How do words on a page translate into images on a screen? If you have that killer idea for a movie but aren’t sure how to put those thoughts in your head into a cohesive story document, you’ve definitely come to the right place.
Filmmaking is a visual medium wholly unique from other forms of storytelling, and scriptwriting is, by extension, totally different from other forms of writing. Your script can’t waste time and precious page real-estate telling your readers about what’s happening; you need to be showing them by literally describing the actions on screen.
But you can’t dive right into a blank script document armed with a billion-dollar idea and no plan. That’s like hitting the road without a map or GPS. Where do you go?
The best place to start is by building your own storytelling roadmap, better known as an outline. Even broader than that, it’s important to plan out your story — describe all of the characters, create a top-to-bottom timeline, brainstorm various scenes or themes — before beginning the actual writing.
Crafting a compelling story that creates an emotional connection with your audience takes a lot of careful consideration and, like all the best things in the world, a hearty dose of hard work. When you boil it down, the path to success is actually pretty simple: ample dedication to planning and brainstorming, a solid understanding of screenplay elements, and a firm grasp on major storytelling mechanics.
Develop Your Storytelling Roadmap
Just like making a meal, it’s crucial to first decide on the perfect recipe, purchase all of your ingredients, and prepare each of them before you actually start cooking.
Likewise, you need to thoughtfully plan your story. Every single screenwriter on the planet begins their screenwriting process by creating an outline, or a document that presents a short synopsis of the story’s events, major themes, and the relationships between your main characters. This can be as short as three pages and serves as your initial story blueprint. It’s an efficient and industry-standard method for providing your story with a general framework and yourself with a reference as you begin writing.
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You should also write out full biographies of each of your main characters, almost like you’re making a social media profile for them. Explain their demographic information like age, physique, job, etc. but go even deeper and ask yourself questions about their dreams, romantic interests, ambitions, or fears. Strive to truly understand who they are as if they were real people.
In addition to an outline and character bios, it can also be helpful to create a high-level “Beat Sheet”, or a chronological series of single-sentence bullet points that provides a top-to-bottom sequence of events in your story. It’s another version of a synopsis or an outline, but creating it is an exercise in deciding what the defining moments of your story really are.
Structure is a difficult component to master, but it also has a way of defining itself when enough time is spent planning a story (more on this in our “Plot Points” section farther down). Paying keen attention to pacing and cadence throughout this process is crucial; all it takes is a couple of “boring” scenes in a row and you’ve lost your audience.
All The Major (and Minor) Elements of a Screenplay
You’ve decided to cook a big meal and you’ve selected the appetizer, entree, and dessert. Next up: what ingredients do you need to actually make that meal?
Screenwriting has no “perfect” recipe, but it does have a list of essential ingredients that make any story edible (ok, done with the food parallels).
Let’s start with the absolute basics first, aka Elements of a Screenplay 101. Assuming you have at least a general understanding of these components, we’ll keep these descriptions short before delving into the 201 class.
- Scene Headings aka “Slug Lines.” These all-caps, 3-part descriptors give the reader three pieces of geographical information right away: interior or exterior, where precisely the scene is, and whether it takes place at day or night. An example: INT. BOB’S GARDEN – DAY.
- Action Descriptions. These are direct, no-nonsense descriptions of what’s happening on screen. Remaining brief, literal, and descriptive are key. Page real estate is precious, so don’t waste time describing the color of the curtains.
- Characters. When introducing characters for the first time, capitalize their name and include a 10-word overview of their main attributes. When they speak, their character name is centered on the page with dialogue below. Make sure to use the same name for each character throughout!
- Dialogue. This goes in the center of the page beneath the name of the character speaking. Hot tip: the better you know your characters as real people, the more authentic and compelling their dialogue will be.
- Parentheticals. These provide technical directions for actors and help define the emotional elements of a piece of dialogue. These go between character names and their dialogue, and can provide emotional cues — “cheerfully” — or action cues — “rubbing face.”
But wait, there’s more! Those are the basics, but you still need a handful of other ingredients to make your script soar. Welcome to Elements of a Screenplay 201.
- Transitions. Although infrequent, these indicate how an editor should cut from scene to scene. Scenes without explicit transitions (a vast majority of them for most films) are assumed to be standard cuts. These are located at the very far right of the page in all caps. Use these sparingly and only when stylistically called for. There are several types of transitions:
- CUT TO: generally used to indicate a “hard cut” away from a scene after a crescendo, almost as its own punctuation
- SMASH TO: this is a very abrupt edit that usually goes from mid-action in one scene to mid-action in another
- DISSOLVE TO: this is a softer transition where the current scene slowly fades away as the subsequent scene comes into focus
- MATCH CUT TO: a trickier editing flourish where the composition or action of one scene leads directly into the same composition or action of the next
- INTERCUT: indicates a cross-cutting between two scenes happening simultaneously, mostly commonly for phone calls
- Extensions. Not all on-screen conversations are fluid, and not every line in a film is spoken by a character seen on-screen. Hence: extensions. These short extra details go right next to a character’s name, on the same line, and are in all-caps. There are several main types:
- CONT’D. Short for continued, and indicates the continuation of a piece of dialogue that was interrupted by an action or character
- V.O. Short for Voice Over, indicating that whoever is speaking can’t be heard by the characters on-screen. This is often a type of inner monologue
- O.S. or O.C. Off-Screen or Off-Camera, used interchangeably, indicates that a character heard by others cannot be seen by the audience or characters
- INTO DEVICE. Fairly self-explanatory but when a character is speaking into a device (like a phone) rather than directly to another character
- PRE LAP. This is used when the dialogue takes place within the next scene but begins before the current scene has ended
- Subheaders. Formatted exactly like their older siblings, these mini slug lines indicate another time or place within the same scene. Professionally, these occupy a bit of a gray area with some since production-minded readers who prefer starting brand new scenes in case they require new setups. For readability, however, they’re handy cheat codes to signify a small transition from room to room (ex. Foyer to living room) or a time jump (ex. LATER)
- Shots. These are formatted exactly like action lines, except in ALL CAPS. They signify a unique visual cue or way of seeing something, be it a camera angle or movement. These are uniquely stylistic and generally reserved for writer-directors since it’s the director’s job to visualize the story. Use sparingly and only when absolutely critical.
- Chyrons. Also known as “Titles,” this indicates text that appears on screen, usually a time or a place (as seen in many spy or action films). Start an action line with the word CHYRON or TITLE, followed by the text itself. Simple as that.
With these ingredients in-hand, and a well-developed story at your side, you have the tools to open up that blank script document and know precisely what to do.
The last step? Ensuring your story has all the right content in all the right places.
“Plot Points” or How to Really Write a Movie Script
Like a lot of screenwriting terminology that’s found its way into everyday speech, you’re likely familiar with the term “plot point.” But did you know the concept of the plot point was first coined by the founder of another major storytelling theory called The Paradigm?
A plot point, according to this theory, is “any incident, episode, or event that hooks into the action and spins it around in another direction.” In other words, these are your story’s lynchpins, the crucial moments that anchor everything else in place. Screenplays have dozens and dozens of plot points, but The Paradigm defines a chronological list of major plot points in the following order:
- Opening Image. This should be a perfect summary and tonal representation of your entire film. No pressure, right? Some screenwriters make this the very last detail they write.
- Exposition. All of the background and contextual information about the setting, characters, and themes. Here, you’re establishing the status quo (before you smash it to pieces).
- Inciting Incident. Also known as “Catalyst” or “Disturbance,” this is when a bad, challenging, or tragic event thrusts the protagonist into action, commencing their path towards conflict.
- Plot Point 1. Also known as “The First Doorway of No Return” or “First Turning Point,” this is a new development that drastically alters the protagonist’s life. The status quo can no longer be. This is usually the last scene of Act 1.
- Pinch 1: Around the 3/8ths point of your script, this serves as another reminder of the overarching drama and central conflict.
- Midpoint: A crucial scene in the middle of your script where a revelation or some other reversal of fortune changes the direction of the story again. Driving the first half of your script towards this midpoint can prevent your Act II from sagging.
- Pinch 2: Another fresh reminder of the central conflicts around the 5/8ths mark.
- Plot Point 2: A dramatic reversal that closes Act II and signifies the beginning of Act III.
- Moment of Truth. Also known as “The Decision Point,” “Second Turning Point,” or “Second Doorway of No Return.” Halfway through Act III, your protagonist is forced to make a life-changing decision. A huge part of your story engine has been driving towards this exact make-or-break moment.
- Climax. The pinnacle of dramatic tension that immediately follows the Moment of Truth. This is the protagonist’s confrontation of the story’s central issue, and they either overcome it or it meets their tragic end.
- Resolution. The issues of the story are resolved. Tying up any narrative loose ends.
- Tag. An epilogue, tying up additional loose ends and proving your audience with closure. Worth noting: films today traditionally have much longer “denouements” than older films.
Like everything, these are guideposts rather than narrative necessities, but they’re also trusted for a reason. Use them as a starting point and deviate only when you feel confident enough to veer off the track. If you start to get lost, turn the wheel back towards the next major plot point and you’ll be back on solid ground in no time.
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It’s safe to assume every screenwriter has a basic understanding of classic story structure, even if they may not adhere to it. These narrative frameworks are better thought of as blueprints rather than rigid templates, or a way to help and support you as you turn ideas into coherent stories that believably emulate the human experience — highs, lows, and all the conflicts in between.
The path to earning that all-important emotional connection with your audience is pretty clear: do your homework, understand the tools at hand, and make sure to stick to the narrative basics…at least as you get started.
Follow that formula for long enough and you’ll be your own Tarantino before you know it!