Wanting to write your own script but not sure where to start? Well, the Norwich Film Festival explore the basic principles of writing a script and what you need to do to get going…..
A screenplay (or script) tells a dynamic, visual story. Like all stories, it has a protagonist, an antagonist and a beginning, middle and end. Before we talk about storytelling and the art of visual storytelling it is important to have a basic understanding of the screenplay format.
The screenplay is the blueprint and foundation that any motion picture is built on. Without it, there would be no motion picture. It contains all the information a film crew needs to produce a film. Think of it as an instruction manual, only more fun to read, hopefully.
Half the battle of writing a screenplay is having the knowledge of the layout and formatting rules. Don’t expect a producer to look at a script that doesn’t adhere to the industry format.
It’s worth noting that screenplays exist in two formats, the shooting script and the spec script. The shooting script is the finished product. It includes technical notes and elements for the camera and actors. The spec script, also known as speculative script, is a non-commissioned script, written to be sold or optioned by a producer or studio.
As a free lance writer you’ll be writing spec scripts but this article will cover shooting script elements for any budding writer/directors reading.
Physically, a script or screenplay is a 90-120 pages long and is typed out in Courier 12pt font on A4 white paper. The reason for Courier font is important because one formatted script page in Courier font equals one minute of screen time, give or take. This is why the average length of a screenplay is typically between 90-120 pages. Horror’s and Comedies are usually on the shorter 90 page side whilst Dramas tend to go 120. Anything above 120 is usually reserved for those big Hollywood franchise films or Quentin Tarantino.
The most important thing to get right is the page formatting. To get this right you need to have a basic understanding of what each element is.
Before we break down the elements, let’s take a look at a typical script page.
You may notice there are lots of indents and margins. It is important that everything is spaced correctly but it isn’t such an issue with today’s script writing software which does it for you leaving you to focus on telling your story.
So let’s examine the elements of a script page.
The first words on the first page of any script are.
It’s a transitional camera shot that marks the beginning of the screenplay and is only used once at the beginning. It will be bookended at the end of the screenplay with he words FADE OUT: (followed by THE END)
This is called a scene heading; it typically describes the location of the scene to the reader. It’s typed in capitals and the only information it needs to indicate is: interior (INT) or exterior (EXT), location, and day or night. Dusk and dawn are acceptable but generally stay with day and night.
EXT. CINEMA – DAY
INT. CINEMA – NIGHT
Action is the paragraph following the scene heading. It only deals with what is happening on the screen. Don’t start to writing about the characters inner thoughts or back-story. Yes, it will inform the reader but it won’t inform the viewer. Remember the story is being told visually.
Ideally, you want to stick to a maximum of four to five lines with an action paragraph, if you can describe the scene in less, great! Think about your action being a significant beat of your story.
Also, don’t be overly prosaic in your action writing. A little flourish here and there is fine, it makes for better reading but don’t waste pages over describing the location or every detail of the action.
Sub header/Slug line
Used when you want to stay within the scenes location but want to draw attention to a significant part of the location. It also works if you want to focus on a character within a scene.
Some writers don’t like to overuse slug line. Personally, I like to save slug lines for chaotic action scenes as a way to help convey pace, drama and to help the reader keep track of the focus of the scene.
When a character is first introduced within the story their name should appear CAPATALISED within the action paragraph, followed by the characters age and one or two lines of description. Sometimes more if it is the main protagonist or antagonist.
The name only needs to be CAPPED for the characters first appearance. Following appearances may be typed normally.
When a character speaks, their name must be placed in the centre of the page with the dialogue following immediately underneath.
Unless you’re making a silent movie you’ll want your character to have lines to help further the story.
The dialogue is placed directly underneath the characters name anytime they speak. This includes on/off screen, voice over and narrations.
Placed after the characters name in brackets, extensions inform the reader if the characters dialogue is heard off screen (O/S), as a voice over (V/O) or through a text message (TEXT).
If you want to draw attention to an important sound in your script then it should capitalized and written within the action.
It is a screenwriter’s duty to focus on using the above elements to tell the story. I’m going to talk about some other elements you may see on script pages. These other elements are usually found in a shooting script.
A parenthetical is placed between the characters name and their dialogue.
It is a character direction that is either emotion or action oriented. It is rare to see parentheticals in a spec screenplay and should not really be used by the writer for a few reasons. As a writer you should be able to convey the characters attitude or action through their dialogue or the action of the scene, if you’re using lots of parentheicals then the scene might need a re-write. Secondly, it is not the writer’s job to instruct an actor’s performance, that is the director’s job!
A transition usually signifies the end of a scene.
It is another element used sparingly by the writer as it comes under technical film editing and should be left to the director.
Shot describes the placement of the camera in relation to what’s important in the scene whether it is a character or object.
Again it is a technical camera element that is the director’s decision and you will only find shots in shooting scripts or scripts written by writer/directors.
When I first begun to study screenwriting I was excited to be writing scripts using all kinds of different dynamic shots. I was very disappointed to learn that writers don’t get to do this.
That isn’t to say we, as writers don’t get to be creative and suggest the ways in which the story will be told but that’s an article for another time.
Article by Ben Proudfoot