What is a Screenplay? The Ultimate Guide for Beginners

what is a screenplay

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.

What is a screenplay?

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!

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 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

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.

If done correctly, scene directions and descriptions can make certain 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.

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

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.

Font

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!

Margins

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 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.

How to Write an Effective Screenplay

how to write 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 getting into historical or technical aspects that 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

Writing 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 Screenplays

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!

What is a screenplay, and why is it important?

A screenplay is a written narrative that is the foundation for producing a film. It details scenes, characters, and dialogue and often includes directions for camera angles, character emotions, and setting descriptions. It’s important because it ensures that filmmakers, actors, and crew have a clear vision to bring the story to life on screen.

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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!

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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