What is a script?

June 16th, 2010 by Ron
The Script Blogger
Before you jump onto the bandwagon and write the next great never to be produced screenplay, ask yourself what is a script.

space

It is a document relating a story in such a way others can follow it and produce a film based on the contents of the presentation.

space

It’s a written explanation of a visual experience

space

All potential scriptwriters need to understand that their script is a plan, a blueprint for others to work to.

Therefore it has to be informative regarding the settings, the lighting, the characters, the action and the dialogue that will help those that come afterwards, in a way they can understand and translate it into a visual art.

Realising filmmaking is a collective process is as important to a writer as any single ingredient in the mix. Often as not, when you sell a script, that’s the last the writer has to do with it.

It’s gone!

Now it’s down to others. So as the writer if you want your story to be presented as you envisaged it, make sure it can be envisaged.

To help you, the writer and the many people who will work on your project once you’ve done your job, your script needs to be presented in a format that others are use to using.

If I compose a song, I need to tell the musicians what key it is in, show the number of beats to a bar and most importantly what notes to play and what words to sing and when. There is an accepted format; it includes staves, clefts, rests, timing, the notes and many other ingredients.

When it is completed any musician can read the music and play the song.

A script is the same.

There’s an accepted format that allows others to organise a team of other creative individuals to produce a movie from a script.

FORMAT

Correct formatting of a script can make difference between it being read and not being read, by professionals in the industry. Like it or not that’s the real world.

First the font:

A fixed-pitched font should be used; this is one in which every letter occupies the same amount of space on the line, regardless of it being upper or lower case.

Most script software programmes do this automatically, but if you don’t have a script programme use 12 point Courier. This presents your script with 10 characters per horizontal inch and 6 lines of type or spacing per vertical inch.

Screenplay should always be presented with black lettering with no italics or bold type.

In addition to this are the margins and indentations for Shot Headings, Dialouge, Character Names over Dialogue, Scene Transitions and even Page Numbering.

Shot Headings – left 1.7” – line length 57 characters
Descriptive text – left 1.7” – line length 57 characters
Dialogue– left 2.7” – line length 34 charters
Character Name over Dialogue – left 4.1”
Parenthetical Character Direction – left 3.4” – 19 characters
Page Numbers – left 7.2” – .5” below edge of top of page
Page Length – 60 lines – leaving .5” bottom margin
Paper size – Letter 8.5” x 11”.

Why such importance is placed on the font and margins is a simple case of conformity with a purpose. Using this formula one page translates on average to one minute on screen. It also helps with costing and provides a margin for a reader or producer’s notes, scene numbers and ease of use, particularly in the read.

It pays to remember that computers didn’t exist when film making began and every script was typed. It is from the typewriter that the structure of formatting began.

After getting the formatting correct comes the presentation. So it is important to understand there are two basic script structures. A speculative (spec) script and a shooting script.

A speculative script should not contain, scene transitions (unless absolutely imperative) and scene numbers.

A shooting script requires these and the margins are: –

Scene Transition – left 6”
Scene Number – left 1”

Surprisingly there are only four elements to a screenplay:-

Shot Headings (sometimes called ‘The Slug Line’)
Descriptive Text (sometimes called ‘The Action’ or ‘The Business’)
Dialogue
Transitions (not required for a speculative script).

Each of these should be presented in a particular way.

Shot Headings, must include the following: –

INT. for an internal shot and EXT. for an external shot. Often a scene in a car will be showed as EXT. /INT. indicating both.

Then, location shown as Place, followed by where in that place, so for example: –

White House – Oval Office

Next, the time of day as either Day or Night.

INT. WHITE HOUSE – OVAL OFFICE – DAY

If the name of a town, city of country is required that goes first.

EXT. PARIS – EIFFEL TOWER – TOP FLOOR – DAY

Descriptive Text is exactly that. A way of describing a location, a character and what happens.

Why location? A producer, later a director, then others have to either find a location or build a set that matches or is right for the story. So, describe what you want.

Characters should have an image, age, look, even walk, a way they dress and most importantly an individual voice. A casting director has to find someone for every character; they need to know what they are looking for.

Now the difficult one, action.

In a film everything – yes everything happens visually and your descriptive text must describe what will be seen on the screen. Every line should be filmable. It’s no good writing, “he has spent hours working on his car”, that cannot be shown on film.

Certain descriptions should be avoided. Nothing starts, begins or ends. It just happens.

So, “he starts to run”, doesn’t work. It requires more detail. “He stands and looks; he sees (whatever) and bolts for the door.

Detail, detail and more detail makes action believable, but a good writer manages that sparsely. On screen people are not running, they run. They are not talking, they talk. In the above line, he is not standing and looking at (whatever), then bolting for the door.

Another area in speculative scripts to avoid is camera direction. Things like, We See. From his P.O.V. (point of view). Close Up (CU) on his face. Wide Angle (WA) reveals the (whatever).

Camera direction is decided by the director, not the writer. So the writer has to describe camera direction in a way that does not interrupt the flow of the script for the reader.

In the distance a (whatever) appears. From his position he sees. He raises an eyebrow. Gradually the (whatever) becomes visible to him.

A speculative script should be an easy read, allowing the reader to concentrate on the characters and the story, without the interruptions to the flow with camera or directional instruction.

They are required in the Shooting Script.

Dialogue should be concise, realistic and sayable. Read your script out aloud and see how easy you can repeat your dialogue. Remember to put feeling into it as if you are the actor.

If you have long passages of dialogue, remember on a film action is taking place at the same time, so include what is happening on screen.

People speak differently, try and include specifics about their voice.

All of this should be second nature for a scriptwriter, allowing them to concentrate on the story.

This is one of the hardest industries to enter, whatever you want to be, writer, producer, director or actor and as with almost every other industry there are rules, not to keep people out but to show the people in the industry you are professional, competent and they produce work others can work with.

Formatting and presentation are the first indication to a reader that you understand the complexities of the industry and that others have to use your plan, to make a film from the text that is on your page.

As I said earlier, imagine an orchestra with music without timing, bars, a key and a structure. If you recognise that, you will recognise the need for conformity in a screenplay.

Every player works to the script, from the costume designer to the makeup technician, from the director of photography to the production designer, from the director to the actors.

One document starts it all.

The screenplay.

This is an important word to recognise what you are writing. A play for the screen. So every line you write must be visible in the lens of a camera or audible to a sound engineer.

If it won’t be seen or heard don’t write it.

Although I said for descriptive text regarding action, detail, detail, detail, you must achieve that with the minimum of words.

Economy of words is an indication of someone who knows their craft. And yes it is a craft. An art form.

And as with an artist or a musician you can learn the technicalities, but making the step from understanding the art form to participating in it is massive.

Painting by numbers will not get you into a New York gallery and neither being able to play the piano will create the gift of writing a concerto.

Understanding the format and presentational rules is something that can be learnt but can taking an idea, that’s not a story, yet, and turning it to a screenplay be learnt?  I think so, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this.

If you want to write a screenplay that you hope will be considered seriously by somebody in the film industry, then be serious in your approach.

Take your time, check you document, don’t present the first version get others to look at your work, others that know what a screenplay should look like.

That’s not Mon & Dad, your friends from the neighbourhood or even your cat.

Use sites like TriggerStreet or Zoetrope to get feed back, both are free and designed to encourage improvements in your skill set.

Don’t under estimate how difficult it is to break into to the script market; you will have disappointments, broken promises, people who don’t like your style, your work and even you.

Perfect the art and believe in yourself.

If you believe in yourself others will as well.

To make a great movie you need just three things:

A great script, a great script and a great script.

Alfred Hitchcock

25 responses to “What is a script?”

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    Really good. I’m not going to buy the book now. I’ve got ‘save the cat’ and with what you say,that’s enough.
    Best,
    Chris.

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