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3 Tips to Write Better Screenplays

Matthew Scherer is a screenwriter from south Texas. He has written six short films, a novel, and numerous short stories.

Tips for writing a screenplay.

Tips for writing a screenplay.

1. Format Correctly

This is the number one thing that beginners tend to get wrong. Screenplays have very specific formatting criteria, so it's important to get it right. There are many things to know, but here are the basics.

All screenplays should be written in Courier 12 point font. The reason for this is that one page of Courier 12 point roughly comes out to one minute of time on screen. Using this rule of thumb, you can pinpoint how long the film you're writing will be. For example, a 60 page script will roughly translate to 60 minutes of film.

Every new scene requires a scene heading, which is expressed as such. First is an abbreviation of whether the scene is indoors or outdoors (INT. or EXT.). This is immediately followed by the location of the scene (INT. FLOYD'S HOUSE), followed by a dash, and then the time of day. (INT. FLOYD'S HOUSE - DAY).

Words that are not dialogue are called action lines. Action lines must always represent something that is visible on camera. In other words, you wouldn't want to include a character's inner thoughts in action lines, as these will never be seen on screen.

Rather, save these lines for visible, directed action. They can be used to describe a location, a visual description of what a character is doing or feeling, anything that will be seen.

For spoken dialogue, the character speaking needs to be written in all caps. The dialogue that is spoken should be centered underneath the character name. For example:

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Specific attitudes or verbal direction intended for characters are represented as parentheticals underneath the character's name, but not directly centered underneath. For example:

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The first time a character occurs in the script, they should be written in all caps. (The group was suddenly joined by TED, who emerged from the next room). Any time an audible sound occurs in a scene, it should also be written in all caps. (The phone RANG three times).

If a character is speaking and the dialogue is broken up by action lines, you write CONT'D in parenthesis next to their name before they speak again. This is done to show that the character does not pause, and that the lines are spoken continuously.

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2. Show, Don't Tell

Film is a visual medium, so the screenplay needs to reflect that. It differs from the novel and short story in that intangible things can't be shown, such as thoughts and inner feelings. These things instead have to be expressed visually.

Novel writers attempting their first screenplay have a tendency to over use exposition, which is directly telling us information, inner feelings, or key plot points. For example, many science fiction stories often contain lots of exposition. They do this because they often involve elaborate and foreign worlds that need a lot of setup before the narrative can take place.

However, there are ways to avoid exposition. For the screenplay, focus on writing visually. Say you have a character that is hungry. How would you go about showing this? Would you have a line of dialogue where he simply states, "I'm hungry,"?

Well, that would get the point across, but it's telling, not showing. Instead, how about writing an audible rumble coming from his stomach? Then you could write about his mouth watering while he watches a fast food advertisement on television.

The same information is communicated, but it was done so visually. This is the language of film. For every scene remember to ask yourself, "How can I visually communicate this without saying it?" If this thinking is applied to every scene, it becomes easier to find ways to visualize instead of flat out telling the audience what they need to know.

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3. Break Up the Action

As stated before, action lines are meant to represent actions or locations that we physically see. As such, these lines can take up quite a bit of space if what's being described is elaborate. This can become cumbersome on the eye of the reader.

Instead of writing long paragraphs of action lines, stick to no more than three sentences together at once. Spacing out the action lines not only makes them easier to read, but gives the reader a good idea of the pace of the actions taking place.

For example, let's say there's a scene in which a hero is chasing a villain. They chase each other down an alley in a big city. At the end of the alley, two men are raising a piano to a higher floor. When our hero reaches the end of the alley, he is stopped by the piano falling in front of him, allowing the villain to escape. A good way to capture this in action lines would be as such:

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Each specific action gets its own paragraph of two or three sentences. This gives the scene beats, which are key moments when things change. For example, the mood of the scene changes when we see the men hoisting the piano, so it gets its own paragraph. It gets us to ask the question, "Why are we seeing this now?"

If it was lumped into one paragraph, it would be harder to identify the natural progression of the scene. All of the actions would run together, and it would be harder to read. Always remember to convey your action in brief, appropriate beats.

© 2019 Matthew Scherer

Comments

Matthew Scherer (author) from Corpus Christi on May 07, 2019:

Thanks so much! I'm happy my article held your interest :-)

FlourishAnyway from USA on May 07, 2019:

I’ve never seen this topic covered so I was very interested. Great topic, very interesting. Welcome to HP!