Last week I had my friend , Pepper Langlinais, on to talk about writing novels versus movie screenplays—and what makes a good one. Today is more about the content of those screenplays, and what they look like. If you haven’t read last week’s post yet, click here.
Thanks for coming back, Pepper. So how does a screenplay differ than a novel?
There are technical differences, of course. While in a book you might take several paragraphs to describe a room when someone first enters it, in a script you must do it quickly, efficiently, and without flourish. You’re not writing a script so that everyone can picture the place; you’re writing it so the art department and director know how to build and dress the set. A screenplay is a blueprint; a book is a finished product. In that way, the pieces of writing serve two completely different functions. And a screenplay is subject to change—the director, the actors, the producers may all decide to make changes to it, and as a writer you must be open to that. It is collaborative. If you don’t want anyone to touch your precious words, write books . . . And then your editor will probably change your words anyway.
Screenplays are generally written using special formatting software; the industry standard is Final Draft. It’s easier to use software than to try and format it yourself.
The first line that gives the location of the scene is called a slug. It tells the crew whether the scene will be inside (INT.) or outside (EXT.), which set/location will be used for the scene, and whether the scene is day or night. Slugs are key for pre-production because all scenes set in one location will generally be shot at the same time. So it’s important to know how many scenes happen in any one place, day or night. The first time a location is introduced in a script, it should be followed by description so the art department can find a suitable location or build and dress a set that will work.
Description and action are written in long paragraphs. Dialogue is tabbed in on both sides and headed by the character’s name.
(O.C.) means “off camera.” Meaning we hear the dialogue but don’t see who is speaking.
(CONT’D) means “continued” and shows that the character who had previously been speaking continues to speak.
Any time a character is seen for the first time in a script, his or her name appears in all capital letters in the description or action. After that it will appear in regular form for any additional description or action. (But this is only true in movie scripts; in television, it is usual for the characters’ names to continually be treated in all caps in any description or action. Way to make it confusing, guys.) Characters’ names are always in all caps when over dialogue. For film and TV.
And here is a page from a screenplay. If you’d like to see a more extensive example, Pepper has one posted here.
I can definitely see how formatting a screenplay could be a nightmare. Too many paragraphs to deal with.
Thanks again, Pepper, for sharing with us. And come back next week to find out the differences between querying screenplays and novels.
Have you ever seen a screenplay or was this totally new to you too?