Writing a script is just writing a story in a particular format: for film or the stage. The format is designed to put words to the actions and movements of actors to paint a picture for the director to bring to life.
Script formatting is not strict unless you’re writing for a competition or for a company whose formatting rules are regulated. The goal behind script formatting is to convey your vision for what’s happening on screen.
The Rules for Film Scripts
There are a few key elements that are used to write film scripts (henceforth used interchangeably with “screenplay”).
- Scene heading. This is called the slugline, is written in all caps and is the first line of any scene. The slugline is not indented. Use EXT. for outside scenes and INT. for indoor scenes. After your scene location, add a hyphen and DAY or NIGHT (or whatever time is needed). You can also use hyphens to differentiate different areas of a single setting.
- Action. This is the narrative portion that describes what is happening in the scene in present tense. The action is not indented but is a separate paragraph from the slugline. It also can break up dialogue to describe what the characters are doing or what is happening on screen.
- Character name. The characters’ names are always written in caps. If not a main character, use generic descriptors. Your vendor might be named JONATHAN but you would write them as HOT DOG VENDOR if they are not the main character. If you are writing dialogue, the character’s name is centered on the page. Character names may show up in the action portion as well, and remain capitalized.
- Dialogue. Also centered, the dialogue has a left and right margin of 1.5″ and appears directly under the name of the actor/character speaking.
These are the most important elements of your script. Every scene will probably contain these elements. Here are other tools you can use for your scripts:
Here is a non-technical example of a scene you might see in a script:
INT. DRACULA’S CASTLE – BEDROOM – DAWN
DRACULA swoops in through the window and the curtains fall shut behind him.
Darling, I’m home!
Screenplays for feature-length films tend to be between 90 and 120 pages long. The rule of thumb is that a page of screenplay accounts for a minute of film. Any given film may have 40-60 scenes.
The Rules for Drama Scripts
I’m going to take a wild guess that you’ve read Shakespeare before. If you have, then you know more or less what a script for a play looks like:
- Scene setting. Describe the setting briefly. Where are you? Which characters are there, if any? And what are they doing? Often times this will be written in italics and does not need to be indented or centered.
- Characters. Like screenplays, capitalize your characters’ names. This goes in the center of the page for dialogue and is capitalized in the scene setting or action.
- Dialogue. Dialogue is not centered underneath the character name and is often interspersed with bouts of action (known in plays as stage direction).
- Stage direction. Set in centered parentheticals in the middle of dialogue, stage directions tell the actors what to do on stage.
A play will often have fewer scenes as it is harder to change the set on stage. As such, plays are much more dialogue-driven than they are action-driven. Dramatic scripts tend to be written in 3 or 5 Acts, and each act is noted in the script.
Here is a non-technical example of what a dramatic script might look like:
On the bridge outside of DRACULA’s castle, two little boys are playing tag. They run frantically to and fro, coming perilously close to the edge of the bridge.
You can’t catch me!
(sticks tongue out)
Stop running so fast!
(JIMMY trips and ends up hanging
over the edge of the bridge)
Johnny! Help me! I’m going to fall!
You get the picture. Check out this pdf to learn more about formatting dramatic scripts.
Other things to note for script writing
You know the gist of script writing:
- Tell us the scene setting
- The characters do something
- The characters dialogue
These are the three primary elements of all scripts: the setting, character action, and character dialogue. When you put them together into scenes, you tell a story.
As important as these things are, some other notable elements of scripts that you might need to look into are:
- Title pages
- Dramatis Personae (cast of characters) page
- Curtain/lighting instructions
- Camera instructions
Scripts are an incredibly fun way to tell a story. Because a script is essentially shorthand for the movie you see in your head, writing scripts can be much more true to your vision for a story than a novel.
They also have their own history, imagery, and typical plot lines. Because you can only cover so much by a script, the stories tend to be simpler and have fewer main characters than you might see in a novel.
I have written a couple scripts, from spoofs to a feature-length screenplay. While I’ve only ever performed the parody, writing the screenplays were very useful in helping me find out about characters and places more quickly than I would in a novel. This has helped me with novelization on occasion. What I’m trying to say is if you’ve never written a script before, you should try it. Even if nothing else ever comes of it, you’ll learn a new way to think about your stories and about writing.
What about you—have you ever written scripts before? What script are you trying to write now? Do you prefer screenplays or dramas? What scares you most about script-writing (or novel-writing)? Share in the comments!