What is a Screenplay? The Ultimate Guide for Filmmaking Beginners

a typewriter with the word screenplay on it

Key Takeaways:

A screenplay is a written guide for making a movie. It details every scene, action, character interaction, and spoken line in the film.

Beyond the story, it also provides cues for locations, camera framing, character moods, and scene ambiance.

Basically, a screenplay describes everything we can see and hear on-screen!

Are you a new or beginning writer, feeling unsure about what sets a screenplay apart from a story or novel?

No problem – I was there once too! I knew that I wanted to try my hand at writing a movie, but I wasn’t sure exactly what professional screenwriters include in their scripts.

Now that I’ve spent fifteen years writing more than 20 feature screenplays, I can share with you that a screenplay is essentially the written framework of a movie. It includes the locations, the characters, their dialogue and actions, along with everything that happens in each scene.

In this guide, you’ll learn all about screenplays, from their structure to how they become a finished film. It’s perfect for beginners and those looking to improve their writing skills by transforming a story into a movie!

Definition of a Screenplay

what is a screenplay infographic

A screenplay is a written format for creating films and television shows.

It is a medium of two senses – what we see and what we hear on the screen. A screenplay should limit the other senses to within these two, whereby conflict is driven by sight and sound.

In its most basic form, a screenplay includes various screenplay elements such as dialogue between characters, instructions for camera angles, transitions, descriptions of settings, and other elements essential to telling a story for the screen.

Rewrites and revisions can occur several times as the story evolves in collaboration with various people like actors, directors, and producers.

There are several types of screenplays. Spec scripts – short for speculative screenplays – are written without compensation and intended for sale to a production company or to be filmed by the writer. On the other hand, commissioned scripts are ones where a studio or producer has hired the writer to write them.

Once ready to be filmed, the finished product is known as the shooting script, which contains scene numbers, camera angles, and technical directions and is broken down by various crew members for specific information for the production (such as props, wardrobe, locations, etc.).

Individuals can take on the creation of a screenplay without prior film experience. However, cinematic language and formatting knowledge may help you create your masterpiece more efficiently, so read on to learn more!

a screenplay on a table

Origin and History of the Screenplay

The screenplay has a long and fascinating history!

It dates back to the early days of film when directors began to craft detailed models or blueprints for filming their work.

Based somewhat on stage plays, early examples of screenplays included stories shot by D.W. Griffith, who wrote the first professionally filmed screenplay in 1912 for his movie Les Misérables.

Since then, the typical format for a film has evolved significantly – primarily due to technological advances and the rise of modern production techniques.

Today’s procedure is far more codified, with standard industry formats and expectations, giving us the measured approach to storytelling that we’re all familiar with.

Aspiring screenwriters can take inspiration from this long history, ensuring their scripts successfully capture the cinematic experience!

Structure & Screenplay Elements

Character Development

character development in a screenplay

Paying attention to your movie characters’ arcs is so important!

A character arc is the evolution and transformation a character undergoes from the story’s beginning to the end.

By creating an arc for each character, you can ensure their actions are meaningful and align with their overall growth.

An intriguing way to think about a character arc is to ponder the emotional journey you want your audience to experience. How do you envision your audience reacting when a character faces a pivotal moment?

  • Will they be sad or uplifted? Will they feel anger, sympathy, or joy?
  • Are there moments where you want them to question the character’s decisions?
  • Should they be left in suspense about a character’s true intentions?
  • How do you want them to feel about the character’s relationships with others?

The development of your characters in a screenplay can be one of its most powerful elements, as it allows viewers to feel connected and invested in them in ways that just plain dialogue cannot consistently achieve.

Action Lines

action lines in a screenplay

Action lines are another important aspect of a screenplay.

Action lines appear in each screenplay scene and describe the characters’ setting, mood, behavior, and any actions they perform in the scene.

They are written in the present tense as if they were taking place now and should put the reader in the heart of the action.

It’s good to be specific with your descriptions and to keep them as brief as possible. No flowery language or big words, when small ones will do. Be deliberate and precise. Try to find the balance between letting a director direct the scene (rather than you doing it for them) and giving the other departments (such as props, wardrobe, set decoration, etc.) enough information to get what they need.

As a good rule of thumb, think of each paragraph as a new camera setup inside your mind. Therefore, limit paragraphs to 3-5 lines at a time rather than having large blocks of text.

The key to a good screenplay is plenty of “white space,” where you avoid overwhelming your reader with too much text.

All action lines should express what is happening quickly and effectively so that nothing gets lost in translation!

Scene Directions and Description

scene directions in a screenplay

Scene direction is the narrative written by the writers to introduce each new scene in the script. It includes details of the visual setting, such as time of day or night, location, and weather.

Additionally, it provides instructions about camera angles, movement, and sound for each scene (typically in a shooting script rather than a spec or early draft). Directors and cinematographers typically add scene directions and descriptions to help break down each scene into the required number and style of shots.

A description is written from the point-of-view of a disembodied narrator describing actions on screen.

For example, if you’re writing a script about a bank robbery, the description would communicate all action in the sequence – like if a person runs away with a bag full of money or any other details contributing to the story-telling process.

Scene directions and descriptions can make emotions or themes more effective on-screen.

Dialogue (Including Subtext)

dialogue in a screenplay

Dialogue is how your movie characters express themselves and reveal their inner thoughts and feelings.

And while it may seem like all dialogue is just two people talking to each other, there’s a lot more to it than that.

Dialogue can be full of subtext – hidden meanings and unspoken thoughts. That’s what makes it so powerful!

It can convey so much more than just the words that are spoken. Sometimes, what’s not said is as important as what is.

Always try to think about what your characters are trying to say verbally and non-verbally.

a script on a table

Screenplay Formatting

formatting in a screenplay infographic

If you’re going to write a screenplay, there’s one thing you need to know – proper script formatting. A lot of people think that as long as the story is good, the format doesn’t matter. But trust me, it does! Nothing says “screenwriting newbie” more than glaring formatting mistakes.

Proper screenplay formatting will make your script more likely to be taken seriously by agents, producers, and directors. Think of it like this – your script is a blueprint for the entire production, so whatever you put into it will be the basis for what comes out on film.

So, let’s talk about proper screenplay format. Proper screenplay format includes specific elements and layout to express the movements, actions, and dialogue of characters. Your movie budgeting and scheduling will be much easier if you use official screenwriting software to handle the formatting and everything else.


First, a professional screenplay is always written in Courier 12pt font. Why?

Because it’s the easiest font for directors and producers to read on a screen. No fancy cursive or anything like that – Courier it is!


Next, you need to format your margins.

  • Your left margin should be 1.5 inches.
  • Your right margin should be 1 inch (ragged or unjustified).
  • The top and bottom are 1 inch.
  • Character names (written in all caps) are 3.5 inches from the left.
  • Parentheticals 3 inches from the left.
  • Dialogue 2.5 inches from the left.
  • Transitions are 5.5 inches from the left.

All other elements, such as scene headings and action lines, are left-justified (or 1 inch from the left).

Remember, screenplays are traditionally printed on white 3-hole punched paper in standard-size (8 1/2″ x 11″) bond stock. They are then bound with two brads in the top left-hand corner.

Page Numbering

Your pages should be numbered in the upper right-hand corner, starting on page 2 of the script.

The title page and first page of the screenplay do not have numbers (though if they did, they would technically be numbered 0 and 1, respectively).

Scene Headings

Scene headings, also known as sluglines, are essential to good script formatting.

They tell the reader when and where the scene takes place.

Written in all capital letters, a proper scene heading includes an INT/EXT indicator to show whether a scene takes place indoors (INT) or outside (EXT), followed by the location and whether it is day or night outside.

For example, an exterior shot at a beach may be written as ‘EXT. BEACH – DAY’, while an interior kitchen shot may be written as ‘INT. KITCHEN – NIGHT’.

Following those identifiers should be any relevant details that would help set up a visual image for the production team.

Double-check that your script format meets industry standards so your hard work won’t go to waste!

Page Count

The page count determines, to a large extent, whether the film will be considered a feature or a short.

Typically, one page equates to one minute of screen time, so a ninety-page script will usually end up as around a 90-minute film. The title page does not count in this estimate.

Screenwriting Software Programs

what is screenwriting software

If your goal is to create a great screenplay, a screenwriting software program made explicitly for that purpose is very important.

These programs help you streamline the writing process, ensure proper screenplay formatting, and make it easier for their users to develop compelling stories and characters, whether for a film, a video game, or multimedia production.

Generally, they have easy-to-use designs that provide all the elements needed to turn your ideas into an entire movie script — everything from visual plot points to character arcs, dialogue boxes, and all the formatting options you might need.

On top of that, more advanced features such as industry grades, sample templates, and collaboration tools can help you write a professional-level script.

Screenwriting software programs are incredibly helpful in screenplay format, structure, and content creation.

Sum Up

Screenwriting is a lot of fun. You get to create worlds that no one has thought of yet, and imagine how they will look on the big screen.

You get to practice valuable writing techniques like voice, dialogue, and story structure.

Additionally, when you write a screenplay and it actually gets filmed, it feels so satisfying to see your work on the big screen!

If you have the dream to write a screenplay, check out great books about screenwriting, find a professional mentor, take an online course, and keep reading this website and others that have free advice from successful screenwriters! All it takes is your imagination and the willingness to learn about the art of telling a story on the screen!

The possibilities are limitless. Give it a try!

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Common Questions

What is the difference between a screenplay and a script?

A screenplay is a detailed document for movies outlining dialogue, scenery, character actions, sound effects, and camera directions. In contrast, a script focuses mainly on dialogue, often with minimal descriptions of settings or character movements, and can be used for stage, TV, or film.

What is the difference between a screenplay and a film?

A screenplay is the written blueprint of a story, detailing scenes, dialogue, and character actions for a movie. It’s meant to provide information to the film’s director, the actors, and the crew. In contrast, a film is the visual realization of that screenplay, edited and accompanied by music, presenting the final story to the audience. Screenplays explain how to make a film, while films are the finished version.

What is the difference between screenplays and stage plays?

Screenplays are designed for movies and films, blending action and dialogue. Stage plays are written for the theater and lean heavily on dialogue, set designs, and costumes for ambiance. Stage plays often go deeper into character arcs due to their extended run time.

You can check out more of the differences in my article on the differences between novels, screenplays, and stageplays!

What is an adapted screenplay?

An adapted screenplay is a script that is based on existing source material, such as a novel, play, or true story. The screenwriter must adapt the original work into a film-friendly format while staying true to the essence of the original story.

If you want to learn more about movies that have been adapted from other works, check out my article on the 30 best adapted screenplays of all time!

Interested in learning screenwriting? Check out these other helpful articles!

How to Adapt a Book Into a Screenplay: 11 Tips for Writers

Short Film Ideas: 9 Easy Ways to Generate Ideas

How to Write a Montage in a Script: The Ultimate Guide

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