An exploration into the standard screenwriting format. A list of the elements of a script and film industry basics. – The Urban Writers

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Scriptwriting 101: A Comprehensive Guide to Mastering the Art of Screenwriting

Added: Scriptwriting
by The Urban Writers

Stories are accounts of life, whether it is fiction or non-fiction, a novel or a film. The elements of a story, no matter the niche, genre, or format you decide to pursue on your freelance journey, will always occur and follow a specific pattern. Despite the creative writing style or the uniqueness of the story, every literary work will follow a standard pattern that has been honed and perfected by generations of masters of the craft who have sought to elevate their discipline.

How the ebb and flow of life goes is that when a problem is presented, solutions are sought, and what is considered the best course of action is taken to resolve it. That is essentially the entire premise on which storytelling is based: a character is introduced and is then presented with a conflict and must go through the rigors of trying to solve that conflict; eventually, after highs and lows, a resolution is arrived at for that conflict.

When writing a novel or, in the case of this article, a screenplay, the goal is to captivate the audience, and as such, the most logical choice may not be the most enthralling. Within the context of real life, the objective is to make the most tenable choice. Within a script, instead of a cut-and-dry, obvious path, there have to be aspects of self-discovery, conflict, and triumph that provide an element of entertainment.

Scriptwriting 101

Having a eureka moment that meets the basic elements of storytelling is only the beginning of creating a script. While all formats of writing have guidelines that are primarily to maintain cohesiveness, writing a screenplay is far more stringent; there is a standard format that takes into account elements associated with screenwriting techniques, such as font and line spacing.

The exacting process for scriptwriting is necessary for two main reasons, the first being at the onset when trying to sell a script or seek out investors. Studio executives are typically flooded with an innumerable amount of pitches for scripts and will scrutinize and toss out a script at first glance if the standards are not met, as this suggests a lack of knowledge on writing screenplay basics and a likely waste of time.

The next major reason why it is vital to adhere to the standard screenplay structure is that should your script be accepted and marked for production; it will most assuredly go through edits from directors and other members of the production team.

The required modifications and revisions from inception to completion of the production process will flow smoother with a script that follows the standard guidelines and will allow the many members of the film crew to include their edits that take a bare story and add directions necessary to take a story from a vision seen only in the mind to a visual work on a screen.

 

Rules and Procedures

The most essential detail to keep in mind when writing a screenplay is the fact that it is meant to be transformed into a visual work. To ensure that the required visual criteria are achieved, there are beginner scriptwriting tips that, when followed, will lead to that outcome.

The first thing to keep in mind is that on a screen, the character's thoughts cannot be seen; therefore, it is essential that whatever emotion they may be experiencing is externalized.

Always retain the awareness that the story being told is intended for adaptation on a screen; therefore, it is not sufficient to say someone has a thought; anything included must be actionable. Instead of stating that a character felt grief, it would be more logical to state that the character wept after being given some troubling information.

Scriptwriting Guide

Observing the principle of the standard screenwriting format increases the likelihood of covering all the bases needed to take a script from the pages to the screen. Throughout the history of cinematography, there have been different standardized formats for writing a screenplay, each evolving to improve on the previous version.

The standard format currently being used in the film industry is known as a Master Scene Script. This format focuses on breaking the elements of the script into easily digestible sections, a strategy that is geared toward ensuring that prospective buyers can easily comprehend and appreciate the story being told.

Unlike other formats of writing that are geared towards a more natural flow of information, this one introduces information as more of a conversation with the reader. Scriptwriting is not meant to entertain but rather edify the reader, so the details of location and time are provided plainly from the onset. Instead of, for example, writing "There was a chill in the meadow today, which was strange for a midsummer afternoon," within a script, those details will be at the top of the page in what is known as a scene heading; it would plainly state "ext.—by the meadows—midsummer afternoon."

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Elements of a Screenplay Page

The conventional screenplay format might appear onerous, and the numerous components of the structure can easily make one feel overburdened. The feeling of dismay is a justified response at first glance, but as you become accustomed to the elements that make a screenplay, their purpose becomes apparent, and the benefit and structure they provide start to become apparent, and eventually, you start embracing and appreciating them.

Let's take an introductory tour of the primary elements that a screenplay comprises; the rules and guidelines are far more intricate. That in-depth synopsis is available, but let's start with the essentials.

Page Number

The page number is displayed at the extreme top right of each page, except on page one. On average, a page written in the standard screenplay format equates to approximately a minute of screen time. The average duration of a movie is ninety to one hundred and twenty minutes, so a safe estimate for a script is ninety to one hundred and twenty pages.

Fade In

Located at the top right of the page, this is an indicator that marks the opening of a scene in the screenplay.

Scene Heading

Located at the beginning of the scene, parallel to the scene number, it is written in a bold font with a left indent. Provides brief details on the location where the scene takes place and the time of day.

Scene Number

Represents the scene being presented; a page may have several scenes. Numbers are placed in the right indent and increase with each scene. The count resumes where it was left off as the script continues to a new page. This aspect of a screenplay is added to the script by the production team rather than the writer.

Action/Description

This section falls below the scene heading and is a description of the actions that take place in the scene. The description should provide as much detail about the actions that take place in the scene as possible. Given that the action being undertaken will likely be by a character, this serves as an introduction for the character(s) within the scene. It must also always be written in the present tense.

Character Cue

Indicates which character is about to engage in dialogue; the character's name is centered on the page with the extension (see below). The dialogue is then immediately below. The character name should remain consistent throughout the script to prevent confusion; however, there is an exception if the character takes on a different identity that must be distinguished, such as Clark Kent transforming into Superman.

Extension

It accompanies the character cue and serves to give depth to the actions and location of the character about to engage in dialogue. Placed immediately after the character cue in parenthesis. The different extensions are as follows:

  • Continued (CONT'D): Indicates the continuation of a character's dialogue after they were interrupted by an action or description.
  • Voice over (V.O.): The cued character is heard while the scene progresses but as a narrator rather than engaging the other characters.
  • Off-screen (O.S)/Off-camera (O.C.): The cued character is heard by other characters and the audience but is not seen. For example, an announcement is being made over a P.A. system.
  • Into device: The cued character is engaged in dialogue via a device such as a phone or radio.
  • Pre-lap: Dialogue from the scene that is meant to follow, which is included before that scene starts.

Dialogue

Dialogue is the vocalization from the character that is cued to speak; it is placed directly below the character cue, written in the left indent; however, the page margins are brought inwards so the text remains centered and aligns with the character cue.

Parenthetical

Instructions that are meant for the actor on the demeanor the cued character should have within the scene. Written directly below the character cue in parenthesis.

Transition

After the elements of a scene have been laid out, the transition is then placed to the right of the page between the just-concluded and upcoming scenes. The end of a scene typically denotes a change in location, and the transition with the script is represented by the words "CUT TO."

Subheader

Essentially, an additional scene header within the same scene. Makes note of a change in location or time that would not warrant the start of a new scene.

Shot

While the visual aspect of a screenplay is included in a script exclusively by the director, there will be occasions when the writer has a particular vision for how a scene should be shot and is compelled to include those instructions.

 

Elements and Terms of Screenwriting

Within every profession, there exist terms specific to that industry, and to operate and successfully maneuver through that industry, knowledge of these terms is mandatory. Failing to have a grasp of the basic terms used daily can spell trouble and result in impediments to your career when you are unable to manage a conversation with a colleague or superior.

Screenwriting is closely associated with the film industry, so much so that it's a fair assessment to say it is the backbone. Thus, the terms used by industry insiders are a vital part of the script process. The comprehensive list is an amazing tool for daily use, but let's start with the basics.

Narrative

This term is dual-faceted and can be used as a substitute for the word story, as it carries the same meaning as an account of a series of events, experiences, and details set in a time and place. Narrative can also be used to describe the act of telling a story.

Shot, Scene, Sequence

These are the elements that make up the structure of a film. The different shots come together to create a scene, and scenes, when compiled, result in a sequence. When all the sequences are coherently combined, the outcome is the film.

Continuous

During multiple scenes where the action changes location in an amount of time that does not warrant including a change of time as the timeframe remains the same, continuous is used on the section of the slugline allotted for the time of day.

Monologue

A lengthy speech that is delivered by a single character, typically in front of an audience.

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In the event of the space on a page running out in the middle of a character's dialogue, adding more indicates a continuation of dialogue on the following page.

Script Doctor

A screenwriting expert who specializes in editing scripts.

Spec Script

Abbreviation of "speculative screenplay," which is the process of a writer taking the initiative to revamp a previously released intellectual property.

Shooting Script

After all parties, such as the director and production staff, have provided their insight on the draft for a script, it is finally ready for filming.

Conclusion

Swotting all the elements, principles, and standard practices of writing a screenplay is unlikely to guarantee proficiency in scriptwriting; the only true test is to go through the rigors and put that idea you have on paper. There will be trial and error, but with a bit of stick-to-itiveness, practice is sure to make it perfect.

If you struggle to get the ball rolling or have an idea that you've started working on and need that bit of professional help to get it just right, the screenwriting experts at Dibbly | The Urban Writers are here to help you on your journey to cinematic acclaim.

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