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What does a Scriptwriter do?

Dan Cavallari
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A scriptwriter is a person who writes the script for a film or television show; his or her main responsibilities is to tell a story in a quick and clear way while still developing characters and setting. A scriptwriter must have a solid command of the language in which he or she primarily writes, as well as knowledge and understanding of plot structure, film and television show structure, and the editing process. Sometimes a scriptwriter is responsible for adapting a book into a film script, essentially cutting the book down to its essential elements so that it may be presented on screen.

Scripts are documents that present a story meant to be filmed, which means a script requires less physical description. The scriptwriter will, however, need to include stage directions as well as brief character descriptions so the plot and character development are clear. A good scriptwriter will propel the plot forward quickly and logically; one scripted page equals about one minute of screen time, so the writing of the script must be concise. It is likely that a script will go through numerous edits, both for time constraints and content, and the scriptwriter will be responsible for making often significant changes to the script while preserving the story and the flow of the plot.

Sometimes a scriptwriter will be responsible for selling the script to a studio as well. Freelance scriptwriters often do this so they can secure work in the future, though many scriptwriters are hired by studios to write scripts for shows and movies already conceptualized. Freelance scriptwriters can write for more than one studio in many cases, and he or she can work on several projects at a time.

While a scriptwriter does not necessarily need a college degree, earning a degree in writing — even a specific degree in screenwriting — can help the writer develop the skills necessary to become successful in the profession. It can also provide potential employers with a gauge as to how experienced and prepared the writer will be for complex script tasks and multiple projects. The writer will, at the very least, need to have a solid grasp on language, elements of plot, script structure, and editing and revising skills.

In some cases, scriptwriters may be responsible for working on an existing script written by someone else. They are tasked with improving the script and making it ready for filming. This is sometimes called acting as a script doctor, or one who alters a script in draft form.

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Dan Cavallari
By Dan Cavallari
Dan Cavallari, a talented writer, editor, and project manager, crafts high-quality, engaging, and informative content for various outlets and brands. With a degree in English and certifications in project management, he brings his passion for storytelling and project management expertise to his work, launching and growing successful media projects. His ability to understand and communicate complex topics effectively makes him a valuable asset to any content creation team.
Discussion Comments
By runner101 — On Nov 23, 2011

For me, scriptwriting a book into a movie seems like the most difficult scriptwriting task.

It would be so difficult to take apart someone else's work and decide what is most important and what is not as important.

It seems extremely difficult to script-write a book, as it will not ever be seen as a good as the book, at least in most fans of the particular books' eyes.

Thinking about this makes me realize how tough of a critic I can be on some film scriptwriter's, when I am a fan of particular book.

I am going to try to remember that there are time constraints and other constraints as to why a scriptwriter has to leave some information out and change some things around.

Also, scriptwriters probably do not want to totally rip off the author’s work either. Most of them probably just do the best they can to keep the work original to the author but also original to them as well.

By tolleranza — On Nov 22, 2011

I think it takes great talent to be a script-writer. There are a couple of recent television shows that must have amazing scriptwriters, in my opinion.

Modern Family is hilarious, my favorite current comedy show, whoever is the scriptwriter of this show I would like to meet, just to thank them for cracking me up so many times.

Parenthood is just written tactfully, and with much grace and love, it seems to me. It is my favorite current dramatic show. I would like to meet this scriptwriter and tell him/her how thankful I am that they are keeping the importance of family alive.

It is amazing to me that some scriptwriters can get so many messages out in such a brief period of time. It is also amazing to me that some scriptwriters can continue to create more and more dynamics and situations, while keeping it somewhat believable too.

Some scriptwriters write for a certain show for many years, which takes a lot of creativity to do.

By dimpley — On Nov 22, 2011

I love to write, and although many hardcore literature folks look down on novelists like Stephen King, I am actually very much in awe of them.

To be more precise, this is a man whose mind does come up with some pretty crazy stuff (which I really, honestly love) and can also write it in a variety of ways. There are a good deal of critics who don't really go for his style, but he is America's boogie man.

Most writers become quite attached to their work, and have a very hard time adapting it from story or book form into script form. However, some are able to break it down and cut it in the blink of an eye (like the above example)!

I’m not sure I could do this with one of my stories that has my very own blood, sweat and tearstains on it. It’s an amazing person who can, in my opinion!

By nanny3 — On Nov 21, 2011

Scriptwriting is far different from other kinds of creative writing. Not only are time constraints incredibly important, there is also the actual technique of the writing itself to worry about.

The format for writing a script for film is a whole matter of its own; it’s even a far cry from writing a script for the stage. That is why it is crucial for anyone who is serious about scriptwriting to really do their homework.

There are some who go to school for this, but to be honest most people who can really write a script can make a break with or without a degree…if they know how to write it correctly.

Scripts aren’t that difficult to get ahold of, and it is wise for anyone trying to get into this kind of literature to find some good ones and study them before trying to get their own work out.

By bagley79 — On Nov 21, 2011

I never plan to make much money writing scripts, but do like to write different scripts for a small, local community theater.

This is something that I have enjoyed doing for many years, and always have some kind of idea turning around in my mind for my next script.

My local theater has used several of my scripts for some of their productions. Of course, they often use scripts that are well known as these tend to draw in bigger crowds.

There are some scriptwriting software sites online that are very helpful when you need some extra help. I like to use these when I get what many people refer to as 'writers block'.

Sometimes you just need some extra help for ideas, words and formatting, and I have found some of these software sites to be very helpful.

Scriptwriting is something I do because I find it is a way to be creative and combine my love of writing and theater.

By nony — On Nov 20, 2011

@miriam98 - I agree. That’s why I think that people should be careful with scriptwriting software.

I downloaded one such application some time ago, and while it was helpful with general script formatting and conventions, it didn’t help in any other regard.

It certainly didn’t provide much in the way of creative ideas for the script, nor of course could it analyze the script to tell me if it was good or bad.

You’re simply going to have to read scripts to know how to do that. The software will help make it look presentable so that the agents will at least take a look.

By miriam98 — On Nov 19, 2011

I think that it helps to join a scriptwriters’ network if you’re looking to break into the business. Connections won’t land you a job necessarily, but they can get you some face time with the people who ultimately make the purchasing decisions about what scripts to buy.

In terms of making your script the best that it can possibly be, I’ve heard that the best advice is to read a lot of scripts yourself – movie scripts, theater scripts, radio scripts, TV scripts, all of them.

It takes awhile to learn the art of how to write your descriptions (scripts aren’t all about dialogue) and understand the different movie genres and how they are tackled in scripts.

I’ve heard Hollywood agents complain that many scripts that come across their desks are amateurish, clearly the work of people who have not read scripts before.

By LisaLou — On Nov 18, 2011

Making a living as a scriptwriter is not very easy. My nephew has been trying to make a go at this full time for a few years now.

He works a full time job so he can pay his bills, but is always working on a script or two on the side - hoping for a big break.

He joined a scriptwriters network group which consists of a group of scriptwriters all trying to do the same thing.

This is more for moral support and encouragement than anything else. It also puts him in touch with others interested in this business.

This isn't much different than an actress, singer or songwriter trying to be successful. Many times you have to put in a lot of time and rejection before your work gets recognized.

By Perdido — On Nov 18, 2011

Being a scriptwriter sounds very stressful! I don’t see how anyone manages to do creative work while they are worrying about time constraints and the limitations of the process.

I write fiction, and I spend a considerable amount of time on character development and scene description. How do you manage to fully convey things like this under such a tight schedule and in such a specific way?

I probably will never be a scriptwriter, but it is possible that one of my books may one day get converted into a movie. I think it would be difficult for a scriptwriter to show what I have described.

By orangey03 — On Nov 17, 2011

In my high school English class, we had a competition to see who would get to write the script for a play that the theater class would put on. We spent several days learning about how to write a good script, and then we had a week to come up with one that would be worthy of being turned into a play.

Competition was fierce, and there were several good writers in the class. In the end, the one with the most interesting plot won.

To make it more realistic, the teacher then announced that the runner-up would get to be the script doctor. None of us had anticipated any revision being made to our work, so this was an unpleasant shock to all but the guy who came in second place.

By cloudel — On Nov 16, 2011

I got to spend some time working as an intern for a production company. I overheard a lot of conversations, and I learned things about the scriptwriting process that I never knew.

I had no idea before I started there that scriptwriters had to do so many revisions! One poor guy had to change his script seven times before the producers liked it, and I know he had to be discouraged.

It was his first accepted script, so he wanted desperately to make it happen. I could see his shaky hands and hear the nervousness in his voice as he presented each new revision to the producers.

I was so happy for him when they finally accepted it. I know that he went home and celebrated!

By StarJo — On Nov 16, 2011

@nextcorrea - My cousin is a scriptwriter, and he felt very betrayed when the company he wrote for hired a script doctor to improve his work. They did not tell him that they would be doing this, so he expected to see the script he wrote being acted out onscreen.

Imagine his surprise when he went to the theater on opening night. He sat there, anticipating hearing his words spoken by the characters and seeing his scenes played out.

His jaw dropped as the movie started and he saw that everything was different. It bore a resemblance to his script, but so many words had been changed, and the settings were nothing like the ones he had described.

By backdraft — On Nov 15, 2011

I am taking a scriptwriting course right now at my local community college. I want to be a screenwriter one day but so far I have very little experience writing scripts.

I have been a writer for all my life and am pretty good at coming up with plots and dialogue. What I really need to learn was how to properly present and format a script. The structure of the words on the page really determines how the story will play out. You can say a lot but not too much.

So the course has been a big help. I have been working on my first full length screen play right now and I think it really has promise. In a few years you might see my name on the credits with the word script writer next to it.

By tigers88 — On Nov 14, 2011

When people think of scriptwriting they usually think of movie scripts and maybe plays. But there is a lot more to script writing than just screen writing. Frankly, there is a need for scripts in all kinds of circumstances.

Reality TV shows have scripts, nightly news broadcasts have scripts, radio anchors use scripts, kids shows have scripts, discovery channel documentaries have scripts amongst many many others. If you have a talent for dialogue and a quick mind you can find a lot of work writing scripts. There will always be a need for this kind of work and there are not many people who do it well.

By nextcorrea — On Nov 14, 2011

I've always thought the idea of a script doctor is a really interesting one. These are people who help improve the quality of existing scripts. So they have a pretty strange responsibility. They don't create scripts themselves, they just fix existing scripts with problems.

Why they don't hire the script doctors to just write the scripts in the first place I will never know. But I am always surprised how much of this work goes on. You will hear about some movies that have gone through a dozen rewrites, all with different script doctors, before a final draft emerges. By the time the actors speak the lines who knows how many people have tinkered with them.

Dan Cavallari
Dan Cavallari
Dan Cavallari, a talented writer, editor, and project manager, crafts high-quality, engaging, and informative content for various outlets and brands. With a degree in English and certifications in project management, he brings his passion for storytelling and project management expertise to his work, launching and growing successful media projects. His ability to understand and communicate complex topics effectively makes him a valuable asset to any content creation team.
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