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December 6, 2021

How To Write a Screenplay: The Basics

If you are reading this, you are probably starting to write a screenplay. Perhaps you have written a page or two, or simply have an idea down. But, before you write any further, you need to understand the basics of screenwriting.

But, before we get to that, let's deal with the elephant in the room first. What on earth is going on with the formatting of a script page?

Here's the first page from the screenplay for Whiplash, written by Damian Chazelle:

A scene from Whiplash demonstrates how technical and complicated a screenplay can  be.

A lot is going on here. If you want to dig into the details, check out this article. However, if you want a quick rundown, here are the essential elements.

How to format a screenplay: The basics

Formatting scene headings

See that bold line near the top of the page that reads "INT. REHEARSAL ROOM - NIGHT"? That's what we call a "Scene Heading." This is the biggest clue that screenplays were once glorified technical documents. A scene heading tells the production crew whether the scene takes place inside or outside (INT. or EXT.), the description of where the scene is taking place (REHEARSAL ROOM), and what time it takes place at (usually DAY or NIGHT).

At a glance, a reader can get a lot of information about a scene's location without reading any of…

Action lines

The vast majority of the page reads in fairly conventional sentences, like what you're reading right now. In a screenplay, pretty much everything that isn't a character name, dialogue, or a scene heading, falls under what's known as "action." This is where you describe the scene, the characters in it, what the characters do, and what goes on in the world around them. It usually reads as if someone were describing the sensation of watching the movie to someone who hasn't seen it yet.

For example, in the second line, Chazelle writes about a "HIT" from a drum. So it's not just what we see but also what we as an audience hear. Later, he describes the rehearsal room in greater depth before introducing and explaining the movie's protagonist.

One other thing you might notice is that the action is quite staccato-like. That means that it stops and starts a lot. Usually, sentences are brief, only describing the bare essentials before moving on. Each paragraph is implied to be what a single shot of the movie will contain (though that's usually a stylistic choice up to the individual screenwriter).

Most of the paragraphs on this page are two to three lines long, except the five-line paragraph in the center introducing Fletcher. These days, five-line paragraphs are usually the limit, and most would encourage beginning screenwriters to keep their paragraphs as brief as possible.

Character and dialogue

The formatting so far has been relatively straightforward. Start from the left and write as you normally would across the page. However, the block of dialogue towards the bottom of the page is entirely different. Don't worry too much about how exactly to format each of these lines at the moment. We'll get to that later.

The main thing you need to know is that the block at the bottom of this page is how a screenwriter writes dialogue. First, you have a capitalized version of the character's name, then what they say below it. These seamlessly flow into each other but can be interrupted by action or any other element.

This keeps the dialogue clear and distinct from the action. Our eye is instantly drawn to it, and it flies by on the page. The eye takes a lot longer to read through a paragraph of action versus an exchange of dialogue. Check out this article on dialogue for an in-depth analysis.

To read more in detail, check out our Ultimate Guide to Screenplay Formatting!

The story

Now you know the basics of scriptwriting formatting, how do you write a story with scenes, action, and dialogue? This is a profound topic with far too much breadth for me to cover here. However, I'll give a brief intro that'll inspire you to dig deeper in your own time.

How long should your script be?

First things first, how many pages should your script have?

This depends on a few things. A well-known rule of thumb in the screenwriting world is that one page equals one minute of screen time. This isn't necessarily true, as some pages might take up multiple minutes of screen time. In contrast, pages full of dialogue might take up only thirty seconds, but by and large, the one page = one minute rule is a good guideline to stick to.

So, this gives us a place to start. Most movies these days run between 80-140 minutes. So, doing the math means that the average movie script should run between 80-140 pages. This is mostly true, but I would heavily advise new writers to keep their scripts shorter rather than longer. Script readers love a shorter read than a longer one. These days, the Goldilocks zone is considered to be in the 90-110 page area.

If you're writing a TV pilot, the script will need to be shorter. A half-hour TV comedy pilot should be around 30 pages, whereas an hour-long drama will go for about 45-60 pages.

What story act structure should you use?

Most stories are split up into distinct blocks called "Acts." Today, most movies and TV shows broadly fall into two different story formats: the 3-Act story structure or the 5-Act story structure.

However, whichever story format you choose to stick to, the basics remain the same. To make this simple, we will look at the 3-Act story structure. The first act of your script should introduce the world, your characters, and the story's central problem. In the second act, your characters will attempt to resolve the problem of the story. In the third act, the characters will either defeat or be defeated by the problem.

There's so much more depth to go into here, so I highly recommend you read more about what makes up an act and learn the differences between the 3-Act and 5-Act structures.

The reason we use acts in a story is that it gives the plot structure. It's possible to write a great story without a predetermined act structure, but that's like building a house with a blueprint. It might go well, but it's more likely to be disastrous. Check out our guide on how Arc Studio Pro helps outline your script.

How to brainstorm story ideas

You also need to come up with some ideas for a story! The chances are that you've already got some of these if you're interested in becoming a screenwriter. However, if the idea pool is running a little dry, go out into the world and absorb as much as you can. The real world is great for inspiring story ideas.

When anything comes to you, could you write it down in a bit of a notebook? Later on, you can come back to it and choose the best ideas to pursue.

For more tactics for coming up with ideas for stories, check out our quick guide or use some of our prompts and exercises.

Do you need screenwriting software?

Back in the day, screenwriters needed to use typewriters to do their job. These days it's a lot simpler. Screenplays have many arbitrary rules for margins, columns, and spacing between the different essential elements. Luckily, you don't need to learn any of these. Good software, like Arc Studio Pro, does all of the hard work for you.

Most screenwriting software takes a minute to learn, but it's usually pretty simple. It all comes together pretty quickly once you know about the essential elements of scene headings, action, dialogue, and characters. There are a lot more niche things you can put into a script, but you don't need to worry about any of that at this point.

But be careful. Some screenwriting software says it does the correct formatting, but it doesn't. Please don't use software like Microsoft Word or Scrivener that says it can replicate screenwriting formatting. It's rarely 100% correct.

Instead, it's essential to use software that can guarantee industry-standard formatting! If you manage to get your script in front of the right set of eyes, but your formatting is incorrect, that's a quick ticket out of the room! Don't make that mistake.

Instead, use screenwriting software that professionals use every day. Top contenders include Arc Studio Pro (which offers an entirely free option forever), Final Draft, Fade In, WriterDuet, and Highland.

Summing it all up

By now, you should have a basic idea of how to write a screenplay. There is so much more depth in all of these topics, so keep reading and learning to get better and better. I also highly advise you to read as many screenplays as you can get your hands on. The best way to learn is by reading what the pros have written.


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How To Write a Screenplay: The Basics
Alex D. Reid

Alex is a professional screenwriter who loves writing horror. He won the horror category at Austin Film Festival for his screenplay Delirium in 2019 and is currently studying for a Ph.D in English Literature with a focus on the horror genre

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