Screenplay Definition:

The term ‘screenplay’ can refer to any film, television or video game script, written for narrative or documentary film purposes.

“A screenplay, or script, is a written work by screenwriters for a film, television program, or video game. These screenplays can be original works or adaptations from existing pieces of writing. In them, the movement, actions, expression and dialogues of the characters are also narrated.”

The screenplay acts as the blueprint for all involved in a production. It’s the building plan, the key layout of how everything will come together.

A Screenplay includes: the dialogue of all characters, their movements, place setting descriptions, and acting style indications. Crucially, a screenplay might often also include certain filmmaking instructions for camera operators to follow. A TV screenplay is often termed a ‘teleplay‘, whilst a screenplay for radio performance purposes is likewise termed, ‘radioplay’.

In this article we will take a look at the key components of what makes up a screenplay and how understanding and mastering these components will help you to write a screenplay.

What is the Difference Between a Screenplay and a Script?

An Excerpt From Hitchcock’s Psycho.

A script is just words on a page for actors to read.

Whereas a…

Screenplay indicates it is intended to be play out on screen, whether it be through the medium of a video game, film or TV show.

A screenplay is the most essential part of the filmmaking process. You wouldn’t have a film at all without a well-crafted screenplay. The screenplay is the anchor to an entire project.

It is the single most important document used and referred to by all cast and crew members.

Without it and it’s direction, there wouldn’t be a project. Now, that sounds obvious. But it’s not just that a film is hard to make without a screenplay leading the way. It’s more that the screenplay is the blueprint, not just the guide but the essential foundation. Think of it like building a house or a piece of furniture. You wouldn’t just start building. You need an architectural blueprint or plan to work from.

From there you will build. You follow instructions and plans of how things fit together. If you don’t, things will fall apart. The furniture won’t hold, the building will collapse. Now, of course, once you have this plan you can add in your own personality. You make sure that things work and add in your own flourishes to make things stand out. This is the key to creativity and the key to making a screenplay work.

Whilst screenwriting is a medium in which you can add in your own personality, it is important you know how to correctly format and write a screenplay. This is much easier said than done, of course. But below we have listed a few essential aspects you must include in your screenplay for it to be valid and successful. This is the blueprint to spring from. It’s the core essential elements before you launch off and make the world your oyster.

Dialogue in a Screenplay:

Dialogue is obviously one of the key components that makes up a script. It’s what distinguishes screenwriting from other forms of writing, prose for example. In a novel, dialogue may be featured, signalled typically by quotation marks. But in a script, dialogue makes up the body of the writing.

Of course, there are exceptions to this. Some screenplays are made up of more action than dialogue, the script itself reading more like a piece of prose writing than a script. However, typically dialogue will feature prominently. When you look at the page you will see dialogue, interspersed with action. An even balance between the two often signals a script in healthy form.

Dialogue is centered in the middle of the page. This, in a way, signals the importance of dialogue to the script. It’s there at the center of the page, demanding to be seen and making up the bulk of the page. Direction and action is slotted in between dialogue, again signalling that how the action and direction supports the drama being pulled into focus by the dialogue.

It’s important to remember, however, that although dialogue is very important to a screenplay, it shouldn’t necessarily lead it. Dialogue is there to move the story along, convey themes and express characterisation. In this, dialogue is a kind of code, revealing these elements indirectly but not (or rarely) explicitly. If the screenplay relies on dialogue to express all these elements directly it will feel overburdened. Again, dialogue needs to come as part of a healthy balance between it and action.

Whilst a play might make dialogue its most prominent feature, a screenplay must find a way of making dialogue at the forefront but ultimately subservient to the elements (of plot, theme and character) that are guiding and shaping it.

Screenplay Definition: What Makes a Screenplay: Formatting & Style:

Part of screenplay definition is about the form in which a screenplay comes. Learning how to write a screenplay also means learning about script format.

Form is essential.

Script formatting is extremely important. Film executives and script recipients will throw away scripts if they do not adhere to the traditional and expected formatting style. This isn’t about an executive or script reader not liking someone who breaks the rules, it’s about the language of a script and how well the writer speaks that language.

This is why it is important that you stick to the rules and avoid being creative with the formatting and style – creativity is in the words and in the depths of your storytelling, not in the formatting of your script.

Industry professionals recognise a certain screenplay language. When that language is unclear or incoherent it can throw them off. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, as it might make them disregard your script immediately without even reading it.

STICK TO THE CORRECT FORMATTING AND STYLE.

This will not guarantee that your script will succeed. However, it will not be disregarded due to a formatting error. Script readers or producers can be brutal in this regard. But think of it from their perspective, they read dozens of scripts every week (if not more). If they read one script that is different, formatting wise, from the many others they read, that will stick out like a sore thumb. Just the very fact that this particular script might make itself more difficult to read by not being formatted correctly, will infuriate that script reader.

Formatting is a language. And it’s one you should be as fluent as possible in when writing.

A Checklist Of Formatting Essentials You Must include To Adhere To The Screenplay Definition:

  • The first page is always the title page. This is written in the same font as the rest of the script, Courier 12pt.
  • The title page is simple and to the point, simply the title of your screenplay, followed by “written by” followed by your name,
  • In the lower left or right corner you may also include your contact information.
  • One page is the equivalent to one minute of film time.
  • The standardised font for a screenplay is Courier 12pt.
  • The page number will be indicated at the top, flush right.
  • Dialogue is aligned in the centre column.
  • Description of action is aligned to the left.
  • Action is written in the present tense.
  • Everything describes as action is seen and heard on-screen.
  • A characters’ first appearance in the action is marked in Caps, e.g. GARY, followed by a brief description of their physical features.
  • Subsequently, when characters re-appear the caps are dropped and their name is written as normal.
  • If a character is speaking, their name is central above the dialogue and in block capitals.

To creatives, these rules might often feel suffocating. But it’s important to remember that when it comes to writing screenplays, creativity thrives within rules and structure, rather than being limited by it.

These rules and structure can certainly be played with, but you should always try and learn the rules before you break them. As a screenwriter just getting started in your career, taking bold leaps with well established patterns of formatting and structure is not necessarily the best way to endear beleaguered script readers or producers to your work.

Sluglines:

At the start of each scene, there should be some key pieces of information. This should include the scene’s exact location. Whether it is interior (INT), or exterior (EXT). What time the scene is set (DAY/NIGHT).

This is written in block capitals.

Like so…

INT – SCENE SETTING – DAY

Subheadings will be used when a new scene heading is not necessary. Whilst these do make an appearance, they are not common, and they should by no means litter a script. Overall, it is best to write a screenplay in a consistent way. Stick to a particular style and format throughout, rather than mixing between different scene introductions, for example.

Remember always to be as clear as possible in your scene introductions, in particular. If you’re not you risk confusing the reader as to where the story is, both literally and narratively.

Let’s look at the following script example to illustrate how a scene should be laid out.

Battle of the Sexes written by Simon Beaufoy:

EXT. FOREST HILLS TENNIS COURT. US OPEN – DAY

So from this we can clear understand that the scene is outside, at the ‘Forest Hills Tennis Court US Open’ and the time of the scene is day. These instructions are not only important for the comprehension of the story but also for the pre-production stage of filmmaking.

By reading this scene introduction in the script, members of crew planning a shoot will know they need an exterior location, a specific location and that it will be a daytime shoot. For producers, production managers or cinematographers (as well as many other members of crew) this is vital information for their own process and how they plan for the eventual shooting day.

Margins:

The top, bottom and right margins of a screenplay are set at 1″. The left margin is set slightly bigger at 1.5″.

The additional half an inch leaves room for binding for when the script is printed off for a member of the script development team. This is when they will then cast their eyes over, and potentially write coverage or notes on the script.

You won’t have to worry about manually creating these margins if you’re using screenwriting software. But if using another software (like Word), you will have to implement these formatting standards yourself.

An Excerpt From Pulp Fiction

Screenplay Formatting: The Takeaway…

Make sure to stick to the formatting and style DO’s. This will increase your screenplay’s chances of being read and taken seriously by professionals. It will show the reader you take the understood way of constructing a script seriously and are therefore serious about your profession.

To have a well-written and structured screenplay is one of the most important elements of screenwriting. Moreover, it’s kind of the minimum of what professional script readers, executives and producers will expect.

The importance of form and style is paramount to the legibility of a screenplay. In simple terms, why would you write a screenplay that is more difficult to read than easy to read.

Once you have understood the correct uses of form and style, it is essential to shift your focus to the importance of terms and jargon with regards to how to write a screenplay…

Important Terms & Jargon With Regards To Screenplay Definition :

There are several essential terms and jargon you should be aware of and familiar with before writing screenplays. Below we have listed some of the key terms to be aware of:

SPEC Script & SHOOTING Script: 

  • Spec scripts are written, as the name suggests, on speculation (spec). The screenwriter is hoping that they will be able to sell their spec script to suitable buyers. These scripts will often be written to best display the writer’s attributes and strengths.
  • Shooting Scripts are also what they say on the tin. These scripts will be the finished product, before production begins. These will include instructions pertinent to the director and producer etc once shooting has begun.
  • The budding scriptwriter can typically ignore the features present in these scripts during the writing process, though may find them useful to understand when reading a pre-existing script.
  • Standard Scripts are written for producers or a studio. If they are interested in the screenplay, it will be further developed with some input from the producer/studio.
  • Another type of screenplay is an Adapted Script. This type of screenplay will be based on another, already released work. They adapt this ‘work’ into a fresh screenplay. This could be an adaptation of a classic book or comic book, for example, or an adaptation of a classic movie, refurbished for new audiences.

As stated, as a budding screenwriter it is important to familiarise yourself with the above terms. They all reflect different types of movie scripts dependent on the different stages of production that a script may go through.

Technical Terms To Be Aware Of And Familiar With:

As a screenwriter, you should also be aware of the many technical terms you will likely encounter whilst writing screenplays. Below are some of the most common terms to crop up within a script.

FADE IN

  • The first words to appear on almost all screenplays, in the top left corner, indicating the events of the film are about to commence.

SUPER:

  • This will let the reader know that text will be superimposed over the filmic image. This may be to give the viewer/reader an exact year or city location.

For example, a flashback to a previous year in the life of a character may have SUPER: 1984, followed by the usual dialogue and action of the scene.

Transition:

  • This will appear in shooting scripts and indicate editing instructions. Examples of these include: DISSOLVE TO: and; CUT TO:

Parenthetical:

  • This is information, written in brackets, is to aid the actors’ delivery or the reader’s understanding of the intention behind a line.
  • These parentheticals will not give too much guidance or feature too much within the script. If they do, it might seem like you are trying to tell a director or actor exactly how to interpret the scene. Actors and directors will want to do their own work on delivery and intention and so it’s important to not get in their way too much within the script.

However…

  • If your screenplay needs to feature lots of additional information and guidance, it needs to be clearer.
  • Parentheticals will indicate a (beat). A beat is a small pause in the actors’ delivery that may give an insight into their reactions to events.

(O.S):

  • Off Screen – The actor isn’t seen on-screen but is present in the scene e.g. they are in a different room, but still talking to characters present on screen. They might be shouting from another room, for example.

(V.O):

  • Voice Over – The actor delivering the dialogue is not present in the scene but they are narrating over scene. They could be describing what is happening or providing insight on what we are seeing.

(MORE & CONT’D):

  • This shows character dialogue crossing over onto a new page.
  • On the original page where the dialogue begins, you will see (MORE) at the end. This way readers know the dialogue has not simply finished where the page has.
  • On the following page you will see (CONT’D) to confirm that character is continuing to speak on the new page.
  • Most screenwriting software (particularly the best, which we will come onto in a minute) will very helpfully do this for you, so you don’t have to worry about writing these directions literally.

Intercut:

  • This implies that the viewer is watching two different scenes from two different locations. e.g. an intercut telephone conversation. This direction is important if cutting between two different locations as without it, the reader may be easily confused.

Technical Terms: The Takeaway…

The above terms are crucial to the understanding of how to write a screenplay. These terms tell the reader what is happening in a scene: the action, events and characters involved.

They are what makes a screenplay, a screenplay.

It is important that you make yourself extremely familiar with the above terms as you will encounter them as soon as you start to use a screenwriting software, which we will talk about next…

Screenwriting Software:

As the formatting parameters for a screenplay are so strict, many screenwriting softwares exist to help writers with the process. The best screenwriting software will do the work for you, with shortcuts and formatting quirks intended to make the writing process all the more smooth.

  • We recommend using Final Draft (which currently comes with a free 30 day trial). This screenwriting software is the most used within the industry.
  • The highest level of screenwriters use Final Draft over most other softwares.
  • However, other notable screenwriting software includes: Celtx, WriterDuet and MovieMagic Screenwriter.

If you are serious about becoming a screenwriter and have a creative and original idea for a screenplay, it is important that you take the opportunity to use softwares such as Final Draft as a means of getting familiar with the tools and correct screenplay format.

You must format and style your screenplay correctly to match the screenplay definition, or it will be disregarded. It is essential to properly construct your screenplay to the professional standards. The numerous softwares mentioned above will all aid you with this. And this is particularly relevant to Final Draft, as it’s the most widely used and the most comprehensive in what it allows you to do. It’s as simple as following in the footsteps of those at the very highest peaks of the industry you wish to be in. If the best use it, then it also won’t do you any harm to do the same.

A Screenplay Definition Can Help Clarify the Screenwriter’s Goal:

The screenplay definition is as strict as it needs to be. It is a play that takes place on a screen.

You can play with format and style. However, the industry conforms to a standard as strict as a screenplay definition.

A screenplay is a blueprint and a blueprint needs to follow certain rules and standards in order to make sense. Following them will help you start your screenwriting journey off right. Ultimately, when you write a screenplay you are treading a careful balance between following the rules and playing with them. Stick to a well-known and regarded format but within that, inject your own artistry and creativity.

As mentioned previously, the screenplay is the most important element of a project. It is what all cast and crew members refer to. It provides clarity and direction and must be formatted and styled accordingly.

The Screenplay’s Financial Implications:

Screenplay costs

Additionally, it goes without saying that what you include in your screenplay plays a large part in the financial side of a project. E.g. if your film adheres to the Science-Fiction genre, it is highly likely that you have written in numerous special effects which require the use of CGI (which can be costly).

Additionally, the screenplay is the soul item which determines the film’s style and tone.

  • Is it dialogue-heavy?
  • Is it action-driven?
  • Are expensive shooting locations required or is it set somewhere which will be cost-effective?
  • Are there many characters which will require casting (and paying)?

The above aspects are integral to consider when writing your screenplay. This is particularly important if you have to pitch your idea to a panel who will expect you to know and have an awareness of your budget, casting, locations etc. It’s easy to your imagination run wild on the page. But an understanding of the real world implications of your imagination is important. If you write it someone has to build it, and that should inform (but not necessarily hold back!) what you include in your script.

Some Final Advice…

  • Embrace the creativity that writing screenplays allows but remember to adhere to well established formatting guidelines.
  • The screenplays is the most important document for a cast and crew.
  • A screenplay must adhere professional screenplay standards.
  • It needs to be unique to you – you will have to pitch it and really sell your idea/screenplay
  • Others will alter your idea (producers and studios may add creative input), so it’s important to be flexible, understanding and robust.
  • And take your time writing your script. No one will want to read a rushed screenplay lacking development or careful crafting.

We hope this page has been informative and brought some clarity on some key terms you should be aware of and include within your screenplay. Now, get writing!

In Summary

Screenplay Definition

“A screenplay, or script, is a written work by screenwriters for a film, television program, or video game. These screenplays can be original works or adaptations from existing pieces of writing. In them, the movement, actions, expression and dialogues of the characters are also narrated.”

What is the Difference Between a Screenplay and a Script?

A script is just words on a page for actors to read. Whereas a screenplay indicates it is intended to be play out on screen, whether it be through the medium of a video game, film or TV show.

How to Write Dialogue in a Screenplay?

Dialogue is what distinguishes scriptwriting from other forms of writing, prose for example. But a screenplay must find a way of making dialogue at the forefront but ultimately subservient to the elements (of plot, theme and character) that are guiding and shaping it.

Formatting & Style: How is a Screenplay Written?

Screenplay formatting is very important. Industry professionals recognise a certain screenplay language. When that language is unclear or incoherent it can throw them off. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, as it might make them disregard your script immediately without even reading it.

Software to Write Your Screenplay

As the formatting parameters for a screenplay are so strict, many screenwriting softwares exist to help writers with the process. The best screenwriting software (Final Draft being the most standard) will do the work for you, with shortcuts and formatting quirks intended to make the writing process all the more smooth.

How to Sell a Screenplay

Remember that within your script there will be many implications for how it will be considered by producers. Make sure how you approach dialogue, action and settings with financial implications in mind, targeting the right producers to match such a budget.

  • Struggling with a script or book? Story analysis is what we do, all day, every day… check out our range of script coverage services for writers & filmmakers.
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