Most beginner screenwriters spend a lot of their time learning how to format a script and create a plot that will culminate in a powerful story. However, there is more to learn about scripts than just how to structure one; it is important to know that there are different types of film scripts used by filmmakers to create impactful pieces of work.
Some of the most popular types of scripts in films include feature film scripts, documentary scripts, and short film scripts. Each of these types of scripts has a slightly distinctive structure requiring a unique writing method to be used by the screenwriter.
Any screenwriter who comes up with a new story idea will decide how they would like to tell the story before they start writing; this decision will determine the type of script they will choose for that particular story to be told. The popular types of scripts discussed in this article should not be confused with a script’s genre (action, drama, comedy, etc.) which is a different way of classifying film scripts.
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Feature Film Script
Perhaps the type of film script that a screenwriter is most familiar with is a feature film script. This is the script that most of your favorite movies are written in from Forrest Gump to Birdman, Die Hard, Ocean’s Eleven, Pulp Fiction, and many more.
Feature film scripts usually run between 80-120 pages for an approximately 1.5 or 2-hour movie; each script page corresponds to approximately one minute of screen time. Since a feature film script is such a long piece of written work, it needs to follow a certain structure and various formatting rules developed by the film industry to keep the attention of the reader (and later the audience).
Almost all feature film scripts are based on a three-act structure. Act One is where the screenwriter first introduces us to their world and characters. An inciting incident that takes place during Act One will set the main characters on their journey while building internal and external conflict factors.
Act Two is usually the longest part, taking up approximately 60 pages of the core of the script; this is the act where stakes are raised as characters face many confrontations. Act Three is where the story finally resolves either with the character accomplishing their goal or failing.
While the three-act structure is followed by most screenwriters, some famous film directors have been openly critical of this construction. Acclaimed writer-director, Werner Herzog, criticized the three-act structure that puts forward the idea that “the leading character at a certain point at the end has to change and be a different [person].”
A documentary script is written for non-fictional films that explore the human condition and events that are noteworthy. When produced well, a great documentary can open the viewer’s eyes to new experiences, situations, people, and even educate them through cinematic filmmaking.
The process of writing a documentary script is unique. A documentary script can only be written after all the research has been completed, and data and interviews have been collected by the filmmaker. A writer-filmmaker working on a documentary will usually create a blueprint that will help them organize the sequence of scenes before going into the field and interviewing subjects; once the shoot is completed, they will write a script that will bring all these elements together.
Another characteristic that sets a documentary script apart from other types of film scripts is the research that goes into writing it, particularly during the pre-production phase. The writer is not only responsible for researching the subjects that they will be interviewing but also digging deep into work created by other writers or filmmakers that have previously explored the same subject matter.
Documentary scriptwriters often don’t know their story’s arc until all the research, ideas, interviews, data, and facts are collected. Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns points out the importance of building the documentary script structure around facts as the emotional, interpretive, and anecdotal elements of the script can only work if the writer has researched the facts in detail.
Short Film Script
A short film script is more focused than a feature film script. It usually runs between 5-40 pages, but most short film scripts are around 15-20 pages long.
Just because a film script is short doesn’t mean that it is less significant than a feature film script or that its writer doesn’t need the same level of skill and talent as those working on feature film scripts. In some cases, writing a short script can even be more challenging because the writer is left with a more restricted opportunity to build tension and suspense as the reader or viewer gets to spend less time with the characters. Combining nuance, texture, great storytelling, and an emotional arc into fifteen pages is definitely not an easy feat.
Most writers that work on short film scripts tend to be filmmakers who plan to produce or direct the material themselves. This gives them a lot of room for creativity. Not being pressured by studio deadlines allows them to take as much time as they need before they finalize the script (as seen in the image below), increasing their chances of creating a well-crafted story.
The Bottom Line for Screenwriters
There are many different ways to tell a story. Identifying the way in which a film script should be written is an important decision that writers make at the outset of each writing project, as the type of script affects the way a story is told and absorbed by the audience.
Regardless of the type of script you want to write, Celtx can help you structure it with its industry-standard script editors for film & TV, short-form video, theatre, interactive narratives, and more. Sign up for Celtx today and get access to all studio tools, free for 7 days.