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How Screenwriting Works

By Britton Perelman · March 13, 2019

“To make a great film, you need three things — the script, the script, and the script.” – Alfred Hitchcock

Movies can’t be made without scripts. And scripts, naturally, need screenwriters. 

The problem is that screenwriting isn’t regular writing. 

While “regular” writing is intuitive (you learn how at a young age and just do it!), screenwriting is the opposite. There are rules, formats, and industry standards that must be adhered to, plus the screenwriter must understand the art of screenwriting — how it works — before he or she can even begin. 

So… what is screenwriting? 

In dictionary definition terms, screenwriting is the act of writing a screenplay. The next logical question becomes: What is a screenplay? 

A screenplay is the written document that filmmakers interpret creatively to make into a movie. It is the script given to actors, the document all crewmembers can refer to, and where the story lives before the cameras start rolling.

Stripped down to their very basics, screenplays are action and dialogue. They are what is happening on screen and what is said.

These elements present themselves on the page in very specific ways — scene headings, which explain where and when the scene is taking place; action paragraphs, which detail what is going on; and character names and dialogue lines, which dictate who is saying what. 

Take a look at the example below to see how a screenplay should be laid out, as well as how the aforementioned elements appear on the page.

This sample is from page one of the VICE script by Adam McKay. Download the VICE screenplay here for free.

The very act of filmmaking is an interpretation of the written work that is the screenplay. As the screenwriter, you are writing something that is to be expanded upon by the director and their team of creatives.

Screenplays are all about the bare necessities.

While novelists can expand and detail to their heart’s content, screenwriters must be frugal. There is only so much real estate on the page. 

To that end, scripts are minimal. They don’t include the stage directions that a play would have, for example, or the descriptions of specific minutiae such as clothing, objects, or physical appearances that a book may have.

The screenwriter’s job is to convey the story, but not make all of the creative choices.

As it says in the job description, you’re writing the screenplay, not filming the movie. 

Screenwriters also want to keep in mind the standard industry rule regarding length — one page equals one minute of screen time. It’s not an exact science, but the long conversations that take up ample page space usually balance the scenes with more action than dialogue. 

The end result is a document (typically between 100 and 120 pages) that is the written representation of what will be filmed and made into a visual end product for audiences to watch. 

The screenplay is essential — movies don’t get made without them — and understanding the art of screenwriting is the key to success. 

Thankfully, if you keep in mind these four basic lessons, the process should be crystal clear:

  • Always follow the industry standard for how your screenplay is formatted. 
  • Remember that all screenplays are essentially two things — action and dialogue (what is happening and what is said). 
  • Keep your writing minimal — your page count is limited and you aren’t making all the creative decisions before filming starts. 
  • One page equals one minute of screen time. 

Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller based in Los Angeles, California. When not buried in a book or failing spectacularly at cooking herself a meal, she’s probably talking someone’s ear off about the last thing she watched. She loves vintage typewriters, the Cincinnati Reds, and her dog, Indy. Find more of her work on her website, or follow her on Instagram.

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