The answer to the title question is pretty obvious: screenwriters write screenplays, right? Well, yeah, but there’s much more to the craft than the finished product. Every writer has their own process so let’s hear from some incredibly talented and iconic screenwriters to see how they approach their stories. Once we get the full picture from those who do it everyday, we can better answer the question, what does a screenwriter do?
Watch: Anatomy of a Screenplay — Ultimate Guide
Subscribe for more filmmaking videos like this.
What Does a Screenwriter Do?
What's goes into the role?
When you watch a movie, especially those that clearly have high production value, the screenwriter can sometimes be overlooked. The producer, director, or even VFX artists, often get all the credit.
Everyone has a general understanding of what a screenwriter does "technically." But very few people actually know what the day-to-day process actually is. Before we jump into a roundtable discussion and an inside look at screenwriter Dustin Lance Black's process, let's provide a quick definition. For a complete guide to the major roles in film production, check out our ultimate guide to film crew positions.
What does a screenwriter do?
A screenwriter writes content for visual mediums. They write screenplays for feature films, short films, television, commercials, and video games. They create the dialogue, the characters and the storyline of a script.
Screenwriters may start off as freelance, and write their first few screenplays “on spec,” or speculation. A spec script is a screenplay that wasn’t assigned to the writer, but is written to either be sold to a studio or as a writing sample.
Because a screenwriter's job is to craft a blueprint for the entire film, they have an enormous responsibility. Writing a great script becomes one of the hardest tasks to pull off.
Again, every writer has a unique process for realizing and building their story. For some, particular organizational methods are necessary before the writing begins. Here is an Academy Award winner, Dustin Lance Black, explaining how he preps before writing a script.
Let's take a look at screenwriters, John Krasinski, Bo Burnham, Tamara Jenkins, Paul Schrader, Peter Farrelly, and Eric Roth as they share insights into how to approach an idea, how they take and distill studio notes, and their overall processes.
As we've seen, there are as many ways to approach screenwriting as there are writers. It truly doesn't matter how you get to a finished draft, as long as you get there. What does a screenwriter do? They write scripts. How do they do it? That's a bit trickier to answer but there is one thing that 99.9% of screenwriters have in common: they use a computer with software specifically designed for screenwriting.
Using screenwriting software
Screenwriting is a much easier task with software. Trying to write in screenplay format in a Word document would be miserable. So, pick a software, any software, and get started.
Luckily, all screenwriting software formats the script for you. But you will have to use a program regularly to get comfortable. We also have an article devoted to screenplay format, as well as additional tips on how to write a movie script.
You can see how software formats the script by indenting dialogue and adjusting the margins for you. We imported the complete script for American Beauty into StudioBinder to give you an idea of what they typically look like.
On the top right corner you can share the script, or even get comments in real-time from those invited to the project. This software does all of the heavy lifting for you.
Become a paid screenwriter
Now that you know what a screenwriter does, how can you become one? The competition might be wild, but it is possible, especially with some of these tips we’ve put together in the next post. Check out our step-by-step guide to screenwriting that teaches you how to become a professional writer, how to find jobs, and even sell your script.