Most of us have at one point or another had the thought of writing a screenplay. Whether you were watching an episode of your favorite nighttime drama or you saw a movie on the big screen. Something inside you said “I can write something better than that!”
Unless you’re already versed in the screenwriting process, you have a ways to go before you can “Write something better than that!” In order to become a successful screenwriter, I believe you must possess a specific skill set. Screenwriting is all about structure. Like a Project Manager that works with a timeline and creates a road map for their business, a screenwriter must also be very well organized.
Before you even begin your writing process, you need to have a plan. That plan consists of knowing who your characters are, how they will interact with each other and most importantly, how your characters will move your story forward. The situations that you develop with your characters serve as the elements needed to piece your story together. When writing a screenplay, a good rule to follow is: “Show, Don’t Tell”. Your film must be seen as well as heard. The soundtrack to your film is just as important. Your screenplay must be written in the present-tense and be described in (Real-time).
There are four basic elements in screenplay format:
1. SLUG LINE (at top of every scene, shows location and day/time)
2. DESCRIPTION/ ACTION SENTENCES (descriptions of what we see)
3. DIALOGUE SENTENCES (under character name)
4. TRANSITIONS (CUT TO:, FADE IN:, FADE OUT:, etc.)
Additional guidelines when formatting your screenplay:
FONT: The entire script must be printed in COURIER FONT, 12 PT.
SPACING: Description and Dialogue are Single Spaced, with double spacing after each paragraph and double or triple spacing after each Slug Line.
MARGINS: This is the standard but you may see variations:
TOP: 1” to first line, 0.5” to page # (which is in Header)
PAGE NUMBERS: Upper right hand corner, followed by a period
SLUG LINES: ALL CAPS. INT or EXT location, NIGHT or DAY.
DESCRIPTION/ACTION is Left Justified and DIALOGUE is tabbed in, approx. 1 inch from the left margin.
CHARACTER NAME: above dialog: CAPS, tabbed to near center.
DIALOGUE PARENTHETICALS: (Excited) under character name.
OFFSCREEN DIALOGUE (O.S.): O.S. is used when the dialogue is spoken by a character in the scene but not actually appear in the frame.
VOICEOVER/NARRATION (V.O.): For narration or thoughts. Could be used when your character is reading a monolog as a scene FADE IN:
TRANSITIONS: FADE IN is the only transition left justified, all others, like CUT TO:, DISSOLVE TO:, FADE OUT are tabbed to the right margin.
CUT TO: does not need to be written at the end of every scene. It’s up to you; a cut is implied by the next slug line.
SOUND EFFECTS: Important sound effects or loud noises are written in CAPS in line of description.
“CONTINUED’S” AT BOTTOM RIGHT AND TOP LEFT OF EACH PAGE: Not necessary in a Reader’s Script, but it’s okay.
POV SHOT: use POV as a separate capped line.
SOFTWARE: “Final Draft” is probably the most popular. (This is what I use)
Now that you have an Idea of the mechanics that go into writing a screenplay, you will also need to have a creative side that you can summon for snappy dialog that will be needed. Once you have found your story, have created the hook, developed your characters, it is now time to sit down and write. Oh yes; most of this should be worked out in your head before you even start. Otherwise, you may find yourself sitting in front a blank piece of paper or blank screen on Final Draft for a long time.
What I do…
Write down all of your characters names along with a brief description of how they appear to you. Also list their relationship to your other characters.
Write a scene outline. What would a scene outline look like? Similar to how a completed movie has “Chapters”, list your scene’s out in a chapter format. Break the scene’s out based on your three act structure (Setup, Conflict, and Resolution). List your characters main objectives in each scene. This will help with your scene’s structure and may even provide inspiration for character dialog as you create their scenes.
Once you have an outlined plan, it will be much easier to construct your story in a screenplay format. I always write my screenplay out on paper first. There are several reasons why this may work best for most writers.
- Writing on paper allows more of a free-form expression. If you don’t like what you just wrote, you can scratch it out, write to the side, and make small notes.
- If writing your screenplay on paper first, you are not burdened to stay in one place i.e. (in front of the computer at home).
- Get out and put yourself in as many different environments as possible, especially those that relate to your story, your characters or scenes.
- Your characters, scenes and dialog may change several times as a result of outside influence. i.e. (everyday life).
- Inspiration may come from the strangest places…
Once I have what I feel is good material on paper, I then transfer my screenplay to Final Draft.
You have a great story to tell, feed it! – David L. Spies