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  • The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others. Mahatma Gandhi
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Write a Screenplay

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Preparing to Write

Become familiar with the form of a screenplay

Unlike a short story or a novel, the form of a screenplay is based around dialogue, rather than prose or description. The big rule in screenwriting is: you are writing visually. Movies are a series of images, so the images in your screenplay should be striking and engaging. Another big rule is: Every paragraph of action lines should be three lines or less. This means that the descriptions about what each character is wearing or how they are acting in a scene should be no more than three lines. Use the least amount of words possible describing action or setting and let the dialogue do the "talking." Character backstory and motivations should come from a character’s actions and dialogue, as opposed to the descriptions. The best screenwriters keep their action description to two lines per paragraph throughout most of the script. But there should still be a lot of description through the power of the dialogue. Keep all writing in the present tense. This keeps things moving forward in your screenplay, which is really what your screenplay should be doing: moving action and character forward. Like everything, there are exceptions to this rule of three description lines of less per a scene. For example, the screenplay for the 2011 film “All is Lost”, written by J.C. Candor and starring Robert Redford, only has about 4-5 full pages of dialogue in the entire script. The majority of the main character’s actions are shown through long sections of description of the character’s actions. These types of screenplays are rare though, and difficult to do well.

Get used to the format of a screenplay

Screenplays are formatted differently than other types of writing. The format of a screenplay is very specific and can involve a lot of tabbing and hitting Enter if you are working in a word processing document. You can use software that does the formatting for you, such as Final Draft, Scrivener, and Movie Magic. You can also access basic versions of screenplay formatting programs for free online. Take note of elements of a screenplay format, including: The slugline: This appears in all CAPS at the beginning of a scene and briefly describes the location and time of day. For example: INT. DINER - NIGHT. Sometimes sluglines are abbreviated to something as simple as “LATER” or “BEDROOM”. INT/EXT: INT stands for an interior of a setting, such as an INT HOUSE, and EXT stands for the exterior or outside of a setting, such as EXT HOUSE. Transitions: These help you move from scene to scene in the screenplay. Examples of transitions include FADE IN and FADE OUT, which are a gradually opening and a gradually closing to a new scene, and CUT TO, which is a quick jump to a new scene. You can also use DISSOLVE TO, as one scene fades out, a new scene fades into place. CLOSE UP or TIGHT ON: This indicates a close up to a person or object on screen. For example: “CLOSE UP on Mia’s face.” FREEZE FRAME: This is when the picture will stop moving and become a still photograph on screen. b.g.: Stands for “background” to note when something is occurring in the background of the main action. You can use “b.g.” or “background” to note this in the script. For example: “Two characters are fighting in the b.g.” O.S. or O.C.: Stands for off-screen or off-camera. This means the character’s voice will be speaking off camera or from another part of the setting. For example: “Harry yells at Sally O.S.” V.O.: stands for voice over, which is when an actor reads script over a scene, narrating the scene. This appears under the character’s name, before their voice over dialogue. Montage: A series of images showing a theme, a contradiction, or the passage of time. Usually used to show the passage of time in a short period of time on screen. Tracking shot: A tracking shot means a camera follows a person or an object. As long as the camera isn’t locked down in place on a tripod and is following a subject, it is a tracking shot.

Look at examples of screenplays

There are several screenplays that are considered nearly perfect, such as the screenplay for the 1942 classic “Casablanca”. Other screenplay examples illustrate the different ways you can play around with the form. For example: “His Girl Friday”, a screenplay written by Charles Lederer. “Pulp Fiction”, a screenplay written by Quentin Tarantino. “When Harry Met Sally”, a screenplay written by Nora Ephron. “Thelma & Louise”, a screenplay written by Callie Khouri.

Look at the title cards in the example screenplays

The title cards display the setting of the scene, sometimes with specific or general timestamps. In “Thelma & Louise”, the first scene has the slugline: INT. RESTAURANT- MORNING (PRESENT DAY). In “When Harry Met Sally”, the first scene has a slugline that does not refer to a specific place or setting: “DOCUMENTARY FOOTAGE”. This indicates the film is going to begin with documentary footage rather than a specific setting.

Note the descriptions of setting and character

These elements should be done in the least amount of words, but with lots of detail. In “Thelma & Louise”, we are given an introductory paragraph about Louise:

LOUISE is a waitress in a coffee shop. She is in her early-thirties, but too old to be doing this. She is very pretty and meticulously groomed, even at the end of her shift. She is slamming dirty coffee cups from the counter into a bus tray underneath the counter. It is making a lot of RACKET, which she is oblivious to. There is COUNTRY MUZAK in the b.g., which she hums along with. The screenwriter provides a clear sense of who Louise is through her profession (“waitress in coffee shop”), her clothing and appearance (“early-thirties, but too old to be doing this,” “pretty, meticulously groomed”) and her actions (“slamming dirty coffee cups,” “oblivious” to the racket). The inclusion of sounds (which also appear in all caps in scripts) like country muzak, also paints a clear setting with very few words. In “Pulp Fiction”, we are given an introductory paragraph about the setting:

A normal Denny's, Spires-like coffee shop in Los Angeles. It's about 9:00 in the morning. While the place isn't jammed, there's a healthy number of people drinking coffee, munching on bacon and eating eggs. Two of these people are a YOUNG MAN and a YOUNG WOMAN. The Young Man has a slight working-class English accent and, like his fellow countryman, smokes cigarettes like they're going out of style. It is impossible to tell where the Young Woman is from or how old she is; everything she does contradicts something she did. The boy and girl sit in a booth. Their dialogue is to be said in a rapid pace "HIS GIRL FRIDAY" fashion. Tarantino gives us basic details about how many people are in the setting (“healthy number of people”, young man and young woman), and he provides specific but short descriptions of both characters. He also references “His Girl Friday”, a 1940s film famous for its rapid fire dialogue. All of these details create a basic sense of description and character which is then fleshed out through the dialogue.

Pay attention to dialogue in the example screenplays

Most screenplays are dialogue-heavy for a reason. Dialogue is the main tool a screenwriter has for telling the story in a film. Note how a certain character uses language in their dialogue. For example, Tarantino has Jules in “Pulp Fiction” use slang like “Whaddya mean?” instead of “What do you mean?” and inserts swear words in Jules’ dialogue. This helps to create Jules’ overall character and personality. In “Thelma & Louise”, Louise’s character uses “Jesus Christ” and “for God’s sake” throughout her dialogue. This contrasts Thelma’s dialogue, which is more prim and proper. By doing this, the screenwriter Khouri makes both characters distinct from each other and shows the audience how each character thinks and acts through her dialogue.

Note the use of description or visual cues in the dialogue

Visual cues are small notes of description that appear before dialogue is spoken. These notes will appear in parentheses before the character’s dialogue. For example, in “When Harry Met Sally”, Ephron notes “(makes a buzzer sound)” before a line of dialogue from Harry. This is a small note but it makes it clear that Harry has a certain sense of humor and way of speaking as a character. This can also be done with only one word of description between dialogue. In “Pulp Fiction”, Tarantino notes that a waitress is “(snotty)” as she says something to one of the characters. This gives the waitress’ lines a certain attitude and provides context for her dialogue. Only provide visual cues when necessary. Don’t depend on visual cues to tell the story for you. The dialogue and actions of the characters should be able to tell the story effectively, without visual cues.

Pay attention to how the screenplays transition from scene to scene

Most screenplays will move from scene to scene with a note “CUT TO:” which indicates there will be a cut from one scene to the next scene. Cutting to a scene should only be done when you are moving to a new scene or image, such as in “Pulp Fiction”, where Tarantino has two characters talking in a car and then the same two characters opening the trunk of a car. You may also see the note: “FADE IN” or “FADE OUT”. Fade ins are usually done at the beginning of a film, such as in “When Harry Met Sally” and ending of a film, which is known as a “fade out”. Fade ins provide a gentle opening to a scene that gives the viewer time to get settled into the scene.