Every kind of writing has its own format. A few weeks ago I wrote about how I get to learn how to write in APA style. Well, I did it! Yay! Turns out it wasn’t too bad learning/figuring out. The layout is fairly logical so I didn’t have too much trouble. But this week I want to introduce you to the screenplay format. This is one that I had to learn pretty quick as well. I took a screenwriting class and was thrown right into writing a screenplay without having really seen a screenplay before in my life.
If you’re familiar with reading plays, then you already have a fairly good idea how a screenplay will lay out. At the beginning of a scene you will see the location what characters are present. Dialogue is preceded by the name of the speaker. Here is a Shakespearean play, Much Ado about Nothing to take a look at.
The main difference between a stage play and a screenplay is the leading aspect. Stage plays are dialogue driven and can usually be understood by just listening to what is said. Screenplays are for a visual medium: movies. While there is a lot of dialogue, the screenplay format will include a lot of visual description because what is written will dictate what the audience sees.
The scene begins with the location, a brief description of what is going on, and the characters that are there. The actions or descriptions are flush left, while the dialogue is centered on the page and begin with the name of the speaker.
Because screenplays are for a visual medium, the way you write is different. The audience for your screenplay isn’t the ones sitting in a movie theater, it’s the ones that’ll pay for and make the movie. You do have to entertain as far as having an interesting story, but your writing will be more technical than flowery. Your job is to deliver the story efficiently.
There is a lot of dialogue in screenplays, so it’s certainly something you should practice. But what I feel should be practiced the most is concise description. The trick with screenplays is that you have to allow the producers and directors to use their artistic abilities, which means, they don’t like it when you try to spell everything out for them. Instead, you need to learn how to describe the settings and actions in such a way that the emotions and feelings of the story is expressed. Actors, producers, and directors are all creators in this project as well, and if you can do your job, they will better be able to do theirs. The right kind of descriptions will allow them to use their talents in expressing the feelings and emotions of the story, likely in better ways than you could have thought of on your own.
To better explain, and for an exercise: write a description of a sunset for someone who is falling in love. Now write a description of a sunset for someone who is lost and alone. The colors of the sunset may be the same, but they each have completely different feelings.
The weirdest thing for me to get used to was the lingo and the abbreviations. Each scene begins with a heading like this: EXT. City Park – Day. This is to quickly establish the setting. EXT or INT stand for exterior or interior, which is inside a building or out. Then the actual place is stated, followed by either night or day, depending on when the scene occurs. This is the format of the scene heading.
Additional parts of the screenplay format include action and description. Relatively self-explanatory, these are flush left and describe what you would see. A character’s name is centered above their dialogue and may include a parenthetical. A description of how something is said is a parenthetical, but this should be used sparingly and only when needed. An appropriate one to use, as needed, is (O.S.) which stands for off screen, meaning you hear the character’s voice without seeing them. (V.O.) is a similar one, standing for voice over.
Shots or camera directions are other aspects of the formatting, these are directions for the director and camera man such as zoom in or zoom out, and specific shots of an image etc. Again, these should be used sparingly. You can actually eliminate the need for them if you are good at the scene descriptions. Rather than stating to zoom in on a character’s face, you can describe the expression and the natural thing to do would be for the camera to zoom in on the face.
Transitions are another tool to be aware of, I personally don’t feel like there is a need for them most of the time. But in certain situations, a scene may need a particular transition to have the right effect. Fade to Black is basically the only transition I use, mostly just at the end. But you could have a fade to white or a still frame before going on to the next scene.
One last note that I have, which I still struggle with the most, is screenplays are written in present tense. Fiction, and pretty much anything else, is written in past tense, but screenwriting is as if everything is happening right now, this second. That is something to get used to, and for me, switching back and forth will always provide some slip-ups.
The best news I’ve got today, is that there are programs to help you with screenwriting format. Yay! To start out and just giving screenwriting a try, I would suggest celtx, it’s a free, online program that does the formatting for you. If you’re ready to get serious, then take the plunge and invest in final draft. Of course, there are others, but these are what I’ve used.
Those are the basics of the screenplay format, if you have any questions, don’t be afraid to ask. I do have my bachelors degree with an emphasis in screenwriting. Not to say I know everything, but I’d love to share what I know and find out for you what I don’t. Happy screenwriting!