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Four Screenplays Every Screenwriter Should Have In Their Arsenal

Updated: Oct 10, 2023


Every writer ought to have four distinct script mediums in their toolkit. This isn't about genre, which is a matter of individual taste and inclination. Instead, I'm referring to the four essential script formats you should consider writing for.


Screenwriting Staffing has facilitated over 300 success stories in 10 years; during those 10 years, we have seen requests come through for all four mediums. Writers who can submit/apply to all four have the best chance of selling a script and/or landing a job. Featured success stories: www.screenwritingstaffing.com/feaured-success-stories.


Without further ado:

Mr. Hublot (2014), Oscar winning animated short film

SHORT SCRIPTS. I know, I know. There are those who hate shorts and believe they are a waste of time. I landed my first agent and paid writing assignment through my short thesis film -- so, yes, I’m a believer. Writers/Directors such as Sofia Coppola, Paul Thomas Anderson, Tim Burton, George Lucas, and Wes Anderson -- just to a name a few -- broke into Hollywood with a short film. That alone should be enough of a motivation and validation.


I Digress.


FOR THE BEGINNER SCREENWRITER. Shorts serve as an excellent introduction to mastering the art of writing, especially for those unfamiliar with formatting. The beauty of shorts, when executed well, lies in their singular plot focus. They primarily center around one main character driven by a distinct motive. Given that shorts are usually visually driven, they allow writers to concentrate on crafting impactful action and description lines, often with less emphasis on dialogue. Instead of diving into a daunting 100-page script, consider honing a tight, ten-page narrative with a compelling storyline. This approach is particularly beneficial for budding and inexperienced writers. Additionally, shorts offer a smoother pathway to becoming a recognized screenwriter, given the plethora of short screenplay competitions available.


FOR THE EXPERIENCED SCREENWRITER. Shorts are a great medium when you are in between projects. They keep you creative, stimulated, and, most importantly -- writing. Regardless if you’ve sold 1 script or 10, we all reach a point where our writing career feels stagnant. Shorts are a great way to keep you relevant. Indie filmmakers are continually looking for new material to make, mainly short content, so they can also stay relevant and/or get discovered. Be sure to check out our QUERY LETTER BLAST to reach indie (and studio) filmmakers. This is a great way to keep adding credits to your name, make some money off selling your short, expand your network, and possibly collect some awards along the way. After all, the OSCARS recognize shorts, so why shouldn’t we? Don't forget, plenty of shorts have turned into features; take Damien Chazelle's Oscar-winning film, WHIPLASH. I can speak from experience. I wrote, directed, and produced my short film FROM GRINGO TO GRAVE as a proof-of-concept for my feature film DE GRINGO A LA TUMBA.


CLOSING ARGUMENT Whenever a producer lists with us in search of a writer, they often request a writing sample. Frequently, they're looking for a snippet, perhaps 5-10 pages, from a script you've penned. Rather than sharing just a segment from your full-length script, present them with a short. It's a compelling way to demonstrate your ability to craft a complete and coherent story from beginning to end. Be sure to check out my Final Draft article where I speak to 2 screenwriters who were selected to the SUNDANCE LAB FELLOWSHIP and how a short film landed them representation and stature: www.finaldraft.com/learn/final-draft-blog/sundance-lab-spotlight-brett-weiner-and-emma-fletcher.

Wonder Woman (2017), made for 149MM

BIG BUDGET SCRIPT. Every writer needs one script that they don’t hold back on. The type of story where you’re not limited to a specific budget, location count, and cast size.. This is the type of script that propels your career, where you make upwards of six figures, maybe even seven! First-time screenwriter, Diablo Cody, sold her spec JUNO for an ungodly amount of money. So don't rule it out just yet!


FOR THE BEGINNER WRITER. You're a fresh face in the industry, still green behind the ears. Cherish this innocence. Having penned your short, you stand on the threshold of crafting your inaugural feature. At this juncture, put aside thoughts of constraints, Hollywood's trending narratives, or marketability. Your sole focus should be to WRITE. Pour out your most captivating story, even if its production would demand a staggering $400 million. Truly. Let your imagination run wild and don’t second-guess yourself. The very first feature I authored had an extravagant budget and was set in Chicago during the 2004-2005 period (coinciding with the White Sox's World Series triumph). This script was swiftly OPTIONED. Although it never materialized into a film, largely due to its budgetary demands, it has served its purpose as a testament to my writing prowess.


FOR THE EXPERIENCED WRITER. Somewhere along the way, you realized that Hollywood’s not buying this kind of material, especially original content that would cost a fortune to make; it is all based on comics, video games, and books. So you write for a specific audience and budget. I challenge you to write one big-budget script, if you haven't already. The goal: sell it. But what if you don’t? Not a problem. Having a script in your arsenal where you don’t focus on production design, wardrobe, extras, special effects -- all of that nonsense -- but focus on your story, will pay off down the road. As many experienced writers know, paid assignments keep us above water; it pays the rent. Having that one solid script, especially when a producer asks you to send your best script as a writing sample, will be helpful when trying to land that all elusive paying job. You also may be asked to doctor or edit a larger budgeted script. I just did this recently for a 7MM Chinese-American romantic comedy. They will want to read a low-budget or short script; they are going to want to read a script that's meant for a large budget and audience, so they can adequately gauge if you can tackle this type of project.


CLOSING ARGUMENT. Novelists enjoy the freedom to effortlessly transport their characters across the globe. Screenwriters too should grant themselves the liberty to craft a script where the entire world becomes their stage. Looking for one-one-one mentorship? Check out our Speedy Script Development Program!

Napoleon Dynamite (2004), made for 400K

LOW-BUDGET SCRIPT. Some writers have yet to embrace this emerging trend. Often, it's those who remain unproduced and disgruntled, targeting and belittling budding writers on social media platforms.


The reality is, television reigns supreme nowadays. A significant portion of movies churned out by the major studios, especially the big six, are either reboots or tailored for a blockbuster star (like Dwayne Johnson, for instance). However, a plethora of independent producers are still committed to feature films, albeit with stringent budget constraints. This might mean working with budgets under 1MM, 500K, or even as modest as 100K. Occasionally, even less.


FOR THE BEGINNER WRITER. Writing a one-location script and/or a script with under 8 characters can be challenging at first. Even frustrating. Anyone can write a big-budget film, where the budget doesn’t matter. But it takes a real writer to be a minimalist, confined to one location like a basement. It takes pure creativity, thinking outside of the box, simplicity, moderation, and being economical. Again -- anyone can rely on explosions and CGI. Still, it takes a special kind of writer to tell an entire story in one (maybe two or three) locations, a minimal cast, all interior shots, with absolutely no green screen or special effects. So as a newer writer, this is your chance to separate yourself from the amateur writer. Like the short, this is a great way to add credits to your name and make some money along the way. But unlike the short, this is a feature that puts you in a whole new category if your script is produced. There is an endless supply of producers who seek this kind of material. It’s not like the old days. Filmmakers have access to all the equipment they need -- now they just need a shoestring budget script. My last feature film, in which I directed and wrote (AN ADDICTING PICTURE), was entirely shot in an apartment, less than ten characters. The script screened in 5 countries, 10 film festivals, and won two awards. We are now negotiating distribution. This method works -- trust me.


FOR THE EXPERIENCED WRITER. You may have sold tons of scripts during the SPEC craze in the 90’s. You know, when producers were buying up material just for the hell of it. Back when good films being made. But let’s be frank here, those days are over. The spec, at least for now, is nearly extinct. So it’s time to economize. It’s imperative to have scripts that can be made on a budget at this point. If you use Screenwriting Staffing or a similar service, you are well-aware that these are the type of scripts that people are searching for. Producers with major credits are now downgrading to these sorts of scripts. I could drone on and on about this and the theory behind it, but the truth is that if you want to see your work made in 2018 and beyond, you best be writing scripts on a budget. Period. The golden days of Hollywood are behind us -- at least for now. I do believe, eventually, it will circle back. Until then, jump on the bandwagon!


CLOSING ARGUMENT. Believe it's a challenge to craft a script with limited locations and a small cast? Consider classics like 12 ANGRY MEN, BURIED, PANIC ROOM, ROPE, REAR WINDOW, PHONE BOOTH, BREAKFAST CLUB, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, SAW, and HUSH, just to highlight a few. Not only is it achievable, but there's also a significant demand for such scripts. If you neglect to have at least one budget-conscious script in your portfolio, you risk becoming obsolete in the cinematic domain. In my forthcoming feature film, DE GRINGO A LA TUMBA, a substantial segment of the storyline unfolds inside a car. While this choice aids in budget management, it's integral to the narrative as well. As a scriptwriter, adopting a producer's perspective is crucial.

Stranger Things, an American science fiction-horror web television series on Netflix

TV PILOT. It’s painfully clear that TV trumps film, at least for now. I do believe everything has a way of making a comeback, and film will be alive and well again eventually, but for now it’s. TV. So you can even accept it or not -- but if you choose to ignore it, consider yourself left behind. When I went to film school back in 2009, my career development adviser told us that we should consider our careers over if we work in television. Boy, was he wrong! Get your query letter for your pilot in from of 3.5K industry buyers and employers!


FOR THE BEGINNER WRITER.

You're in a prime position. Many of us dedicated the past ten to twenty years to crafting feature films. You, on the other hand, possess a unique chance to delve into television in a manner we never could. There's ongoing debate about whether one should write an original pilot or draft an episode for an existing show as an introduction. While I won't delve into that debate here, a simple solution? Write both. Regardless, if you're aiming to be a part of a show's writing team, it's essential to have work that a producer, showrunner, or director can evaluate.


FOR THE EXPERIENCED WRITER. Perhaps it's the right moment to pivot from feature films. After all, we all need to make a living, and it's well-known that working on a TV show can be lucrative. As a seasoned writer, you hold a distinct advantage: you possess both reputation and connections. With this in mind, channel your skills into crafting a captivating TV pilot — something fresh and appealing for streaming giants like NETFLIX to champion. Don't restrain your creativity. One of the great things about television is that an intriguing storyline often takes precedence over budget constraints. Every network is on the hunt for unique narratives. So, even if you're not selling feature scripts as consistently as before, you can still tap into the booming television market. Utilize the professional relationships you've built over the years to get your pilot script in front of those who call the shots.


CLOSING ARGUMENT. In order to write for TV, for the most part, you better live in LA or NYC. Otherwise, your options are limited. However, web-series' are really popular right now. And this can be done from anywhere. I also know that any industry professional who posts an advert with us seeking a writer for their web-series wants to read a pilot sample before hiring. So at the very least, having a pilot (or episode) written in your arsenal may come in handy if you wish to land one of these gigs.


And... there might be a 5th and 6th...


OTHER. There are 2 other samples you should have in your arsenal if you wish to land a job or sell a script. I’m not going to harp on these for too long, but these are two to consider.


TREATMENT. There are plenty of producers out there who want you to write a treatment off their very simple and limited idea. Having a treatment to show them as a sample may land you the job. If you feel this is a waste of time, well, think of it this way. There are producers out there who will not read your script unless they read a treatment first. So at the very bare minimum, write a treatment for one of your already-written scripts.


TV BIBLE/SHOW BIBLE. So you wrote a great pilot - big deal. What showrunners want to know is if it has “staying power”. Will people tune in every week to watch the next episode? It’s imperative that if you are pitching a pilot you have a BIBLE that lists out future episodes, everything from plot twists to new characters. Just like a treatment, this is also a good piece of writing to have in your portfolio.


No matter what, the goal is to keep writing. NEVER stop. Always add to your portfolio.


Having these four types of scripts (or 6) in your arsenal will keep you active, relevant, and creative. Push as much content out as possible. Content is king; always remember that.

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Article written by:

Jacob N. Stuart is the Founder of Screenwriting Staffing

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