How to Write a Screenplay or Movie Script

Have you ever dreamed of writing a story? That could be a book of poetry, a novel, a movie script, or a screenplay. If you have a big and active imagination, you could really benefit from putting pen to paper! While some writers enjoy publishing lengthy novels or short stories, there are even more who can already visualize their writing appearing on a big stage or the silver screen.

If you’re looking to turn your creative idea into something that could be adapted into a play or movie, then you should consider screenwriting or movie scriptwriting. In this article, we’ll tell you how to write a screenplay or a movie script, whichever name you choose to refer to it. This will include how to format a screenplay and the main elements of screenwriting.

What is a Screenplay?

A screenplay, also known as a movie script, is the written work used for a film, television show, or stage production. Generally speaking, a screenplay refers to the movie in a written format specifically used in the film industry and a script is a term used for theatre work. However, the two terms are interchangeable.

A screenplay is different from other writing, such as fiction novel writing, as movement, actions, and expressions are all denoted along with the dialogue. The scenes are also usually described in between dialogue in a way the camera would see them. For example, you may see something written in a script like, “as the camera rises, we see a mob of women running towards us”. It describes how the viewer will see it on screen, rather than asking the reader to picture it in their head.

What are the Main Differences Between a Novel and a Screenplay?

  1. How Long it Is – This is one of the major differences between a screenplay vs. writing a novel. Writing prose is very detailed. It has to paint a picture for the reader and usually does that with many aesthetic details. When you write a screenplay, it’s important to ask yourself often if the story is visually adaptable to be on film. It can’t be too long. The average feature-length screenplay is around 120 pages, give or take. Therefore, you will have to accomplish character development, settings, plot points, and much more quickly.
  2. The Focus on Dialogue – Dialogue is central to screenplay writing. When you’re writing a novel, your character will be able to express internal thoughts. You’ll also be able to set the scene and describe it in detail. The opposite is actually needed in screenwriting. There is no internal dialogue and therefore the scene and the character’s feelings will have to come across in the form of actions or visible displays of emotions. A common trap most writers fall into is making their dialogue too “on the nose”. While sometimes it may go unnoticed in novels, within a screenplay that ends up on screen it stands out like a sore thumb and turns people off.
  3. Budget Constraints – When writing a novel, the sky is really the limit. You can send your characters anywhere and do whatever is needed to develop the plot. In contrast, when you write a screenplay, you must take budget constraints into consideration.  If there are a lot of special effects needed such as explosions, car crashes, robots, etc., it may lessen the chances of your screenplay being accepted. While it may be good, it will just read as being very expensive to a producer.
  4. Formatting Differences – Novels are usually written with or without an outline and as free-flow writing that is later edited. Screenplays are written in a tighter format. Generally, screenwriting software is used to make this process easier. However, keep reading below and we’ll explain how to format a screenplay.

How do you format a screenplay?

Formatting a screenplay isn’t difficult but it can seem a bit intimidating at first glance. Don’t worry though, just follow the general outline below to get started. Once you begin, you’ll find that it starts to become second nature.

Guide for Formatting a Screenplay:

  • Use Courier font set at size 12.
  • Set a 1.5-inch margin on the left side of the page.
  • Set a 1-inch margin on the right, top, and bottom of the page.
  • When writing, the dialogue block should start 2.5 inches from the left side of the page.
  • All character names should be written in capital letters and set 3.7 inches from the left side of the page.
  • The first page of your screenplay should not be numbered. The following pages should be numbered on the top right of the page with a 0.5-inch margin. The page numbers should be followed by a period, i.e., 1., 2., 3., etc.
  • Each page should have roughly 55 lines from start to finish.

Of course, if you just buy screenwriting software then you don’t have to worry about ANY of this because it’ll be formatted for you automatically.

What’s the best screenwriting software?

To be completely honest — whichever one you can afford that has the ability to convert your script to a pdf format. Seriously, nobody cares if you used Final Draft, Celtix, Movie Magic or whatever other software people debate about for hours on the writing forums. The only thing that matters is your story. If the story sucks — you’ll never even get to homebase where it’s a discussion.

I use Final Draft, only because it’s the first and only screenwriting software I have known. Sure, it’s considered industry standard and costs a bit more than the others out there, but you should really just get whatever fits your budget. I don’t even use half the features that come with the software (although I do love that you can create draggable index cards when creating a beat sheet).

If your screenplay ever gets optioned or purchased then producers most likely will want the Final Draft format. If you use something else up until a pending sale happens then you’ll be just fine and converting it over will be the least of your worries.

What are the main screenwriting elements?

The Scene Heading

Scene headings, also known as slug lines, explain the “when” and “where” to the reader. It is written all in capital letters and is included each time the story moves to a different place.

Example: EXT. BUSY NEW YORK COFFEE SHOP – MORNING

In the above example “EXT.” means it’s an exterior location. The next part describes the general location and the time of day.

From this scene heading we can conclude the camera is outside.

Also, never end a page using a scene heading. Make sure to move the heading to the next page.

Subheading

Subheadings, also called subheaders, are simply used to make the screenwriter’s life easier when a scene takes place all at one location. For example, if the scene were in just one house, it will become cumbersome to keep writing things like “MAGGIE’S HOUSE – EVENING – BEDROOM” but changing the room every time. Therefore, in scenes like this, subheadings are used.

Example: Simply write “BEDROOM”, “KITCHEN”, “BATHROOM”, etc. in place of the entire scene heading.

Action Lines

Action lines follow the scene heading and set the scene for the reader. This should be as short and as concise as possible. The purpose of action lines are to show the actions happening in the scene, describe the location and also describe the characters when we first get introduced to them. 

A great rule of thumb to keep in mind is that each action line represents a single camera shot. So unless you have a long drawn out action sequence, it’s better to keep them to no more than three to four lines at most. 

Example: If the scene heading was the same as above, a busy New York coffee shop, the action lines could read as follows, “The camera pans down on Sarah who is trying to leave the shop in a hurry but bumps into a handsome man on her way out and drops her drink to the floor.”

Also, screenplays are written in present tense so you’ll want to avoid writing sentences like Corey is laying on the couch or Johnny is running in the park. Instead, make sure to use more of an active voice in present tense such as Corey slumps over on the couch or Johnny sprints through the park. This will give the reader a more clear visual of the action that is taking place.

Character

When you introduce a character for the first time, you should write their name in capitals, reference their age, and explain some brief details about them and their personality in order to introduce them to the reader. This is usually done after the scene heading when a new character is presented.

Example: MICHAEL (32), disheveled clothes and messy hair. Looks tired and agitated. Has a cell phone in one hand and a newspaper in the other.

The Dialogue

Dialogue is written underneath each character that is speaking it. It is the backbone of a screenplay and should take a lot of thought and consideration. Think about your character and how they are. Imagine there were no character headings above the dialogue, would the reader be able to tell who was talking? Try to think about that as you’re writing. Each character should be unique and display their personality in their dialogue.

Using Parentheticals with Dialogue

Parentheticals with dialogue allow for an action to be written into the wording. Think about it as being used by the actor on how to read the dialogue. Using parentheticals with dialogue can allow you to input small actions or change the mood of the scene with just a few words and without having to move to an action line.

Example: 

SARAH

(spills her coffee)

Well, that was the last thing I needed today!

(turns to Michael, sighs)

Wake me up when today is over.

Transitions

Transitions allow a writer to quickly move from one scene to another. They aren’t as common as they used to be but there are still two that are still often seen, these are “CUT TO:” and “FADE TO:”. This is just a direction for the visual transition of a scene.

Example: 

MAGGIE’S HOUSE – EVENING – BEDROOM

We open in a dark room, with only a lamp to light the bedside. Maggie sits in the dark, reading a mysterious book with no cover.

CUT TO:

MAGGIE’S HOUSE – EVENING – EXTERIOR 

Insert

When you use the INSERT element (which is sometimes referred to as a CUTAWAY) it’s because you are trying to bring something small into full frame for the audience to see. You’ll use this when you are trying to highlight something of importance.

INT. SILVER PORSCHE – NIGHT

Sammy pulls over to the side of the dirt road. He struggles to pull himself together, until something in the passenger seat catches his attention — a cell phone that flashes.

INSERT – CELL PHONE that’s stained with blood and an incoming text from Martha.

He gazes down at his hands and sees — even more blood.

In the above scene we’re inside of a Porsche and when the character looks at his phone we get a clear look at his bloody cell phone and whoever it is texting him. We basically are seeing what he sees at this moment.

Shots & POV

Shots describe to a reader how the focal length has changed within a scene. This is most often used to denote a certain character’s point of view or a particular scene-setting. This is one of those things where you should try to avoid as much as possible as a screenwriter, because it’s going to be up to the director and the director of photography to plan out how they want to shoot any given scene.

When it is used, it should be formatted as a subheading.

Example: 

MAGGIE’S HOUSE – EVENING – BEDROOM

We open in a dark room, with only a lamp to light the bedside. Maggie sits in the dark, reading a mysterious book with no cover.

MAGGIE’S POV

Maggie looks down at the worn pages of a photo album.

Other examples of shots are:

  • ANGLE ON
  • EXTREME CLOSE UP
  • PAN TO
  • CLOSE ON
  • AERIAL SHOT
  • PULL BACK
  • PULL FOCUS
  • PUSH IN
  • REVERSE ANGLE
  • PAN (UP, DOWN, LEFT, RIGHT)
  • ZOOM
  • TIGHT ON

Protect your screenplay after you finish it

Once you’ve finished writing your screenplay make sure you legally protect it before sending it out to be read. For obvious reasons you’ll want to either copyright your script with the Library of Congress, register it with the WGA or both. I made an entire video on this topic and you can see it here, but my advice is to skip the WGA registration and just copyright with the Library of Congress. If you want to know why then make sure to watch that video.

Helpful eBooks for Your Writing

Learn to Write Stronger Story Concepts, Themes & Loglines

There’s a saying that “Concept is King”. I tend to agree with this. Think about it. The concept of your story is the overall idea at its most basic core. It’s what makes us want to read your book, screenplay or see your movie after millions of dollars has been spent on developing it. You‘ve probably read a book or screenplay that was well written with lots of clever wordplay, but when’s the last time you have heard anyone excited about a mediocre concept? For me, concept is king, but execution is just as important. After all, what good is a cool idea if the author can’t tell the story in the best way it could possibly be told? Imagine if the movie “Karate Kid” was just a movie about a boy learning karate and receiving a black belt at the end to make his single mother proud. What if “The Godfather” was just about an old mob boss who ran his organization with an iron fist then just died at the end of the movie. How would that be any different from the thousands of mob flicks we’ve never even heard of with forgettable plots? These are concepts you most likely would forget an hour after watching them on the big screen.

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How to Name Your Fictional Characters (Plus More Than 2,500 Names & Meanings To Get Your Creative Juices Flowing)

You know what’s just as bad as hitting a brick wall with the plot of your screenplay or novel? Hitting that same brick wall even harder when it comes time to give your protagonist or any other character that perfect name. Having the right name for your characters not only helps them to become memorable, but can help sell the story as well. Sebastian Dangerfield (“The Ginger Man”), Tony Starks (“Iron Man”), Atticus Finch (“To Kill A Mockingbird”), Luke Skywalker (“Star Wars”), James Bond (“Casino Royale”)…the list goes on. Imagine pitching your screenplay or novel with any of these character names.

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