’s a good idea to consider the opinions of these people to polish up the script before showcasing it.


If you found this article helpful, I highly recommend checking out the following books that goes into more detail on how to write a screenplay that sells.

Writing Screenplays That Sell

The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writer

Recommended Resources

Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need (#1 Best Seller)

The Million Dollar Screenplay! Write your movie today!

Final Draft 9 (#1 Screenwriting Software)

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  • par

    very helpful post on screenwriting, keep it up.

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