In order to understand how to write a script, you will need a little know-how before setting out on your adventure to Mordor, taking the red pill or setting sail for Pandora.
Naturally, you will want to write your script well. In this guide, I will be explaining both how to write a screenplay and the correct way to format your screenplay, step by step: covering each aspect of screenwriting and how to do it well.
So if this feels a little overwhelming, don’t worry, you’re in good hands. You can try out each part at your own pace until you feel you’ve got it. So it needn’t be a stress.
The following 15 steps will help you with all facets of your screenplay:
- Know the difference between spec and shooting scripts
- Use a standard format
- Do your plotting
- Edit and ensure fluidity
- Be original
- Choose software to help you
- The front page
- The first page
- Scene headings
- The action
- The dialogue
- Title cards
- The montage
Once you understand the kind of ‘language’ of screenwriting – the screenplay format and the dynamics of writing a good screenplay, then you will be well on your way to putting the images you have in your head, onscreen. So let’s get started!
How to Write a Screenplay
If you are looking up how to write a screenplay on the web, then the likelihood is you’ve just started the writing process. Either that, or you have only just gotten serious about selling your script.
A few rules of thumb to follow when writing a screenplay:
- Use the industry standard script format
- Write in courier 12 pt font
- Know your log line and refer to it when you are lost
- Plan your script
- Write a lot (especially if you are averse to planning)
- Show not tell
- Have a writing routine
- Make every word count
In the following I will go into a lot more detail about most of the points I just made. The above are the very basics and will give you a jump start if you’re itching to get down your first scene. For a more comprehensive and sustainable way of writing, read on.
1. Spec and Shooting Scripts to Write a Screenplay
Before you even think about the screenplay format, make sure you know what your script is for.
Spec scripts are written on speculation. You are not being paid to write it, but are doing so in the hopes that someone will buy it. It’s therefore extremely important to follow already established screenplay format rules.
A shooting script has already been purchased and is therefore a production script, ready to be used on set. It has extra technical notes on shots, cuts, edits, etc, that you should never find in a spec script.
2. Why Using a Standard Screenplay Format Matters
Want to know how to write a script? Start by formatting it properly.
If you are only writing for fun, the script format isn’t a big deal, right? Wrong. Using the standard screenplay format matters, because it will make filming easier. It will also look more impressive and you will have all of the tools and knowledge you need to write every part of a script.
But it’s not necessary. You can quite happily get along without it, especially if you’re making a short and small production between friends. You can write well without it (especially if you are going to make a film in your own backyard with an iPhone). So, why bother?
Well, several reasons:
- The first is convenience. If you have a standard length script (90-120 pages) then it is simply a lot clearer for the actors to read if the dialogue is in the center of the page. Every element of screen (and what you do on set) has its own particular placement on the page, and that makes shooting the film an easier ride. Trawling through your notes late at night when you’re trying to get that last take is not fun for anyone. Especially not for the actors who are not getting paid for it
- It tells you how long your script will take to shoot. No, it does not become a magical timekeeper. However, each page of a script using a standard screenplay format averages out at about one minute of screen time. So you know how long you have until your next tea break while shooting. And if you even have enough writing for a feature-length film.
- If you aren’t planning your own indie production in your backyard, then you might be considering pitching your script so you can sell it. If this is the case, using the right screenplay format is not an option, it’s a necessity. Much like a novel or stage play, scripts for film have their own structure and musicality that a professional who has seen thousands of them can spot in a heartbeat. They can also see one that has not properly been formatted just as easily.
- When you are competing with many other screenwriters to get funding for your movie, you want the best chance you can get. Many get tossed in the trash. But at least they likely took a look at the first couple of lines or even read the first page of their work. If it isn’t properly formatted, I guarantee they won’t even begin reading.
It could be the most wonderful work of art ever created, and it would already be in the trash. This is because a lack of formatting implies negligence on the part of the writer. ‘If you can’t even format it right,’ they will think, ‘then what is the writing going to be like?’
And I hate to say it, but they have a point. If you’re really serious about screenwriting, knowing how to format will help you to look professional. It’s that simple.
It doesn’t mean your script will be sold. But it at least gives you a chance.
Naturally, reading this article will help. But reading more about how to write a screenplay successfully will always put you at an advantage. So do that.
To start with, I would recommend Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. This witty book has been read by pretty much anyone who wants to write for the big screen (the tagline being ‘the last book on screenwriting you’ll ever need’).
Don’t believe the tagline. You’ll want to read more if you’re serious about this. And consume as many films as you possibly can. (Not the worst homework in the world.)
Another book I would recommend is The Hero’s Journey or The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. Both are great for helping to understand story and characters archetypes, which will play a role in your writing, whether you like it or not.
There are other theories on story, Campbell’s is just the classic text that influenced big hits such as Star Wars, The Matrix, The Lion King, etc.
The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier is another book that everyone and his mum have read in preparation for writing a script.
If you’re writing a romantic comedy or any other genre, you’ll naturally want to hone in on that and become more knowledgable about that, as well as film generally. Take an afternoon off to watch Love Actually, go on, I dare you.
Read for your appropriate field or subject of interest.
Go on a course led by is a professional screenwriter and take what you can from their pool of knowledge.
There comes a point where the only thing that will really make a difference to your writing, is to write.
The Process of Script Writing
Writing should be fun. But it is not always. It can be frustrating and exasperating. But the thirst to do it is what draws you back to it. Hopefully. If not, consider doing something else with your time!
The main principle to bear in mind is to be able to have a consistent practice. Write in your own way. Write when works for you. Maybe you’re a planner, or maybe you like the plot to unfold. Whichever it is, you will need a lot of drafts written, a lot of scenes cut and a lot of edits and rewrites.
If your writing sucks, then great! As long as you’re writing, that’s all that matters. The more you write, naturally, the more the quality of your work will improve.
Stay humble and don’t aim for anything too wonderful. If you get stuck, go for a walk or write that scene that you really always wanted to write. If you’ve already written it, rewrite it. It couldn’t hurt.
Creating an appealing hero/ heroine is an important part of the writing process and will inevitably make or break your screenplay.
No one is going to watch if they don’t care for the main character, no matter how compelling your idea.
A logline is just as important. If you don’t know what your script is about, how are you ever going to be able to sell it? The essence of a script should be able to be diluted down to 20-25 words. And it should make anyone who hears it say something along the lines of ‘huh, that’s interesting.’ If the ‘what’s it all about’ doesn’t grip you with anticipation and fill you with ideas, then perhaps you need to rethink what you want to write about.
Planning your script can be challenging. It will make writing your scenes and dialogue immeasurably easier to write once it is done. You do not have to plan. It’s just good to note that you’re making things harder for yourself if you don’t.
During the experimantation phase, when you might not have the plot set out, you can start by writing scenes on cards and moving them around to see how the beast (aka your film) interacts with itself and how moving one scene from the middle to the beginning (as happened in Bridget Jones’ Diary) can completely change the whole feel of the thing.
Many writers use certain software that can help with the structural elements of creating story (see ‘choosing the right software’ for more info). Otherwise, buy yourself a cheap white board and write out ideas for your storyboard on there.
Whatever works best for you.
4. Editing and Fluid Movement
Bear in mind that a script is one of the most fluid pieces of writing out there. Possibly THE most. It is living breathing and alive. This is because it never stops evolving throughout the whole process.
You will go through copious amounts of edits. First, to get it good. Second, so that your editor believes it’s good. Next, if it’s sold, there might be things the industry players want changing.
Once it’s on set, it is changed for that purpose. And then there’s that line that the actor just can’t say. And then that scene that is cut during the video editing process.
It’s exciting. It can also be heartbreaking. But at least it’s your damn script. And that’s something to scream about.
5. Don’t Try to Be Original, Be Original
Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. One mistake that new writers will be tempted to make is, once they know the typical structure of the genre of their choice, they want to break all of the rules.
You can do this, but it might not serve in your favour. Unless you have a really, I mean, really good reason for it.
Certain structures and uses of dialogue or action (by the writer) are repeated for a reason – they work. Thankfully, someone who has come before you already made the mistake you are about to make. Maybe you need to do this as a part of your process, but ideally, you won’t give in to temptation.
The originality of your writing should come out/be evident in what you write within those already well-defined structures. That is what will make you shine. And will maintain a sheen of professionalism needed to be considered amongst the best scripts.
6. Choose a Script Writing Software to Create a Screenplay Format
There is quite a range of screenwriting software out there to choose from. You can choose anything, from typing it out old-school on a typewriter (very cool choice, but a hell of a phaff these days) to using the most up to date and easily accessible software available for download online.
Novelists keep and maintain their work through software like Squibler. It allows you to organize your notes and to plot your novel easily. Software that is designed to help you to write any kind of art can help to take some of the stress out of planning it all yourself, without any structure.
Screenwriting software is similarly made to help you to plot your script. The main consideration will be what you’re writing your script for. If it’s for an indie production and you don’t want to spend much (or any) money, then there are plenty of budget resources out there. These are ideal for the newbie screenwriter not quite ready to submit their script (Amazon’s Storywriter, WriterDuet, Celtx, Fade In).
The great thing about using these programs is they all have a basic screenplay format template, already formatted and ready for you to use. So you don’t have to worry about pinickitty spacing. You only have to remember which section of the script you are writing at any one moment (dialogue, action, parentheticals, etc.).
You can also use a Word or Office document and work out all of the correct spacing. But I honestly have no idea why you would, unless you get a kick out of (measurements and) the anatomy of a standard script format.
If you are ready to start selling your script (or seriously intend to in the future), then I would advise investing in one of the more upmarket and slightly more expensive versions of this software (Final Draft, Magic Movie Screenwriter). They are also great if you have the money and think you could really benefit from their useful features, such as: index cards, storyboards, storymaps, breakdown reports, call sheets and/or professionally authored templates.
Final Draft is the industry standard, but there are others (Magic Movie Screenwriter, Celtx) that I’m sure work just as well. If you want to be on the safe side, it’s Final Draft all the way. (Note: this is not an endorsement, Final Draft file and PDF formats are the standards to send to industry professionals.)
If you haven’t already, go and install one of these software and come back so I can explain what to do with them.
7. FRONT PAGE / FLY PAGE
To start, this one is an easy page to write. As you can see from the script template below, it should be simple, elegant and minimalist. All writing should be in courier, size 12. The first page is never numbered. You want your title in the center of the page in all caps, the word ‘by’ a few lines down, and then your name.
Flush right (or left) at the bottom of the page, you want to put your contact details This is so that you can easily be contacted should someone want to buy your script.
The title should express the essence or meaning of your work in just a few words. Often writers will wait until they have completely finished before choosing a title. That is because you are more likely to know its main message and all underlying themes by the time you have worked on it extensively.
For now, just pick one. You can always change it.
8. FIRST PAGE
Every first page of a script starts with the words FADE IN: in the top right-hand corner. The last two words of any script will similarly be FADE OUT:
9. SLUG LINE / SCENE HEADING
The point of a slug line is to let the director, crew and actors know where and when the scenes will be set and shot. It is mostly there for practical reasons. This is (therefore) not the place to get poetic with your writing.
A typical script format will require many sluglines. Each should include three pieces of information:
Whether it is to be shot inside or outside (INT./EXT.),
where it is to be shot (e.g. JAIMIE’S BEDROOM)
and the time (DAY/NIGHT/SUNSET) (You don’t need to be too specific about the time of day, this simply helps the lighting crew know what they are doing.)
You might want to add on MOVING as a fourth piece of information, if your character is in a car, or on top of a train, for example. Another piece of information to include could be LATER (if you are in the same place but time has passed) or RESUMING (if you are continuing a scene you had already started previously).
10. ACTION IN A SCREENPLAY FORMAT
Action is the section where you can really let your writing shine. This is your chance to capture the reader’s imagination.
The key here is to succinctly describe what is happening: choose your words carefully so you can get to the point as quickly as possible. Here you want to set the scene, give a little taste of what your characters are like and show what they are doing.
Action must be written in the present tense. It always comes before dialogue and make sure to mention the characters in the scene. The first time you mention their names, you will want to CAPITALISE them. From then on, they can remain in lower case during the action sections.
You can also capitalize sound effects, important props or details (e.g. he held golden KEYS or the SMOKE snuck under the door)
Any information you don’t need, cut it. Any information that doesn’t involve what is happening directly onscreen, cut it. (Show not tell – don’t include any backstory or anything the character is thinking. Make a note of these things separately and if they need to be shown, do it through action and dialogue.)
11. DIALOGUE IN A SCREENPLAY FORMAT
Dialogue is also pretty straightforward. Once you have succinctly written your action section, the dialogue will inevitably follow.
To write dialogue in a classic screenplay format, you will need; your character’s name, centered in block capitals; beneath it, slightly to the left, you will want to write the actual dialogue.
When you want to add dialogue that is offscreen, write (O.S.) next to the character’s name (write (OS) for when they return on screen). For a voiceover, write (V.O.). When your character is talking into a phone, predictably, write (INTO PHONE).
NB The difference between offscreen dialogue and a voiceover is that the character is involved in the action, but can’t be seen. A voiceover is a narration. O.S. dialogue, however, is used when they are about to appear onscreen.
A quick tip for character names is to make them each start with different letters. This is because often screenwriting software will handily suggest names for you, once you have started writing dialogue. If they have different letters to start each (e.g. Jaimie and Diane), then you won’t have to go through a long list of names and can save time.
Some writers find writing natural-sounding dialogue comes easier to them than others. The key here is to write a lot, to the point where you can feel the rhythm of the text flowing more easily. If your dialogue surprises you or fills you with a certain emotion, that is a good sign, too. What you don’t ever want to feel when writing dialogue, is bored. If you do, then the reader is sure to also feel bored. So keep writing until you break through to that interests you.
A deep knowledge of your characters helps when writing realistic or moving speech. Make sure that the scene is always moving forward, that you have an endpoint or destination in mind for each scene, that there is enough conflict, and if a line does not create some form of conflict, then it should reveal something to us about your characters, and why we should care about them.
What Dialogue and Action Should Be
Ideally, your action and dialogue will flow freely, working together to give us an understanding of what is happening, without your having to spell it out. You won’t have to say your character is sad, because they will be crying. Or better yet, they will be smiling.
One of my favorite examples of this subtle use of action is in the film, Les Choristes. (Spoiler alert.) The protagonist has just been dumped. He is sitting in a café, his love is walking away from him to her new life, with a new guy. A stranger walks up to him and asks if the chair where she had been sitting, is taken. And then the stranger walks off with it.
This is such a subtle and simple way of showing that the protagonist does not have anyone in his life to share the table with. These little interactions can say a lot, without the character ever needing to say a word.
Dialogue and action tell us who your character is, so you need to know what your character is saying (or not saying) with each line. And make sure that every word written is either pushing the plot forward, creating conflict or showing their growth or uniqueness as a character.
Never have a conversation for conversation’s sake. It is boring and will result in your reader losing interest. Everything MUST have a reason for being there. In real life, people have boring conversations. On screen, they do not.
To specify how a character speaks, add a parenthetical. They are placed underneath the name, right before the dialogue starts. These might include (angry) or (calm). Only add them where absolutely necessary as their mood should be obvious from the dialogue.
So unless their mood directly opposes what they are saying, don’t use them.
13. CUT TO:
Transitions signify the way a new scene just began. They usually are placed to the far right of the page at the beginning of a scene. They are mostly a note for the editor of the film.
If you are writing a spec script, then you will want to avoid using them – if you have a lot of CUT TO:’s in your script, it will look a little amateurish.
While you may find a script template or two online filled with transitions, the likelihood is that they were either written by an already successful writer who can do whatever they want, or you’re looking at a shooting script. So use them only when absolutely necessary.
Other examples of transitions include:
- DISSOLVE TO:
- SMASH CUT:
- QUICK CUT:
- FADE TO:
14. Chyrons / Title Cards
A chyron is basically a title that lets your audience know some basic information. It is useful for specifying a time and/or place. It is a standard part of your screenplay format.
Write OVER BLACK (or whatever color you want, although black keeps it simple and is typically what is used) and then CHYRON: ‘2:45 PM’ or TITLE CARD: ‘2:45 PM’
Close the sequence with TITLE DISAPPEARS.
Write BEGIN MONTAGE:
It can be useful to use a montage during particular parts of your screenplay. We will often see them used at the beginning of a script to set up the protagonist’s normal lives. For example, in Little Miss Sunshine, we see shots of each member of the family, of this multi-protagonist story – the brother doing weights, the suicidal brother, the father giving a speech on motivation and the little girl watching beauty pageants.
Another time montage can be useful is during the midpoint of the film, or when they are in the most difficulty- where the character is considering who they really are, feeling pretty crummy about what has happened. We see this in The Devil Wears Prada as Andy is walking the streets melancholically, considering her situation.
A montage sequence works well in these moments because it gets across a lot of information pretty quickly.
Let’s Write a Script
So, that’s it for your guide on how to write a script successfully and use the correct screenplay format. Now all that is left is to get started! Hopefully, a few of the tips in this guide will have brought you closer to starting your FADE IN: and beginning to create the images and ideas in your head.
And you owe it to us and yourself, to do that. To follow your bliss. Because the world likely needs your ideas. The world needs your story, your journey. We never tire of our thirst for good stories. So what are you waiting for?