What is a Screenplay?
A screenplay or script is visuals on paper. It is the written expression of what we see on screen. It is not just limited to the cinema and its forms (long and short). You can write a screenplay for a TV show or a video game or even a TV-commercial. It can be original work or an adaptation.
Generally, the length of a movie script ranges from 90 to 140 pages. But, it varies with the subject matter. It could even surpass the standard length and in some cases, it could be less.
SCREENPLAY FORMAT :
The format is the most essential part of screenplay writing. If you don’t get it right, then your work has no importance, it is of no use to the production houses or directors or anyone attached to the show business. So, it’s very important to get it right.
The basics are as follows:
(1) FONT: Courier 12 points. Never change this one. I’ll tell you, why?
(2) MARGINS: You have to understand the spacing.
(a) Left Of The Page margin – 1.5 inches.
(b) Right of the page margin — 1 inch.
(c) Top of the page margin — 1 inch.
(d) Bottom Of The page margin — 1 inch.
(3) Lines: It lies between 50 to 55 lines (approx. ) per page. Every page denotes one minute of the screen time.
(4) Dialogue Area: It has to be around 2.5 inches from the left side of the page.
(5) Character names: You must write them in block letters ( or uppercase letters), whenever you have a dialogue for them. And always remember that when you introduce a new character in the action lines, use block letters.
(6) This one is not necessary, but there is no harm in knowing things. You can add page numbers on the top right corner (0.5 margins from the top of the page).
BODY OF A SCREENPLAY :
Scripts start with a transition. So, the question is what is transition? And this is the very first step. So, let’s begin:
(1) TRANSITION: It represents continuity.
There are 6 of them (commonly used ones). They are as follows:
(a) FADE IN: A script starts with this one. This is the beginning. Follow the standard way, place it in the top left corner of the page. But some screenwriters, especially professionals, put it in the top right corner. For now, you better stick to the basics.
(b) CUT TO: This one is used to represent the change. By chance, I mean the scene transition. It represents the end of a scene as well as the beginning of the next one. You must place it on the right side of the page.
(c) CONTINUED: It shows continuity. Sometimes, when a page-ends but the scene remains the same, screenwriters use it to show continuity. You should place it on the right side of the page. Sometimes, when a character is done with his vocal part, but the movements in the scene demand more dialogues from the character, then the character has to deliver the next dialogue, and to show the continuity, we use it here also.
(d) DISSOLVE: It is a kind of CUT TO. But, don’t use it too much. You should place it on the right side of the page.
(e) BLACK SCREEN: It means that the movie/scene is over. Now, credits are going to roll. You can place it on the left side of the page. Nowadays, filmmakers also use it to separate scenes.
(f) FADE OUT: The official signing off the sign of cinema. This is how you say auf wiedersehen to your precious work on paper. You should place it on the bottom right side of the page.
(2) SCENE HEADING: There are two types of scene headings. They are :
(a) INT. : It stands for Interior. This one represents the inner space of a location. For example, Ram is watching television in his room. The heading for this scene would be :
INT. RAM’S HOUSE – ROOM – DAY/NIGHT.
You can see, you don’t have to describe the location and time in the action lines. You can use that space to write more about the story. And this makes your story more engaging.
(b) EXT. : It stands for the Exterior. This represents the exterior space of a location. For example, Ram is dancing on the street. The heading for this scene would be something like this :
EXT. STREET – DAY/NIGHT.
Again, you’ve saved some space for your story. Screenwriters, generally, use day or night to represent time. In some cases, the evening is also used. They rarely use ams or PMS to represent time. It is better to avoid them. But you can use them if your story depends on them.
(3) ACTION LINES :
These are used to describe a scene. This is where you elaborate on the visuals and the audible actions that’ll take place on the screen. You must write it in the PRESENT TENSE. You can’t write it in past or future tense, because the story is in progression. To emphasize the effect of a particular word, write that word in block letters. For example :
“We hear a bone-chilling SCREAM”
(4) SUB-HEADINGS :
These are used to show a change in location but the scene continues. The scene might have shifted from INT. to EXT. or vice versa, but this change does not break the continuity.
Many screenwriters do this to avoid the idea that the story has entered into an entirely new scene.
(5) CHARACTER INTRODUCTION :
Whenever you introduce a new character in the screenplay (in action lines), write the name of the character in block letters, mention age in closed brackets, and some information about the character’s traits and personality. And always write the name of the character in block letters if you are going to write dialogue for it.
(6) DIALOGUES :
You must place your dialogue underneath the character’s name to which it is assigned. You can write it in any sense because it depends on the story and the character. It has nothing to do with the progression of the story (tense-wise).
(7) EXTENSIONS :
There are two types of extensions that screenwriters use in a Screenplay. They are :
(a) O. S.: It stands for Off-Screen. It is used when the character is physically present in the scene, but not on the screen. We can hear the voice, but we can’t see the person. For example :
INT. RAIMA’S PLACE – HALL – DAY
Ram leaves his chair and walks to the window. And
The camera slowly shifts to Raima.
RAM (O. S.)
Thoughts shape the outcome and the
Scenes we perceive are the things we
Care about. They grow in a way
We usually call it progression. This
Progression is non-linear…
(b) V. O.: It stands for VoiceOver. This one is used when the orator is not physically present in the scene. You hear a voice, but you don’t get to see the person. The person can be a narrator or someone on the radio. The unseen character. For example :
INT. CAR – NIGHT
Ram is on his way to the office, but the only thing
That is on his mind is the FINALE.
The Man On The Radio (V. O.)
“And Dhoni finishes off in style,
a magnificent strike into the
crowd. India lift the world cup
after 28 years; the party starts
in the dressing room. And it is
an Indian captain who has been
magnificent in the
night of the FINAL.
(8) PARENTHETICAL :
It is used to show the emotion of the characters. You can place it just underneath the character’s name. For example :
INT. OFFICE – NIGHT
Yeah. I didn’t miss a single shot. Ah!
What a FINALE.
It also shows actions (small ones). So that screenwriters can maintain the flow, and they can express it the way they want without jumping to action lines.
These are also helpful in directing actors. But try not to use them too much. These work wonders for a newbie. But if you are writing dialogue for a professional actor like Daniel Dey-Lewis, don’t mention them. He will not like it. These written emotional descriptions irritate professional actors. So, in such cases, it is better not to mention.
THINGS TO AVOID WHILE WRITING A SCREENPLAY :
(1) IMITATION :
This is your biggest enemy. Yes, believe me, this one is the most common blunders of all. Even professionals have gone through this phase. So don’t worry, be wary. And you’ll do fine.
Read as many scripts, you want or need to. But never use the same approach in your works. This is a world of imagination. So, imagine. Dream. And most importantly, dream something different. Something unique. Be original. And you can have that only by working hard.
You have to write religiously. Keep writing one after another. Don’t give the needle a single moment to breathe. Try to complete your screenplay within a month. And by the end of the year, you will have 12 of them in your library. Study them and you will know the difference.
(2) NEVER FORCE YOURSELF :
They say keep pushing yourself until you get it. That’s right. But what they don’t tell us is that it has repercussions. Everything has a limit. So, know your limit. Don’t overdo it or you’ll get exhausted. And you won’t be able to finish your work.
Start small, maintain the continuity, and end big. This is the Golden Rule. That’s the right way to approach things. The only key to success. Yeah, it will take time because every-good-thing needs time. Have patience and keep working. So, write-relax-write-relax and repeat.
(3) TIME :
You are a beginner. So that means you are in a learning phase. You don’t know everything about it. So, don’t think about time. Focus on things that can help you grow. Thinking about time, only kills your time. So stop wasting your time. Write. That’s your job.
Make TIME your friend. And you’ll see, what your friend is capable of. It can do wonders for you. Make a ROUTINE. It helps. It makes you Organised. Even if you don’t feel like writing anything, write something. Because it is all about practice. A page a day (7 pages per week) can do much more than ten pages-one day- a week.
MOVIES, YOU MUST WATCH :
(1) 12 Angry Men (1957) :
The greatest legal drama of all time. A must watch for every cinema lover. The movie is directed by Sidney Lumet and the screenplay is written by Reginald Rose. The movie is 96 minutes long.
This one is about a case and how a dissenting juror manages to convince the others that the case is not what they think it is.
Except for the two scenes (the beginning and the end), the whole movie was shot in a single room. And believe me, there is not a single dull moment. That’s because of the tight writing. Must read the screenplay. Add it to your list.
(a) Indian – Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (1986)
(b) Russian – 12 (2007)
(c) Chinese – 12 Citizens (2014)
(d) And even Hollywood, itself, made a remake of this Classic.
(2) SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993) :
A horrifying-monochromatic-holocaust-war drama. The movie is directed by Steven Spielberg and the screenplay is written by Steve Zaillian. And music by John Williams.
This one tells the story of a German Industrialist and member of the nazy party, Oskar Schindler. The man who tries to save Jewish lives by giving them a place in his factory. This is all because of the horrifying incident that he has witnessed at Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland.
The movie is 197 minutes long. It looks long, but it is not. It is necessary. Direction, Acting, Music, Screenplay… everything is brilliant. This is PERFECTION. Don’t just watch it, Read it.
(3) ERASERHEAD (1997) :
This, 1977- monochrome classic-packed with surreal imagery, is written and directed by David Lynch.
Eraserhead is a horror flick. The story revolves around a guy named Henry Spencer. He is a label printer and lives alone in a dreary apartment that is surrounded by industrial darkness. His nerdy-kind of shaken-look and demeanor is made more irksome by a hairdo that makes it look like as if he has been sitting on an electric chair for his whole life.
The protagonist was not ready for things that happened to him. He never wanted a baby. And he didn’t even want to marry in the first place. He wanted to erase everything.
The movie has a dreamy structure. The scenes are not synchronized. The characters look unrealistic. The conversations are unusual. The world doesn’t look real. Things are so bizarre that they can’t be real.
Watch this movie to understand what is surrealism and how to write a dream-like sequence.
(4) THE SACRIFICE (1986) :
This, 1986- poetry on celluloid, is written and directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. The story revolves around Alexander’s beliefs.
The film starts with a painting, The Adoration Of Magi by Leonardo Da Vinci(Andrei referred to him as his spiritual guru). The Magi arrived at Mary with a child, to worship the new-born and to give him gifts.
First, the camera focuses on that part of the painting where the Magi is giving a golden cup to the baby, announcing his redemption. The painting gives meaning to the film. Alexander plays the part of the Magi and his son plays the part of the baby.
The movie is not for everyone. The pace is slow. It talks about spirituality. This is meditation. This is Tarkovsky’s world.
Watch this one to understand the connection between different art forms and how you can use them. Why slow pace is not everybody’s cup of tea. Study this great piece of art.
(5) PYAASA (1957) :
This, timeless classic, is directed by Guru Dutt Sahab. The story is written by Abrar Alvi. Music by S. D. Burman.
The film revolves around the life of a poet. This is his journey. How he sees the world and vice-versa. The movie shows the sufferings of a poet who doesn’t have money to publish his works. He tries to get his works published, but all he gets is rejection. However, he gets attention from a prostitute, who falls in love with him and his soulful works.
The first scene tells us about the nature of an artist. In this case, a poet. This is a very different kind of breed. This one can see things in ways that so many of us can’t even think of. They, not only see things but, also recite them beautifully.
“These smiling flowers, these fragrant gardens
These paths dipped in color and light
Drinking the nectar of flowers, the bees sway
What can I give to you, O splendid nature?
All that I’ve is a few tears, a few sighs”.
Want to read more. Read these lines :
“These lanes, these houses of auctioned pleasure
These ravaged caravans of life
Where are they, the guardians of dignity?
Where are those, who claim to be proud of India?”…
These beautiful lines are written by the great Sahir Ludhianvi. Watch this masterpiece to understand the beauty of musicals. This is the beginning.
And there are many more, but I can’t name all of them.
SOFTWARES TO USE :
(a) Celtx. : This is good for a beginner. If you can’t buy it, download it from Google.
(b) Final Draft. : Almost everyone in the industry is using this one. This is the best one out there. Buy it. If you can’t, you can certainly do one thing. Click on the link below for details:
(c) WriterDuet: A great platform for screenwriters. You can write and edit your screenplay. You can use it on your cell also. 3 free scripts. After that, you have to buy the subscription.
(d) Trelby: This is free. You can write and edit your kinds of stuff, there is no limit. It is available on Github.
(e) Fade in: Released in 2011. It is now Hollywood’s favorite screenwriting software. It has an in-built auto-complete typing feature. And that’s something you need.