How to Format a Screenplay
So you’ve got this great idea for a movie, but before you can produce, direct or even sell your movie, you have to write the screenplay in the correct entertainment industry format. This guide will teach you the basics of screenplay formatting using examples from Final Draft® software.
A properly formatted screenplay serves two purposes.
The first purpose is to tell a story. If you write the screenplay well, your description of a great battle will explode in the reader’s ears, your dialogue between two lovers will cause the reader’s eyes to tear up, and that emotional speech you write from a great leader will leave a lump in your reader’s throat. When you read a great screenplay, you see the movie in your mind and can’t wait to see it on the big screen.
A screenplay also serves a necessary secondary purpose, acting as a tool for the filmmaker. A screenplay is a working document – a blueprint, if you will – that makes it possible for the director, the cinematographer, the actors, and the many crew members to do their jobs.
Before your screenplay can be turned into a movie, your script must be broken down into many elements. In Hollywood-speak this is known as a “script breakdown.” When you break down a script, you must figure out how many minutes a scene will take to shoot, which actors you need, and where the scene will be shot or filmed. For just one small scene, you might have to find a horse, blow up a Cadillac, or find a location in Texas that can double as Mars.
You can imagine that even the lowest-budget independent film still requires the director to make hundreds – if not thousands – of decisions before he or she ever yells, “Action!” For many years, Hollywood relied upon legions of low paid assistants armed with notepads and pencils to break down scripts and keep production moving forward, but since 1991, much of Hollywood has instead relied upon Final Draft software.
When you write a screenplay with Final Draft software, you’re guaranteed to write a screenplay formatted to the entertainment industry standard. But, more importantly, your screenplay will be written in the proprietary Final Draft file format (FDX) that integrates natively with the professional production, scheduling and budgeting tools that most filmmakers use.
Why Write in Final Draft Format?
Screenplays written with a typical word-processing program or a free web-based screenplay template can’t be used in professional film productions. They often must be retyped or have to go through a complicated conversion process to get them ready for production. Screenplays written in Final Draft and saved in the FDX format are ready for professional use.
The Final Draft professional quality is why so many agents, directors and producers will tell writers to only send them a screenplay written in Final Draft. It’s also why so many award-winning films – including Oscar®-winners The King’s Speech and The Social Network – were written with Final Draft.
It’s not just screenplays you can write with Final Draft. With Final Draft, you can also write stage plays, musicals, sitcoms, TV dramas, novels, and even graphic novels.
Final Draft is used professionally all over the world.
Final Draft is a U.S. company and is extremely popular throughout Hollywood and even Broadway. Final Draft is also used professionally throughout the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Germany, France, and over 60 other countries. We have dictionaries in English (U.S., Canada, and British), Catalan, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Swiss-German, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese (Brazilian and European), Spanish, and Swedish.
No matter your life experience, age, or level of education, you have a story to tell. No matter where you are from, you have a story to tell. Hollywood alone produces 600 movies per year. Add in the television industry, independent films, and markets outside the United States and there are thousands of professional screenwriting opportunities every single year for storytellers just like you.
But for now, you will be starting where every successful screenwriter starts, with the spec script. A spec script is one written “on speculation” which means it has not yet been sold or produced.
In this guide, we’ll be showing you examples from scripts for feature films. TV scripts build on this same basic formatting, but also include additional information that varies by genre, studio, or production company. If you are a registered Final Draft user you can visit our website and download free templates for hundreds of popular television shows.
Although there are few rigid rules about formatting a spec script, there are generally accepted guidelines that you need to know.
Let’s start with the margins. The top margin is one of those rigid rules: It must be one inch. Your bottom margin, and your right— or outside—margin can vary from that by up to a quarter-inch. Your left, or inside, margin needs to allow space for the three-hole punch binding, so that should be about one-and-a-half inches.
Font and Page Numbers
The font is another one of those rigid rules. It must be the Courier font and 12 points. This font is an entertainment industry standard. It makes it easier to estimate screen time from the number of pages. Try to get fancy, with any other font, and your script looks amateurish.
The top of the page—or header—is also lean and clean. All you should have there is the page number, flush right, about a half-inch from the top of the page, and followed by a period. The exception is the first page which shouldn’t have a page number on it at all.
Your First Line
The first line of your script should be just as good as the first line of any blockbuster. In fact, it should be exactly the first line of virtually every blockbuster script, which is: FADE IN, typed all uppercase, flush left, followed by a colon, on a line all by itself. With your next line, you’ll start your very first scene.
Everything in a screenplay is organized into scenes, and every scene starts with a scene heading, which can also be called a slug line. These terms are interchangeable.
Read these lines below from the hit movie You’ve Got Mail. The first line is the scene heading.
EXT. KATHLEEN'S STREET – DAY
Joe, on his way to Kathleen’s apartment building, carrying a bunch of daisies, wrapped in cellophane. Joe goes up the stoop to her building and looks at the buzzer. Sees Kelly, 3A. He presses. Nothing. Presses again.
This scene heading is typical. It has three parts.
The first one tells you whether the camera is placed outside, or exterior, which is abbreviated EXT; or inside, which is INT, for an interior scene.
Next is the location of the scene. This can be as specific as Billy’s Bedroom, or as broad as Wyoming. In this case, it’s Kathleen’s Street.
Last is time of day. It’s best to write only day or night. Specific times are not used, although you might use a general time of day, like sunrise or evening, if that’s critical to making the scene work.
Here’s a scene heading from the following scene that’s a little different.
INT. KATHLEEN'S APARTMENT – SAME TIME
Kathleen, in her pajamas, at the intercom, horrified.
Why do you think that for
This scene is happening at the same time as the one right before it, which is Joe at the front door of her apartment building. So the first scene is Joe pressing the buzzer, then the next scene is Kathleen responding: Two different perspectives, of one event, at the same time.
Even though none of these scenes have dialogue, we can still picture the movie in our minds.
When you’re finished with a scene, just start a new one by writing a SCENE HEADING. Nothing else is needed.
In some rare cases, you might want to end your scene and call for a specific transition such as DISSOLVE or JUMP. In this case, you can use Final Draft and choose the Transition element.
The correct transitional format is all capital letters, followed by a colon, and flush right. Because most scenes end with a cut, you don’t need to point out the obvious. Scripts that end scenes with “cut to,” written out, or use a lot of any type of transition, look amateurish. Only use a transition to the next scene when absolutely necessary.
There are other special headings and situations that we don’t have time for here, but you can learn about them in The Screenwriter’s Bible available on Amazon.com.
Action and Dialogue
Screenplays are made up of scenes and scenes are made up of action and dialogue. The format of these elements is pretty simple. Action extends out to both margins. It’s single-spaced and is simply a present-tense description of what the audience sees. Here’s an example of an action line from the movie L.A. Confidential.
"Reporters scribble as the Chief speaks. Uniforms everywhere along with Exley and Loew.
It’s lean, clean … easy to read. It’s good.
Action should never try to explain what a character is thinking. You would never write something like “Jane thinks her blind date has appalling table manners.” If that’s the case, give the date something appalling to do, then have Jane react to it.
In fact, anything that can’t be seen doesn’t belong in action description. You wouldn’t write that the date is wearing a
Camera or editing directions don’t belong anywhere in a spec script. You might see example scripts that say “the camera moves through the room,” or “angle on the gun,” or “slow cross-fade.” Those examples are probably from shooting scripts. They’re supposed to include technical directions. What you’re writing is a spec script. Including
Dialogue is indented and runs down the center of the page. Final Draft sets the proper indents for you – the left indent between an inch and one-and-a-half inches from the left margin; and a right indent of about an inch and a half.
Above the block of dialogue is the name of the character speaking. It’s called a character cue and is indented about an inch more than the dialogue. But keep it flush left rather than centered. There’s also a third dialogue element that you shouldn’t use very often. It’s called parenthetical direction because it’s inside of parentheses marks. It tells the actor how the dialogue should be delivered.
These are also called
So there they are, the elements that
What You Should Do Next
So far, we have covered the bare basics of writing a screenplay and will go into even more detail, so strap in.
If you haven’t downloaded the trial version of Final Draft, please do so here. It’s absolutely free. You can write and save up to 15 pages which is plenty to start writing your first screenplay.
At any time, you can purchase Final Draft 11 and instantly convert the trial version to a fully-working copy of Final Draft. If you are a student or teacher, Final Draft also offers Final Draft 11 Educational. You can then put your copy of Final Draft on another computer as well.
You should also read as many screenplays as possible. Read screenplays from every genre. Read the best screenplays from every era. Read bad screenplays. You can find screenplays on the Internet and at most every bookstore.
But, most importantly, write, write, and write some more.
If you would like to read more about formatting screenplays, you can download our How to Format a Screenplay guide.
"No matter your life experience, age, or level of education, you have a story to tell."
How to Outline a Screenplay
You must, must, must … outline your story before you sit down to write your screenplay.
Wait, here’s a better way of putting it. You must, must, must … outline your story before putting it in screenplay form.
The second version is way better because outlining is an integral part of the screenwriting process. So, to say that you must outline BEFORE you write your screenplay is misleading and undermines the importance of one of a screenwriter’s most important tools.
When I say outline, I don’t mean a little two-page beat sheet that you can jot down in 10 minutes. I mean a full scene-by-scene outline of your entire story from the beginning to end. An outline that clearly defines the act breaks. An outline that even describes what the dialogue will be in every scene. An outline so insanely detailed that when it’s finally time to transfer your story into screenplay form … you only have to think about one thing: How to make it all sound awesome on the page so that the read will be a breeze.
In the same way an artist first sketches his subject before he commits paint to canvas, you must also sketch out your entire story before you commit words to Final Draft. (Granted, you can use Final Draft to do the outlining, but we will get to that later.)
The great thing about the outlining process is that it’s freeing. When you outline, you can make tons of changes to your story without the pressure of writing or rewriting the actual screenplay. You’re free to play with your idea and get your plot points structured correctly without stressing about writing snappy dialogue or finding a cool way to describe your car chase.
Outlining is essential, and although there is no magic number for how many pages an outline should be, I typically aim for around 40 pages.
Sure, there are some freaks of nature who can write brilliantly without an outline. I’ve heard that Stephen King writes whole novels without planning a single moment. But … he’s Stephen King! He’s a writing god! You’re not … at least not yet.
Usually, what separates the wannabe's from the pros is HARD WORK. I personally know many professional screenwriters—brilliant cats with talent coming out of their ears. Every single one of them outlines extensively before working in screenplay form. Okay, not all of them write 40 pages like I do but their outlines are always incredibly detailed. A lot of pros, myself included, will tell you that most of the real work of screenwriting is done in the outline.
So, now that I’ve convinced you to outline your story you’re probably wondering what your outline should look like. Good question.
Here’s what I do. I list every single scene in the movie and fill in details for each scene. (You can use the outlining tools in Final Draft to do this.) I give each scene a header just as it would appear in the final screenplay.
Some people use index cards for each scene while others, like myself, just list the scenes as in the example above. I don’t prefer using index cards because the amount of information you can write down for each scene is limited to the size of the card – unless you are using the Index Card feature in Final Draft.
I like my outlines to be infinitely and easily expandable so that I don’t have to be overly selective about what ideas I jot down. I can include as much or as little as I please without worrying about space.
One last thing about outlines. Your outline is there as a detailed guide but don’t let it become a crutch. As you transform your outline into screenplay form, try to always remain open to inspiration. Maybe you should listen to your characters when they insist on taking a scene in a slightly different direction than what you planned.
I’ll tell you a secret, and this is absolutely true.
After I’m done with my meticulous outline and it’s time to transform it into screenplay form, I rarely refer to it. Crazy, right? I’ve never really understood this but my theory is this: I’ve worked so hard to figure out every moment of the story that it feels real to me.
As I’m working in Final Draft, I’m not dreaming up a story any longer, I’m just describing a movie that I’ve already seen.
Final Draft has many powerful features designed to help you plan your screenplay.
Final Draft Outlining Features
This feature has double-sided cards that display a scene from your script on one side and its summary on the other. The Summary View allows you to enter ideas directly into the Index Card such as your basic outline, notes, sequence or act markers, comments, locations, blocking… anything you need to build and organize your story. Simply select one or more individual Index Card Summaries and copy the content directly into the script and the text will appear at the end of any previously existing content in the scene.
You can also color your Index Cards to help organize themes, character arcs, A and B stories, etc. Select and rearrange multiple cards at once if you need to reorder your scenes or print your Index Cards directly on 3x5 or 4x6 cards for visualizing and organizing scenes outside of the application. Double-clicking on a card in Split Panel View will automatically sync the scene selected with your script.
Scene Properties Inspector [Final Draft Exclusive]
Add scene titles and colors to track your story lines, characters, and more.
Use this new floating pallet to track data specific to each scene, such as the story beats that will eventually make up the action, characters, and dialogue of the scene.
Add and edit your scene’s title such as “Villain introduced,” and add color to the scene to help you track elements like storylines, character arcs, and material you need to review later. Like the Scene Navigator, the SPI will display the details of whatever scene you’re working on in your script so you have summary notes handy when you need them.
Scene Navigator [Final Draft Exclusive]
Manage and view the important details of your scene in this sortable floating pallet.
Manage the pace and flow of your story and keep track of up to nine categories of information related to your scenes. The Scene Navigator is a sortable, customizable floating pallet that displays details about your script including a scene’s title, color, page number, length, and location. Best of all it syncs with the script with a single-click. As your script progresses, you can pick and choose the columns of information that are relevant for your current phase of writing.
Outline your script ideas and reorder scenes in this high-level overview.
With Scene View you can see your script from a 5,000-foot view and select, drag and drop one or more scenes to reorganize your ideas as you outline. Insert new scenes easily, and hide or show information important to you such as a scene’s action, title and summary. Scene View also displays a scene’s color so you can quickly identify one scene from another. Print your Scene View or just view it alongside the script. With a double-click you can sync the script and instantly go to any scene you’ve selected in Scene View.
"If it can be written, or thought, it can be filmed." -Stanley Kubrick
How to Create Characters
Creating a character is a process that will be with you from the beginning to the end, from fade in to fade out. It is an ongoing educational progression, an experience that continues expanding as you go deeper and deeper into your characters’ lives.
There are many ways to approach writing character. Some writers mull over their characters for a long period of time and then, when they feel they “know” them, they jump in and start writing. Others create an elaborate list of characterizations. Some writers list the major elements of their character’s life on 3 x 5 cards; some write extensive outlines or draw diagrams of behavior. Some use pictures from magazines and newspapers to help them see what their characters look like. “That’s my character,” they say. They may tack the pictures above their work area so they can “be with” their characters during their work time. Some use well-known actors and actresses as models for characters.
Anything that makes it easier for you to create your character is a good tool. Choose your own way. You can use some, all, or none of the tools mentioned here. It doesn’t matter. What matters is whether it works. If it works, use it; if it doesn’t, don’t. Find your own way, your own style in creating a character. The important thing is that it’s got to work for you.
One of the most insightful character tools is writing a Character Biography. The character biography is a free–association, automatic-writing exercise that reveals your character’s history from birth up until the time your story begins. It captures and defines the forces—both physical and emotional, internal and external—working on your character during those formative years that fashioned his or her behavior. It is a process that reveals character.
Start at the beginning. Is your character male or female? How old is he when the story begins? Where does he live? What city or country? Where was she born? Was she an only child, or did she have any brothers and sisters? What kind of relationship did she have with her brothers and sisters? Was it good or bad? Confiding or adventurous? What kind of childhood would you say your character had? Would you consider it happy? Or sad? Was it physically or medically challenging, with illness or physical problems?
What about her relationship to her parents? Was she a mischievous child getting into a lot of trouble or was she quiet and withdrawn, preferring her own inner life instead of a social one? Was she stubborn, willful and did she have a problem with authority? Do you think she was socially active, made friends easily, and got along well with relatives and other children? What kind of a child would you say she was? Was she outgoing and extroverted or shy and studious, an introvert? Let your imagination guide you.
Write character biographies for two or three of your main characters in about seven to 10 pages. More if you need to. Focus on their early years. Where was the character born? What did his/her father and mother do for a living? What is his relationship with his parents? Does he or she have any brothers or sisters? What’s the relationship—friendly and supportive or angry and combative?
Define the other relationships the character has in his or her next stage in life and see how these relationships formed his or her character. Remember Henry James’ Theory of Illumination: Every character sheds light on your main character.
Before you begin writing your biography, think about your character(s) for a few days, then set aside a time where you can work two or three hours without interruption. No phone calls, no TV, no e-mail, video games, no visits from friends. It may help to lower the lights or turn on some soft music. Then start “throwing down” thoughts, words, and ideas about the character. Just let it come out. Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation, spelling, or bad writing. Just get your thoughts down on paper, and don’t worry about anything else. You’re not going to show these pages to anyone; it’s only a tool for you to use while you discover your characters and “get to know them.” If you want to include parts of your character biography in your screenplay, fine. But just get your character down on paper. Free-associate. Let your characters discover who they are.
Do the same with the professional, personal, and private lives of your character. Write a page or two about what your character does for a living, his or her relationships and hobbies. You might even go into a “day in the life” of your character and write what his or her day looks like? What does she do from the moment she gets out of bed until she goes to sleep at night? Write it in a page or two. If you need to write more, write more. If you can do it in less, do it in less.
If you discover any areas in a character’s life you feel unsure or insecure about, write it down. Do some research if necessary. Free-associate. The relationship between you and your characters is like the relationship between two best friends. You decide what you need and then define it.
If you don’t know whether you should write something or not, write it! It’s your script, your story, your characters, and your dramatic choices. When you have completed your assignment, you will know your characters as if they were good friends.
"Don’t expect the puppets of your mind to become the people of your story. If they are not realities in your own mind, there is no mysterious alchemy in ink and paper that will turn wooden figures into flesh and blood." - Leslie Gordon Barnard
How to Name Characters
Choosing names for your characters is an important part of the writing process. The names you choose will not only indicate what type of character it is, but also make them easier to read on the page.
In a screenplay or teleplay, the names of your main characters appear many times on the page (both in the action and above the dialogue). If there are several characters who have scenes together, it helps not to give them similar names (unless this is a plot point of some sort). You should also avoid giving characters names that begin with the same letter. In real life a guy named Michael can be dating a girl named Michelle, or a guy named Robert might be friends with a guy named Richard, but you’re writing a screenplay, and you want it to read well. It doesn’t matter how engaging your story is, or how richly nuanced your characters are, if there isn’t enough distinction between your characters’ names, it will make it a confusing read and act as an eyesore. The more the names are cited, the more necessary it is to distinguish them.
Let’s look at the three main characters in the original Ghostbusters: Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz, Egon Spengler. So we’ve got three characters whose first names all begin with a different letter. Peter and Egon both have two syllables in their names, Ray has one. Incorporating an uncommon name is also ideal, like “Egon”. This is a good template to follow. If you were reading the script for Ghostbusters, it’s likely you wouldn’t have a problem distinguishing Peter, Ray, and Egon from one another. The last name of a character is usually only used to designate them as an authority figure or someone with a formal relationship to the other characters. Once you decide to use the first name or last name, stick with it. Generally speaking, the more consistent you are in your formatting, the more professional you’ll appear. If you have a character named “Bob Smith” and you’re calling him “Bob” for the first twenty pages or so, don’t suddenly start calling him “Smith” or “Mr. Smith”. It will make your screenplay very confusing to read.
Getting past the basics, there are other things to consider when naming your characters. What does the characters’ name say about them?
If your character is an “every man” or “every woman”, then a common name should be used. Note that Peter and Ray are the more “down-to-earth” Ghostbusters whereas Egon is the highly cerebral one whose hobby is collecting “spores, molds and fungus.” His name is appropriately offbeat. From Screech on Saved By The Bell to Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory, giving the “uber nerd” or “outsider” character an unusual name is a well-tested technique. And in one famous case, the character Steve Urkel, from Family Matters, was referred to primarily by his last name. This was not only a way to emphasize his offbeat personality but to portray him as an outsider. This technique was also used to distinguish the various characters in Seinfeld: Kramer, Newman and Peterman were more eccentric or at odds with Jerry, George and Elaine.
Sometimes a character’s name can have a more poetic or symbolic significance. There’s a scene in Pulp Fiction in which Bruce Willis’ character Butch has a conversation with a taxi driver named Marsellus. Marsellus asks him what his name means. He quips it doesn’t mean anything. Perhaps this was Quentin Tarantino injecting a touch of irony, after all, the word “butch” means “masculine in appearance or behavior” and Butch’s character is classically macho: boxer, muscular, aggressive, filled with honor and pride, etc. And while we’re talking boxers, the name Rocky Balboa might say more about the character than simply that he’s an Italian-American. Like “a rock”, he’s someone who’s not only dependable, but you can’t knock him down, he’s immovable, and he’ll go the distance. Also look at the name of Rocky’s opponents: Apollo (Sun God) Creed is the heavyweight champion of the world, who basks in the spotlight; Clubber Lang (a club is “a heavy stick with a thick end, especially one used as a weapon”) is a living, breathing weapon, who wants to club Rocky into submission; and Ivan Drago’s last name is one letter away from “dragon”, a mythical beast which typically needs to be slayed by a hero.
The fantasy genre is filled with symbolic names. When George Lucas was penning the early drafts of Star Wars, his characters went through many different name changes. The original protagonist was a young Jedi-in-training named Annikin Starkiller. The older Jedi master was named Luke Skywalker (essentially the Obi-Wan Kenobi character). Lucas decided the word “killer” was wrong for a heroic character, so he ended up using Luke Skywalker for the young protagonist and renamed the Jedi master. “Annikin”, of course, was later revised as “Anakin” and applied to Luke’s father. Darth Vader means “Dark Father” via a loose Dutch translation. “Darth” clearly suggests “dark”, and “vader” is the Dutch word for “father”. Regardless of Lucas’ original intention, the words “Darth Vader” evoke the idea of menace.
So, the next time you’re deciding what to name your hero, your villain, or your outsider, ask yourself what name is going to look best on the page and is best suited to the character you are creating. This is just one aspect to crafting memorable characters.
"A writer should create living people; people, not characters." - Ernest Hemingway
How to Write Great Dialogue
Whenever we think of great films, what we remember most is not the scenery nor the structure, but the dialogue. Dialogue is the “music” of movies. From, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” to “Go ahead, make my day.” From “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night,” to “At my signal, unleash hell.” Great dialogue will make your script sing. And while story structure is more important to writing a successful screenplay, juicy dialogue can help attract an A-list star to your script. Powerful dialogue will also give your script that extra bit of “zing” that can make the sale.
Writing movie dialogue is like dancing: Some people are born with a knack for it, and others do it as awkwardly as your physics teacher attempting the funky chicken at the high school dance. But just like dancing, writing dialogue is a skill that can be learned. Here are my 10 best tips for creating memorable dialogue:
Context and Character are Everything
As you’ll notice from the famous examples given above, the best dialogue won’t make any sense to anyone who hasn’t seen the movie. Make sure your dialogue fits the character who is speaking it, and that it springs directly from story context instead of feeling “grafted on.” Even in comedies, if a line isn’t true to the character and situation, it won’t work.
No One Should Talk Like Everything Else
As in life, each character in your script should have his own distinctive speaking style. To test for this in your script, cover up the character names and see if you can still guess which character is speaking at any given moment. If your characters talk too much alike, fix this problem right away.
No "Small" Roles
Actors like to say, “There are no small roles. Only small actors.” When I read and evaluate a script, I worry when I see characters with generic names like “Thug #1” or “Waitress #2.” Too often, that naming convention results in equally generic dialogue. Each character in your script should have a name (or at least a persona, such as, “Nervous Bank Teller”), and a distinctive personality—reflected in his dialogue.
Arguing is Good
Arguing probably isn’t a good approach to life. But conflict is great for your story. Make sure that every character in your script gives your hero a hard time. I don’t care if all your hero wants is directions to the nearest gas station. Nobody should cooperate with him—at least not without a lot of persuasions.
Evil is as Evil Does
Amateur writers create heroes whose dialogue drips with the milk of human kindness, and villains whose every syllable drips venom and evil intentions. But what do the pros do? They write heroes who may talk cynically, but behave in the opposite way and demonstrate compassion or idealism. Their villains are often elaborately polite, but evil in their behavior. This technique adds depth to your script—when dialogue doesn’t always directly reflect a character’s true inner being. Always remember your character’s actions—not necessarily what he says—determine whether he is good or evil. For reference, see the quintessential cynical hero, Humphrey Bogart’s Rick in Casablanca; and for a classic, polite villain, see Calvera (played by the great Eli Wallach) in The Magnificent Seven.
Don't Tell us Things We Already Know
In some of the scripts I analyze for writers, we get story information in one scene, and then in the very next scene one character tells another the same “news.” Never tell us things we (the film audience) already know. How to avoid this mistake? Start the next scene later, after the “news” has already been transmitted—or cut it off earlier. For example, if a character dies in one scene and the hero must transmit the sad news to the deceased’s next of kin, all we need to see in the follow-up scene is what happens right before the relative is told—or what happens right after. In fact, that “aftermath” scene probably won’t need any dialogue at all. All the hero needs to do is walk in the door and make eye contact with the person he must tell. Cut!
Also, never write a line of dialogue that begins with: “As you already know … ” If the information is being transmitted solely for the audience’s benefit, it doesn’t belong in your script.
Avoid "On The Nose" Dialogue
When I was in film school, they warned us never to write dialogue that was too “on the nose.” By this they meant that characters should never simply state exactly what’s on their minds, without nuance or subtext, nor appear to be giving “exposition.” That’s tantamount to being boring, a cardinal sin. In life, people rarely say directly what’s on their minds. In movies, they shouldn’t either.
Less is More
If you can “say” the same thing with a visual image, action, behavior, or sound effect instead of through dialogue, omit the dialogue.
Avoid "Voice-Over Verbatims"
Voice-over narration should never merely repeat what we’re seeing in action unfolding on the screen. It should act as a counterpoint to the action rather than echoing it.
Give Actors Something to Act
When writing for a star (and even if you are writing a spec script, you should have a star in mind), your dialogue should give him something to sink his teeth into to “chew the scenery.” If, to Gordon Gekko, “Greed is good,” for movie dialogue, “Over-the-top is good.” The star of your movie should have at least one “big speech.” Give him all the best lines. And make sure that your protagonist is introduced very early in your script—preferably on page one.
Write characters that are quirky and unpredictable in what they say and do. Whatever someone would normally say in the situation at hand, have your character say something totally unexpected instead.
Become a better writer of dialogue. Go ahead. Make my day.
How to Write Realistic Character Flaws
Let’s just say it: Redemption stories are awesome! They’re relatable, they can be set anywhere and filmed on a variety of budgets, and they can provide audiences with a satisfying amount of character growth. These attributes make them a popular choice among developing writers, but without solid flaws to drive the redemption arc and give characters “somewhere to grow,” even an otherwise well-written tale of redemption can struggle to engage an audience.
As a reader, every year I see scripts with the plot of a redemption story but without the necessary character work, which results in a story that lacks any true sense of redemption. This happens when the lead character starts out mostly wonderful and ends the story in much the same state but with some extra knowledge or experience that makes his or her inherent wonderfulness even more remarkable. While these scripts can contain fun moments, a realistic visualization of the lead’s journey in this type of work isn’t an arc at all but rather a straight line; the kind that may result in a flatline when it comes to audience engagement.
Why does this happen? In the real world, we often assume likability is tied to a lack of faults. Whether this assumption is true or not, it can lead writers to suspect a flawed protagonist won’t be likeable enough to engage an audience. However, the opposite is often the case. Flawed characters engage us more because of their vulnerability. It makes their achievements more triumphant and their world more realistic. When our instinctive desire to minimize our flaws bleeds into our writing, it can lead to characters that read as dull at best, annoyingly perfect at worst. It can rob the script of its inherent drama (“See a perfect person become even more perfect!” reads no slugline ever) and destroy its realism, which also reduces the urgency of the plot’s stakes.
Put simply, when it comes to redemption stories, if your characters aren’t flawed, your script is.
So what are the signs of a redemption script that lacks redemption? Often in these stories, the idea of a flaw is explored without the lead character (or the script) actually committing to it. One example can be found in the film The Devil Wears Prada. In this story, it’s made clear that Andy is happy to give away the material goods that come with her work—yet in her ostensibly redemptive speech, she talks about how she turned her back on her friends “for shoes.” While materialism can be a powerful character flaw to overcome, the absence of any moments where Andy really does value material possessions over her friends causes her later speech about learning the error of her ways to ring hollow.
To keep some redemption in your redemption stories, it’s important to consider what’s really driving every conflict. If it’s being driven by the lead character’s faults or his or her frustration with the arduous process of growth, your character work may be solid. But if the majority of the conflicts are being driven by misunderstandings or accusations from secondary characters, then those characters are the ones actually driving the story.
Thankfully, characters can be fleshed out by all sorts of flaws. In most cases, writers don’t need to go to extremes. In the popular British drama Downton Abbey, many characters had to face the flaw of being stuck in the past, unwilling to accept the changes that came during and after the first World War. Other popular and highly relatable flaws include not believing in yourself or others (such as in Dodgeball), believing in yourself a little too much (Iron Man), or living for work as a way to avoid confronting personal problems (Officer Angel in Hot Fuzz).
If you’re nervous about the idea of creating flawed characters, remember that giving characters a flaw doesn’t make them weak, it makes them human—which, in turn, makes them far more relatable than a flawless character ever could be. So don’t run away from character flaws, run toward them! They’re what make redemption and redemption stories possible. Or, as Leonard Cohen once wrote, “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
"Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future." -Oscar Wilde
How to Write Better Descriptions
Your dialogue has the pluck of Parker, the bite of Benchley, and the soul of Steve Zaillian. Every line you write is brilliant. But film is a visual medium, and your script will have as much description as dialogue. Readers frequently complain about “too much black stuff” (description) and reject scripts for being dense and verbose (description again!). What can we do to improve the writing that comes between those brilliant lines?
The Word is Action
My first step is easy: Don’t think of it as DESCRIPTION, think of it as ACTION. Movement. Things happening. Describing a stationary object is not only boring, it’s probably not necessary. The production designer will decide the floor plan of the house, the set decorator will decide how to furnish it, the prop master will add the details like family photos and knick-knacks. It’s not our job as writers to describe any of this stuff (unless it's required by the plot). If the slug line says:
INT. JOE'S LIVING ROOM — DAY
The reader will imagine a sofa, some chairs, a TV, and most of the details. We don’t have to mention them. Our job isn’t to paint the whole picture, just give the absolute minimum amount of information required to set the location. Sometimes, the slug line does it all, which means that what comes after the slug line is an action. We are writing motion pictures, and what we are describing is people and objects moving.
The first step is to remember you aren’t describing things, you are describing things happening. When we use our words to paint pictures, we aren’t painting still lifes.
The Devil is in the Details
There are times when INT. JOE’S LIVING ROOM – DAY is too generic. The reader needs additional information. The trick is not to bore the reader by completely describing the living room. Instead, find the one (or two) details that give us clues to the others, and let the reader’s imagination fill in the rest.
Here are four examples:
INT. JOE’S LIVING ROOM – DAY
Pizza boxes and empty beer cans litter the floor.
INT. BOB’S LIVING ROOM – DAY
A vase of fresh-cut flowers on a doily on the baby grand piano.
INT. KEN’S LIVING ROOM – DAY
A sleek sofa with built-in remote controls faces a wall-sized flat-screen TV.
INT. TED’S LIVING ROOM – DAY
Wall-to-wall bookshelves create a fortress around an easy chair and lamp.
Four very different living rooms. Do you think these guys hang out together? Did you get a clear picture of Joe’s sofa from the description of his living room? I didn’t mention it in the description, but I suspect it’s early Goodwill or maybe something found on the side of the road. Now let’s wander into Joe’s kitchen. Let’s take a look in the sink. What do you see? Now let’s go into the bedroom … is the bed made? Are there dirty clothes on the floor? With nine words I’ve described everything in Joe’s apartment!
Now let’s look at Bob’s sofa. Does it look anything like Joe’s? Imagine Joe’s carpet … and compare it with Bob’s carpet. Or did you imagine Bob has hardwood floors and Persian rugs? If we were to look in Bob’s kitchen and bedroom, what would we see? Again, a handful of words are used to paint a picture.
Though I describe Ken’s sofa, would you be confused if halfway through the scene Ken went to the wet bar in his living room and mixed a drink? Even if you didn’t initially imagine the wet bar, it completely fits in the room described. You don’t have to describe everything up front. You can sneak in description later on through actions. If I looked in Ken’s kitchen, I suspect I’d find a bunch of gourmet gadgets. Ken probably grinds his own coffee beans.
Is Ted’s living room brightly lit? What color is his easy chair? What we are doing is looking at the location as if it’s a character, then finding the essential details that create the character of that room or place. The same way Lawrence Kasdan in Body Heat describes Teddy Laurson as a “rock ‘n’ roll arsonist.” Those four words give us the essence of the character and spark our imagination to fill in the details. Long hair? Tattoos? How is Teddy dressed? Four words and we see him!
The key is to carefully choose a detail that implies other details, to find an example or metaphor that sums up the entire location. That way you can describe the whole room in one short sentence. Notice that this description gives us clues to the character as well. These are four very different living rooms and four very different people.
"A good film script should be able to do completely without dialogue." - David Mamet
Showcasing A Unique Voice in Descriptions
It’s often said that screenplays are blueprints for a finished film. While this is a helpful analogy, I personally like to think of screenplays as more beautiful and emotive than a static sheet of paper.
Before your screenplay is made, it is a literary work. Your goal is to tell your story as effectively as you can in your own unique voice. You can have a great plot and killer dialogue, but if your descriptions read boring, uninspired or utilitarian, your story won’t fully shine in screenplay format.
Screenplays can be beautiful, inspiring and entertaining all on their own.
Let’s take a look at some stellar writing from brilliant screenwriters with very unique writing styles. You’ll notice they use descriptions of their characters, their surroundings, and their movements to set the stage (sometimes literally) for their stories.
We'll start with the artful piece, Black Swan, written by Andres Heinz, Mark Heyman and John J. McLaughlin. The opening sequence almost reads like a dance, the action lines creating sharp, perfectly paced patterns across the page. It’s a stunning and powerful way to start a screenplay.
“The maiden twirls on pointe, a smile on her face, light as air and carefree.
She pauses, her face grows worried. Sensing someone watching.
Scared, she peers into the darkness.
She moves now, looking, growing more frantic.
Then, a SINISTER MAN emerges out of the darkness behind her. She stumbles
She tries to escape, twirling away, but he pursues. His true form is revealed, the demon ROTHBART.
He flings his open hand towards her, casting the spell.
She wants to scream, but nothing comes out. She looks at her body, sensing something happening to her. Something terrifying.
She spins, panicking, but it’s too late. She disappears beneath the beast’s cape.
She emerges as the WHITE SWAN, the iconic protagonist of SWAN LAKE.”
Brief and clear, the action paragraphs in this feature seldom go over two lines, creating a sense of tension and restlessness. Each piece of information deliberate, measured and graceful.
It is entrancing, uncomfortable and eerie to read (and to watch), but it is not a script you can just put down, and that is a powerful thing to create.
Another beautifully written screenplay is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Charlie Kaufman is not afraid to break from traditional standards, and his unique voice shines through every line he writes. In Eternal
This whole first paragraph gives us not only the character
“It’s gray. The platform is packed with business commuters: suits, overcoats. There is such a lack of color it almost seems as if it’s a black and white shot, except one commuter holds a bright red heart-shaped box of candy under his arm. The platform across the tracks is empty. As an almost empty train pulls up to that platform, one of the suited men breaks out of the crowd, lurches up the stairs two at a time, hurries across the overpass and down the stairs to the other side, just at the empty train stops. The doors open and the man gets on that train. As the empty train pulls from the station, the man watches the crowd of commuters through the train’s dirty window. We see his face for the first time. This is Joel Barish. He is in his 30’s, sallow, a bit puffy. His hair is a little messy, his suit is either vintage or just old and dirty and sort of threadbare. His bright tie has a photograph of a rodeo printed on it.”
Kaufman has a way of conveying magic in a realistic manner. This could very well be a story of someone we know. And while large chunks of action are generally discouraged, he manages to create so much interest and paint such vivid images, they feel natural, easy, entertaining and relatable.
There are many more wonderful examples of beautifully written screenplays. Read as many as you can from different writers, and draw inspiration from them. Read mediocre and bad scripts too, so you can see what doesn’t work.
When crafting your screenplay, strive to create an emotional response by designing impactful action lines and descriptions. Generates strong visuals.
Go over your action lines. Of course not every single line needs to have an artistic beauty to it: remember there is elegance in simplicity. Experiment with editing down, trying to convey as much as you can while utilizing as few words as possible. Make sure you are not repeating information. Use your Thesaurus function in Final Draft to add some diversity to your words. Read your work out loud and get notes to see if any sentences feel clunky, awkward or unclear.
We all have different styles of writing – some are more prolific writers; others are more minimalistic. Whatever your style, however you choose to word your thoughts, aiming for elegance can only enhance your writing. Don’t just write a blueprint, write a movie (or a pilot). Make the readers feel something, make them appreciate the work you put in, help them see your vision. Your words are your tools. Handle them with care.
Often great screenplays don’t actually get made, but they can serve as your writing samples, providing both attention and job opportunities. A little beauty can go a long way. So show them what you can do.
"I don’t think screenplay writing is the same as writing — it’s blueprinting." - Robert Altman
When and How to Use Montages
Technically speaking, montages are more the domain of an editor, splicing together different scenes to illustrate a passage of time. Montages, however, became such a fixture in the cinematic vocabulary that it’s not unusual to find them in screenplays. It’s not wrong to do so, and there was a time in which nearly every script had at least one montage.
But, as with many techniques, it can be overused and abused. Montages are also not particularly fashionable at the moment.
This is largely due to them being so heavily used in the 1980s that montages can come across as parodic. Perhaps the most famous montage is the training sequence in 1976’s Rocky. It not only led to similar training montages in the Rocky sequels, but many films in the 1980s featured a scene of the protagonist either physically training or working toward a goal to a popular song (usually accompanied by a synthesizer and inspirational lyrics). As a result, if you utilize a montage in this fashion, it may come across as a 1980s’ spoof.
Character-driven montages, as opposed to goal-driven montages, haven’t been used to the point that they’re parodic. The montages in Taxi Driver where we see various shots of Travis Bickle driving through the city as a voiceover conveys his thoughts are great examples. The montages in this context are used to reveal Bickle’s worldview and growing psychosis. It also gives you a sense of his job: driving, night after night, in a decaying city.
The most common and straightforward use of a montage is to show a character making his or her way from one location to another. In a road-trip film, it’s more or less guaranteed you’ll see a montage. This is general enough to not come across as parodic (unless you use Lindsey Buckingham’s “Hollywood Road” as a soundtrack cue). Road trips themselves have been played out in recent years but, unless it’s a contained thriller, sometimes a character needs to get from Point A to Point B. And if it’s a long journey, spanning several days, a montage can be your best way of conveying the trip and passage of time.
But how does one write a montage in a screenplay?
There’s no set format, so sometimes it’s just up to what you think looks good on the page.
In place of the slug line, you can simply write “BEGIN MONTAGE” or “CUE MONTAGE”. Maybe offer up a line of explanation of what we’re seeing visibly (e.g., “We see various shots of Pierre making his way across the French countryside”) and then just list the shots. If you have a scene heading for each shot, it will take up way too much page space. It’s understood that these are flashes of locations and not full scenes. In fact, it’s not a montage at all if you break up every shot with a scene heading; it’s then just a bunch of very short scenes juxtaposed. What makes it a montage is you’re describing a visual technique. Anyone who can help you in your career will immediately know what a montage is and what you’re going for. Just list the shots as simply, yet vividly, as possible.
When listing out the shots, use dashes instead of numbers. Dashes are less distracting and force the eye to focus on the description and action.
In regard to length, the shorter the better. Simply list the shots that convey vital information and move the story forward. If your montage is more than a page long, readers are going to get impatient.
Like any oft-used cinematic technique, montages can come across as parodic or hackneyed.
But used sparingly, they can be useful and give your script motion.
"I do not over-intellectualize the production process. I try to keep it simple: Tell the damned story." - Tom Clancy
The Secret to the First Ten Pages
You may have read about “opening images” that set tone and genre, “hooks” that suck people in, and “inciting incidents” that kick stories into gear. But, I bet nobody’s ever told you THE SECRET of the first 10 pages … how you go about capturing the attention of an audience.
First, a WARNING—Awareness of the techniques about to be revealed may lessen your ability to lose yourself in a motion picture. Once you’ve looked behind the curtain and seen how the secret is done, you can never “un-look.”
Still with me? Okay, then. Now a quick look at basic screenplay structure:
Screen stories are more than just stuff happening … this happens, then that happens, and then the other thing happens. They’re very different from such casual narratives. They’re tightly structured affairs.
Luckily the subject isn’t nearly as complicated as some would have you believe. In fact, the entirety of screen story structure revolves around one basic, easily understood concept—the Central Dramatic Question. You know, the question that gets to the heart of your story in 20 words or less.
A few examples of central dramatic questions:
Will Dorothy find her way home to Kansas, or meet her fate at the hands of the Wicked Witch of the West? (The Wizard of Oz)
Will Rocky prove himself when he meets Apollo Creed, or will he live the rest of his life knowing he’s just another bum from the neighborhood. (Rocky)
Will Frodo succeed in his effort to return “the one ring” to Mordor, or will the Dark Lord, Sauron, gain possession of it and use its power to enslave the world? (The Lord of The Rings)
The central dramatic question is set up and posed in Act One, explored and exploited in Act Two, and is at last answered in Act Three. It’s the audience’s desire or need to know how the question will be answered that keeps them tuned in. Once the central dramatic question is answered, the audience’s attention is set free, and the ride is over.
Perhaps you can recall a film or two in which the central dramatic question was dramatically answered, the audience was happy and ready to go home, but the film just kept going, and going, and going … like a demented Energizer Bunny. Under your breath, you asked yourself, “Does this movie ever end?” The lesson? Once the central dramatic question is answered, the story’s over and it’s best to stop writing, don’t you think?
Now for the kicker: When the action kicks in around page 10, if the audience doesn’t care how the central dramatic question might be answered, the script is already DOA!
But it’s only page 10. How can a script be dead on arrival when it’s only 10 pages into the story? What about the big reveal mid-Act Two? And there’s that great twist at the end of Act Three!
Sorry, but nobody cares. You never got them into the cart, and it’s already left the station!
On the other hand, what if your audience truly cares how the central dramatic question might be answered? Yes! They want Harold and Kumar to make it to the White Castle! The audience is not only in the cart, they’re ready to ride, and will stay in the cart until it comes to a screeching stop at the end of Act Three and you send them on their way.
So, what’s THE SECRET? How do you get the audience to care?
Is it about making the central dramatic question earthshakingly important? Not really. How important is it that Harold and Kumar make it to the White Castle?
Is it about loading up the first 10 pages with explosions, blood, guts, gore, spectacular special effects, and/or sex? Nope. Sorry. In fact, such rock ’em and sock ’em openings, when not in context with what follows, instantly brands the script as the work of an amateur.
Look back to your own experiences watching the films named earlier. Why did you care whether or not Dorothy made it back home to Kansas, whether or not Harold and Kumar made it to the White Castle, and whether or not Rocky did himself proudly when he met Apollo Creed?
The answer: Because you formed an EMOTIONAL CONNECTION with the protagonist, and that connection didn’t come about by accident. The writer made it happen.
For the audience to care, there must be an EMOTIONAL CONNECTION between them and the protagonist. It has everything to do with the way you and I, and our audiences, experience a motion picture.
When reading a book, we never spontaneously jump out of our chairs, no matter how surprising, shocking, or amazing the events we’re reading about. On the other hand, when we’re in a dark theater watching a well-crafted motion picture, our bodies react. We react because we’re more than just an observer to the action. Emotionally, we’re right there in the thick of things, joined at the hip with the protagonist, even though we’re physically safe and sound in the comfort of the movie theater.
How is this “emotional connection” trick done? There are several effective techniques for writing characters so that the audience will make this all-important emotional connection.
Having the protagonist experience irritating or frustrating events, which we can all relate to, is one such technique. Even if the guy’s a serial killer, by the time we’ve finished giving him a parking ticket, losing his cell phone, getting him stuck in the rain, and killing off his rose garden, the audience will begin to connect with him because he’s a human being, just like us, even if he does enjoy the occasional torture session with his after-dinner cheese and wine.
Another technique is to write the character as an underdog, or an “every man” forced to confront and deal with a new and extraordinary challenge.
And yet another technique is to have the character experience undeserved misfortune, brutality, or loss.
Then there’s the “noble soul” approach. That character that does the right thing despite the personal risk. He or she is the kind of person that in our heart of hearts we would emulate … if only we could.
To learn more about the connection factor, try this: Study the first 10 pages of a few outstanding screenplays with particular attention to how the writer causes the reader to form an emotional connection with the protagonist. Ask yourself, what makes the protagonist human? Observe when you, as the reader, begin to empathize with the character, and then notice what the writer did to create that connection.
Then study the first 10 pages of a few screenplays that looked like they should have worked, good premise and all, but still somehow managed to fall flat, perhaps even seemingly dead from the start. Check it out. Did the writer dive into the action without taking the time in the first 10 pages to make you care?
So if you want your audience to take the ride, then get ’em in the cart in your first 10 pages, where it’s up to you as the writer to set up this emotional connection factor.
I know, we just went over a LOT of information. Whether you're feeling overwhelmed or super confident, the best way to master the art of screenwriting is to sit down and write.
Write, write, and write some more, and your screenplays could be on their way to the big screen in no time.
Once you feel confident as a screenwriter, I encourage you to enter Final Draft's Big Break Screenwriting Contest. There are some amazing prizes at stake, including cash prizes and a trip to Los Angeles to meet with managers, producers, and executives in the film industry.