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Screenwriting Tips 101

written by: •edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 8/20/2009

If you’ve ever wanted to write a selling screenplay, follow these tips to a perfect start! This article explains the basics, from script development, to the proper format recommended in the industry,to a few insider hints you may want to follow so your screenplay will read as if it’s already a vis

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    Screenwriting Tips 101

    You want to write a professional, industry-standard selling screenplay, right? Just follow these basic guidelines and you’ll be well on your way to a great start.

    First, you absolutely need to have a great story with influential characters. Make it original and something people will want to read (and watch!). Brainstorm ideas. Don’t be afraid to make a mess. Whether your ideas originate from real events and/or people you may already know, or from dreams and/or inspirations, this is the first stage to creating a script--brainstorming.

    Also, write out character breakdowns of your characters: personalities, ages, appearances, relations to other characters, needs and wants, back stories, values, goals, conflicts (internal and external), etc. Anything! The important thing to remember when breaking down the character is to really get to know them as if they’re as real as anyone you personally know. (When you eventually write your story into screenplay format, these breakdowns will help you tremendously from the characters’ reactions to their conflicts to their dialogue.)

    Now you have your story and characters. Take the brainstorming ideas and story and break them down into three acts:

    Act I. (The Beginning) shall be your introduction and is also known as the attraction. Usually, although not set in stone, on screen this act lasts within the first twenty minutes to thirty minutes of the film.

    Act II. (The Middle) is the largest of all three acts and is also known as the anticipation. This is the act where all the conflicts are taking place and how the conflicts are influencing the characters.

    Act III. (The End) is the conclusion and satisfaction and how the conflicts have influenced and/ or changed the characters.

    Before you begin, settings must be set to the industry standard font-- Courier 12 type.

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    Formating

    Ok! Let’s write! Format! Format! Format! There are plenty of software programs that can format your screenplay for you, such as Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter. However, even if you don’t have a screenwriting software program you can still write in the recommended industry standard on a word document program. Just set your document margins and tabs as follows:

    Left Margin: 1.5 inches

    Right Margin: 1.25 inches

    Top and Bottom: 1 inch

    Set your tabs as follows:

    Scene Headings/ Scene Descriptions: 1.5 inches (all the way to the left margin) (you don’t need to set this tab since you’ve already set the left margin) (The total width is 6 inches)

    Dialogue: 2.5 inches (The total width is 3.5 inches) to 6 inches

    Parentheticals: 3 inches (The total width is 2.5 inches)

    Character Cues: (left margin): 3.5 inches to (right margin) 5.5 inches (The total width is 4 inches)

    Transitions: 7.5 inches (total width is 2 inches- don’t extend past the 5.5 inch tab from left)

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    Definitions

    What are Scene Headings?

    Example:

    EXT. PLANTATION - DAY

    EXT (all caps) (stands for exterior) INT (stands for interior)

    PLANTATION (location)

    DAY (think of day as daylight hours) NIGHT (nighttime hours)

    What are Scene Descriptions?

    Example:

    Autumn sunlight shimmering. Warm. An Antebellum house sits in the distance behind a a LONG brick paver driveway and an elaborate OPENING IRON GATE -- HIGH-PITCH SQUEEEEEAK

    Old oak trees adorned with Spanish moss line the way, creating an outstretched arching tunnel toward the old house.

    A light breeze begins to blow -- Autumn leaves -- all colors -- some fall to the freshly cut lawn. One single RED LEAF falls. Falling. Falling. Falling --

    onto the driveway.

    SILENCE

    A LOW DRONING SOUND grows louder. LOUDER. The sound of an ENGINE nears -- A 1926 FORD MODEL T rolls along the driveway, crushing --

    THE RED LEAF

    (more about this particular description later)

    What is Dialogue, Parentheticals and Character Cues?

    Example:

    MR. THOMAS

    (rolling eyes)

    No, no, NO! I told you the first time!

    (beat)

    What’s wrong with you?

    (deep breath)

    Whatever!

    MR. THOMAS (Character Cue) The character speaking (Should be in ALL CAPS)

    Parentheticals -- (rolling eyes) (a direction note that explains a reaction, mood, (should be in lower case, except for proper nouns); is also used to break up dialogue (ex. beat).

    Dialogue - all the words (not parenthecticals) that Mr. Thomas says. (italics and/or ALL CAPS on emphasized words)

    What are Transitions?

    Example:

    CUT TO:

    Transitions are always in ALL CAPS and are located towards the right margin, followed by a colon. Common transitions are as follows: CUT TO: ; FADE IN; FADE OUT

    They are used between change of scenes and/ or locations, especially between a difference in time. However, if you’re writing a scene that takes place in the same house, for example, with rooms close enough together and the time is continuous, it is not necessary to place a transition between the two locations.

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    Tips

    So, that you know the basics of script formatting and the terms used in a screenplay, let’s discuss some insider hints!

    The important thing to remember is to guide your reader’s eye! Make it flow as if it’s already visual. It should also read easily. Limit the adjectives, unless it’s absolutely necessary to explain in detail what the viewers must see. You’re not writing a novel.

    Also, a quick word of advice--never ever write out what a character thinks--only show what the character thinks (unless it’s a voice over and serves as a narration, this would be an exception). Human behavior can be read through certain gestures they make. There are countless numbers of ways to describe how a character reacts to something external. (trembling, teary eyes, pounding hearts, etc.)

    Okay, you reall want to include some camera directions for when it's filmed, but should you? Read on...

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    Directing the Camera

    The example of the scene description above depicts a few key elements that explain the flow of visuals, and an indirect way to direct the screenplay. *REMEMBER * the industry standard does NOT appreciate a screenwriter writing in camera cues! This would be considered writing a shooting screenplay and should NOT be done. (unless you’re producing the film yourself) Regardless, it’s always considerate to allow the Director and the Director of Photography to direct the camera. Let’s take a moment to examine some techniques with framing, lighting, and sound. Again, here is the same scene description as above:

    Autumn sunlight shimmering. Warm. An Antebellum house sits in the distance behind a LONG brick paver driveway and an elaborate OPENING IRON GATE -- HIGH-PITCH SQUEEEEEAK

    Old oak trees adorned with Spanish moss line the way, creating an outstretched arching tunnel toward the old house.

    A light breeze begins to blow -- Autumn leaves -- all colors -- some fall to the freshly cut lawn. One single RED LEAF falls. Falling. Falling. Falling --

    onto the driveway.

    SILENCE

    A LOW DRONING SOUND grows louder. LOUDER. The sound of an ENGINE nears -- A 1926 FORD MODEL T rolls along the driveway, crushing --

    THE RED LEAF

    Notice the incomplete sentences. Unlike your traditional rules to writing guidelines, single words and incomplete sentences work perfect in screenplays, and serves as a visual representation and also an indirect approach to ‘safely’ direct the camera without directly slipping in camera cues (ex. ECU (Extreme Close Up). Incomplete sentences also help dramatize the action by smoothly flowing the visuals. Much like poetry.

    Another approach to use is to add spacing and dashes. Spacing adds more camera direction than you can imagine and flows your action! When you space paragraphs or even add dashes you create directional flow with the eye. It’s a way to actually see the visuals, whether far away or up close, moving from one side of the frame to the next, and so forth.

    ALL CAPS may also be used to depict Extreme Close Ups (ex. RED LEAF). When you read the line where the red leaf is falling, you can actually see it up close and follow it as it falls.

    Sounds may also be heard. ALL CAP SOUNDS add the sound effects you want to highlight. (SILENCE is also considered a sound!) The long squeak sound signifies the squeaky sound that an old iron gate would make. Don’t be afraid to misspell words either. You want the reader to not just see the visuals but also to hear the visuals.

    Altogether, in the above scene description, the reader may first visualize an establishing shot (WIDE ANGLE) view of the house, driveway and trees, perhaps from a high crane shot. Then when the red leaf falls, the camera tracks downward, following the red leaf all the way down toward the driveway into a LOW ANGLE of the driveway and house in the background.

    So, now that you’ve got the fundamental tips to writing a selling screenplay, from script development, proper industry format, plus a few insider hints you are ready to write a selling script!