what is a screenplay

Definition of a Screenplay

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 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 & Elements of a Screenplay

Character development

When developing a screenplay, paying attention to the characters’ arcs is essential.

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 that their actions are meaningful and in line with their overall growth.

An intriguing way to create an arc is to think about how you want your audience to feel when a particular character undergoes change. Will they be sad or uplifted?

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

When writing your screenplay, action lines are an extremely important element that must be understood.

Action lines appear in each screenplay scene and describe the characters’ setting, mood, behavior, and 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 essential 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 of your mind. Therefore, try to limit paragraphs to 3-5 lines at a time rather than 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

When it comes to structure and elements of a screenplay, scene directions and description are essential.

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.

If done correctly, scene directions and descriptions can make certain emotions or themes more effective on-screen.

Dialogue (including subtext)

When writing a screenplay, dialogue is critical. It’s how your 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.

So, when you write dialogue for a movie or tv show, think about what your characters are trying to say verbally and non-verbally.

a script on a table

Screenplay Formatting

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.

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.


First, you must know that a screenplay is 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

If you’re trying to create a great screenplay, a screenwriting software program made explicitly for that purpose is very important.

These programs specialize in proper screenplay format and make it easier for 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 even formatting options.

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

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

Crafting an Effective Screenplay

a person writing a screenplay

Brainstorm Ideas

When crafting a compelling movie script, brainstorming ideas is the foundation of the process.

One effective strategy for getting your creative juices flowing is simply to free write – put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and let your stream of consciousness take flight. Let the story in your head take shape on the page!

Another helpful technique is participating in a group discussion – if you have access, consider gathering friends and colleagues to discuss movie ideas and stories to inspire ideas for the project on which you are working.

Ultimately, brainstorming should be a fun and playful experience, so keep an open mind and don’t be afraid to throw all sorts of concepts out there. You never know what could spark a great storyline or provide insight into characters and themes as you craft your script.

Research the genre of your story

When crafting an excellent feature film or television program, research into the genre and format of your story is an essential step.

Not only will this inform the structure you will use in your script, but it can give you critical insight into the content that should be included.

Researching the genre will provide details about how to write for specific audiences or markets, what type of formatting particular stories are best suited for, and how much time a story should take up on-screen.

Further research into the format of your story then allows you to streamline your processes even more, ensuring that all equipment necessary to bring your script to life is available and ready on filming days.

Also, research into your world is vital if you are delving into historical or technical aspects which may be relevant to the story or characters. Accuracy is key!

Do not rush through this process – carefully comb through all available resources before investing time into writing and planning.

Character development

Crafting a great screenplay is about building fully realized, multi-dimensional characters.

It’s essential to dig deep into their lives and motivations.

  • What makes them tick?
  • How do they respond when they are confronted with a challenge?
  • What values do they hold closest to their heart?

These details give your screenplay texture, ensuring that it doesn’t just exist in a two-dimensional vacuum but creates a solid emotional connection with its audience.

When crafting characters, think up specifics: consider the clothes they wear, how they speak, their mannerisms and body language, and how they interact with colleagues or family members.

Even if some of these details never appear onscreen, giving them life will translate through the characters’ dialogue and behavior!

Investing in developing your film characters can make yours an unforgettable story.

Story beats

Writing a great screenplay involves understanding the story structure, including story beats.

Beats are critical moments in the story that each act as a platform from which everything else grows. Even if you’re writing an adaptation (or a spec script), it pays to be familiar with the fundamentals of storytelling.

To craft a compelling story beat structure for your screenplay, keep two things in mind; every scene needs to move the action forward and develop interesting or relevant character arcs.

You should also think about how each beat sets up the next; by doing this, you can create a dynamic tension between characters in your screenplay, making it engaging and compelling for readers.

typing on a laptop

Common Questions About What Is a Screenplay?

What is the difference between screenplay and script?

Screenplays and scripts might seem like they’re interchangeable words, but they have surprisingly distinct meanings. A script is a more general term used in reference to dialogue on stage, TV, or film. A screenplay typically describes a document that outlines the dialogue and events of a movie.

Screenplays contain descriptions of scenery, character movements, and directions for sound effects and camera angles. Scripts, however, are typically thought of as having fewer details: with more emphasis on dialogue and often very little description of character movements or settings. While both terms can be used for any form of storytelling, it’s important to remember that only when the narrative involves film media is it accurately identified as a screenplay.

What is the difference between a screenplay and a film?

A screenplay is the written form of a story that will eventually be made into a movie, while a film is the end product. A screenplay is used to communicate ideas to film directors and cast members, so they have an understanding of what the movie should visually look like. It will include descriptions of each scene, dialogue, character names and descriptions, camera angles, transitions, and more. It also includes action notes and instructions on how the actors should move between scenes or express themselves with their eyes, mouth, or body language.

Films, on the other hand, are the final product that has been shot by the director and edited according to his/her preferences. It’s usually accompanied by music, creating an immersive experience for the viewer. In essence, screenplays explain how to make a film, while films are the finished version.

What is the difference between screenplays and stage plays?

Screenplays are scripts written for television or film, while stage plays are meant for theatrical productions. Generally speaking, a screenplay will have more action as every scene detail must be revealed in the dialogue or characters’ movements.

On the other hand, stage plays require set design and costumes, which can help bring a production alive and create a mood. They also tend to be longer than screenplays because they have more time to build tension, character development, and emotional responses from an audience.

And most importantly, stage plays are mainly dialogue-driven, while screenplays are a balance of action and dialogue.

You can check out more of the differences in my article on the differences between novels, screenplays, and stageplays if you are interested in learning more!

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!

What is a screenplay, and why is it important?

A screenplay is an essential part of the filmmaking process. It’s like the blueprint or roadmap for any film project. Great screenplays provide a detailed description of what the visuals look like, what dialogue is spoken, how it should be performed, and its overall structure.

Without a screenplay, filmmakers are left without direction and the ability to communicate their vision to others involved in the production effectively. Screenwriters are incredibly important as they are responsible for creating compelling stories and characters that will excite and enthrall audiences, engaging them in conversations long after the credits roll.

What is a screenplay?

Final Thoughts on Screenplays

Screenwriting is incredibly rewarding to master and hone, allowing you to craft stories that captivate your audience.

You get to practice valuable writing techniques like voice, dialogue, and story structure and gain insight into filmmaking.

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

With a wealth of resources for aspiring screenwriters, such as books for in-depth studies, professional mentors, online courses, and even websites with free advice from successful screenwriters, anyone can start their screenwriting journey.

Whether you’re looking for inspiration from classics or diving into blockbuster trends and TV show scenarios, the possibilities are limitless.

So don’t be shy – go out there and make something unforgettable!

Looking for more help with screenwriting? Check out these other fantastic 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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