How to Learn the Screenwriting Format and Rules
One of the number one things that intimidates people about screenwriting is the format and the rules. As a result, many people who have always wanted to write a script may avoid doing so simply because they don't want to deal with the perceived learning curve that comes with the storytelling medium.
Though one of the simplest ways to learn the screenwriting format and rules is via reading scripts and writing a few of your own, I thought that creating a free workshop on the subject would make learning it a bit easier and more approachable for most people, especially since my post on screenwriting as a newbie has been shared so frequently!
If you're new to my blog, you should know how wholeheartedly I believe that every writer and storyteller needs to practice writing stories in mediums that are different than the ones they are comfortable with. By mediums, I mean prose, screenwriting, playwriting, and video game writing.
This is because when you write in new mediums, you challenge your storytelling skills in a way that no other exercise can. I know this because I have seen it with my own work firsthand, writing books, short stories, plays, movies, television pilots, and even video game quests. But if you'd like to learn more, I highly urge you to check out my #StorytellingShift series or read my post on the reasons every novelist should write a screenplay!
Screenwriting Format + Rules Workshop
A Brief Overview the Workshop
Though the video describes everything I'm about to list in the better detail, should you be short on time or just want a refresher, here are some of the key things you need to know about formatting a script:
A scene heading is made up of three parts – the interior or exterior location, the geographical location, and the time of day, time of day here referring to the lighting and not the exact time.
EXAMPLE: INT. COMIC BOOK STORE - DAY
While any screenwriting program you use (I recommend Celtx in the video for all beginners) should help you format this automatically, you'll still need to know what each section means.
The first part of a scene heading refers to whether the shot is interior or exterior, or more, clearly, whether the shot is inside or outside.
INT. COMIC BOOK STORE - DAY
As you can imagine, this is particularly important because as I said in the video, the inside of a building can look and feel completely different than the outside and change many other things on a film set, so it's important to always get this right!
The next part of a scene heading refers to a non-geographical location, though as I indicated in the video, there are ways to indicate the geographical location in various ways.
INT. COMIC BOOK STORE - DAY
This second part of the scene heading is the most "meaty" part of the scene heading, simply because it actually tells the readers (and future viewers) where we are at. Because of this, any time the location changes, even if it's just moving to a new room, you'll need to create a new scene heading.
(This rule applies to any aspect of the scene heading changing. For instance, if you go from day to night between two shots or inside to outside, you'll indicate so via a scene heading. However, I find it easiest to remember any time the location changes, you'll need a new scene heading.)
The final part of a scene heading refers to whether the scene takes place during the day or at night.
INT. COMIC BOOK STORE - DAY
Though that might seem obvious, this section of a scene heading does not mean actual "time" or "year." If your movie takes place in 1929, you would put that in the action or in the "location" part of the scene heading, not in this third section.
If that confuses you, think about the third part of a scene heading as an indication of lighting. Day and night are different types of lighting for a shot, but whether the daytime is in 1929 or present day, it looks more or less the same.
Grab your free cheatsheet with top ten screenwriting rules to remember!
Action refers to everything that isn't a scene heading or dialogue. This includes not only actual action but things such as introducing characters and describing how things look as well.
Ideally, you'll want to keep your action to about 3-4 lines long per paragraph – lines here referring to actual lines and not sentences – to keep the pacing of the script more in line with the industry standard and the idea that one page in a script equals about one minute on the screen.
Though there aren't many other "rules" about how you write your action, there are a few guiding principles for things such as introducing characters and highlighting key objects.
For instance, any time you introduce a new character to your story, you'll put their names in all-caps, like so:
MARISOL, a tiny, young woman that can intimidate people three times her size, counts out three crisp, one-hundred dollar bills.
Later – whether it's in the same scene or the last page of the film – you'll write Marisol's name as normal:
He hands Marisol a handkerchief. She declines, waving her hand as if to say "no."
Additionally, some objects might be put in all caps to place further emphasis on their presence in the story. There is no hard rule here, and you shouldn't get too crazy and flood your script by putting 35 items in all caps, but generally, when an item is important to the narrative or scene, you can write in all caps:
He hands Marisol a HANDKERCHIEF. She takes it from him and admires the textile's design.
Again, this is more of a stylistic choice or way to indicate importance. Many writers will finish a whole script without ever writing any objects in all caps, so it is truthfully up to you and the style you develop.
Finally, many writers mistakenly believe that the action in a screenplay has no room for colorful and creative descriptions, but that is far from the truth, something you can see me describe further in the workshop video.
The main objective of a screenwriter is to create a blueprint that is easy to understand. If you can more efficiently convey information by being stylistic, or if you feel writing something a certain way speaks to the visuals better, then by all means do it. Just don't spend three pages describing a house's exterior – that's why your film is a film, after all, to tell a story with a series of pictures that are each worth 1,000 words.
Though dialogue isn't necessary to a scene the way the scene heading and the action are, it is often a common feature of any scene and can be expressed in a variety of ways besides just conversation.
This is because dialogue in a screenplay refers to all the different ways someone says something audibly so that the audience can hear and understand, not just the back-and-forth discussion we might be used to in a novel.
No matter what screenwriting program you choose to you – I advise Celtx for newbies – your program should format the dialogue easily between people. However, try your best not to fill an entire page with dialogue without breaking it up with action from time to time. Should you forget to include action, the people making your film or TV show will be at a loss as to what's happening during that conversation on screen, so always try to flavor your dialogue with some action!
Besides conversation, though, there are other means of expressing dialogue in a script. One of the more obvious ways, though it may not be obvious to a new screenwriter, is a conversation that takes place between one person who is on screen, and someone else who is not, like someone in another room or on the phone.
The simple way to convey that someone is speaking, but they aren't on screen is as such:
You can also write (O.C.) for the same general idea, just always write it next to the name of the person who is not on screen.
If someone is speaking via voice-over – meaning they are not in the scene or world as they are speaking – then you would write it the same way, only writing (V.O.) next to the name.
Finally, if someone is saying something in a certain way or is saying it to someone directly, you can indicate so via a parenthetical beneath the name – not to the side of it – which every screenwriting program should format for you correctly, like so:
However, with this last way to write dialogue, it is important not to get carried away and indicate how every single line is written. Screenwriting flourishes with flexibility, and over-doing it with things like parentheticals can often overwhlem the reader and turn them off from your idea, the same way too many adverbs after "said" in a novel – for example: "she said mournfully" or "he said angrily" – can feel like overkill.
Now – with all of this knowledge about formatting, you can now safely approach the writing medium without worrying about the rules or whether you're doing something wrong! If you need an extra boost, I have a free course on writing your first short film that I recommmend anyone who is interested in screenwriting enroll in!
Not only is it free and packed with way more information than I should be giving out, but it is an easy and actionable approach to finishing a three-page short film in just a few days, no matter how busy you are!