Writing a Screenplay

Shitiz Srivastava
15 min readJan 24, 2021

As a little child when I first saw the movie Sholay, like millions of Indians who can swear that the film is their favourite, it became my favourite too.

I was one of the many who was smitten by the characters performances, actor’s roles, acting, writing, direction and everything about the film. Since then, I have seen it multiple times and never get bored even once.

What was so special about Sholay? Some say it was the dialogues and the characters because the story was anyways a repetitive one which had already been made several times, first in Japan as the “Seven Samurai”, then in the Hollywood as “Magnificent Seven”, later in India itself as “Khotey Sikkay”, which was released just one year before Sholay, and also few other versions in different countries.

They all share the same story and the most amusing part is that the story worked every time. And why won’t it work, it is the story of an underdog challenging a powerful Antagonistic who seems almost unbeatable. It is David vs. Goliath story except it has more than one Goliath.

I was in my teens in school when I first saw Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. An independent film which was made on a meagre budget but boasted an actor like Harvey Keitel, whom I later found, also backed the project. It wasn’t an independent film after all but it was a great film. It launched the career of a super-duper director along with some great actors. It gave dreams to wannabe filmmakers that they can make their films too.

Reservoir Dogs was a film with a plethora of actors munching too many dialogues in very few locations. Apt for a low-cost film. It was mostly a talky film where people talked a lot. First, they plan the bank robbery, then they move ahead to rob it but we are never shown the bank robbery.

Later we come to know that someone hints the police before they come for robbing and the second part is about how they all suspect each other to find the police mole among them.

Again, few different setups, simple structure but complex narrative and treatment, which made it unique.

I simply loved it.

The usage of background score, the music, the slow-motion introduction of characters, the opening shot breaking several camera rules, the goriness, the blood, the unapologetic excessive usage of words like fuck, nigger and shit, everything ebbed into minds of those who saw it and made a huge impact.

It was my introduction to the world of Tarantino who later had a huge influence on me.

The opening scene of “Reservoir dogs” was different from the usual stuff we often see in movies. The film opens in a restaurant where a bunch of people are sitting and are talking and talking to each other continuously while the camera continuously moves behind them. The wonderful thing is that you still don’t get bored. That is one hell of a time-saving technique to introduce your characters to the audience in ACT 1.

It was the first film I saw where the dialogues were acting as action pieces and a tool to build your interest in the film. The word written by Tarantino is such beauty that it gives you a visualization of the things happenings as if they are happening in front of you, despite at times you feel that the same dialogues never lead you to anywhere and have nothing to do with the core film story.

The dialogues were written in a manner where they revealed extensively about the personality of the character, their attitude, their behaviour but suggested nothing about the main plot. After watching the opening scene, you know everything about the characters but nothing about the film.

It appears interesting to you because every character is talking about some stories from their own life. Even if they are talking about a belief or a philosophy, they are still using stories to narrate it.

Then during my college years, my neighbour gave me a DVD of Deewar to watch. He asked my Dad to watch it if he wants to. My father had already seen it. I had already seen it as a kid too but it was my chance to revisit ‘Deewar’ and understand the brilliance of Salim-Javed’s writing, Yash Chopra’s masterpiece direction and Amitabh Bachchan’s iconic performance.

The film is high on a drama concept which explores the journey of two brothers standing on the opposite spectrums of law. They both have their reason for doing what they are doing.

Once caring loving brothers, invested in their own karmas, later becomes divided by Dharma. One becomes a police officer and others become a crime boss. The conflict begins.

The best part of the film is the inner conflict of the younger brother in the police, Ravi, the character superbly played by Shashi Kapoor, and how he decides that he is going to take on his brother. That is where the script triumphs. It is a perfect demonstration of how an inner conflict can be perfectly demonstrated through an external story.

The characters played by Amitabh Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor became iconic not just because of their acting or dialogues but because of the inner turmoil both characters were going through. Both characters think they are right in their ways which is true and raises lots of questions about self-thinking, life’s perspective and justification for individual actions.

I didn’t know much about screenwriting when I went to make my career in films in 2010 but I had seen zillion movies before it. However, I was not completely ignorant too. I had read a few screenplays online. I knew how it was written; I just didn’t know how to write one.

It was a time when the internet was booming and there were websites which had accumulated great screenplays of movies which were free to read.

It was, however, difficult to find an original screenplay at that time because most screenplays were written by fans who wrote it while watching the film. It was mostly a transcript and doesn’t help to understand the difference between how the script is written and how it turned out on screen.

Reading screenplays and then watching movies teaches a lot to a film student about how the films are written and how they are adopted by the director because lots of things change while the film is in the production.

I anyways voraciously read a lot of screenplays when I was in Mumbai working in the film industry. I came to know later that those screenplays whom I believed to be original were actually transcripts. Reading such transcripts in the guise of screenplays gives you the wrong idea that the word to screen transition in films is usually accurate, which is far from the truth. Words change their place on film sets and become something else. Dialogues are often improvised and then there are always last-minute changes from the director’s side. Screenplays go through multiple hands and minds before they turn into a film.

It was not just the screenplays I read which enlightened me about screenwriting; I also read plays to understand the structure of the story.

Plays often follow the act structure which was first postulated by Aristotle in his famous book Poetics, later extensively used by Shakespeare to divide his play to give breaks to audience and time for actors to prepare and set designers to change the settings. Finally, it took a writer like “Syd Field” to write a book like Screenplay that made it popular among screenwriters.

No one can say it with surety whether act structures are right or wrong because, on one hand, we are psychologically immune to it; secondly, it works well, so why challenge it and to be honest, other methods have often failed to hold the audience interest when they were repeated. Act structure is the only story structure that stood the test of time.

But can you break the rules of act structure? Yes, you can and many directors have successfully broken it by using non-linear storyline which is using the acts but not necessarily in the order in which they should. A lot of writers have well defined the timings of the ACTs in the screenplay but even they can be broken. A blockbuster film like “Hum Aapke Hai Kaun” has its first half written as ACT 1. Nothing happens in the first half of ACT 1. It broke the rules of the ACT structure and yet it worked.

The new formats of writing originated at OTT platforms has changed the rules of the game again. They start a web show or a movie directly with the second act and later get back to Act 1 to gather your interest in it. Act 1 is the establishment of the characters, philosophies, location etc. and youngsters today, having little attention span, don’t have the patience to watch a long Act 1. They want to get introduced to the characters as soon as possible and move on the core story. Internet has also been a prime culprit in reducing the ACT 1 today.

Everyone researches about a film before they watch it. They read the synopsis on Wikipedia, watch the trailer to know its genre and the characters it has, watches interviews of the writers, actors and directors to know more about the film which gives them enough information to know what will be there in ACT 1. Due to this, writers today are adopting the thriller authors formula of providing a prologue first or starting the movie from the middle and showing the ACT 1 in the form of flashbacks and background story as alternate parallel story.

The more one reads the more a person learns about writing. I knew it from the beginning so I randomly wrote a lot on paper.

Apart from Screenplays and plays, other books that helped me improve my writing skills were Fiction books by authors like Dan Brown, Robert Ludlum, Jeffrey Archer, Dean Koontz, Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton and many more. I read extensively to know more about story structure, how to write good stories and how stories are written in a manner which intrigues the audience.

You will learn more about how to write stories by reading stories than by reading books on how to write stories. So, in my opinion, do not read too many books on how to write a successful book rather study those books which are successful and well known.

I was always curious as to how a screenplay of a film should be written. I wanted to know the method.

When I reached Mumbai, I had hundreds of stories in my mind but whenever I would tell those stories to someone, they would ask me “Do you have written copy of it?”.

I didn’t.

Surprisingly, it turned out NOT many people have the power of Telepathy to enter inside my mind and understand my story and I don’t know why I was expecting that.

I was like, “No, I don’t have it written but I can write it if you pay me”, and they would say, “No, get it done and then we will pay you”, and that’s how I started writing my first screenplay on Microsoft Word and later moved on to Final draft software to do the same.

I didn’t know anything about the formatting rules and screenplay writing methods back then. Having read the screenplays before I never emphasized on writing tricks much so I never noticed those icons here and there called Int. Ext. Cut-to etc. I had mostly read screenplays, watched movies, seen plays so I could only linearly write dialogues and actions but it was uninteresting and difficult to read, even for me. Yes, I couldn’t even read my own writings.

It was only later that I got to know the technicalities of writing the screenplay that I started showing my concepts to other people.

The screenplay is not like writing a novel where you keep writing what you want to write in terms of storytelling. Novels has infinite space to write while a screenplay isrestricted in terms of time and length.

Screenplay writing is more about what you think should happen on the screen and what and how you are going to show to the world your story in terms of sounds and visuals.

It is a guide for the director, editor, cinematographer, casting director, costume designer, production designer and everyone who will be involved in the production of that film.

Even if you have written a brilliant screenplay the world is never going to see it and that is the worst part of it. The screenplay is just an aide in making a film, nothing else but an aide, but an important aide.

But why do most people write a bad screenplay?

People write bad screenplays because they don’t know how to show stories scene by scene and how the process of filmmaking works. Just because you are a writer doesn’t make you a screenwriter. You have to understand screenwriting and understand films to write great screenplays.

People who belong to the film industry who have seen films being made in front of them are much better writer for films than people who have never seen any films getting made but are good writers otherwise.

Also, screenplay writing is not as laborious as writing a novel because in screenplays there are more whites spaces than black spaces. Due to the formatting style, screenplay writing is more tricky than novel writing because unlike novel writing you cannot just write each and everything.

You have to carefully choose every scene and every dialogue to make it interesting and also make sure not to add every idea you have got. There isonly limited space and only limited words that can go inside it.

If there is one trait of a great screenplay, it is the lack of redundancy.

I have learnt gradually over a long period what it takes to write a great screenplay. The secret of writing a great screenplay is drafting, in simple words, it means re-writing.

I have read so many books and screenplays on it that I can judge a script merely by reading it whether it will be made into a good film or not. This is not a superpower; with little efforts, you can do it too. Though an average screenplay can become a good film because the writer is not the only one who is making the film, the director plays a huge part in a filmmaking.

With a bad script, there is nothing that a director could do to make the film good. The screenplay can also be called as an instruction booklet for making the film and if the instructions on the book are wrong, there is no way the film is going to be any good.

Some directors have a great memory and mental powers to make a change in the screenplay and adapt it according to their style but that is a rare case as most directors are dependent on screenplays to make a great film.

If the foundation is weak there is no way you can make a strong building on top of it.

Of course, not every time it can be true that bad screenplays lead to bad films, not because there are flukes but because screenwriter is not the only one who is making the film.

Some directors can make a good film out of a not so good screenplay because they add their treatments and elements from their own experience and knowledge.

However, if a director who follows a screenplay to the dot gets a bad screenplay, he can’t do much about it then.

A director can turn an average screenplay into a good film, but he can’t turn an awful screenplay into anything. A bad screenplay is just messed up instructions. He has to rework on the screenplay to make at least some sense out of it and then shoot it.

Let me reiterate, the screenplay is the foundation on which lies the art of filmmaking.

These days, however, screenwriters are not paid much and are not respected as much as they should. We are living in a world where people would rather watch freely available badly written content on Youtube than watching good content which costs money.

Youtube is full of viral videos which have bad writing but they work because they have explicit language, garbage writing, badly shot, sloppy content which amuses youngsters but it comes for free, so they think, what is the harm in watching.

Everyone I meet nowadays wants to open their Youtube channel but it is not as easy as it looks.

There is a lot of work that goes in making a Youtube short film and writing good stories.

I appreciate those YouTubers who are constantly making videos and earning money. If there is an opportunity to make content low on quality and still earn money then what is the downside of it — nothing I say.

To each his own.

But the idea of storytelling that inspired many young filmmakers like me has gone down with time.

There is no good storytelling anymore.

Most Youtuber short films are nothing but a string of jokes collected from roadside jokes books strung together to make a complete short film which does not have any remembrance value and one cannot watch them twice for the simple reason that there is no story.

Still, it works, because the content today doesn’t work because of its longevity in survival but how fast how many people watch it in as few days as possible after its release.

No one cares if the Youtube video becomes part of history and no one ever sees it again. The content is bombarded in such high frequency on the audience that everyone wants to be the first one to have seen the video or the show, then brag to everyone about it and win the nameless non-existent race of who watched it first.

Over time, I have realized most people watch the series and movies the moment it appears on OTT justto brag to another person, “What… you haven’t seen it? You must watch it. I have seen it twenty times and it is great.”

Most of the content I see every day whether it be on Netflix or Amazon Prime or any other OTT platform is often inspired by real events or is nearly always an investigative thriller drama.

It is like they have ran out of all ideas and don’t want to try anything new. Thriller dramas give a ticking clock to the stories and keep the audience on the hook. They want to know what happened next.

Even when the series is not well made, even then, you want to finish it to know what happened next.

You don’t skip ahead because you don’t want to miss anything, that is why thriller dramas are the best bet these days for OTT platforms.

People want to be connected with stories nowadays. They don’t want it merely for entertainment. They need a cultural relevance to it as well and gain some knowledge from it. Internet has made everyone a knowledge junkie.

They want to google what happened to those characters after that. Stories are not stories anymore; they have become research materials.

People get involved in it more than is required and want to emulate those characters in real life.

If they see an intelligent guy like Sherlock, next thing you know is that everyone is trying to become Sherlock in real life and is practicing observational skills trying their observation powers on their spouse.

Recently a series called Money Heist has influenced myriads of people to plan bank robberies with extreme planning. I was reading an article that in some country some robbers tried to rob a bank inspired by the series. Today fiction is made in a very documentary style and influences people deeply.

The audience doesn’t want to be solely entertained anymore but they want to gain some information out of it too. This present age of information has turned people into knowledge junkie who would intake huge quantities of knowledge without ever caring what they will do about it.

Films were fiction once but these days people are mixing fiction with facts and then there are people on internet who are verifying everything they see as they want to be ahead of the writers and they want to be ahead of the show.

No matter which creative medium you are in, learning to write a screenplay as an art will help you in creating good content.

I wrote a book on screenwriting simply for those who instantly want to write a great screenplay without getting into the philosophical and biographical zone of learning what most film institutes teach. (You can find the book on Amazon).

I believe that today not everyone has to read myriad of books and lectures to understand what screenplay is and neither people have that much patience.

I think one should immediately start writing even if it is a sloppy screenplay because what makes a great screenplay is not writing but rewriting.

Write as many drafts of the screenplay as possible makes your screenplay better and ready for super execution. To know more, read my book to know better.

I have read hundreds of books on screenplay writing so that you don’t have to go through them. Learn from my experience, save your time and invest your time in writing great screenplays than in researching how to write one.

The methods explained in my book are highly pragmatic and would instantly make you ready to write your first screenplay.

I sincerely hope that this would help you tremendously and will be hopefully the last book you will read on screenplay writing.



Shitiz Srivastava

Man who dons several hats in one lifetime. Well, good for nothing. B.Tech, L.L.B., M.A. (ENG). Founder of TheHardNewsDaily.com News Network.