A Beginner's Guide to Writing Scripts and Screenplays
Whether you’re an experienced writer or someone just getting into the craft, you might be wondering what separates script and screenwriting from novel, short story or essay writing. While the differences might seem obvious (like formatting), there is actually more to understand about scripts than you might think. Below, I will give you the basics for getting started whether you’re new to the genre or if you’ve been writing something completely different all along.
Formatting: Why Proper Formatting Is Crucial
It’s important to get this one out of the way first because it’s usually what enters the minds of those interested in script writing. It is the biggest visual difference between a book/short story and a play. You’ll see all sorts of blank space in a script with bold headings and shortened phrases. These are all important when writing a script, but when you’re just starting out you should worry more about the writing than the formatting.
I say this because too often do we get caught up in the technicalities of writing that we don’t just sit down and write. Sure you might have a properly formatted script, but that doesn’t mean it’s good. Plus, formatting takes time, and if you write a script, but decide later that you don’t like it, you just wasted all that time formatting it. But if you wrote several scripts and picked one good one then you can just format that one, after it’s already written.
Now I’m not saying that you should ignore the required formats for the genre. It’s better to learn them and use them naturally, but this is an article for beginners. I’m just trying to get you to write a script and if I bury you with formatting rules, you’re going to get annoyed and possibly quit. Once you realize you have a passion for the area, then worry about formatting.
So, I am providing a very basic outline for script formatting in the picture to the right. It doesn’t require any fancy scriptwriting program, so don’t worry about purchasing any of that in order to get into the genre. However, they aren’t a bad idea if you discover you like it.
Basic Script Terminology
- SR = Stage Right
- SL = Stage Left
- SC = StageCenter
- Enter = Character enters the scene
- Exit = Character exits the scene
- Beat = A pause in dialogue e.g. “after a beat, Frank continued his lecture”
- Lights fade/rise = Change of scene or focus in a scene
- Fade to black = End of the play or end of a scene
- Int. = Interior, scene taking place indoors
- Ext. = Exterior, scene taking place outdoors
- Offstage = Something is happening where audiences can’t see it such as sounds or dialogue from unseen characters.
- Aside = Character breaks from speaking with other characters to voice thoughts about the current situation or to address the audience directly.
- All descriptions and character names should be aligned with each other in the center. However, they shouldn’t be ‘centered’. In a lot of writing programs when you use the center justification option it aligns the middle of the word with the center of the page. You want your names and descriptions to be left-justified, but they need to start in the center. For the names you can just hit the tab key six times, but if you want a paragraph to do it properly you can highlight the entire section then go up to the ‘increase indent’ button in Microsoft word (It’s usually located to the right of the bullet buttons) then just click the button enough times to align it to the middle. I’m sure there’s a fancy way to do this that will auto-align everything but the more you mess around with the settings in Microsoft word the more likely you are to get a wacky result. So I stick with my method, even though it does mean you’ll have to indent everything individually.
- Names are always in capital letters.
- Descriptions are always separated by parenthesis and are always in the third person present tense.
- The title of the play and the author’s name should be listed on a cover page.
- The title, author, setting description and character list can all be centered using the center justification tool (unlike description and Character names in the body of the play).
- Only dialogue is left aligned and never indented.
Description: Allow Some Creative Room in Your Description
When writing a book or a short story, the audience expects description out of you. In some cases, writers go hog wild and give you page after page of description. For script writing, however, you only need to give basic direction between dialogue. Remember these scripts are intended to be acted, directed and designed by people other than the writer.
So if you give a long description of what a character is wearing, these other people who also contribute to a movie or play are just going to hate you and likely not use another one of your plays. Keep things general so that the other creative minds have room to take your script to a different level. This can be a difficult concept to accept because, for other forms of writing, we are taught to be specific. But try to picture yourself as a director reading a script. You come across this description:
“Bill is eighty two with a dark scar running across his forehead. He wears thick glasses and has thin wisps of white hair poking out of his brown leather cap.”
Versus this description:
“Bill is old, with glasses and grey hair.”
Now if there is some aspect of Bill that is crucial to the story (like a scar) then it has to be included, but if Bill has a mole on his left cheek and it serves no purpose other than being a mole, then you don’t need it. This just narrows down the type of actor a director can hire. What they want is a broader pool so the play/movie is easier to make. How hard would it be to find an actor with a scar in just the right place or missing just the right finger? Some of this can be achieved with makeup, but the point is that you don’t want to make it more complicated than it needs to be. The easier a script is to adapt, the more people will want it.
And this leads me into action and props. Let me give you an example of how a certain sequence can make or break a play. In one of my college drama writing courses I was tasked with adapting a short story into a play. I could change everything except the dialogue and I needed to find a solution to the staging difficulties of the final sequence. Now, the final sequence of this short story was essentially bad parents fighting over a baby and in the end the baby is harmed because of their bickering.
In this situation you could use a doll, but then you run the risk of a dramatic scene looking comical. For my solution I changed who the characters were, making them Bonnie and Clyde fighting over a golden statue they had stolen, which, on stage, would be perfectly believable that they broke a statue rather than a baby. But here is another example. If you’re at all familiar with Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, then you’ll know that there is a beheading in the end of the play and the severed head is then placed on a pike.
The movie versions of this play didn’t have any trouble, but I saw the play performed live by a small theater group. They handled the beheading very well but when they got to the part with the severed head on a pike, they were holding up a pole with nothing on it. I can suspend some disbelief, but that’s the kind of thing that takes an audience out of the story.
I’m bringing all of this up because as the writer of the script you need to be aware of how difficult it is to stage something (or how much money it would cost in a movie). Having an explosion on stage isn’t possible and having talking dinosaurs in a movie is expensive.
Find creative solutions to these staging problems, like turning a baby into a statue or putting a sheet over a fake severed head. By taking these things into account you make the job easier on the performers and the stage hands, and therefore you make your scripts more desirable. Once you’re famous you can go hog wild and write something outrageous, but not when you’re just beginning. That creative effort you make to fix your script into something more accessible will help you greatly as a writer.
Dialogue: The Most Important Element of Script Writing
Dialogue is the single most important part of script writing. You can get the formatting right and you can write adaptable descriptions and action sequences, but when it comes down to it, the only thing conveying the story to the audience is what the actors are saying. This is a huge difference from novel and short story writing because in those you can rely on description and action to help tell the story.
In some cases you just have to leave the subtleties to the actors, but don’t let that be an excuse for laziness. You need to write good dialogue, and it’s important to make it sound realistic. Take some time out to listen to how people talk in conversation. We don’t say things like “I do believe my bladder is full.” We say “I gotta pee!” It is very important that dialogue sound realistic because you want the audience to believe who they’re watching. For example a fifteen year old boy is going to talk differently than a sixty five year old woman. And this needs to be conveyed through the dialogue.
And try not to use dialogue as a supplement for description. Saying something like “Put down my elaborately carved dragon statue!” doesn’t make things clearer to the audience. That’s why there are props; we can see what they’re holding. Only get specific when it’s important to the story. For example, if the character said “Put that down, it’s expensive” then we know that the character is either rich or very protective of the things they have. Or maybe it’s the last trinket from their deceased parents. These character traits are relevant to the story, but just having the character describe the object is pointless.
You must also remember that pauses in speech can be marked in the play, but don’t say something like “Bill pauses for three minutes.” In a book this moment would pass as quickly as the reader’s eyes can move across the page, but for an audience they have to wait out those three minutes. Any time that you specify how long a pause is, try actually waiting that amount of time and seeing if it feels natural. The easiest way around this is to mark the pause with a beat and let the director and actors determine how long it should last.
Now let’s take a look at some examples of good and bad dialogue. For bad dialogue all you have to do is look at the example I posted for formatting. I wrote this play at the end of my last drama course in college. I was so sick of delicately adhering to the rules that I decided to write a script that broke all of them intentionally. The result was humor but only because it was designed that way. When characters state their emotions during a serious play, suddenly it isn’t so funny. You have to learn to say more with less.
A long, drawn out monologue will tell us that the main character is angry, but so would shortening his sentences and having him snap at people for little things. I’ve posted another section of a play that I think displays more thoughtful dialogue. Just remember that as you’re writing the dialogue, write it as if you were watching it or overhearing it. So much can be conveyed by what someone says and how they say it, but there are parts of their mind we will never see because they aren’t an open book.
Possible Exercises: Start Simple and Work Your Way Up
If you’re afraid to jump into a full-blown script right away, that’s okay. I was taught how to write plays that were only ten minutes long (most of them didn’t reach that mark). So start simple; make the goal ten pages. Or start by writing specific sequences. For example you can practice writing a sequence of conflict. One character wants something while the other wants something else. How does that reflect in their dialogue? (Remember to have a give and take with your dialogue, if both characters are resisting each other through the whole play then there hasn’t really been a change from beginning to end. It’s really easy to have your characters argue and neither admits defeat.)
Or you could try writing a scene where one or both of your characters has just experienced something life changing the day before. How does that reflect in their dialogue? Is one of them happier, thus giving them more cheerful and positive thinking or are they angry or sad? Here’s another example. Those who work in public service communicate with patrons differently depending on what’s happening in their lives. If they are having a good day they will be smiling and more forgiving of irate patrons as opposed to a stressful day. Or if they have to go to the bathroom, they may try to help them much quicker than they would if they didn’t. So try to write short sequences where certain things are effecting how the character acts and feels. It will come through in the dialogue.
If you’re having trouble creating characters then you could read my article about creating interesting characters. But you can also go people watching at any public place. Just like listening for natural dialogue, you can also get an idea of who people are based on what type of clothing they wear, how they talk and who they associate with. This will not give you a clear picture of who that stranger is, but it will give you the beginnings of a fictional character because our minds naturally fill in the gaps about things we don’t know; seeing other people just jumpstarts the character creation process.
Finally, if you’re really strapped for ideas for starting a script, try the approach I mentioned above. Find a short story and attempt to adapt it into a play. Keep all of the dialogue exactly the same but take every liberty you want with the setting and characters. This will really help get the ball rolling because the dialogue is already written. Just the act of writing it down and putting it in the proper format will get you familiar with the script writing process. Then once it isn’t so foreign, it will seem that much easier to write your own. (It also helps to read other plays. I’ve included some of my favorites with Amazon links, along with some how to books for script writing.)