Now Let’s Talk About Screenplays!

We turned our idea into a story, from that story we developed characters and the world they live in. Now let us talk about screenwriting.

So I am ready to rock out on this screenplay now, right?

Almost, you are so close you can smell the dollar signs already.

Before you jump right on into writing your blockbuster movie, you need to understand the anatomy of a screenplay. While there are no set rules for what or how to write, there are standards and those standards exist for a reason.

What possible reason could there be to stifle my creative genius?

Who said anything about stifling your genius?

The idea is to structure that genius into something understandable, for other people. If you ever want to sell a script or get actors to play the characters you created, they need to know who the character is, where they are, and when they are speaking. So let’s look at the formulaic elements of a good screenplay.

  • Screen headings/ Slug lines

These little beauties let the reader know where and when something is happening and should appear before every new scene.

INTERIOR – MALL – DAY

So let’s break down the example. The first word tells the reader we are indoors, so when thinking of this in terms of a movie; we know we need a set designer for an internal space, probably LED or halogen lights.

Next we have the descriptor of where we actually are, in this case we are in a mall. You can be very specific here about where in the mall, in a certain shop, in the restroom etc., etc. It lets our reader know the size of our space and any specifics we need to consider.

Next we have the time of day; DAY – NIGHT – EVENING. The idea here is to let the lighting designer know if they have natural light to work with, or will they need to come up with something new. It also gives our reader a better picture of how the scene will look, a word can paint 1,000 pictures.

  • Action text.

The action text should be one of two sentences or lines describing what is happening at that moment, every time a new action is taken a new line is created.

INTERIOR – MALL – DAY

Brittany and her friends walk through the main entrance of the Mall. Brittany looks to her left as something shifts at the edge of her vision, before she can investigate her friends pull her off towards the food court.

We are using this area to let our reader know that Brittany turns her head one way, and her friends pull her another. We also included the reason Brittany looks to her left, this is for the actor. It lets them know why Brittany is looking to the left, this is important for the simple fact she needs a confused look on her face.

  • Character. 

This is exactly what it sounds like, this is where you put the name of the person talking.

INTERIOR – MALL – DAY

Brittany and her friends walk through the main entrance of the Mall. Brittany looks to her left as something shifts at the edge of her vision, before she can investigate her friends pull her off towards the food court.

BRITTANY:

Did you guys see that?

Brittany’s friends stop and turn to face her, but do not slow down.

Friend 1:

What? That hunky security guy? Yeah we did.

Notice how the character name and dialogue are offset? Yep that’s right, you just covered Dialogue as well. Hoorah!

Sweet, what about transitions? Where do I tell the cameraman to stand?

Simply put, you don’t.

Transitions, camera movement, and even to an extent actor fine tuning. All of that is for the director and not to be put into the screenplay UNLESS it is essential to the story. A moment that needs to end in black out, add black out to the transitions. If it doesn’t add anything, leave it out.

But if I leave it out, how will they know?

White space. White space is a filmmaker’s best friend, the more white space you have to work with; the more magic you can make. 

As a director, the first thing I do when I get hold of a new script, is white-out all the staging and blocking notes that may have been included. If I am going to make a film, it is going to be my vision of your script. 

I want your story, your characters, your world, and even your dialogue… What I don’t want is for you to make the film for me and that is where white space comes in handy. 

So what does ‘white space’ space look like? How do I add it?

Have you noticed the layout of my blogs?

They are broken up every few lines into small easy to digest pieces, lots of gaps and areas for you to take notes in. That my friend is how you create white space.

You now have the basics and I do mean basics for writing your first screenplay.

Have at it and enjoy.

Jonathan Thompson – Devil May Care Productions

If this blog has been helpful to you, please feel free to check out JonathanThompson.org and book a discovery and see if one of our filmmaking courses is right for you.