Writing scripts or screenplays for movies and TV shows is a dream for many aspiring writers. Instead of sharing a story via the written word, screenplays and scripts are meant to be performed, and therefore experienced by the audience in a visual way.
Because of this unique dynamic, scriptwriting has different components than, say, writing a short story or novel. But you will still need basic storytelling skills in order to write a compelling script.
Technically speaking, a script is used in theater or in plays, whereas a screenplay is used for film. But loosely, the term “script writing” is now widely accepted to refer to plays, movies, and TV shows alike.
What Is the Format of a Script?
One of the most clear-cut differences between a script and a novel is the format. Instead of writing everything in prose, you will need certain headings to distinguish the different parts of the script.
As a scriptwriter, you need to familiarize yourself with these basic elements because you will be writing with this format.
The basic script writing format includes the following elements:
Because a script is written for a movie or a play, the scene headings are where you can provide a brief description of the setting.
Note the word “brief,” as this is not the time to elaborate on details like you would in a short story or novel. The function of these headings is for the director to know what you have in mind for the scene.
In the scene heading, you will first write a note to indicate if the scene takes place outdoors or indoors. For outdoors, you would write “EXT,” or “exterior,” and for indoors “INT,” or “interior.”
Next to this descriptor, you’ll write where specifically the event takes place, followed by an indication of whether it’s DAY or NIGHT.
An example looks like this:
EXT. EDGE OF LAKE SUPERIOR, SHADED UNDER THE TREES. – DAY
Action lines are descriptions of certain actions that need to be in place. Again, you do not need to go into full detail, because in a movie, it’s usually the director’s job to figure those out.
But a lot of the time, you as the writer may have certain ideas of how a scene should start to play out.
Characters in a script are typed centered and in all-caps to make it easy for readers to tell who is speaking. Also note that in descriptions, when a character first shows up, you write the name in all-caps as well.
The dialogue makes up the bulk of the script. Just like in writing novels, your dialogue needs to be crisp and straight to the point, and it must help move your story forward.
Write transitions only when they are needed. Sometimes, the scriptwriter doesn’t have to write these down as the movie director can decide these elements.
Common phrases used for transitions include “cut to” and “fade out.”
Parentheticals are used when you need to include a specific action relevant to the scene.
For example, if your character does something that does not seem in line with what is being said, such as turning toward a different character while saying something, be sure to add it in. You can see how this works in the example below:
(glances at Alexa before replying to Jasmin)
I don’t think I want to go to the party tonight. I’ll be… busy.
Camera directions are helpful if you feel like a specific angle will benefit the scene. Again, the director can decide most of this. As the scriptwriter or screenwriter, you need to tread the fine line of adding these creative details while not making the director feel like you’re telling them what to do.
Example of a Script
To see how these elements work, look at this example from the Gilmore Girls pilot episode, with the elements labeled:
What Is the Process for Writing a Script?
So now that you know the basic format of a script, here are the steps for writing one:
1. Plan your story.
A script is one way of telling a story, so first and foremost, you need to decide what story you want to tell. Just like any other story, you will need the following elements in place:
- rising action
And of course, you’ll also need to flesh out your characters, so during planning, a character profile may come in handy for thorough character development.
2. Outline your script.
A good way of ensuring that you tell the story effectively through your script is to outline the events that will take place, scene by scene. In this stage, you can already map out where each scene takes place.
3. Download a scriptwriting software, or format manually on a regular word processor.
Typing a script on MS Word can be a bit challenging, because you have to do the formatting manually. Here is an example Scriptwriting Template you can use. If you have access to a scriptwriting software, it will make the task so much easier.
If you don’t have a scriptwriting software yet, you can still make do with regular word processing programs. Make sure you use Courier font (or its variations), as it is one font that has regular spacing for all its letters.
Each typewritten page is equivalent to about one minute of screen time, so you can estimate how long your script needs to be based on how long you envision the film to be. For example, a 120-page script will roughly translate to about 120 minutes of movie time.
4. Write each scene, starting with the headings and action lines.
These elements seem the most straightforward, so starting with these will already give you an encouraging start. Think about what kind of setting will work best, and don’t be afraid to change things up from your outline.
5. Write the dialogue.
A script depends so much on dialogue, and this is your chance to focus on the content of the conversations.
Since you cannot use descriptions or dialogue tags as you would in a novel, you’ll have to make the content itself meaningful. Write and don’t worry too much about editing at this stage.
Similar to writing dialogue for a novel, here are some important things to remember:
- Skip the small talk and only have conversations that move the story forward.
- Learn how to highlight angles of the dialogue without going through all the nitty-gritty.
- Avoid expository dialogue, and only reveal details when absolutely necessary.
5. Read the dialogue out loud.
After you write your first draft, you can go back and edit. Before you do so, read the dialogue out loud. Listening to it out loud will help pinpoint things that don’t make sense or that sound off.
6. Edit ruthlessly.
When you edit, remove everything that doesn’t play a role in the story, and also cross out all unnecessary words.
Cross-check scene headings with what is actually going on to make sure you didn’t accidentally comment on its being nighttime when you had indicated it as DAY in the scene heading.
How to Write a Script
Congratulations! After you finish your script, you can then decide on whether you want to sell your baby, or produce a movie yourself. Short films can be an exciting project, but if it’s a full length movie, you may need more help.
If you want to get your work out there, contests and pitchfests are a great way to get involved in the world of screenplays.
Also consider joining screenwriting groups online or in your area to get feedback and share support with other creatives like yourself. And most importantly, enjoy the ride!
Have you ever tried writing a script? Tell us about your experience in the comments below!