How to Write a Screenplay That Really Sells
Writing a screenplay is different than writing prose because of all the technical formatting required. No need to freak out – the formatting is fairly straightforward once you’ve been taught! Some writers even prefer the screenplay format since it allows them to focus on the true essence of the story they’re telling without all the flowery details.
My professors in film school, who are all experienced screenwriters, emphasize how vital it is to get the formatting down. Industry insiders and readers are very unlikely to keep reading your screenplay, not skim but read if they notice a ton of formatting mistakes right upfront.
What Constitutes a Screenplay?
Basically, a screenplay consists of a 90- to 120-page document typed in Courier 12pt font and printed out on 8 ½ “ X 11” bright white paper, three-hole-punched. The reason Courier is used has to do with a timing issue. One correctly formatted script page typed in Courier translates to roughly 1 minute of screen time.
This is why the page count should be between 90 and 120 pages since the average film is 90 to 120 minutes in length. Comedies tend to be shorter, so these screenplays are closer to 90 pages, which would equal a 1½-hour film, while Dramas are a bit longer, more like 2 hours so 120 pages would be appropriate.
Screenplays can be completely original, based on an actual event or on a previously written book, newspaper article or stage play. A screenplay acts as the blueprint for the movie it will eventually become.
Everyone on the set, including the director, producer, actors and the set designer all bring the screenwriter’s vision to life using their unique talents. Since creating a film is a collaborative effort, it is vital that the screenwriter know each professional’s role and this should be reflected in the script.
For example, the screenwriter must keep in mind that a movie is a visual medium first and foremost. The screenwriter must paint a picture of what’s going on in the story, rather than simply tell the story.
A brief 2-page inner synopsis may work for a novel, but for a script, it’s the kiss of death. The fundamental nature of screenwriting is visually showing the evolution of a story on the screen, and something as basic as the expression on an actor’s face can convey pivotal moments in the story. Let’s now take a look at the structure of a screenplay.
Too Fade In & Fade Out…or Not
A screenplay always starts with “FADE IN,” and this is aligned on the left. And at the end, you “FADE OUT,” which is also aligned on the left, after which you type “THE END,” which is aligned in the center, underlined and usually with no period.
NOTE: Many screenwriters today don’t type the “FADE IN” at the start of their script, claiming there is no need for it.
However, one successful screenwriter I spoke to said that he’s actually been thanked by a number of studio execs and readers for including the FADE IN, saying that writing his screenplays correctly with the traditional formatting indicates a level of professionalism.
Fading in and out are the conventional bookends to any script with FADE IN acting as the precursor to the story being told. Leaving FADE IN out isn’t a cardinal sin, but like all rules, you need to know why it’s there before you decide to break it.
Purpose of a Slugline
A slugline is there to indicate a changing location. There can be more than one slugline in a scene if one or more characters change locations.
INT. and EXT. are used for “Interior” and “Exterior,” indicating whether the scene is inside or outside.
Next comes your LOCATION. Use specificity when describing your location. “DIVE BAR” draws a much better picture than just “BAR” and “HIGH-END EXCLUSIVE HOTEL” says a whole lot more than simply “HOTEL.”
DAY or NIGHT is next. There is no need to elaborate with “DAWN,” “MORNING,” “DUSK,” or “TWILIGHT” because there are plenty of other ways to describe that, like mentioning that the sun is setting in the distance in an action line while continuing the DAY tag. This makes it easier for production, plus it’s not as distracting.
If things are happening in several different rooms, you can portray it like this:
and then cut to INT. CANDY STORE – RESTROOM – DAY to show a worker smuggling a bunch of candy bars through a tiny window above the sink to his cohort waiting on the outside.
In screenplays, you’ll frequently come across something like this:
Do you see the “CONTINUOUS” following the second logline? This is to indicate the audience is following Jan and Gus running into the kitchen to see for themselves the paranormal activity going on. You write “CONTINUOUS” when your scene is taking place in two different locations at the same time.
Introducing Your Characters
When a scriptwriter is introducing a character, type their full name in caps, their age in parenthesis, and then a brief description of no more than three lines, but if it’s the protagonist you’re introducing, you can use four lines.
It is totally up to you whether you want to pinpoint a character’s age (20s vs. 29). If you were writing about the main character, you would probably want to mention their exact age, since 20 is far different than 29.
On the other hand, if it’s a character that flows in and out of just one scene, it’s fine to write the 20s if you’re using more detail in your description like “young trophy wife” instead of simply “wife.”
Basic Format for Writing Dialogue & Parentheticals
The character’s name goes in all caps, followed by their response. Screenwriters can write their first and last name, the first name only, or a nickname. I prefer writing just my characters’ first names, except perhaps when a character goes by something else. Choose what you think best suits your character.
Parentheticals are a one-word description of that character’s intonation. They are usually just one adjective, but adverbs can be used too. In most of the scripts I’ve read, they use just a one-word adjective.
Parentheticals should only be used when you must tell the reader how the character is saying their line. Use sparingly! These are only for clarity. Parentheticals are a form of “telling” and a screenplay is supposed to be “showing” how the character speaks, not telling.
Use (V.O.) to indicate voiceovers. Use (O.S.) when your character is off-screen but they’re still speaking.
Use (CONT’D) when you want to show the same character speaking twice in a row, but their lines are separated by one or two action lines. (CONT’D) shows they don’t stop speaking.
This is very helpful to actors when they’re reading your script during table reads. (CONT’Ds) can also be used when breaking up monologues with one or more active lines.
What to Type in All Caps
ALL your sound effects (BANG, CRASH, SCREAM, SMASH, POP).
ALL your characters’ names when you introduce them the first time.
You might capitalize on vital props that might return later (she puts the KNIFE in her purse) so the reader won’t miss it.
You might also want to capitalize on huge, life-altering plot twists to make sure the reader pays close attention and understands the enormity of this event. For example, “he POINTS THE GUN AND FIRES, KILLING YVONNE.”
If you happened to read the “LOST Pilot,” every second action line is in all caps during the plane crash at the start. This is a risk that some would agree with and others would not. My advice is to use all caps if you must, but only in moderation. You can use them to emphasize huge events.
Screenwriting: How to Write a Synopsis
Here is an easy format for a synopsis that will also work when you’re pitching your script.
How to Write a Script That Wins Contests – 3 Tips for How to Write a Script That’s Awesome
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