Almost all the greatest filmmakers have credited the success of their films to a well written script. Screenplay is the blueprint or a foundation of any film, and if it’s shaky, then the end product will not amount to much. Thus, writing better Screenplay is much more important than having a good story. You can enhance the impact of a good story with a better screenplay and that’s the job of a screenwriter to accomplish the said task. However, today we are going to start from the basics and discuss some important fundamental points like, What is a Screenplay, How to write a Screenplay and Important Elements of a Screenplay.
Paul Schrader, the screenplay writer of Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Taxi Driver (1976) once said, “I am not a writer. I am a screenwriter, which is half a film-maker.” This simple yet complex statement underlines the fact that screenplay writing is not writing in literal terms, but much more technical. It is like making a film on paper and thus you have to be very precise with words and treatment of the story. The most important question that many aspiring screenwriters fail to answer, is what exactly is a Screenplay. Let’s dig deep into that.
Note – We are only going to discuss “How to Write a Screenplay” from Technical Aspects only.
What is a Screenplay?
Screenplay is a written document that consists of 90-120 pages. It is written in Courier 12 pt font on a bright white sheet of paper measuring 8 1/2″ x 11.” The “Courier Font” is specifically used due to formatting issues as it is estimated that a page of a screenplay, written in this format equals roughly one minute of screen time. Thus, a finished screenplay of 90 or 120 pages will deliver a screen time between 1 and a half hour to 2 hours (the standard run time of films these days). This run time or number of written pages could differ depending upon the genre of films, for example, rom-com and comedies tend to be slightly shorter while dramas occupy much more time.
A screenplay could be an original piece of fiction or could be based on a true story, or previously written literature, like a novel or theatrical play. You might have noticed the Oscar’s category for Adapted Screenplay and Original Screenplay, it demonstrates the same. Parasite is an original Screenplay while Joker is an adapted Screenplay based on a comic book character. Screenplay writers are free to exercise their creativity to write either one of them.
As discussed earlier, Screenplays are the blueprint of any film thus it is very important to pen down even the minutest of detail in it. Film-making is a collaborative art and this detailing helps the director, producer, actor and other creative involved, to understand the screenplay better. A scope for estimate or perception in detailing may lead to unnecessary confusion.
It is also important from the point of view that films are a visual medium. If words are deceptive, each person will generate a different visual in their heads. Thus, implying proper details will provide better clarity in a screenplay. Additionally, writing or narrating everything in dialogues will turn your screenplay into a radio talk show. Please avoid that sin. Screenplay writing is like writing images on paper and thus a screenplay writer should approach it accordingly. In layman’s language, Screenplay writing is more about how you are going to represent your story rather than how great your story is. An excellent written script could do wonders in both the departments.
To achieve this excellence, one should be aware of the crucial and important elements of a screenplay.
Important Elements of a Screenplay
With a novel, one has to just pick up a pen and a paper and start writing. Unfortunately, Screenplay Writing doesn’t work that way. One has to follow certain formatting norms and terminology. It is like plotting a graph on paper, where even an inattentive look, will tell that it’s a screenplay and indeed a well written one.
We are going to mention the most important elements used in a screenplay. Though a screenplay software will do all this formatting task for you, yet it is important for a screenplay writer to understand the purpose and use of these elements, which we are going to discuss further.
- Scene Heading
A scene heading is a one line description of the time and location of a particular scene. It is also known as the “slug-line.” A scene heading is always written in CAPS, to differentiate it from the rest of the paragraphs.
Specimen: EXT. CAFE – DAY
The above scene heading signifies that the particular scene happens outside a cafe during the day time.
When there is a series of quick shots between two or more locations happening in the same interval or time zone, then a new scene heading could be written in the form of a Sub Header. Subheader consists of the location name, example OUTSIDE THE CAFE.
The subheader serves the same purpose that is of a Scene heading and is used for quick cuts. Like INTERCUT between two different scene locations. With it, one doesn’t have to write slugs again and again and yet a distinction is made in the action.
Action is the verbal description of the events happening inside a scene. It is always written in the present tense and serves a lot other purposes. Action lines could be used to provide screen direction, visual exposition, scene description and character description.
Please avoid using action lines as a notes column and write only those information in it that can be seen or heard in the scene.
When a new character is introduced in a scene, it’s name should be written in capital letters, along with a short description like age or physicality.
Specimen: A young man, JACK,24 is seated in a corner.
When the same character speaks, it is written in the center of the page, with his dialogues below the CAPPED name.
Note – Minor characters could be listed without the names, denoted by their profession or purpose, example HAIRDRESSER, or a CUSTOMER.
The words spoken by characters constitute dialogues. Dialogue format is used anytime a character speaks, even if it is off screen or through voice overs.
Dialogues are written below the capped character names.
Parenthetical (or parentheses) is the direction for the character that gives action or emotions/attitude to a character. These are used below the capped character in between the dialogues, to hint the actors, the emotions through the lines are spoken.
Not many writers use Parenthetical because it is the directors’ job to instruct the actors. But it can be used to convey what’s going on with a dialogue or how a certain line should be delivered by an actor.
An extension is a technical note, placed after the character’s name to indicate how the voice of the character will be heard on screen.
Example, if the character is speaking as a voice over then it will be written as JACK (V.O.)
Transitions are editing instructions written between scenes to hint the editor. It generally appears in a shooting script but are often used in screenplays too.
Some commonly used transitions in a screenplay are CUT TO: DISSOLVE TO: FADE TO:
A screenplay writer should try his best to avoid using transitions, but if there is no way to indicate a story element, then it can be used precisely. Example, DISSOLVE TO: is used to indicate that a long period of time has passed between scenes.
Shots, like transitions, are technical instructions that should be avoided by a screenplay writer. However, there are certain scenes that happen from a certain viewpoint and shots help to describe it with ease.
Some commonly used shots in a screenplay are, PULL BACK — CHARACTER POV — PAN TO —
Difference between a Spec Script and Shooting Script
A spec script as the name suggests is a screenplay written on speculation. Meaning that the writer isn’t paid for writing it and he/she is writing it, speculating that he/she might be able to sell it. A spec script doesn’t contain any technical instruction so as to give space to a director who could make necessary amendments as per his vision.
Once the spec script is sold, it can be turned into a shooting script also called a production script. This final stage of the screenplay is solely used for production and includes all the technical instructions such as shots, cuts and film editing notes. Revisions and scene numbers are highlighted as well along with director’s shooting notes.
A screenplay writer should avoid using the shooting elements in a spec script, because it gives away the wrong perspective. A director might get carried away by your own directions or get offended because there is nothing left for him to do. Putting shot directions limits his vision as well and there is little to play around. However , if you are writing a screenplay with the purpose of directing it as well, then mentioning these technicalities help as an add on to the script. Though for selling purposes, please avoid the technical instructions.
Screenplay Formatting Software
There are many Screenwriting software available online that makes writing a screenplay easy and straightforward. I personally feel Final Draft and Celtx are the best ones that provide a simple environment for proper screenplay formatting and writing.
With the help of these softwares, screenwriters need not to burden themselves with chore of margins and spacing and can focus on their storytelling. Many softwares give a plethora of options to enhance the writing experience and make screenwriting playful. These options include Scene Cards, Character-based structuring system, and analyzing the structure of your Story Acts. Though these are the basic ones I have mentioned, there are many more functions that these software provide, however, I don’t want to confuse the budding screenwriters.
Script Presentation and Binding
Once you have finished your screenplay and formatted it accordingly, the next step is to print it out and turn it into a bounded screenplay that can be sent for presentation or selling.
You also need to design the first page of your screenplay, that is called the title page. A title page is also written in Courier 12pt font and should only display the necessary information like the Title of your Screenplay, with “written by” and your name in the center of the page. In the lower left-hand or right-hand corner, enter your contact information. You can also put Registered, WGA or a copyright certification in the lower left-hand or right-hand corner, if you have registered your screenplay, else avoid it.
Once these pages have printed out and arranged, you need to get your script bound from a local stationary shop. The binding process should be done with three punch holes on each paper. The script should be neatly protected inside script covers either made of plastic or related cover material.
Once done, your bounded screenplay is ready to be mailed.
Phew, so here we finish our essay on “How to Write a Screenplay” and Important Elements of a Screenplay. That was a lengthy description. But trust me, writing a screenplay is Lengthier, not because it is hard to write or understand the basics of a screenplay, but because no one wants to write too. Procrastination is a screenplay’s writer’s favorite sin, a friendship that costs them heavily. A teacher or a guide could show you the way or give you tips to write a screenplay but at the end of the day, you have to move that pen or press those keys to get the work done.
So don’t wait, use these important elements of a screenplay and write your own screenplay. Let the world witness your stories on screen.
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