How to Write a Screenplay
A screenplay is a creative piece of writing upon which a movie, television program or film is based. The screenplay carries all the words spoken by the actors, all the details about the scenario, and all the necessary set directions. The dialog, actions, expressions, and movements of the actors are all detailed in a screenplay.
There are specific layouts and formats for screenplays from which one cannot deviate. Whether a screenplay is wholly original or taken from another piece of writing, such as a history book or a novel, it must contain the details necessary for a movie to be directed correctly, so it must bear the author’s intentions in a prescribed manner.
Screenplays can be commissioned from a writer employed for the purpose by a company, or a writer can write a fully original one and present it to a company ‘on spec’. This means payment will only occur if the screenplay is accepted and contracted.
Steps for Writing a Screenplay
A screenplay is a creative project which cannot be attempted unless the writer knows how to format it. There are a number of steps to follow:
- Carefully read a number of specially written textbooks on how to write for the screen – either the big screen or television. A number of good books are available, which give specific details and good advice.
- Make notes and understand the words that are used specifically in the film industry.
- Think about a subject or topic, and invent a scenario or story to fit around it. For example, you might choose the topic “wedding” and invent a funny story about an event that goes wrong.
- Make sure that you devise a number of different characters for your screenplay – an odd number, never more than about five, is best for a first attempt.
- Make sure you understand that meaning and context in a screenplay is conveyed through dialog.
- Set aside a generous period of time to draft several different versions of the screenplay: this is not a piece of writing that one can do in a hurry.
- Take notes, watch some similar movies for ideas, and start to draft the screenplay, beginning with movements and actions, and filling in the dialog using a variety of characteristics for the players.
- A good screenplay also includes any effects and sounds that can be seen and heard as part of the action by the persons watching the movie or teleplay.
Key Points to Consider
- It is possible to use a software template to write a screenplay. It is also possible to write one in a word-processing program using a classic layout.
- Screenplay writing has its own grammar and specific language requirements. Use the accepted conventions of spacing, font, and size. In the US, Courier in 12pt is generally the norm. Double-space everything.
- It is useful to remember that one page of screenplay text is generally understood to represent one minute of on-screen action.
- A screenplay is also called a script; it contains four deceptively simple elements: headings, character names, action, and dialog. A writer must understand how to format these elements in the standard way, which is centered down the middle of an A4 page, on one side of the paper only.
- Headings, which are always in uppercase, mention the scenes; character names nominate the players and who they depict; action describes the movement; and dialog details all the words spoken.
Dos and Don’ts
- Repetitive or cliched work – never copy the well-known gems from cinema and television slavishly. Although it is good to emulate the masters, original work bearing a new writer’s trademark is always fresh and best.
- Lack of reality. Even the most outlandish works of science fiction and fantasy need a touch of realism and relationship to the human condition.
- Rushing the work, or trying to cram too much into a two-hour piece. Hurried scenes or those that are truncated to make room for more material might work on paper, but will give trouble when acted out.
- Lack of expertise. Sometimes student screenplay writers include so much material in their screenplay that it over-runs the projected number of minutes. This is due to a lack of expertise. Too many or too few characters, too, is the sign of a beginner.
- Forgetting the importance of dialogue. Everything in a screenplay depends on the words.
- Long speeches. It is a mistake to put too much description or narration into dialog. Characters must not make overly long speeches. They take up time, and bore the audience.
- Not understanding the anatomy of a classic screenplay. It is essentially following a well-known set layout, filled with your own original dialogue and action.