Screenplay Definition: The Ultimate Guide

Definition of a Screenplay

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

The screenplay acts as the blueprint used by the Directors, Actors, Producers and Execs.

In a screenplay, the dialogue of all characters, their movements, place setting descriptions, and sometimes acting style indications will be inscribed. Crucially, the screenplay will 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’.

Formatting & Style:

Script formatting is regarded as highly important, with film execs/script recipients known to throw away scripts if they are being forced to adjust to a different formatting style to the other scripts in their pile.

The first page is always the title page. This will be 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.

It is usually said that one page of script equates to 1minute of film time, and this is a useful ball park figure.

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, whilst description of action is aligned to the left. Action is always written in the present tense. Information given as action is limited to only that which is intended to be 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.

When the character will be delivering dialogue, their name is positioned centre, above the dialogue, always in block capitals.

At the start of each scene will be some key pieces of information, including whether the scene is interior or exterior, the exact location of the scene and whether or not it is shot during day or night time. This information will be given in block capitals.

Subheadings are sometimes used for when a completely 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.

Here is an example from the screenplay of Battle of the Sexes written by Simon Beaufoy:
EXT. FOREST HILLS TENNIS COURT. US OPEN – DAY

Margins:

The top, bottom and right margins of a screenplay are set at 1″, whilst the left margin is set slightly bigger at 1.5″. This additional half an inch is to leave room for binding for when the script is printed off for a member of the script development team to cast their eyes over, and potentially write coverage for.

Important Terms & Jargon:

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: Let’s 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.

SPEC Script & SHOOTING Script: Spec scripts are written without someone paying you to do so. The screenwriter is hoping that they will be able to sell their Spect script to suitable buyers.

Shooting scripts on the other hand, are produced once a script has already been purchased. 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.

Transition: Transitions are usually only included in shooting scripts as they indicate editing instructions. Examples of these include: DISSOLVE TO: and; CUT TO:

Parenthetical: Information given in brackets to aid the actors’ delivery. These are rarely used, as to give too much guidance is seen as encroaching on the job of the director.

In addition to this,  if your screenplay needs to feature lots of additional information and guidance, then it is probable that it hasn’t been written clearly enough in the first instance.

Parentheticals are perhaps most commonly used to 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 is present in the scene but cannot at that given moment be seen on screen, e.g. they are in a different room, but still talking to characters present on screen.

(V.O): Voice Over – The actor delivering the dialogue is not present in the scene.

(MORE & CONT’D): These are used to indicate that a characters dialogue has crossed over onto a new page.

On the original page where the dialogue begins, you will see (MORE) at the end so that 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.

Intercut: Indicates that the viewer is going to be given information from two different scene locations. e.g. an intercut telephone conversation.

Screenwriting Software:

As the formatting parameters for a screenplay are so strict, many screenwriting softwares exist to help writers with the process.

Industrial Scripts recommends using Final Draft which currently comes with a free 30 day trial.

Other notable screenwriting softwares include: Celtx, WriterDuet and MovieMagic Screenwriter.