Screenplay basics: simple but absolutely essential principles

What is a screenplay? A screenplay is a document that tells the film production team what they need to film. It may sound like a simple description, but do not be deceived – its full significance will become clear by the end of this article. I will provide a concise description of what a screenplay must include and what it must not include.

A screenplay must include the following elements:

– The dialogue spoken by each character

– A concise, fact-based description of the action

– A concise, fact-based description of anything else we need to see, such as locations

A screenplay must NOT include:

– Camera directions

– Anything that does not clearly describe what we are supposed to SEE.

Basic screenplay characteristics:

– Successful screenplays tend to have a three-act structure.

– Paragraphs that describe action should be as concise as possible – ideally one or two lines most of the time. There should be lots of white space on each page. Short, snappy sentences. Facts.

– Screenplays are written in the Courier font, size 12. No exceptions.

– Character names go in the middle of the page. Always in caps.

– Each scene is headed by a slug line, which describes the location, tells us whether it is exterior or interior, and whether it is night or day – all in caps. Example:

EXT. ROOFTOP TERRACE – DAY

There are a myriad of other rules and conventions that you cannot fail to follow – there is a list of recommended books at the end of this post.

There is something you really need to know about writing screenplays: describing the action in a screenplay is one of the biggest sticking points among screenwriters. There is a simple rule that you need to follow if you want your screenplay to be taken seriously by the industry: when describing the action in a screenplay, you must describe factually what we are supposed to see on the screen, not what caused it, what you think about it, what we are supposed to feel or anything else.

A great way to decide whether something can be included in a screenplay is to ask yourself whether it tells us what to film rather than what to think of the action.

Example:

Sarah enters the room. She is upset because she has just been fired.

This sort of writing has no place in a screenplay, because it does not tell us what to film. “Sarah is upset” tells us nothing, from a filmmaking point of view. There is quite simply nothing for us to film – if this is not immediately obvious to you, think about it.

Now consider the following counter-example:

Sarah enters the room. Her eyes are bloodshot. She collapses despondently in an armchair.

Much better! This tells the director precisely what happens. We cannot film the
concept “Sarah is upset,” but we CAN film bloodshot eyes and a woman collapsing in an armchair. Do you see the difference? Obviously the director will interpret the scene in whatever way he/she wishes, but the fact remains that it is standard practice in screenplays to focus on straightforward facts and actions, not on fuzzy descriptions like “Sarah is upset.” Screenplays must be VISUAL.

If the prospect of having your screenplay tossed into the rejection bin by seasoned readers is not enough to persuade you, there is another important reason for which the action in a screenplay must be described with simple facts rather than allusive suggestion: facts tell us about the character, whereas fuzzy descriptions tell us absolutely nothing.

In the example above, writing that “Sarah is upset” is weak not just because there is nothing for us to film, but also because it tells us nothing about Sarah’s character. You see, different people express their displeasure in different ways. One character might come home and have bloodshot eyes and collapse despondently into an armchair – this is her way of being upset after being
fired. But another character, after going through the same experience of being fired, might come home tougher than ever and start cleaning the kitchen, which is exactly what Clarice Starling does in Ridley Scott’s film “Hannibal.” Do you see the difference?

The inevitable result is that screenplays that describe action correctly tend to be very dry. That is perfectly acceptable, because a screenplay is not supposed to be a literary masterpiece – it is a blueprint that the filmmakers need to shoot and complete the film. Screenplays are supposed to be dry!

It is best to think of a screenplay as a blueprint or as an instructions manual, not as a work of literature. The work of art is the completed film (sometimes), not its blueprint.

Reading screenplays is excruciatingly dull, but you must read as many as you can if you want to improve your screenwriting skills. Obviously you should learn from the best, so pick wisely. Here is a source of free screenplays.

There is one exception to the dullness of screenplays: James Cameron. His screenplays make awesome reading and I strongly recommend that you check them out, but I have one note of caution for you: James Cameron sometimes breaks the “facts only” rule I described above, but he can afford this luxury because he pretty much always knows that his screenplay will get made; selling the screenplay is not an issue for him. Just be aware of when he takes these liberties and bear in mind that you cannot afford to do the same.

While I’m on the topic of James Cameron, I will mention that if you adopt his technique of writing a scriptment before writing the screenplay, in the scriptment you can describe motivation and other issues in addition to the simple facts. You can include these extras in the scriptment and treatment, but not in the screenplay itself. A scriptment is essentially a document that, in addition to describing the dialogue and action, also goes into motivation and other issues. Check out James Cameron’s scriptment for Spider Man.

Overcoming writer’s block when writing a screenplay: the importance of taking right action: a reader’s question

I am writing from India. Well I have been subscribing for the past 6 months and really find it useful. Well my question is, I have had this script for my 3rd short film for over a year now…and I am still struggling to get a shooting script ready to start shooting. I mean I am working on the 7th draft with lots of changes. Is it a block or I am not finding enough time to get on with it, I don’t know, but I am just stuck. I work as an architect and keep doing my writing stuff and films on weekends and nights.

My answer:

We all experience stagnation and block – not just in writing, but in most things that need to get done in everyday life.

The way out of this impasse is to take “right action,” which means doing what you need to do regardless of how you feel. Decide with a cool head that you will spend 2 hours every day working on your screenplay and then do it regardless of your emotions.

If you are tired, you do it anyway. If you are sad, you do it anyway. If you are excited about something else, you do it anyway. If you have a cold, you do it anyway. Focus on the process, not the result. Do the right thing every day and the results will come, but consistency is absolutely vital.

I practise what I preach and live by this. I promise it works. It will also make you feel better generally. Tell yourself that you will work on your script every day and that there is nothing you can do to get yourself out of it. Train your brain not to self-sabotage when a self-development decision has been taken with a cool head.

Sit down, decide what you need to do to get what you want in life and then plow through it without paying attention to internal noise. We are all our own worst enemies – no question about it.

If you don’t take right action, life will pass you by! Don’t let it happen.

I hope this helps!

***

I made no attempt to describe all the rules of conventions of screenplays. I recommend the following books:

Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwritingby Syd Field – the best book for those who are completely new to screenplays.

How NOT to Write a Screenplay: 101 Common Mistakes Most Screenwriters Makeby Denny Martin Flinn – a seriously useful book if you want to stand a chance. Also very entertaining.

Thanks for reading and good luck!

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2 thoughts on “Screenplay basics: simple but absolutely essential principles

  1. I have read a great deal of scripts with camera direction in them, that is not true.

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