Screenwriting 101

Our script services include outlines, treatments, industry script coverage, script doctoring, story notes, logline help, general screenwriting help.

What is a screenplay: 

A screenplay or script is a written plan, authored by a screenwriter, for a film or television program. Screenplays can be original works or adaptations from existing works such as novels.
The major components of a screenplay are action and dialogue, with the “action” being “what we see happening” and “dialogue” being “what we hear” (i.e., what the characters utter). The characters, when first introduced in the screenplay, may also be described visually. Screenplays differ from traditional literature conventions in ways described below; however, screenplays may not involve emotion-related descriptions and other aspects of the story that are, in fact, visual within the end-product.

Screenplays in print are highly formal, conforming to font and margin specifications designed to cause one page of screenplay to correspond to approximately one minute of action on screen; thus screen directions and descriptions of location are designed to occupy less vertical space than dialogue, and various technical directions, such as settings and camera indication are set apart from the text with capital letters and/or indentation. Professional screenplays are always printed in 12-point Courier, or another fixed-width font that appears like typewriter type.

In the United States, the Writers Guild of America, East (WGA) has final control on who may be awarded screenwriting credit for a screenplay in a union production. The WGA is one of several organizations in the U.S. and worldwide which recognize screenplays with awards.
A play for television is known as a teleplay.

Writing on spec or assignment

Screenplays can be written either on “spec” (speculative) or as assignment (“Commissioned”). The Variety language dictionary defines “spec script” as “a script shopped or sold on the open market, as opposed to one commissioned by a studio or production company”.

Writing on assignment

Assignments are commissioned by production companies or studios on the basis of pitches from producers or writers, or literary properties they already own. Most established writers do most of their work on assignment and will only “spec” scripts which they think no-one will pay them to write, or if they cannot find assignment work.

There are exceptions: some very famous writers only write on spec because they know that they can get a better price for their work this way. Other writers spec scripts that they care deeply about so that they do not have to bend to the whims of executives and producers.

An assignment may be for an original screenplay, or for an adapted screenplay based on another work such as a novel, film, short story, comic book, magazine article or, increasingly, video game. It may also, however, be for a rewrite of an existing script, and in fact this is how a large proportion of writers in the modern studio system make their living. Rewriting scripts is an art in itself and an extremely lucrative one at that: it is not unknown for trusted writers in the higher echelons of the industry to receive $200,000 a week (2004 numbers) for their efforts. $50,000 per week is not uncommon.

Rewriting is difficult because executives often have very clear ideas about what is wrong with a script; however, they are usually unable to provide detailed prescriptions for ways it can be fixed. This is not surprising, because screenwriting is not the expertise of the executive, but of the screenwriter. The writer is therefore usually expected to come up with a detailed prescription for how the script can be improved, and then execute this in a timely fashion. During the process of choosing a writer to rewrite a script the executives may ask several writers for their ‘take’ and choose the one who appears to have the greatest likelihood of moving the script forward to the point where it may be greenlit for production.

Before ‘going to script’ a writer may be asked to write a treatment, an outline, or a step outline describing the script in various granularities of detail. Some writers resist this process and will do anything to avoid it and get down the writing the script itself; others embrace the process and even deliver fairly elaborate treatments, the so-called scriptments. It is fair to say that producers tend to be wary of the former and pleasantly surprised by the latter.

Spec scripts

Many Spec scripts (short for speculative) are written independently by screenwriters in hopes of optioning and eventually outright selling them to producers or studios. Other spec scripts are written by writer-directors who plan to direct the film themselves. Many so-called “art films” fall into this latter category, whereas the former category tends to be filled with “high concept” scripts – mostly action or comedy, to which a star or A-list director can be attached. However, most of the hundreds of thousands of speculative scripts penned each year are written by unknowns who are trying to attract attention and find it difficult to generate the kind of “buzz” that more established scribes count on to sell their scripts.

The development process

Once a studio has purchased or commissioned a script, it goes through the process of revisions and rewriting until all stakeholders are satisfied and ready to proceed. It is not uncommon for a script to go through many, many drafts on its journey to production. Very few scripts improve steadily with each draft, and when a certain avenue has been exhausted the writer will often be replaced and another brought in to do a rewrite.

Occasionally it becomes impossible to satisfy all such parties, and the project enters development hell.

If a studio decides it does not wish to proceed to production with the script, the project enters ‘turnaround’. Another studio may purchase the script from its original owner, but the script is encumbered with the development costs the studio has already incurred. At a certain point, it may simply be uneconomic for anyone to purchase the script, even if it is a very good one. This goes part of the way to explaining why some of the best scripts in Hollywood remain unproduced.

The shooting script

Once a script has been approved for production, camera directions and notes may be inserted by the Director, and each scene is assigned a number to provide a convenient way for the various production departments to reference individual scenes. When a scene is omitted, its number is retained labeled with “OMITTED”, so that it won’t be assigned to any newly added scenes.

When the shooting script is distributed, its pages are locked, meaning that any subsequent revisions will apply to the first set of revision pages. When revisions are distributed, the pages are swapped into the outstanding drafts, and the script is once again locked. The process is repeated for each new round of revisions.

Each round of revisions is distributed on different colored paper. The progression of colors varies from one production to the next. Since rewrites often continue throughout principal photography, most shooting scripts evolve into a rainbow of pages.


A screenplay is different from a transcript. A transcript is simply a copy of what dialogue finally appeared onscreen, without regard to the original script, the stage directions or action. A full post-production transcript may also include descriptions of the action on-screen, but since it is generally not written by a professional writer but either a production assistant or a fan, it may not be particularly entertaining to read.

Many published screenplays available at booksellers or downloaded from the internet are in fact glorified post-production transcripts rather than shooting scripts. Transcripts and screenplays often differ radically because scenes are frequently re-ordered or dropped entirely during the editing process. Moreover, actors may change lines or simply improvise dialog, and many directors will make their own changes to the script on the fly during rehearsal or shooting.

It can be extremely revealing to compare a shooting script with the film as finally distributed.

Format & Style

The primary purpose of format and style in a screenplay is legibility and comprehension. Format and style are a collection of conventions that serve to present to a producer a story in its most filmic form, as a specific scenario of a possible film. Format and style encompass thus all formal aspects of a screenplay, though not the story itself.

Format consists of two aspects:
(1) The interplay between typeface/font, line spacing and type area, from which the standard of one page of text per one minute of screen time is derived. Unlike in the United States where US letter and Courier 12 point are mandatory, Europe uniformly uses A4 as the standard paper format however without a uniform font requirement.

(2) The tab settings of the scene elements (dialogue, scenes headings, transitions, parentheticals, etc.), which constitute the screenplay’s layout.

Today’s screenplay layout dates back to the advent of sound, and thus dialogue in film. In response, the Hollywood studios created separate dialogue departments that worked alongside the story departments. The dialogue department would use indented tab settings to distinguish the dialogue and character cue from the action. To this day, these differing tab settings serve actors to distinguish between what they should do and say.

Throughout Europe, also the layout is non-uniform. While Great Britain adheres to a format that is almost identical to the American one, most other countries do not. The formats in most other countries differ in font and font treatment and/or in their tab setting. It should be pointed out however that not all countries adhere to a format or deem format important.

The style of a screenplay in turn consists of a grammar that is specific to screenplays. This grammar also consists of two aspects:

(1) A prose that is manifestation-oriented, i.e. focuses largely on what is audible and what is visible on screen. This prose may only supply interpretations and explanation (deviate from the manifestation-oriented prose) if clarity would otherwise be adversely affected.

(2) Codified notation of certain technical or dramatic elements, such as scene transitions, changes in narrative perspective, sound effects, emphasis of dramatically relevant objects and characters speaking from outside a scene.

This type of screenplay-specific grammar (style) has essentially been in existence for as long as screenplays exist but style has only begun to gain in importance in the aftermath of the collapse of the Hollywood studio system when the film industry began to operate as a freelance industry. 

Screenwriters needed to place more emphasis on a style that more closely reflected the impact of the final product, the film.

Due to the different distribution conditions throughout the world’s film industries, also style is not deemed equally important.

Screenwriting software

Detailed computer programs are designed specifically for screenplays, and many have templates for teleplays and stageplays. These programs have been designed to create industry standard screenplays and are used by professional screenwriters. What should be remembered is that all such software is an aid in the formatting of a screenplay and not the actual creation of it. A number of these programs offer access to online screenwriter communities where feedback from fellow screenwriters is available. 

View script coverage services

Comments are closed