Top Tips on How to Write a Screenplay: How to be a Successful Screenwriter
So you want to be a successful screenwriter, the one who writes the best screenplays? But you’re unsure of where to start? Do you have lots of ideas for the screenplay itself but you’re not sure about how to present these on paper? Are you worried about coming across professionally? Do you want to ensure you follow the correct protocol for how a screenplay should be formatted, and structured?
This guide will help you with all of the above!
What is a screenplay?
Who uses the screenplay?
A screenplay is a script that contains dialogue for the characters in a film. But it is also so much more; it is also a guide for all the people, other than actors, who work on a film to make it successful. A screenplay also describes the set, whether that’s internal, or external which is crucial for the set designer. It will also give instructions for producers and directors. A screenplay may contain actions which will help the director to create an impression of the scene to understand the background context. A screenplay has transition instructions which help with the editing of the film, such as whether the scene cuts to another, or fades, or dissolves. A screenplay includes shots to describe the focus of the camera, this could include panning to show a beautiful landscape, or an extreme close up, to show the expression on a character’s face at a crucial part of the film. A film takes huge cooperation and collaboration amongst many different talented people, all with very different skills and experience. It’s bringing all these components together that will make the film a success. The more direction you give to others through your well-written screenplay, the closer it will resemble the vision you have in your head.
What should the screenplay be about?
The subject of your screenplay can be absolutely anything you wish to write. You could decide to create a screenplay entirely from your imagination. Or, you could take a true event that has happened and base your screenplay around that. You may decide to do an ‘adaptation’ of a novel or theatrical play and turn it into a film. Films are visual, and therefore you need to show the story rather than tell it. Try to avoid a lot of monologue in your screenplay, as this doesn’t work well in films. Use more subtle nuances, such as looks, gestures, contrast between scenes etc.
There is software available that can help you to put your storyline together, such as Dramatica Pro, Save the Cat! and Contour.
If you need inspiration for your screenplay, then watch some of your favourite films. Or, do an Internet search for some films that are considered ‘classics’ and watch some of them.
Once you have your idea create what’s known as a ‘Logline’ which is a one sentence that neatly sums up what your story will be about.
Writing the screenplay
It is worth remembering at all times, that a screenplay is something that will be watched on the big screen (cinemas) hopefully, and certainly people’s large-screen TVs. It isn’t something that will be read. It is often your dialogue that will move the plot forward, and you need to ensure that your dialogue is natural and flows. It’s a different style of writing to telling a story in a book, where you’re able to write a lot more of the description. In a film you need to show it. Screenplays tend to be written in the present tense.
What font and formatting should I use when writing a screenplay?
There is definitely an art and solid technique to formatting your screenplay in the correct manner. You need to use a specific font, and format your screenplay with appropriate capital letters where relevant, and appropriate margins, spacing and indentation. This makes all the sections of your screenplay very defined, easy to read, and easy for the relevant people involved in a film to swiftly determine which sections they need to pay attention to.
It is recommended that you use Courier font, in size 12.
Why use a specific font?
There is a sound reason for this, it’s because one page of your screenplay in the Courier font style, size 12, will then approximately equate to 1 minute of your film. Your screenplay script should be between a minimum of ninety pages, to a maximum of one-hundred-and-twenty pages. If it’s a comedy script, then keep this briefer around ninety pages. But, dramas can be longer up to one-hundred-and-twenty minutes, or two hours.
Your screenplay does need to follow strict formatting guidelines. Screenplays have a very different style to a fictional book, or a play. You’ll need to use your tab key on your keyboard, in order to get various lines correctly indented, or else you could use screenplay software.
You need to ensure your screenplay is formatted correctly in the following ways:
- Use white paper 8.5” x 11”.
- Ensure your paper has 3 holes in it.
- Ensure your top, bottom and right margin is 1”, but your left margin should be larger to allow for the binding, and this should be 1.5”.
- Don’t number your first page of your screenplay.
- Number the remaining page numbers in the top right hand corner.
- The first words to appear on the first page of your screen play, should be FADE IN.
- Don’t include any graphics or pictures, because this would make you look like an amateur and not professional.
- The front page should just have the title of the screenplay and the name of the author/s
- On the bottom left corner of your front page, include your contact detail, of name, address, phone-number and email, or that of your agent.
- You’ll need to fasten your script together at the first and third hole (not the middle hole) with brass fasteners, known as ‘Brads’.
There is specific screenplay software that you can purchase and download, that helps with the correct margins and indentations you require. Some examples of software include: Montage, Movie Magic Screenwriter, Movie Outline, and Final Draft. By purchasing specific screenwriting software, you can become more involved with creating the plotline, and less bothered about the formatting of it.
Is there a template I should use when writing a screenplay?
There are certain expected aspects of screenplay structure that screenplays typically follow, to ensure that it is easy for directors, producers, set-designers, actors etc. to swiftly scan and know which is relevant to them for the scene.
Scene Headings – you will need to give a description of the location and time of day of the scene, and when you write this, it should be one line long, and written in capital letters. This is also known as the ‘slugline’. It tends to say whether the scene in External, or Internal, which are abbreviated to EXT and INT, it will give a location such as PUB, CAFÉ, MUSEUM, POOL, BEACH etc, and then day DAY or NIGHT. Occasionally you may get an abbreviated scene heading if this seems to make sense, such as LATER. If your screenplay alternates a lot between the present and the past, to clarify this, in the scene heading (also known as title cards) you could put in brackets whether it’s past or present. Eg. INT. COLLEGE. MORNING (PRESENT DAY)
Action – to describe what is happening in a scene.
Character – when you write a character’s name, it should always be in capitals. If a person has a role, but they’re not named, for example BAR TENDER it’s fine to put their job role in capitals. When you introduce characters you should ensure they’re indented 2 inches to the left.
Dialogue – this is spoken speech, and even ‘voice-over’ speech. This needs to be indented 1 inch to the left. If you do have a voice over, you could use the character’s name, in capitals, followed by parenthesis (brackets) to show this is voice-over. Eg. KATIE (V.O). If a characters voice is heard off-screen, you can abbreviate that to (O.S) or (O.C) meaning off camera. Remember with dialogue that you can use slang words, haver characters speaking in a particular way, and even demonstrate accents through the written dialogue.
Transition – these are instructions for how the film should be edited, for example if you want the screen to FADE IN or FADE OUT; or DISSOLVE TO another; or CUT TO another. The DISSOLVE TO instruction could be used to indicate a large shift in time between the past and present.
Shot – This is a camera angle or focus, which helps the viewer of the film to understand a point the film is trying to make, and most of these types of shots, would be interpreted by the Director of the film, who decides what the key focus of a scene should be. Shot examples include CLOSE UP, FREEZE FRAME (a still non-moving image), PAN TO and showing people Point of View POV.
Montage – this can be lots of images shown which have a theme. Often this can be used to show that a period of time has passed. For example if you were portraying how someone had become a famous ballerina, the montage could show her as a child having lessons, then at her first audition, in various performances, and then performing at grander places, for more VIP audiences, but by doing this as a montage, it allows a lot of back history to be shown in the space of a few seconds in a film. So it fills the viewer in of the background/context, but without eating into a lot of precious film time and being boring/overly detailed for the viewers.
It is worth noting that if you’re writing a speculative script, that no-one has commissioned you to write; but you’re writing it, with the intention of getting someone to buy it, then you shouldn’t include any film editing instructions in this first script. Once someone has bought it, then the script can contain the technical instructions for production and editing. If you intend to sell your script, then you’re not going to have as much say over how it is edited. If you wish to retain control over that, then you may need to direct the film yourself as an independent film maker.
An example outline of the opening of a screenplay
EXT. THE GOLDEN GRIFFIN INN – DAY
In a quirky town, with wooden rickety shops, with unusual names. A wooden pub, with a hanging sign, with a golden griffin on it
INT. THE GOLDEN GRIFFIN INN – DAY
It’s the interior of a busy noisy dimly lit pub, filled with unusual looking Dwarves, Orcs, Goblins and Wizards.
GRUNION, a Dwarf with a red beard and hair, ruddy cheeks, a tough stocky exterior, goes to the bar.
Oy would loike a tankurrrd of mead please? (In a drawled West Country accent)
A BAR-MAN, with thin lank black hair and a goatee-beard, pulls down on a gold tap handle, to fill the tankard
That’ll be 2 copper pieces please?
There’s suddenly a loud bang, and a flash of light from over in the corner of the bar near the booths.
That’s magic!! Someone’s performed magic in here
and they’re not allowed! They know they’re not! By
order of the Ministry!
The crowd parts, and tall WIZARD MERLOCK can be seen wearing black robes, his wand still raised.
(Gasps) It’s Murrrlock!
I warned you! I gave you plenty of warning. But, no
You pushed your luck with me!
THE CORNER OF THE BAR FLOOR
A toad hops on the floor, tries to hop to the exit.
Has eee….? Did eee….? Was that toad a purrrson….?
I reckon that was Wizard Orloff.
Good Luck with writing your screenplay. Following the above tips will ensure your screenplay looks professional. It could be the next Hollywood Blockbuster!