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How to Write the Screenplay for Your Digital Film

An architect works from a blueprint, and a filmmaker relies on a screenplay. DSLR filmmakers have a tough job and it’s rarely as glamorous as it seems. Success relies on following a universal format, so each craftsperson working on the project understands it on the same level through common language. One more thing: If you don’t follow the film industry’s very strict formatting rules, your script will be useless.

If you look at just about any movie script, you’ll notice how they uniformly follow the same margins and style. The screenplay consists of four main elements that include scene headings, character names, dialogue, and action:

  • Scene headings: Appearing at the top of each scene, it describes the setting for that scene and includes three pieces of information. The first simply states if the scene is inside or out. The next one describes location, and the last alludes to time. For example, INT, CASINO – AROUND MIDNIGHT, means it’s an interior scene at the casino at midnight. The top of the heading can include camera transitions.

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  • Action: Explains what happens in the scene as well as the establishing shot. Only what’s seen or heard is included here. Using the previous example, it would say something like this: Johnny watches the roulette wheel spin while nervously twitching his eyes. It can also describe the parenthetical, which is what the character does while he speaks. For example, he speaks in a nervous tone.

  • Character names: Character names are ALWAYS capitalized and centered, so it’s written as JOHNNY.

  • Dialogue: Dialogue is the words that the actors speak. They're written without quotations, unless they’re actually muttering a quote. For conventional purposes, it’s always written in a standard font. That’s 12-point Courier, and it resembles the look of a typewritten page. The dialogue is centered on the page with the margins indented at 2.5 inches, but none of that should matter if you’re using a dedicated screenwriting program.

It’s possible to write a screenplay with a word-processing program, just as it’s possible to write a term paper with a dull, nubby pencil, but that doesn’t mean it’s a wise thing to do. Going back to the necessary universal formatting, it’s cumbersome to maintain the various styles, making it time-consuming and counterproductive. An easier-to-use and more efficient dedicated script-writing program is simply a more logical choice.

But which one is best? That used to depend on your computer platform, with the PC, at one time, having a big edge over Macintosh, at least in terms of software written for it. But the field has leveled out over the past few years with multiplatform versions of popular software.

Here are a few choices:

  • Final Draft: With the same dominant name-recognition as Adobe Photoshop, this time-honored screenwriting program likely occupies the hard drives of many working screenwriters. That’s because it doesn’t just adhere to formatting, but also meets the screenplay submission standards set by theater, television, and film industries.

    The application offers hundreds of templates to quickly get you started. The templates include the standard screenplay, the BBC script template, and the Warner Bros. template frequently used in Hollywood. At first, the software only worked on Windows-based computers, but now it’s available for Macintosh and the iPad too.

  • Movie Magic Screenwriter: This is another long-running industry favorite. Because it’s been around for a little longer than Final Draft, it has its own core user group. It offers all the necessary functions and templates, with minor differences in some non-essential features. The price point is similar too. What it comes down to is how comfortable you are with each interface.

  • Celtx: Here’s the wild card in the mix. It’s a fully functional free application that at the very least can get you started. In some ways, it resembles a scaled-down version of Final Draft, but also includes other tools not found on it.

    Celtx combines both the screenwriting and pre-production processes, plus it lets you sync your projects so you can work on the same files on multiple devices. You can also allow others to share, review, and edit scripts if you choose. In addition, Celtx provides a community to share ideas, get information, and even find funding for independent films.

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