Screenwriting For Dummies
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Screenwriting requires that you adhere to specific script formatting standards. As a screenwriter, you also need to know basic camera directions so that you can included them in your scripts, and you need to write interesting characters to drive your story forward.

Most producers give a script the five-and-dime treatment, meaning they’ll read the first five pages and the last ten to assess whether a movie is for them. They’re primarily looking for scripts that are between 90 and 120 pages with a compelling hook and a clear sense of style and/or genre. Format is one way to convey those things efficiently.

How to format a screenplay

As a screenwriter, you want to submit scripts that comply with accepted standards. Formatting your screenplay correctly makes it easy to read and often easier to sell. The following tips tell you how to set up your page in the proper screenwriting format.

The six components of your page are

  • The description: Any description of the location, characters, and action indicated throughout the scene. Also referred to as the business of the scene.
  • The character name: Who’s doing the talking
  • The character dialogue: What that person says
  • Parenthetical directions: How a character says a line or what they’re doing while they say it
  • Transitional directions: Any camera indications of how the scene should be visualized
  • The page number: Usually placed in the top-right corner

The following list covers where to set margins and how to format the page:

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  • Left margin: 1-1/2 inches
  • Right margin: 1 inch
  • Top margin: 1 inch
  • Bottom margin: 1 inch
  • Sluglines: Always capitalized. Run the length of the page (after you’ve set margins)
  • Description: Runs the length of the page (after you’ve set margins)
  • Character name: 3.7 inches from the left side of the page. (2.2 inches from the left margin)
  • Dialogue: Begins 2-1/2 inches from the left side of the page (1-1/2 inches from the left margin). Ends at 6-1/2 inches from the left side of the page (5 inches from the left margin)
  • Parentheticals: 3.1 inches from the left side of the page. (1.6 inches from the left margin)
  • Page numbers: Top-right corner, a half-inch from the top of the page. Followed by a period

Basic camera directions every screenwriter should know

As a screenwriter, you compose the blueprint everyone involved in a movie uses: the actors for dialogue, the director for composing scenes, and the camera operators for camera shots.

You can actually use camera direction to evoke mood and emotion, so it’s in your interest to become familiar with the information on camera angles in the following list.

Angle on: This shot suggests another view of a previous shot. Montage: The dissolving of two or more shots into each other to create a desired effect, usually an association of ideas. These shots need not include the main character, and they don’t have a beginning, middle, and end.
Close-up: A shot that emphasizes a detail in a scene. It’s often abbreviated to CU. O.S.: Shorthand for off-screen, this abbreviation is used when a character speaks outside the camera’s view, or when the audience hears a sound but can’t see where it’s coming from.
Continuation: When a scene or a speech is interrupted by a page break, type MORE in parentheses at the end of the last line on the first page, and then type CONT’D after the character’s name on the next page. POV: Shorthand for point of view, this direction implies that the scene is being viewed from another character’s perspective. You must identify whose point of view it is and what exactly he sees. If the POV alternates within a scene, employ the term REVERSE POV.
Dissolve to: This direction is used when you want to suggest a slow transition from one scene to the next. You may dissolve to suggest the passage of time between one shot and another or to suggest one image fading into the next. Series of shots: This technique abridges action sequences into a number of short moments involving the main character, usually without dialogue. A series of shots has a distinct beginning, middle and end, and is often used to dramatize a passage of time.
Fade in: Every screenplay begins with these words. They suggest the movement from darkness to an image on the screen. They’re typed in all caps at the left margin followed by a double space and the first slug line. Split screen: This shot indicates two subjects in different locations on-screen simultaneously.
Fade out: These words end a screenplay. They’re typed to the right margin and followed by six spaces and the words THE END in the center of the page. Super: Shorthand for superimpose, this term is used if another element is being superimposed over the action of a scene. A super is often used to show dates, locations, or translation texts.
Insert: A writer uses this direction to highlight an object in the scene or include a detail that’s outside the scene but important to it. To complete an insert, do one of three things: Return to the dialogue, switch locations with a new slug line, or type BACK TO SCENE at the end. V.O.: Shorthand for voice-over. This direction is used when the audience hears a character speak above the action of a scene. It’s often used for narration.
Intercut: This direction indicates that two scenes are occurring simultaneously in separate locations. This term appears in all caps as the slug line or in the description.

Character checklist for screenwriters

In most screenplays, the characters drive the action, so as a screenwriter, you need to make your characters consistent and compelling. To help get a feel for your characters, decide where each character stands on the following characteristics.

A distinct and detailed physical form? Opinions, beliefs, and world views?
A job or way to earn a living? Friends, allies, and/or confidants?
A place to return to at the end of the day? A strong external antagonist?
A safe place to relax? Equally strong internal obstacles?
Locations they love, loathe, and fear? Talents and the opportunity to express them?
Concrete, positive goals? Unique and familiar routines?

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Laura Schellhardt is an Associate Professor of Instruction at Northwestern University, where she heads the undergraduate playwriting program in the Department of Theatre. She’s dedicated her life to creating new work for stage and screen, and it’s her mission to help other writers do the same.

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