What is screenwriting exactly?
Probably safe to assume that it’s writing for the screen. And that that screen is most likely either at home or in a movie theater. In both cases, you’d be absolutely right.
However, there’s a lot more to learn and understand about this specific craft and why it’s so distinct from every other form of writing, especially if you’re a budding screenwriter wondering where to start.
Let’s start with this:
Screenwriting, also known as scriptwriting, encompasses the creative process of crafting scripts for various media formats, including feature films, television shows, and video games. This skill is frequently exercised by freelance professionals who specialize in developing compelling narratives and engaging dialogue.
Everything in screenwriting revolves around the visual. After all, film, TV, and video games are all visual mediums, and the scripts that tell these stories need to externalize a character’s internal motivations. It’s a wholly unique process completely independent from writing novels, poems, or essays, especially when it comes to the extremely specific format that screenwriting requires (more on that later).
Think about it like this: the sentence “It reminded her of her childhood” is easily understood in a book or poem and acts as a nice piece of emotional context to let us know the character’s internal thoughts and feelings. But what does that actually look like on screen? Screenwriters don’t have the luxury of telling you what a character is thinking, feeling, or doing; they have to show you.
Whereas other mediums can include unlimited contextual detail or omniscient perspectives, screenwriting relies on visual communication, and it’s crucial to think about how every action literally looks as you’re writing. Instead of saying “It reminded her of her childhood”, the screenwriter would have to add a flashback scene of the character as a child to see how it relates to her current circumstance. Alternatively, a short parenthetical description of a “wistful” or “daydream” performance may help more subtle convey the reaction the character is having (more on this as well!).
Screenwriting is the ultimate game of “show me, don’t tell me,” and a massive exercise in storytelling efficiency. In many ways, it’s its own language, and one you can have more confidence in after reading about our other Screenwriting 101 pillars.
So, why do we do it, what does it look like, and how does it work?
Types of Screenwriting
Just like the term “screenwriting” covers multiple visual mediums, it also encompasses a wide array of various professional roles. There is more than one type of screenwriter, and more than one type of assignment that a screenwriter may have.
Most screenwriting jobs are freelance, especially for amateurs or those just starting out, but more established writers can also be contracted to do a number of scripts or projects for a single studio, production company, or producer. Here are some of the most common types of professional screenwriting roles in the entertainment industry:
Speculative Screenwriting. This is by far the most common role and what most people associate with a screenwriting career. “Spec” scripts are written independently and not commissioned by a film studio or production company.
Traditionally the story was invented by the writer, but that doesn’t mean it has to be an original idea per se; lots of spec scripts are written about established IP (like public domain), or other people or events. Spec scripts represent most of the script market in Hollywood each year with a very (very!) slim minority actually making it to screen.
Commissioned Screenwriting. Rather than the writer coming to the idea in the “spec script” scenario, commissioned scripts involve a hired writer being brought to an established idea to be brought to life.
These projects are usually based on existing IP such as books, games, and so forth, meaning there is some record of success. It’s not uncommon for other writers to have worked on the same script or concept before being commissioned to another writer.
Feature Assignment. The “holy grail” of screenwriting where a writer is brought under contract with a studio, production company, or producer to develop and write a script. Feature assignments can be adaptations of existing ideas or intellectual property (IP) owned by the company.
These are the most sought after positions given their rarity and the fact that they’re often reserved for the most successful and established writers. Even better, it means you’re essentially on a “roster” of proven talent.
Rewrites. Almost every single film is rewritten to some extent (more often to a great extent) throughout the development process and rarely by the script’s original author. The world of rewrites is the biggest market in the entertainment business for writers and where many of them, from established industry vets to up-and-comers, make their living.
It’s how seasoned professionals stay sharp and earn some side money and where amateurs are able to prove their creative promise if their original scripts haven’t been picked up. Rewriting also has its own sub-genres of different rewrite jobs:
- Script Doctoring. This is when you bring in a specialist. For scripts later in their development lifecycle that need specific areas of the script improved before it’s finalized, studios or producers will often hire an established writer to come in as a “Script Doctor.”
- “Page One Rewrite.” If the central themes, characters, or potential of a script are strong but the existing draft is unusable, studios or producers will often hire a different writer to perform a “Page One Rewrite.” As the name suggests, this is essentially a complete rewrite of the draft, preserving only the core elements that offer real potential.
- “Polish” or “Punch-Up.” If a script is pretty good but hasn’t quite achieved “great” status, another writer will often be hired to do a more lightweight “Polish” to improve an element like dialogue or pacing. A polish performed specifically to add humor or improve jokes is called a “Punch-Up.”
- “Ghost Writers.” If a “Script Doctor” is the goal, “Ghost Writer” is the starting point. These are traditionally up-and-coming screenwriters who are hired to rewrite specific scenes or improve specific elements of a script. The key difference? They receive no writing credit.
Chances are you’ve seen some type of script before, so you probably have at least a general idea of the distinct font or seemingly weird spacing that screenplays are known for using. But what do they mean and why are they there?
The most critical, and perhaps also the most widely known, aspect of script formatting is the font. Screenplays must use 12-point Courier font at all times! This carved-in-stone rule isn’t in place purely for cosmetics; it’s actually a very thoughtful typography choice with a very explicit purpose.
12-point Courier font creates the closest thing to a 1:1 page to screen relationship. In other words, one page of a traditional screenplay is on-average around one minute of screen time. Since that’s an industry-wide understanding, it’s very important to adhere to this rule so that readers or prospective financiers can judge the size and scope of a film by considering this metric.
Font may be a very important aspect of screenplay formatting, but it’s certainly not the only rule. Spacing and margin specifications plat vital roles in the same effort, which are outlined below.
- 1.5 inch margin on the left of the page
- 1 inch margin on the right of the page
- 1 inch on the of the top and bottom of the page
- Each page should have approximately 55 lines
- The dialogue block starts 2.5 inches from the left side of the page
- Character names must ALWAYS be uppercased and positioned 3.7 inches from the left side of the page
- Page numbers are positioned in the top right corner with a 0.5 inch margin from the top of the page and are followed by a period (the only exception to this is the first page, which is not numbered
Although it may seem like an overwhelming amount of detail, any screenwriting software worth its salt (like Celtx) will automate every element of this formatting for you.
All The Major Elements of a Screenplay
Again, this is a visually driven medium, meaning to effectively convey how actions are unfolding on screen, it’s essential to break the habit of describing what characters are feeling and focus on how to SHOW what they’re feeling (this is the biggest and loudest drum a seasoned screenwriter will ever beat!).
A screenplay is a roadmap that tells a reader how the audience will see and hear the events unfolding on screen. With this in mind, screenplays are comprised of a rigid set of rules, structures, and elements that make this process as easy to interpret as possible.
The building blocks of any script are its “elements,” each with their own systems and etiquettes. Outlined below are the six most important screenplay elements to learn, practice, and master.
Scene Headings. Ever heard someone, “Set the scene?” Unbeknownst to them, they were probably making a subtle reference to the very first line of any screenplay, the scene heading, or “slug line” is the very first line of any screenplay. They immediately tell the reader where the action is happening.
The first part of the scene setting establishing whether the action is taking place inside (INT.) or outside (EXT.). The second part is the specific location of the scene, for examples, MARK’S BAKERY. The third and final part of a scene heading is the time of day, either DAY or NIGHT.
If a scene takes place directly after another scene and continues the same action, you might also add CONTINUOUS. If a scene takes place shortly after another, you might say MOMENTS LATER.
A couple things here. Notice how each part is ALL CAPS? Scene headings always are! It’s also important to only use INT. or EXT. to begin a scene to communicate where action is taking place, save for the rare case where an ongoing action might take place in and out of a car. Only then can you use INT./EXT. Lastly, even though your scene may take place in the morning or evening, unless it’s crucial to the story, general rule of thumb is to stick to DAY and NIGHT as much as you can.
Action Descriptions. Right beneath the slug line is, well, a description of the action! These are always present tense and should be as concise and visually descriptive as possible. The secrets here are clarity and brevity. Describe succinctly exactly what viewers will see and hear on screen.
Keep in mind, this doesn’t include actually having to include action action, and you don’t need to include dialogue here. You do need to capitalize each character’s name the first time they are introduced in your script. Otherwise, try to be super literal and avoid floral language (this ain’t poetry!).
Last thing: make sure to capitalize important props, sound design elements, or camera movements in your action descriptions, BUT use in MODERATION or it’s HARD to READ and loses its EFFECT.
Characters. Whenever a character speaks, you’ll first need to name whoever is speaking. Make sure to use the same name for your character throughout the script to avoid confusion. When introducing a character in the action description, capitalize their name (only the first time they appear) and include one very short sentence or a handful of weird detailing their age and key personal traits.
When a character speaks, their name is capitalized and centered on the page. Dialogue for that character should be placed directly beneath their name, with wide margins on either side.
Dialogue. Arguably the most challenging and time-consuming part of screenwriting. Also, perhaps, the most rewarding! The wide margins keep dialogue centered and narrow for clarity while provide ample white space for notes.
Dialogue is an art form all of its own. The key is being straightforward and not projecting your own thoughts or voice onto a character. What would they actually say in this moment? The closer you are to fundamentally understanding your characters as real individuals, and not just products of your imagination, the better you’ll be at organically channeling their own unique and authentic voice.
Parentheticals. A small but all-important layer of texture that provides technical direction to the actor, explaining how a line should be performed. These are placed directly beneath the character’s name and before their dialogue in (you guessed it!) parentheses.
These mighty descriptors can add great depth in several varieties. For example, words like (painfully), (tearfully), or (laughing) convey an emotional dynamic to a piece of dialogue. Alternatively, words like (shrugging), (sighing), or (standing up) incorporate small actions or pieces of body language.
Although fun and extremely helpful at conveying subtleties, these should be used sparingly and only when necessary. After all, it’s important to leave actors space for their own interpretations and readings.
Even if you’ve never dabbled in storytelling before, you’re probably familiar with the three act structure. It’s an extremely traditional framework for your story, but it’s tried and true for a reason…it works! And it’s also, quite literally, a tale as old as time.
Go back far enough and you’ll learn that this structure is actually based on a theory that every human action, real or fake, is based on three logical parts: before the action, during the action, and after the action.
Video games have many acts and TV episodes can have anywhere from 3 to 7 acts depending on the length of the episode. In films, it’s common to see four-act structure and five-act structures, some have as many as 20. At the end of the day, however, everything is a variation of the grandfather of narrative structure: the classic three act structure.
Films that adhere to a strict three act structure with little to no deviation will feel incredibly familiar and trite, or worse…predictable. However, it’s the foundation for nearly all visual storytelling and the best possible starting point for a budding screenwriter. Think of it as your storytelling vegetables.
The Classic Three Act Structure follows three acts in chronological order:
- The Setup – Act I: Introducing your setting characters, setting, and overall mood
- The Confrontation – Act II: Introducing the conflicts or obstacles that your protagonist or characters are going to face
- The Resolution – Act III: A culmination of the previous elements that peaks with the climax and resolves with a tag/epilogue/denouement
Let’s say your film is 1 hour and 40 minutes long, or 100 pages. Generally speaking, that means Act I and Act III should each be 25 pages and Act II should be the middle 50 pages. This is a loose framework open to lots of interpretation and subversion. Auteur filmmakers like Tarantino or Nolan, for example, famously like to start with the Resolution, segue into the Confrontation, then only later in the film reveal The Setup.
Another foundational narrative theory to keep in mind is The Hero’s Journey, which sees a central storytelling pattern across all of human history.
The most important myths and memorable stories, according to the Hero’s Journey, share a fundamental structure that contains five main stages:
- A Call to Adventure: which the hero must accept or decline
- A Road of Trials: where the hero is confronted and succeeds or fails
- Achieving the Goal/Boon: resulting in a crucial self-realization
- Return to Ordinary World: where the hero once again succeeds or fails
- Application of the Boon: hero uses what has been learned to improve the world
Writing Time and Script Length
How long does it take to write a movie? Maybe the better question is how long should it take. And the answer: it depends.
Recommended Celtx Article: How to Write a Movie Script | A Comprehensive Guide
Professional screenwriters (the Featured Assignments and Commissioned Screenwriters of the world) are traditionally given about 1-3 months to deliver the first draft of a script, depending on the scope, length, and genre. Sometimes it only takes 2 weeks. Sometimes it takes 10 months. As long as you meet your deadline, you’re good to go!
Generally speaking, if you have a bulletproof outline and a firm understanding of your story, you should produce on-average 5-7 script pages in a normal 8 hour work day. Of course there are good days and bad, and both inspiration and creative energy drive a lot of the productivity. It’s up to you to find the balance between remaining patient with the process and pushing yourself past the inevitable writer’s walls.
A good target page count, like everything else, depends on the genre. Remember the 1:1 page-to-minute ration, so if you’re aiming for a shorter 90-minute run time, it’s best to aim for a script that clocks in at 80-90 pages. Comedy scripts — much lighter on action and heavier on dialogue — usually come in right around this length.
Drama or action films, on the other hand, generally require longer scene descriptions and can often come in at over 100 pages. Best practice is to consider 110 pages the absolute ceiling but strive to stay under 100. Anything above that suggests a certain amount of bloat and a lack of focus or clarity.
Keep all of your writing lean and mean and you shouldn’t have to worry about the length.
Recommended Celtx Article: How to End a Screenplay
Don’t be scared, but truth be told, that is just the tip of the iceberg. If you made it all the way through, congratulations! You just passed the Celtx Screenwriting 101 certification course (not really, but if we had one, this might be it).
Screenwriting is no longer an abstraction; it’s a distinct language, a fairly wide-ranging job, and a very explicit document that helps turn ideas into viewable, enjoyable, and emotional pieces of visual storytelling.
Do you think you’re ready to start screenwriting? If so, sign up for a Celtx account now and you’ll get our Screenwriting Editor for free!