Writing a Screenplay
She had some great lines.
Some consider screenwriting to be the highest calling a creative writer could aspire to; others consider the majority of practitioners to be uninspired hacks. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle. Where do you fit in?
In this article we’ll look at:
What is a screenplay?
Elements of a screenplay
What length and layout should a screenplay have?
Why is screenplay format important?
Where to find screenplays
Developing your movie idea - is it high concept?
Treatment and Premise - what’s the difference?
How to write low budget movies
Where do I send it?
What is a screenplay?
A screenplay is part story, part technical guide. Your story emerges through the dialogue and actions of your characters; the technical part comprises the descriptions and directions that give an idea of how the story will look on screen. Here’s a sample of a fictitious screenplay:
Elements of a screenplay
The screenplay comprises the following elements:
Description of action
The scene-header establishes background, it tells us:
whether the scene is inside or outside. In this case it’s an interior (INT.) scene as opposed to exterior (EXT.).
the location: the hallway of a block of flats.
the time. In this case: night.
Each time the action moves to a new location you must establish where we’ve ended up. For example, if the Old Man invites Billy inside, the next scene-header might read:
INT. DINGY PARLOUR ROOM — NIGHT
In the above the scene description tells us about the hallway and the action taking place there. Don’t take too long to describe a scene — it breaks the flow of the story. Be as economic with words as possible.
If this scene ever appeared on the big-screen it might consist of dozens of camera shots. We might see close-ups of Billy’s face as he looks at the door numbers, close-ups of his feet as he walks down the corridor, the car keys jingling in his hand, shots from above, behind or the side. The permutations are endless but ultimately it’s the director’s job to decide how this action will be captured. Your job as a screenwriter is to write a general account of the action, not to plan it in fine detail.
The only camera direction in this scene is CLOSER ANGLE: THE DOOR. Here we’re telling the reader that the focus of our attention has shifted. Previously we were interested in the whole corridor, but when Billy finds what he’s looking for we concentrate on the doorway. Keep camera directions to a minimum. You should only include them when you can’t describe the image you want to see on-screen in any other way.
The instruction CLOSER ANGLE is deliberately vague, but there might be occasions when more detailed instructions are required. Here are some of the most common camera directions:
FULL SHOT (FS)
The camera gives us a panoramic view of a location. Some people use the abbreviation EST meaning establishing shot.
LONG SHOT (LS)
Like the full shot, but at a closer angle. In a long shot we should be looking at something specific. For example, if the full shot showed us a stretch of coastline, then a long shot might zoom in on a distant lighthouse standing on the shore.
MEDIUM SHOT (MS OR MED SHOT)
An even closer angle. The camera is now firmly focused on the lighthouse. It occupies most of the field of view.
CLOSE SHOT (CS)
Even closer. We can clearly see the lighthouse keeper standing on the gantry at the top of his lighthouse.
We’re now firmly focused on the lighthouse keeper, he occupies the whole field of view.
EXTREME CLOSE-UP (ECU)
The camera is focused on the face of the lighthouse keeper as he squints at the horizon. We’re pretty much looking up his nose.
Other useful shots are:
TWO SHOT, THREE SHOT, FOUR SHOT etc.
These describe the number of people who should be in the field of view at any one time. If our scene features two couples at a dinner table we might write the direction TWO SHOT OF WILLIAM AND MARY if we just want to see William and Mary, or FOUR SHOT OF WILLIAM, MARY, JIM AND JILL, if we want to see everybody.
The camera moves as the subject moves. The subject might be a character walking along the sidewalk, riding a bike or driving a car. In this case the camera might be held by a roving operator, being pushed along a camera track, or riding in the back of a truck.
This is another way to capture a moving subject. In a pan the camera stays in one place, but swivels to follow the action.
In a ZOOM SHOT the camera’s field of vision either increases (zooms out) or decreases (zooms in). A zoom can be slow or fast, but unless you state otherwise most people will expect a zoom to be fast and dramatic. Zoom shots are sometimes mistaken for dolly shots (see below) and visa versa.
In a DOLLY SHOT the camera sits on a length of track that allows the operator to smoothly move the camera into or out of a scene. In a zoom shot the camera doesn’t move. In a dolly shot, it does.
A combination of a dolly and a zoom can produce an interesting effect called (somewhat predictably) the DOLLYZOOM. By dollying in on a subject and zooming out at the same time the subject can be made to appear to rush into the camera while also remaining static. This shot was first used in the Alfred Hitchcock movie Vertigo where it was used to illustrate the mental disorientation caused by the protagonist’s fear of heights.
POINT OF VIEW (POV)
A POV shot shows us the action through the eyes of one character. The POV is the movie-maker’s equivalent of the novelist’s First Person narrative (see Narrative styles).
LOW ANGLE/HIGH ANGLE
In a low angle shot the camera is low, looking up. In a high angle shot it’s high, looking down. The ultimate high angle shot is the OVERHEAD where the camera is directly above the subject.
What length and layout should a screenplay have?
There are recognised formats for laying out a movie script and it’s essential you present your screenplay in the correct way. If you look at our screenplay sample you’ll see that:
The font is 12-point Courier (a standard for any script).
Scene-headers, scene descriptions and camera directions are typed from a common left-hand margin (on standard paper this margin would be 1.5 inches from the left of the page).
Character names are typed near the centre of the page along a common margin (4 inches from the left).
Character directions (such as ‘Hesitant’) are typed from a common margin (3.5 inches from the left).
Dialogue is confined to a central column of text (3 inches from the left; 2 inches from the right).
Dialogue and scene descriptions are single-spaced.
Gaps are double-spaced (e.g. the gap between one character’s dialogue and the next character’s name).
Important information (such as someone’s name) is written in small caps.
Note that none of the text is centred, it’s all written from a margin. Fashions in formatting can change so ensure your script is in a format acceptable to the person receiving it.
Specialised screenwriting software is available that will allow you to change formatting options and fine-tune your script as required. The industry standard is Final Draft, but there are others.
See Tools of the trade for more on screenwriting software.
Why is screenplay format important?
There are three reasons why your screenplay should conform to the conventions:
Uniformity. Producers, agents, script-editors and studio readers have to sift through dozens, if not hundreds, of scripts in a week. They’ll find your script much easier to follow if it’s written in the accepted style.
Credibility. If you haven’t bothered to present your work the right way, what are the chances you’ve bothered to write a decent script? (See also Tips on submissions.)
Length. Presenting your screenplay in the accepted style makes it easier to judge how long the final movie will be. On average, one page of a standard screenplay takes up a minute of screen time. One convention has it that a script must be between 90 and 120 pages long, and many readers will automatically reject a script that falls outside of this range.
Where to find screenplays
The best way of getting to know how screenplays work is to read them. The following sites have a wide selection of scripts available for free download:
As an exercise, find the screenplay of a movie you’ve seen and read it. How do the mental images conjured up by the screenplay compare with the on-screen action? Take it a step further and get a copy of the movie so you can compare it scene by scene with the screenplay. A movie will typically undergo considerable changes between the final draft of the script and final edit of the film and it can be instructive to see what was left out or added in.
Movies are never finished, they're just abandoned
There’s an old saying in Hollywood — movies are never finished, they’re just abandoned. Imagine sweating over a screenplay for months, if not years, delivering your final, finished, perfect draft and then still having to chop it up and rewrite, sometimes even after it’s in the can. Here are some examples of famous movies that had drastic last-minute rewrites.
Blade Runner. A Sam Spade-style voice-over had to be slapped over the opening to explain the story, and a happy ending was tacked on.
Pretty Woman. The original script had Richard Gere dumping Julia Roberts at the end of the movie.
Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. The ‘Average Joes’ originally lost to Ben Stiller’s ‘Purple Cobras’.
Fatal Attraction. In an early cut Glen Close’s character commits suicide and leaves evidence to frame Michael Douglas for her supposed murder.
Sunset Boulevard. This 1950 classic had originally started with a morgue corpse talking to the camera, but test audiences thought it was so hilarious the opening had to be re-worked.
Developing your movie idea. Is it high concept?
High-concept movies are those with a strong premise (see below) — a central idea that can be summed up in a few words. Tootsie is a high concept movie that can be described like this:
A talented but temperamental actor finds the only way he can get work is by pretending he’s a woman.
This précis immediately conjures up all sorts of interesting possibilities. It sounds like a movie we’d want to watch.
Whether it’s big-budget or low-budget it’s always going to be easier to sell a high-concept movie. If your movie idea can’t be summed up in a short sentence it could be a sign that the overall concept is weak. A rethink might be in order. (See also ‘Dramatic concept’ in Getting started.)
Here are some high concept ideas. Which movies do they belong to?
Space-faring roughneck attempt to save the world from an asteroid collision.
A divorced father disguises himself as an Scottish Nanny and gets hired to look after his own children.
A family have to escape from a dinosaur wildlife park after its inhabitants run wild.
Unemployed steelworkers make money by becoming male strippers.
Pampered zoo animals escape to a new life in Africa.
Treatment and Premise - what's the difference?
Rather than reading a full script some agents and producers prefer reading a shortened version that will give them a flavour of the project. Depending on length this shortened version is either a Premise (very short) or a Treatment (quite short).
A Premise is a brief overview of a story divided into three sections: beginning, middle and end (see Basic story structure). Each section should be described in 150 words or less.
In a Treatment the story is described in much more detail. A Treatment a scene-by-scene breakdown that describes where each scene takes place, who’s in it, what they’re doing, what information we learn and how the action in that scene leads to the next. Essentially a treatment is a screenplay with all the dialogue, directions and detail left out. A Treatment is particularly useful if the person reading it needs an idea of how much your movie is likely to cost.
If you’re writing a Premise or Treatment try to make sure they’re entertaining. This is hard to do for a Premise as the emphasis there is on brevity, but can be easier for a Treatment. Don’t just write a dry, bare-bones breakdown of the original. Within the bounds of your brief try to turn your Premise or Treatment into something that reads like a gripping short-story, or a vivid description of a movie you’ve just seen at the cinema.
How to write low budget movies
When you’re writing your script go to extremes. If you see your movie as an extravagant blockbuster full of stunts, special effects and glamorous locations there’s not much point in you trying to pinch-pennies. Just write what you want to see on the screen and let the production accountant worry about the money. On the other hand, if your project is one that could be done on a more modest budget, you can do yourself some favours by keeping an eye on the bottom line and avoiding needless expense. The less your script costs on paper, the wider the range of production options that become open to you, and the greater its chances of being picked up. The following are some tips for writing movies on a budget.
Avoid unnecessary scenes
Each time you shift the camera you have to relight the set and reposition the actors. Setting up often takes longer than the shooting so move the camera as little as possible by cutting down on the number of scenes. Say you’re using a house to shoot three interior scenes: one in the kitchen, one in the living-room and one in the bathroom. Do you need all three rooms? If all your protagonist only goes into the living-room to watch a news report on the television, put a portable TV in the kitchen, or have them watch it on a tablet, and slash your setting-up time by a third.
Avoid complex, time-consuming scenes
Any scene involving a moving vehicle or stunt comes under this category. Aside from the fact that you should employ professional (i.e. expensive) stunt people, these scenes take time to set up, even something as simple as a jump from a first-story window might take a whole day to film. Also factor in the likely editing time. A fight scene might only take a day to shoot, but could be another two or three days to cut together properly.
Extras usually want pay and if there’s a bunch of them it’s going to add up. You might be lucky and get a crowd of people who are happy to work for nothing but getting them together and organising them on set will always be a headache. They may also want feeding.
Avoid public places
Scenes in public places are problematic. You should get permission from the relevant authorities to film in public areas and you'll probably have to pay for the privilege. Aside from the legalities — and the danger the cops might turn up at any moment — keeping unwanted passersby out of shot is often difficult and time-consuming.
Avoid exterior night-shoots
Night scenes are hard to light properly (often requiring a noisy, expensive generator van) and professional technicians will want overtime rates if you want them to burn the midnight oil. A way round this is to shoot during the day and artificially darken the picture using filters — but, yes, you're right, this can look tacky. Sophisticated computer effects can help you out here, but they will obviously cost you. Best stick to daytime if you can.
Avoid too many speaking roles
Speaking actors get paid more than those in non-speaking roles. Aside from the money angle, the fewer speaking actors there are, the easier it will be to organise them in rehearsals and on set.
Avoid pyrotechnics and guns
Special effects involving explosions are dangerous, expensive and time consuming. Firearms are also a problem. Some prop companies specialise in realistic weaponry, but even a gun that only fires blanks must be supervised by a professional armourer. If you don’t intend to shoot your weapons or see them being fired, authentic-looking replica guns are available, but don’t wave them around in public places.
Avoid children and animals
Actors avoid children and animals because they grab all the attention, but you should avoid children and animals because (like most everything in this list) they’re expensive. Animals rarely perform on queue, are often very costly to hire and need handlers to look after them. Children also need minders and the amount of work they can do in a day is limited by law.
Fun fact. Did you know that dogs in movies often generate a lot of CGI work in post-production? That’s because happy dogs wag their tails a lot. Nice for them, but not a good look if your mutt is meant to be a slavering man-killer. So all that tail thumping has to be edited out.
Let’s face it, if you follow the above advice to the letter you’ll probably end up making a movie about a deaf mute who spends all day staring at a wall. Don’t let money worries stifle your creativity when you write your first draft, but once you’ve finished, go back over your script and look for obvious ways to save cash. Is everything you’ve got down absolutely necessary? Does that giant mechanical armadillo really add much to the bakery standoff scene? Does Uncle Bernie really have to turn into a werewolf? Why is the villain’s hobby playing polo? Why couldn’t it be ping-pong or poker?
Where do I send my screenplay?
When your screenplay is done you have a number of submissions options:
If you want to get an agent involved in your project don’t send your script to production companies beforehand. If an agent reads your screenplay and likes it they won’t be happy if you’ve already sent copies to a dozen other people — that’s their job. For advice on agents and where to find them see Tips on submissions.
Most production companies employ professional readers to sort through the gazillion scripts they’re sent every day. Some will consider anything that lands on their doormat, while others will only look at scripts submitted through an agent.
Before sending out a script many writers take the precaution of registering a copy with the Writers’ Guild of America (see Writers and the law). This costs a small fee ($20 at time of writing) and establishes the completion date and the form of the script being sent out for consideration. Some production companies insist that all scripts sent to them must be registered beforehand. Some companies will also ask you to sign a waiver or a submission release before reading your script. By signing a waiver you essentially agree not to take action against the company if they make a movie similar to your script in the future. Production companies receive thousands of scripts every year and the law of averages means that a significant proportion are going to be very similar.
To find production companies try the Logopedia website. As well as independents this site also has contact details for the major Hollywood studios.
In the UK, the Artists’ and Writers’ Yearbook is a good source of information on film companies.
If you’ve written your screenplay with a particular actor in mind try sending them a copy via their agent. However, the more successful the actor, the less chance they’ll see it. Some actors look at every script that’s sent to them. Others (the ones in work) rely on their agents to filter their mail and send on promising material.
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