Substance over form. Many people (especially accountants) will agree with this statement and generally, I would too, however, when it comes to screenwriting, there is a very specific format that we need to use, a format used in the film industry that allows all production departments to understand and use the script for what it is: a tool for making a movie. The screenwriting standard format is not hard to understand or follow and different software options do it all for you
1. Font and Sizes
The standard format calls for the font Courier in 12 points. A page of writing in the proper format will equal about a minute of screen time, so for a 90-minute film, your script should be around 90 pages long.
2. Scene heading
Where and when are we? Comes at the beginning of every scene, and marks the end of the previous one. In the heading we’ll find three key details of the scene:
- Whether it’s an interior or exterior scene (INT. / EXT.).
- The setting (place and time the story takes place in).
- Whether it’s day or night.
It looks like this:
It is very important that every time you name a place or set, you always use the same name to let everyone know that it is, in fact, the same location. In this example, the location is “Paul’s house”, if I was to write “Paul’s summer house” later on in the script, it would look as if these were two separate locations, so be careful!
It’s also worth mentioning that the same applies to the time of day, make sure that day is always day and night is always night instead of using words like “morning” or “evening” which might be confusing.
It’s also worth mentioning that the same applies to the time of day, make sure that day is always day and night is always night instead of using words like “morning” or “evening” which might be confusing. The heading is also where we number the scenes, you can put the scene number at the end of the heading or the beginning. (INT. PAUL’S HOUSE – DAY 1)
The action is what happens in the scene. It’s written in present tense, in continued text. Be descriptive and call things by their name, use adjectives and avoid long paragraphs. It should look like this:
Avoid details such as soundtracks and camera angles. You will be tempted but this is the director’s job, not yours.
The life and soul of your script. Characters are written in capital letters the first time they appear, with a brief description between parentheses. In this description, we need to summarize the most important details of the character, both physically and personality-wise along with their age.
Outside of action paragraphs and before dialogue, characters are written in the center of the page, in uppercase letters, and with no other description.
As with locations, make sure to always write the character’s name in the same way, don’t call him “Paul” once and then “Paul Edwards”, it’s up to you if you put their full name or nickname or who they are (ie Paul’s Mother), but stick to one and use it every time the character appears.
Dialogue goes right below the name of the character, also centered on the page.
When writing dialogue, think about your characters as different people with their own personalities and way of speaking, not everyone speaks the same way or uses the same words. There are people who are less direct and some that are straightforward forward and their dialogue needs to reflect it. Also, prefer subtext and reading between the lines, instead of descriptive and obvious dialogue. In this article, I give you some tips on writing dialogue and developing characters.
Although they are part of the screenwriting format, camera angles and music, transitions are usually part of the director’s input rather than the writer’s. However, some are allowed and sometimes necessary when we have a particular vision.
Transitions are aligned to the right, and written in capital letters.
Now that we’ve seen all parts of the script separately, let’s take a look at what the whole thing should look like.
As you can see, the format itself is not hard and even without specific software you can recreate it in almost any word processor, such as Microsoft Word or Apple Pages and if you’re even a bit tech-savvy, you can create macros or templates to automate the process. If you want to make your life even easier, here are some recommendations on screenwriting software.
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Writing and rewriting
You’ve heard this many times and no, I’m not about to tell you that this isn’t true. Rewriting is an inherent part of writing, and it can be a very long process, endless even. Just like writing, rewriting should be planned carefully to ensure that the hours invested fructify. Work smart, instead of hard, with these rewriting tips.
1. Rewriting vs. editing.
These are two related, but separate processes, and knowing the difference is key to making rewriting more efficient.
Rewriting entitles changing the core of the story, working on character and story development, structure, and dialogues. Editing is more of a correction process.
Editing consists of fixing formatting errors, grammar and spelling mistakes, and amending scene headers, location, and character names.
When you separate these processes and work on them one at a time you will avoid distractions and get more of your rewrite done. As you rewrite, you can still correct minor errors and typos, as long as it doesn’t take more than a minute or two.
2. Focus on one thing at a time.
As you go through your script, you will find different things that need fixing and you’ll be tempted to fix everything as you go along. However, tunnel vision might be quite more effective than looking at the whole thing all the time.
As you plan your rewriting, select one specific topic (character development, structure, dialogue, etc.) and the time you want to spend on it. Work on both rewriting and editing that topic until you’re happy with it (or your defined time is up). Then move on to the next topic.
Remember, rewriting can take a very long time, so you need to decide how long you want this process to be.
3. Take a break
After working for a long time on your script, you might get overwhelmed and lose perspective, making your rewriting job harder. To prevent this, every time you finish a new draft, take a break. I suggest at least a couple of weeks to leave your script alone. Use this time to move on to other projects or activities.
If you want to keep working on your project, you can use this time to watch similar movies or read screenplays. Although it’s also a good idea to just set it aside.
4. Get help
Feedback during the rewriting phase is very important. It will allow you to see things from a different perspective and explore areas of opportunity that you might have missed.
This feedback doesn’t always have to be professional. You can share your work with friends and family and still get good insight. However, at a certain stage of rewriting, professional help might make the difference towards a completed, polished script.
A great way to get this feedback is through screenwriter groups. These put together people working on screenwriting projects who share their feedback and help brainstorm new ideas. In these groups you will find a safe space to juggle creative thoughts and push you to keep writing.
I organize a couple of these groups, where people from all over the world meet online to discuss their projects. Feel free to contact me for info on them.
Another way of getting professional insight is through a Script Consultant. Check out this other article to learn more about them and what they do.
Rewriting shouldn’t be a burden, creating a plan and following a schedule will make it easier and definitely more enjoyable.
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Screenplay Competitions – Are they worth it?
I’ve mentioned before that I organize different writing groups, where screenwriters can get feedback for their projects and exchange ideas. I love these meetings because other than that, they also make me reflect on topics that screenwriters constantly struggle with.
Last week, someone asked me if writers should enter screenplay competitions, so I thought about writing about it and maybe shed some light on this constant dilemma.
What are screenplay competitions?
Essentially, any event or space where writers can submit a screenplay for judges to review and receive prizes. These prizes vary a lot from competition to competition. Common prizes are cash, products, or other industry-related things, such as the production of the script or receiving professional feedback. They can also be trophies or decorations such as the Oscars.
Competitions come in many shapes. There are film festivals that have a separate section for their competitions, but there are also individual companies and associations that hold contests. The options are endless and exist in almost every country.
What does participating in a competition entitle?
It obviously depends on the contest. But generally speaking, you’ll need to submit your screenplay accompanied by your details and, in some cases, an entry fee. Usually, you keep the writing and exclusivity rights (meaning that you’re still the owner of your script and can keep entering other competitions/production companies), so it’s important to have it copyrighted by the relevant institution.
Okay, but are they actually worth it?
Whether you should enter a contest or not depends on many factors. First and most importantly, your goal towards your screenplay. If you’re planning on self-production, it might not be the best idea to invest in competitions. Unless there’s a specific award that you think could help your production.
An award from Sundance or Cannes is very likely to interest your potential investors in your project. But recognition from a small, local festival might not.
If you plan to only sell the script, some screenplay competitions might be a great fit. They can be a way to network with potential buyers and you can make use of prizes such as feedback and mentoring.
You also need to consider the kind of budget you want to invest in this. Some competitions have entry fees, which vary from as little as 5USD to even hundreds. So it’s important to consider this when you’re creating the project’s budget.
Note also that not all competitions will be right for your project, so be thoughtful before applying and paying fees. Research the competition, take note of previous winners, and keep your project’s strategy in mind.
How do you stand out in the competition?
So you’ve decided to participate in a competition and you’re ready to submit your script. Before doing so, make sure you’ve got this covered:
I know I’ve said that format isn’t the most important thing when you’re first writing your script. But it is when it comes to submitting it.
Competition judges receive tons of scripts every year and sometimes they don’t have the bandwidth to read them all. The format is the first thing they will notice. If your script doesn’t comply with industry standards, it might not even get past the first judging round.
Use professional screenwriting software and make sure to follow the basic rules.
2. Story Structure
Unlike production companies and networks, most competitions aren’t exactly looking for the next best story, but rather the next best writer. They will judge the story, of course, but they will also be looking to see if you know how to write. And story structure is the best way to show it. Make sure your three acts are clearly defined and have the key elements they should. Remember that before breaking the rules you need to fully understand them.
A clear theme can go a long way during script competitions. The theme allows the reader to connect to the story and understand it no matter their background. This is important because judges might be from different places and have different cultures, so crafting a story with universal values can help them bond with your project and select it.
Remember you’re not alone.
Preparing for a contest is just as important as preparing to pitch to a network. Getting professional feedback before you submit it can help you increase your chances of being selected. Script consultants, like myself, often offer services designed for competitive submissions. We will work with you to improve your project based on the specific contest’s requirements.
Happy writing and good luck!
How to Write a Screenplay Outline the Easy Way
Writing a screenplay is a difficult process, but it’s made easier with an outline. An outline is a roadmap for your script. It gives you the full story from beginning to end and helps you understand how each scene fits into the story. This way, you can see your story and make sure it works without distractions such as dialogue or descriptions. It’s also a great way to get your thoughts in order and figure out what direction to take next if you get stuck.
Why You Need a Screenplay Outline
A screenplay outline can be challenging, but it’s also extremely helpful. You might think you don’t need one because your story seems clear. However, you might end up with scenes that don’t work for the story’s flow, or get confused in your subplots. Because there are so many moving parts, without an outline, it’s hard to keep track of everything when writing a script.
It doesn’t have to be fancy; it just has to tell you what happens in each scene and how they connect together. This makes it much easier than trying to write an entire screenplay without any direction at all.
What is a Screenplay Outline
An outline is a basic blueprint for your screenplay that helps you figure out how each scene fits into the story. This way, you can see where your story is going and make sure it moves forward. You can still write your script freely, but having an outline gives you a basic understanding of what the finished script will look like.
How to Write a Screenplay Outline the Easy Way
A screenplay outline is a roadmap for your story. It helps you understand how each scene fits into the story, and it gives you a full picture of it, from beginning to end. That’s where it comes in handy.
There are many ways to write an outline, but we’ll focus on one simple method:
1. Establish your story’s basic three-act structure.
Define where your acts will begin and end and the key moments of each one.
2. Start with the scenes that you already have.
You probably already envision certain scenes for your script. These include important moments that your story cannot live without. Start with those.
3. With your basic structure in mind, brainstorm about what other scenes can help tell your story. Check my beat sheet guidelines to ensure that you cover all the key moments.
4. Think of scenes that can help you to connect your written scenes.
Quick tips to ensure your scenes move your story forward
- Introduce the characters that are in the scene.
- Introduce the conflict.
- End the scene with something that sets up what happens next.
The Importance of Having an Outline
If you’re just starting out in the world of screenwriting and don’t know where to start, I recommend you make an outline every time you start a project. As a more experienced writer, you can choose not to have one, but it’s still a very useful tool.
It’s easy for us writers to become overwhelmed with all our thoughts. With an outline, you’ll see where your story is going and what sorts of scenes need to be written (or rewritten) next.
This is one of the most important steps in your screenplay writing process, and now you are ready to create yours.
5 habits to be a Better Screenwriter
Introduction: What Makes Habits So Powerful?
Habits give order to our lives. They help us reach our objectives without feeling overwhelmed, and allow us to prioritize the many things we have going on.
With all the options we have on a daily basis, having habits and routines in place can save us valuable time. They help us make immediate decisions, based on choices we’ve made in the past. When you determine that you want to go to the gym every day, the choice of waking up early is easier to make, since you have already made the bigger decision of working out.
How the Power of Habit Changes Our Creative Lives
Creative minds tend to wander around and sometimes it’s hard to stick to routines or create new habits. However, habits have a powerful effect on our creativity and can really make a difference when it comes to reaching our artistic goals.
Procrastination, creative blocks, and other affections for creativity can easily be shifted by implementing simple, but efficient habits in our lives.
5 habits to be a better screenwriter
1. Write every day.
I know this piece of advice might sound obvious and even tedious. However, writing every day is the best way to make writing a habit and reach your goals. Writing consistently will help you enhance your writing skills, sharpen your style and stay creative. It’s also a great way to extend your vocabulary, improve your grammar and spelling and overall, elevate your writing career.
2. Practice brain dumping.
Brain dumps are a great way to declutter your mind and help you focus on what’s important. They are easy to do and a great first step to creating your to-do list and planning your day/week. To do a brain dump, simply take a piece of paper or notebook and write down everything you need to do, don’t worry if it seems unimportant, whatever is on your mind, put it on paper. Then you can prioritize each item, define the tasks that need to be done and organize them in your schedule.
3. Meditate/clear your mind.
As creative people, screenwriters tend to have a lot on their minds. With stories that begin to form, possible plot lines and characters shaping up, and all those new ideas constantly developing up there, our heads can get saturated quickly and a lot. Meditation and mindfulness have a lot of benefits. They can give you new perspectives, reduce negative emotions, help you manage stress, and most importantly, create space in our minds. Allowing us to be more creative and stay sharp.
4. Track your goals and progress.
Screenwriting can be a solitary trade, and sometimes it’s hard to keep a realistic outlook on whether we’re doing it right or not. Keeping track of your objectives and celebrating your victories is key to a successful creative career. This allows you to measure your success which is otherwise subjective, and keep a clear view of where you are and where you’re trying to get.
5. Set time for yourself aside.
As creative beings, we need to be in constant touch with ourselves and our emotions, and with the rush of every day and the world racing around us, it might be hard to find time to be self-aware. This is why you need to make the time. In her book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron proposes the “artist date”. A once-a-week moment that you dedicate to your artistic self. The idea is to go on alone and do something that interests you and excites you, and basically, spend time with yourself.
Whether you stick to the once-a-week plan or not, make sure to take a moment now and then to focus on yourself and create a space between you and everything around you. It will help you stay creative and allow your emotions out.
Conclusion. What’s in it for you?
These habits have helped me personally to boost my creativity, become more efficient and reach my writing goals, and they are the foundation of The Screenwriting Journal. A notebook I designed specially for screenwriters to keep track of their goals, organize their daily tasks, and practice mindfulness and gratitude.
You can buy a physical copy of The Screenwriting Journal on Amazon, or get a digital copy by signing up for my mailing list. *
I hope these habits can help you as much as they’ve helped me and, as always, happy writing!
*Once you’ve signed up, send me an email to get your copy 🙂
Screenwriting terms and the art of Pre-writing
People always say that you need to walk before you run and run before you fly.
It makes sense, the more prepared you are to do anything, the easier and smoother the actual doing will be. Screenwriting (or any writing for that matter) is no exception. Which is why screenwriters across the industry rely on pre-writing to succeed in the bumpy process of screenwriting.
The What’s, Who’s, and How’s.
The first thing you need to think of when preparing to write a script is, what the story is going to be about (plot), who it is about (characters) and how the story will be told (genre). Once we’ve defined these key elements, we can start outlining the smaller parts that will, combined, make our script.
In the game of pre-writing, there are several screenwriting terms that you need to know.
Loglines are important. They are widely used in terms of production because they summarize the script. This allows busy people, like producers and executives, to know if the script is something they might be interested in, before they commit to reading it in full. But aside from producers, the logline is very important and useful for you as a writer. It allows you to clarify and always keep in mind what it is that you want your script to be.
A logline is a one-sentence summary of the whole story and therefore it can be intimidating. However, it’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it. And, believe me, you will need it.
- The aging patriarch of an organized crime dynasty transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant son.
The Godfather (1972)
- Set in unoccupied Africa during the early days of World War II: An American expatriate meets a former lover with unforeseen complications.
- The capo of a New Jersey syndicate goes to a psychiatrist to deal with the changing nature of his business, a wife who no longer trusts him, kids who are growing up, and his murderous extended family.
The Sopranos (1942)*
A logline should tell us who the main character is, what does he want, and why can’t he get it.
The most famous and used of the screenwriting terms. You’ve heard about this one before, probably many times. A synopsis is a summary of your story and varies in length and content according to its objective. Producers, executives, directors and judges will most likely want a long synopsis. Basically, the people that will need to know the story completely, including the ending. This kind of synopsis is usually about a page long.
For pitching and telling the story when unsolicited, you’ll need a short synopsis. This is usually half a page and may or may not include the ending. Again, this depends on who you’re showing it to.
Finally, there is the sales/pitching synopsis which is short and concise. It doesn’t include the ending, and leaves some sort of cliffhanger. As the name suggests, these are meant to sell your story. This is the one that you’ll see on the back of the DVD box and VoD platforms.
During the pre-writing process, it’s best to work on a long synopsis so that you have a clear path of where your story is going and how it ends.
The outline or beat sheet
This will be a map of the hidden treasure, or else, the path your script will follow from beginning to end. This is a list of scenes, moments, or beats, in chronological order, that take the story from point A to B to C (and so on). At this point, you don’t need to be very detailed. However, it has to be clear to you why things are happening in this order and how they move the story forward.
There are many ways to create an outline. From bullet points, to complete scene descriptions to actions, it’s solely up to you how you do it.
You might be familiar with the Save the Cat outline – or beat sheet, this is one of the most famous forms of outlines. You can learn more about it here.
As we get closer to writing our script, our pre-writing will become more detailed and so it’s the treatment. Another well-known screenwriting term. The treatment is a longer document. Here, the beats are described in detailed prose. This is still a summary though, so you shouldn’t take more than a page for each scene. It includes descriptions of actions and can have some sparse dialogue. Anyone should be able to understand this document, whether they have screenwriting knowledge or not. Think of it as a guideline for the whole story.
Like the logline, treatments are important to present your project to potential producers, agents, and executives, so that they have a complete idea of your story without having to read the complete script.
Depending on your style and your story’s specific features, the length and information of your treatment will vary. You might focus on character description or the world your script takes place in, this also, is up to you and you will find your own voice as you write and rewrite it.
There’s really no wrong or right as to how long you should spend on pre-writing. What matters is that you feel prepared and comfortable to move into the actual writing of the script, in the right format, and with the proper software. It’s also important not to get overwhelmed with all the screenwriting terms, but rather use them in your favor.
You can always go back to these documents even when you have started the script and make changes from there, without compromising the progress of your screenplay. Also, not all projects require necessarily all of the documents, try them out and stick to whatever works for you.
Happy (PRE) Writing!
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The 3 Act Structure Simplified
Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is what Aristotle thought and taught and it seems to be embedded in every storyteller’s brain, even unconsciously. This is the 3 Act Structure.
When applied to screenwriting, this structure seems to mutate into much more detailed forms, dividing the whole story into pieces as small as beats. However, seeing the bigger picture first comes way easier when we’re stepping into the world of screenwriting. So before you can dig into these more exhaustive approaches, let’s take a look at the basic, 3 Act Structure.
The Three Act Structure:
Act 1 (Pages 1-30)**
This is where everything begins (bet you didn’t see that coming!). We introduce our characters and the world they live in, we also present the object of desire. That thing (physical or not) that our main character wants and will do whatever it takes to get. This is key not only for Act 1, but for our whole story. It is what sets everything in motion, the reason our protagonist will do everything throughout the story. As we introduce this object, we need to show why it is so important for our protagonist and how his* life will be different if he gets it. We also get to know the people, places, and things they coexist with.
- In The Wizard of Oz, we start off by meeting Dorothy and everyone on the farm. We see that there are no parents but Auntie Em and Uncle Henry. We learn that Dorothy helps out, that Toto is adorable and that their neighbor is a horrible person. We also see that Dorothy is kind and dreams of a magical land where trouble melts like lemon drops.
Once we’ve presented our people and places and the audience has stepped into this world, it’s time to shake our protagonist up. We’ll do this by giving him* something that will change his life forever. Even though they still need to decide on whether they let this affect them or not, their life cannot possibly be the same after this something happens.
Imagine winning the lottery. Your life will never be the same again. Even if you (are absolutely bonkers and) decide not to collect the prize. You will either be rich and turn your life around, or be the person who threw the chance away and has to live with it. Either way, there is no going back to what you used to be.
- The tornado hits. Literally. There’s wind and whirls and a flying house. Dorothy loses consciousness and is headed to Munchkinland. Even if the twister stops and Dorothy lands back safe, her life wouldn’t be the same again. I mean, she’s seen her neighbor as a green cackling witch, this has to take a toll on people!
And so, we fly into Act 2 (pun intended).
Act 2 (Pages 30-90)**
You’ve put your protagonist on the road to something and Act 2 is that road. What is he* going to do to get that object of desire? To make his dream come true? To defeat the bad guys? This is all Act 2.
Act 2 is where you show off and get creative, this is where you put your characters to the test. Think about anything you’ve ever tried to accomplish. There were steps to follow, complications, obstacles, and smaller victories. You went through thick and thin and in the end, got what you wanted (or not). That’s what your protagonist needs to go through.
Raise the stakes! – Don’t be afraid of making it too hard on your characters, that’s what you want. They need to lose, recover and get that object once and again, through different obstacles and sub-conflicts.
In Act 2, we also find the famous sub-plots. These are additional, smaller stories that live around the main narrative and are intertwined with it. The love story, another goal, another conflict, etc.
- Dorothy is not in Kansas anymore. She meets new characters and sees new places (hell, there’s even a different color!). She finds new conflicts, getting through the scary forest, losing the yellow brick road, falling asleep in the field of poppies, and signing a song or two on the way. This is a very clear example because it’s literally about following a road. This is what your second act should look like. A road full of obstacles and challenges that get more and more complicated as they go along.
Act 2 closes with the lowest (or highest) point of our story, where there seems to be nothing left to do to reach our goals… Only there is, it is ACT 3
Act 3 (Pages 90-110)**
With almost no hope left, your characters take one last stand, as the last, biggest conflict comes to them. This takes us to the final step of the 3 act structure. The moment where our protagonist decides whether he* tries one more time or moves on. If he tries, he will come up with a new plan and act on it, to win. If he decides not to, then we will see how his life will be after the defeat. In Act 3 we will find the climax. The most exciting moment, and the one that will determine the ending for once.
- While Dorothy is trapped in the witch’s castle, her friends set out to save her. They fight the flying monkeys as Dorothy kills the witch with a bucket of water. They’ve succeeded and it’s time to go back to the Emerald City and claim their reward.
Your protagonist gets what she* wanted all along and everything falls into place. She has changed and her journey is complete.
- Dorothy and Toto go back to the farm and now have a new understanding of life. Dorothy apologizes to her aunt and uncle and knows that adventure and dreams are right there with her family. After all, there is no place like home.
Keep in mind that your protagonist doesn’t always have to get what she* wanted. She might also come to realize that what she thought she wanted isn’t what she really needed, or discover that what she got instead is in fact, her true desire. Either way, this has to give closure to her journey and the story.
Act 3 is also the time to close every other character’s narrative. Make sure not to leave any loose ends.
Now, as I pointed out initially, this is a very simple explanation of the basic 3 Acts Structure. However, you can learn more about how this structure breaks into beats in this other article. Remember, the best way to learn and understand structure is by watching movies, so go on and take a look at your favorite picks.
*I use he/she pronouns indefinitely
** Based on a 110 page script
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