How To Write A Screenplay: 3 Best Practices To Help You Write A Compelling Script

How To Write A Screenplay: 3 Best Practices To Help You Write A Compelling Script

If you’ve ever watched your favorite book transform into a feature film, you may have wondered how to write a screenplay. What do writers keep that belongs in the original story? How do they know what to cut out? and perhaps most controversial of all, what do you add that does not align with the book?

Maybe you grew up in the 90s and early 2000s and watched Harry Potter go from black words on a white page in the theater of your mind to record-breaking movies. This series was a long one, so how did Michael Goldenberg and Steve Kloves determine how to write a screenplay for the movies? Perhaps you want to know the following:

  • What Is A Screenplay?
  • Screenplay Format
  • Step By Step Guide

Screenplays are an important aspect of books today. Whether you aspire to be like Delia Owens or Veronica Roth, it’s crucial to familiarize yourself with exactly how to write a screenplay. You never know, your novel may be the next one to hit the big screen! 

What Is A Screenplay?

A screenplay is a specific, written format for directors, actors, and crew members and acts as a guide when filming begins. While a novel is most often told in first or third person, dives deep into the senses, description, and specific movements of characters, a screenplay takes a different approach. 

Screenplays are such a vital part of the filming process that oftentimes, actors are not even allowed a hard copy for their first read-through. Producers often use secure apps (such as Amber) the prevent actors for leaking the script. 

The key aspects of a screenplay include what viewers will both see and hear on the big screen, and include:

  • Setting and brief description
  • Dialogue 
  • Locations 
  • Specific noises
  • Camera transitions and shots 

think of it this way: If you are a director and want an overview of your next big project, you need to know what locations you’ll need to film in, an idea of the shots you’ll take, and the lines of your actors. 

When actors are requested for a role or want to learn more about a specific, upcoming movie, they need to read the screenplay (or script).

Some screenplays you can find online and read to get a better understanding of the exact format. In fact, you can even find some (such as Hamilton) at your local Barnes & Noble. However, keep reading for a streamlined version of a screenplay’s format.

How To Write A Screenplay: Format

Formatting a script correctly is imperative for everyone included. Actors need to be clear on what lines they need to memorize and who says what. Videographers need to be aware of important shots. Directors need a 30,000 foot view of the movie they’re about to make. 

The Nashville Film Institute (NFI) gives a great breakdown of what to include when wondering how to write a screenplay. Some of their points are below.  

#1 – Fade In

No matter what movie you film or what book you are going to take from page to screen, your screenplay will begin with a “fade in.” If you have a voice over (V. O.) without visuals, this is where you will insert it.

#2 – Scene Heading

When writing your scene heading, be sure to use all caps and include the following aspects: General location, specific location, and what time of day the scene takes place. These details are vital for the cast, crew, and of course, the director, to be aware of.

#3 – Action Lines Or Scene Descriptors 

Your description should include:

  • Character description each time a new character is introduced
  • A brief description of the setting to set the visuals 
  • Important actions taken in the scene (such as “The bear ROARS.”)

Here is a free version of the screenplay for the 2016 film, Lion. 

#4 – Dialogue and Parenthetical 

This is where you center, in all caps, the name of the character speaking, include a brief (parenthetical) description as necessary, and then write their exact dialogue. For example:

JANE

(happy)

I can’t believe you made it.

WILL

(evasive)

Well, here I am.

#5 – Shots

This step is very uncommon and only included if absolutely necessary. If it is imperative to include a specific shot in order to best communicate the scene, this is where screenwriters do so. 

How To Write A Screenplay: Step By Step Guide

When you begin your first script, just like beginning a manuscript, ensuring your format is up to industry standard will help others take your work seriously. The NFI outlines a step by step guide on how to do so. A brief overview is below:

  • Use 12-point Courier Font
  • Left margin should be 1.5 inches
  • 1-inch right margin (between 0.5 inches and 1.25 inches), ragged
  • 1 inch top and bottom margins
  • Around 55 lines per page regardless of paper size. 
  • Dialogue speaker names (in all caps) 
  • Transitions are capitalized
  • Dialogue 1.5 inches from margin

Now that you have a general idea of how to format your screenplay, it’s time to get writing. This is where you must think as a videographer or movie-goer instead of as a writer only. Ask yourself the following questions as your write your scenes:

  • Are there any crucial shots I need to communicate?
  • How will the story best come across on screen? 
  • What scenes will not add to the film version?
  • Who are my most important characters?
  • Which characters should I cut?
  • How do I best write dialogue?

TIP: You may want to print these questions out and keep them nearby as you write your first screenplay. 

The Transition From writer To Screenwriter

Don’t worry if writing a script feels awkward or uncomfortable in the beginning. Writers are accustomed to typing out every single aspect of what happens in a story. Why? Well, writers do not have the element of sound or visuals so they must write in detail everything that their readers should know. 

How to write a screenplay well is more or less dependent on what viewers will see and hear on the screen. Of course, dialogue is paramount to your script’s success as well, but the transition from writing novels to writing scripts will likely feel less awkward when it comes to dialogue. 

Some key aspects to keep in mind are as follows: 

  • Include visuals, but leave the details to the crew
  • Include parenthetical tips, but leave the details to the director and actors 
  • Include crucial shots, but leave creative liberties to the director 
  • Include dialogue, and remember it needs to sound even better  verbalized than it does on the page
  • Include the most important scenes only
  • Cut any scene or character who does not add to the film adaptation 

Learning how to write a screenplay will be a massive mental shift, but can also bring tremendous rewards. Many writers dream of one day seeing their novel on the big screen. Learning how to write a screenplay, and do it well, is one step closer to either making another author’s dreams come true, or even your own. 

Refuse to let discouragement set in and instead, press on. Learning a new skill is hard but so rewarding! 

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