How To
9 min read

How to Write a Script With Tips on Script Formatting & Elements

William Ellis

July 29, 2022
moving script writing

So you have finally decided to sit down and write the great American screenplay. You have your concept, your characters, your target audience, and you even have a strong outline. 

The question now is simple: Do you know how to write a script? 

You may understand what you need to do to create a captivating screenplay, but are you familiar with the script format that is used by the entire film industry?

Developing a screenplay and actually writing in script form are two entirely different disciplines. Formulating your screenplay is (arguably) the fun part where you are creating characters, working out the plot, and focusing on the themes. 

On the other hand, writing the script itself is about format, readability and efficiency. The difference between writing a screenplay and a script is comparable to selecting the decor of a house and building the house.

If you are ready to take that big screenplay idea from thought to the final draft, then here are the tools that you need to do just that. By the end of the process, you will have a video script that meets universal screenwriting standards and can be sent out into the world.

Advantages of the script format

The script format can be a bit of an adjustment for someone who has never used it before. It is drastically different from the typical prose format found in novels. Some would even question why a format change is even necessary. The script format offers several key advantages that are particularly beneficial for the film industry.

Efficiency for reading 

If you compare the length of a film script with that of a prose novel, you will almost always find the novel to be longer. This is because of the way that scripts are written: with efficiency in mind. 

The producer, director, and actors all need to be able to read and understand a script quickly and efficiently. With a script, the writer can make their intentions, descriptions, and dialogue plainer, therefore, more easily read by others.

Efficiency for writing

The script format is a more efficient way to write than the prose format. With prose, there is more of an emphasis placed on describing things to the utmost detail, whereas the script format allows the writer to play a little looser. After all, the script will be filtered through the mind of the director. The director ultimately takes charge of the film, so aesthetic details are best left up to them.

Universal standard 

movie script formatting

Arguably the biggest advantage of the script format is that it is a universally accepted standard. The script format can let a script reader know instantaneously if the writer knows what they are doing or if they are an amateur who has not done their homework. 

Taste is subjective. Whether your script is good or bad is a matter of taste. Whether or not your script is written correctly is not. 

Read other scripts

If the script format is new to you, there is no need to worry. It is a relatively simple format that is easily understood. However, if you are concerned about not getting the structure exactly right, then one of the best things that you can do is simply read other scripts. 

Thanks to the internet, there are thousands upon thousands of screenplays out there for you to pick through. Looking at other scripts can help you not only get a feel for screenplay formatting but can also help you understand how to infuse a script with some personality.

How do I start writing scripts?

story idea for script

Now that you understand the benefits of knowing the script format, here are some things you need to do to get started. 

First and foremost, you need to compile all of the materials and notes you may have been keeping for your project. If they are not organized, then now is as good a time as any to get them organized. 

Having all of your materials on standby is a great way to keep yourself inspired and serve as a sort of roadmap if at any point you feel stuck or are unsure where to take your script.

Use script writing software

You should know that you do not have to use any particular piece of software to start writing your script. Any word processing program is more than capable of taking your words and format precisely the way that you want them to. The only problem with simply using a word processing program compared to screenwriting software is that it will take longer than most are willing to tolerate.

The most widely used screenwriting software among professionals is Final Draft. Final Draft has been an industry-standard program for decades. It is a good bet that the majority of films you have seen over the last twenty to thirty years were written with Final Draft. 

Final Draft is an industry-standard because it simplifies the script writing process with a series of hotkeys that enable you to quickly get your ideas onto the page in the proper format. It has numerous features such as Beat Board, Script Notes, and even an outline editor program. The only real drawback for some may be the $250 price sticker, but most industry vets will tell you the price is well worth it.

If you are looking for an alternative to Final Draft that won't break the bank, then you have other options. 

Fade In is another full-featured script writing program that gives you everything you need to write your script. Fade In also has hotkey commands and organizational features, similar to Final Draft. There is a paid version of the program, but if you can live with a watermark embedded on your work, then the free version will work just fine.

If you are looking for screenwriting software that will cost you no money with no watermarks, then Trelby has you covered. Trelby has more of a learning curve than Final Draft and Fade In since the hotkeys are not quite as intuitive. However, if Trelby is your starting point, then you will not miss the bells and whistles you get out of its more expensive brethren.

What are the elements of a script?

Now that you have the right software to write with, you need to learn the elements of a script. Each script features four primary elements that, when put together, make your script clear and easy to read. The script elements are as follows:

  • Scene headings
  • Actions and escriptions
  • Characters and dialogue
  • Scene transitions

What is a scene heading?

A scene heading is a brief descriptor of where and when a scene takes place. A scene heading allows you to set the location and tone of the scene. In prose, you would write, “The detectives walked into the old mansion on a stormy night.” With a scene heading you can reduce that descriptor like this:

Ext. Old Mansion - Night

To further explain the above line, “Ext.” is an abbreviation of “exterior.” When writing a scene that takes place outside, you would use the “Ext.” abbreviation. When you are writing scenes that take place indoors, you would use “Int.” for “interior.” For scenes where characters go from outside to inside (and the other way around), you can use Ext./Int. to denote that there will be a change.

Without any flowery descriptors, you can succinctly give the readers their setting and time of day. This is a form of creative shorthand that quickly conveys your ideas while still allowing the prospective director or cast to visualize their interpretation of your script. It is arguably one of the most powerful tools at your disposal as a screenwriter.

Actions and descriptions

This is the part of your script where you get to write the closest to prose. The actions and descriptions are where you can go a little more in-depth into your characters' surroundings or their characters. 

It is also the portion in which you can lay out the actions that are occurring onscreen. This section is where you will do the most to flesh out the actual plot of the script and get things moving along.

Characters and dialogue

Characters and dialogue in video script writing
Image Source: https://www.therail.media/stories/2016/12/23/nobody-ever-robs-restaurants-video

This is probably the most self-explanatory element of screenplay writing. This is the area where you conduct the dialogue and conversations that take place between characters. Instead of utilizing the traditional “they said'' format, the dialogue is boiled down to a character name as a heading, and then the conversation they speak beneath the heading. The use of parentheses after the name heading can be used to denote how they are speaking.

Remember, above all, that your dialogue scenes should all have an end goal. You need to consider whether your dialogue moves the plot forward, if it reveals something about the main character that ties into the story's themes, or if it is simply there to break the tension. When you know what your goal is for dialogue, it makes its creation easier.

Scene transitions

To put it in prose terms, scene transitions serve as the equivalent of chapter breaks in your script. A scene transition usually precedes a scene heading and lets the reader know they are heading into a new scene. You can accomplish this by using a simple "cut to" or other means. 

If you are a writer who is well versed in cinematic editing techniques, then incorporating scene transitions such as wipes, dissolves, and cross cuts can help punch up your engaging script and give a sense of pacing.

Tips for writing a script

Here are some tips to help you when considering how to work the cameras, setting a rhythm in your script, keeping timing in mind when formatting, having a budget in mind, and more when writing a script.

Know your camera moves when script writing

There are two schools of thought when it comes to writing camera moves into a script. Some feel it steps on the toes of both the director and the cinematographer as those two roles are typically the ones who make decisions regarding a film's visuals. Others feel that the script is the only place in which the writer can ever make such suggestions should they feel strongly about how it should play out.

Should you decide that putting camera movements and positions into your script is necessary, you need to make sure that you know your terms. For example, if you write in your script that the camera should “pan up” to a subject, you will almost immediately lose the respect of the director or cinematographer who looks over the video script. So here are some basic terms that you should know.

  • Pan – This is when the camera moves from left to right.
  • Tilt – This is when the camera looks up or down.
  • Dolly in or dolly out – To dolly in or out is comparable to zooming in or out, but in the case of the dolly, it is to move the camera forward rather than utilize a zoom lens.

Of course, other types of camera moves can be used, but they are all variations on these core moves. Remember, using camera moves sparingly allows the reader to form a vision on their own. That is a power you do not want to take away in a collaborative medium.

Giving a script rhythm

The idea of rhythm is something we normally only equate with music, but did you know that a script can also have a rhythm? One of the most important things about the script format is controlling the pace of your script. 

Most screenwriters follow a general guideline: that a single page equates to roughly one minute's worth of screen time. This guideline can serve as a gauge of how quickly things are unfolding in your script.

It needs to be stressed that the idea of one page equating to one minute is not a set-in-stone rule. Some pages can take only a single minute, while others could call for an entire sequence. It depends almost entirely on the nature of the scene and the level of in-depth writing required to describe it. 

You could write an action scene in which all you write is “the hero and villain fight.” You could also laboriously do a complete breakdown of the fight that goes on for several pages just to hit home the importance of the scene.

The format of the format for writing scripts

If you are working in film or television, you need to know your time constraints. Is this a feature film where the length is not as much of a factor? Is this a TV show where you have to hit a specific timetable? The answer to that question will determine the areas in which you need to focus most.

In the case of television, that “one page is one-minute” guideline will likely reign supreme. You need to write with the timing in mind and know when to insert certain “story breaks” that are more convenient when cutting for ad space. If your show is streaming, this is less of a problem, but still something to be considered as more streaming services begin implementing advertising.

Story beats

One of the most critical elements of a screenplay that you should keep in mind is that of story beats. These are specific points of a script meant to stand out as specific turning points or important scenes. 

For example, there may be a directive in an action movie script that there must be a fight scene every ten pages. On the other hand, you may have a story beat in a romantic comedy that the romantic leads get into an argument at the halfway mark. 

Story beats give you a story structure to work with so that you don't lose direction and don't go overboard on your page count.

More pages = more money

Producing longer scripts cost more money

Just as a good rule of thumb is to think of each page as being one minute of screen time, another is to think of each page as making your great script even more expensive to produce. This may seem like a creative roadblock to some, but it is a fact of the filmmaking process. 

If you are working on a project with a projected budget, then you should be conscious of the budget that is given when you write. However, if you are writing a script that you hope to sell then you should write to the level that you feel will be beneficial when presenting the script to a potential buyer.

Breaking all the rules

The script format is universally accepted in the film industry. However, that does not necessarily make it the be-all-end-all for how you wish to tell your film's story. There have been numerous films that have skipped having a script altogether and relied on the improvisation of their actors. 

There have been films, such as the first Iron Man movie, where Jon Favreau and the cast would take the script that had been written and essentially only use it as a guideline, allowing them to improvise their lines. In a way, this allowed the movie to find its tone more naturally.

Another film in which the script format was hardly implemented is Mad Max: Fury Road. In that film, the script helped create an elaborate number of storyboards, which were used as the primary aid on set. What ultimately matters is your ability to take your film's story and concept and present it in a format that you feel best gets the idea across

Fade to black: Final thoughts on writing a script

Knowing how to write a script and how to write creatively are two different principles, for sure. The latter is about the art, while the former is about the art form. If you can master the art form, then you will be able to let your art flourish as a screenwriter, and movie reviewers will love your work. 

The best part about the script format is that it doesn't change much at all as time goes on, so once you learn the skill set of writing within its bounds, you will never have to refresh your knowledge.

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