How to Write a Screenplay

I took a screenplay writing class in college and it was in my top three favorite classes. Writing a screenplay is a fun creative activity, but it’s also a useful writing exercise because they help you concisely explain what you’re visualizing. I urge you to try it. Here are a few tips to help.

Use Free Online Software

I like scripped.com but some people like celx.com. Both have free trials available. They make it really easy to format everything, but once you get the hang of it you could probably use a word document. I think there’s a screenplay template in Word. Professionals use Final Draft, but it’s pretty expensive software.

Leave Out What’s at The Director’s Discretion

There are actually two kinds of scripts, spec scripts and production scripts. Production scripts contain camera and editing directions, which are only added when a script goes to production. A spec script presents the story in a concise way. How the director interprets the story and translates it to screen is at their discretion. You describe the scene and what it looks like, but you don’t need to indicate camera angles. Check out some of the screenplays below and they will give you a general idea of what it should look like.

Read Screenplays You Like

You can find Good Will Hunting here for a general example, but it’s a production script, so it’ll have more information than you need. I don’t think it’s the actual script because the visual exposition ordinarily wouldn’t say “you can almost smell the odor of last night’s beer.” Pay attention to the dialogue, the flow, and the scenes. Below is an image of a screenplay I wrote.

IMG_6392

The Aspects of Good Storytelling Still Apply

Your story still needs all the elements of plot. That includes a strong beginning that sets things up, inciting action, rising plot, climax, falling plot, and resolution. You need to throw in plenty of hurdles for your characters, make the dialogue interesting, and make your characters unique. Show, don’t tell, and be concise.

Formatting

You only need three things:

1. The scene heading a.k.a. slug line

This includes indications of Interior or Exterior, Location, & Time. For example:

EXT. DOWNTOWN CHICAGO – DAY

or

INT. JOHNSON HOME – NIGHT

2. The visual exposition or action description

This explains the action or movement on-screen and describes only what you see. The first time a character appears, capitalize their name. The visual exposition is just below the scene heading. For example:

JOE JOHNSON enters the room, looks around for movement and then slumps into an armchair, staring at his wife, SUSAN, who is standing looking out the window. She turns and they glare at each other. There’s silence for a moment.

Notice that no explanation is given for why they glare at each other. Motivations are revealed through actions and dialogue. 

3. Dialogue

The dialogue follows the visual exposition with each character’s name capitalized at the center of the page and with the dialogue they speak on the next line. For example:

Susan stomps over to John, her face glowing with mounting anger.

SUSAN

When are you going to think of someone besides yourself?

If you want someone off-screen to say something, you can just put (O.S.) after their name and if you want a voice over, you can put (V.O.) after their name.

Read it Out Loud

This is VERY important. Your script will sound really cheesy if you don’t read it out loud to yourself. What’s preferable is to have someone else read it out loud (or a few people) so you can hear the dialogue differently. Pay attention to how people really speak. That is what your dialogue should sound like. Having other people read it will also help you with feedback.

The Specifics

  • The average script is around 120 pages
  • Within the first 3 pages you need a hook: an unusual character, interesting setting, unusual concept or idea, or exciting events (like a car chase or explosion).
  • Most dialogue is a maximum of 6 lines. Any longer than that is a monologue, meaning it’s extremely important and used sparingly (maybe once if at all). Monologues tend to stall action but are very powerful if used correctly. Think of Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting. His monologue with Will is a turning point for Will’s character. See page 55 here. If a character needs to say a lot, break it up with actions like sipping a drink or moving around the room.
  • Capitalize sounds. For example The SOUND OF BREAKING GLASS is heard. Don’t use onomatopoeia such as BANG! CRASH!
  • Some people like to use a step outline, which is a numbered scene by scene template of what happens in your screenplay. You can include the scene heading/slug line to help you keep track of what’s what.

What Next?

If you practice and have a polished finished product, you’ll want to copyright your work. Check The Writer’s Guild for more information, usually it’s around $20.

Other Resources:

www.screenwriting.info

Walt Disney Fellowship Program

Nicholls Fellowship

Script City Bookstore

About.com – this has a good listing of books to check out, where to get scripts (like if you want a copy of the script from your favorite movie), and networking

The Writer’s Guild

The Script Source – this has a variety of scripts, but I’m not sure they’re the real scripts, they might be from someone who watched the movie and wrote it out. They’re helpful, but less trustworthy as an example than buying the real script.