You’re here because you don’t know anything about screenwriting and want to get started ASAP and look like a pro. That’s exactly what I wanted too, one place to learn everything. This is your portal into screenwriting, TV writing, and sketch writing (forget stage format for now). Coming from a background in feature film writing, I’m going to start with feature.
- Writing Tools
- Feature Screenplay Format
- Reading Scripts Online
- Example Single-Cam (Arrested Development)
- Example Multi-Cam (Friends)
- Further Reading
The easiest way to get your script to LOOK like a script is to buy or download a script writing application. The industry standard is Final Draft, but it costs an arm and a rent, so I’ll recommend Celtx for now to get you started. You’ll soon bump up into the limits of Celtx and want to shell out for Final Draft. Until then, save your money. There’s also word templates.
- FinalDraft ($250, Aug 2017; Student $130)
- Word Template (Screenplay Template from University of North Dakota). This is a nice option since you can do custom formatting, write offline, and print to PDF. It works very much like any script writing software. It also introduces you the the capabilities of Word styles. No need to activate Macros for shortcut use since tabs, enters, and the style window pinned to the right side of your screen will get you the formatting you need. You can also create a multi-cam format by changing the formatting for the different styles.
- Celtx (Obsolete Desktop Version). The pros is that it’s free and does feature screenplay format for free (no multi-cam TV formatting). The cons is that it requires internet access since now all your files are linked to the cloud. However, the phased-out desktop version (link above) allows you to write offline (without providing personal email) and requires internet only to save to PDF.
Feature Screenplay Format
The article below goes over all the formatting rules and tips and tricks for breaking them (don’t try the tricks while you’re still learning).
Here is a printable format that I’ve put on 5.5 x 8.5 paper, so you can print it out as a booklet (under page sizing & handling, there should be a booklet option). You can also print 2 per page (on a normal 8.5 x 11 letter size paper). [DOCX, PDF]
Reading Screenplays Online
The second resource is a bunch of sites for downloading and reading screenplays (in the order that I remembered them).
- http://www.imsdb.com The Internet Movie Script Database. HTML versions of scripts.
- http://www.dailyscript.com Many PDF scans, which give you good sense of page counts and final formatting. Internally hosted files.
- http://www.script-o-rama.com/table.shtml Mostly links to external sources for scripts (many PDF scans, see PDF warning below).
- Googling. Ex: Friends Pilot Script. Just try to stay to website that seem kosher.
PDFs can be dangerous if certain permissions are enabled in your PDF viewer (and the file is malevolent).
The sites above are clean as far as I can tell, and I think they try to keep it that way. They’ve been around for decades (literally, have you seen their page design?).
Different Types of Screenplays
- Spec (speculation)
Something to consider in reading feature scripts are the different types of scripts out there.
There is a spec (speculation) script which is a script written on one’s own time and sold to the studios after completion. (See this article for great insight into Time-Risk as a gauge for costing effort and living life.)
- Scream (sold for $400k, scanned red draft),
- The Long Kiss Goodnight (sold for $4 million in ’94)
- True Romance
- The Island (sold for $1 million, 2004, the script got desecrated by Michael Bay in re-writes; Spielberg with Paramount’s money bought it with Michael Bay in mind for directing).
These scripts are good to learn from because they have to be pitch perfect in order to be sold as is (or their concepts are so compelling (The Island) that the studio will buy it to adapt if for a particular talent).
Just for reference, WGA has minimum purchase prices for spec screenplays by major studios. Last I checked it’s around $70k. Non-studios will pay less. Some spec scripts will also get “optioned” for less, which is money paid to the writer to essentially stop them from selling to other companies for a limited amount of time while they decide if they want to put in all of the money to buy it out completely.
Then there are commissioned scripts where the writers are paid by the studio to write a script based on pitches and treatments (you don’t get paid as much as spec scripts). These don’t have to be as good (but still film-able) because the creators have a vested interest in already. Sometimes a particular talent might be attached so bad dialogue can be imagined better because Keanu Reeves is saying it. However, there is no guarantee those films will still get made.
- Pirates 1 (’03, Depp probably attached already),
- Austin Powers (’97, late draft, Mike Myers),
- Mean Girls (adaptation, Tina Fey, written after SNL),
- Aliens (’85, James Cameron wrote it based on a treatment he made for his own unrelated sci-fi flick that the studios liked enough to buy and have him re-write with Sigourney in the lead).
Then there are shooting scripts, which are the final script that is used to breakdown and budget the film. As such all scene headings (slugs) are numbered. If you see scenes with numbers, it’s a shooting script. Don’t number your scenes ever or you’ll look like a rank amateur. When you see a script with numbers you know that’s what the script looked like before being filmed.
Colored pages indicate draft changes (revisions) after a shooting script is first printed. As a form of draft control, changes are both added to the first page with a date and indicated by printing on different colored pages. Instead of renumbering the whole script, changed pages will become blue, pink, red, etc. and new scenes will get new numbers with A or B or C added to the end. The Arrested Development script linked to below has an example of this at scene 25.
Example Single-Cam TV Script
The Arrested Development Pilot is a great script to learn all the tricks of the trade for sketch writing, screenwriting, and TV writing. It’s a great example of what a single-cam TV script looks like. (Single-cam is a movie-production style show like 24, CSI, or Modern Family, while multi-cam is a stage style show, i.e. Friends, Seinfeld, 2 1/2 Men). The single-cam TV format is so similar to screenwriting, that it’s useful for feature screenwriting as well. Plus it’s fun to read and easy to compare to the final product.
It has good examples of the following (do note that it’s a shooting script which means there is some over direction of camera placement with tons of “cut to”s in stage direction):
- Using voice over (V.O.)
- Using Chryon (another word for text overlay)
- Using parentheticals as adverbs (or HOW a line is delivered) at the bottom of page 2
- Using RE: in parentheticals near the top of page 2; RE: means regarding, not reply
- HEADSHOT as a non-location slug line followed by Of Tobias (compare to use of INSERT in scene 21)
- Lindsay’s dialogue in scene 3 to imply an excited swallowing/savoring of the hors d’oeuvre; how to spell hors d’oeuvres.
- spelling out words in dialogue in scene 4; G-O-B
- ellipses between scenes 7 and 8
- double-dash between scenes 10 and 11
- multiple locations in slug 12
- nested location in slug 1
- “Angle on:” in scene 16
- various uses of — to designate change of thought or incomplete thoughts in dialogue in scene 16
- SMASH CUT TO before scene 18
- Flashback and return to present in scene 19
- use of INSERTS in scene 21
- describing action over dialogue on page 14 1st description
- using parentheticals to denote WHO a line is said to (TO BUSTER) on page 14
- an example of what adding a scene after your shooting script is made in scene 25A/B, and 29A
- END OF ACT ONE formatting on page 14 (ACT ONE formatting on page 1)
Example Multi-cam TV Script
For now I’ll put the Friends Pilot out there. It’s a good example of what the title page and character page look like as well as the format.
I highly recommend All Columns from the Wordplayer website. It’s written by Ted Elliot & Terry Rossio, the screenwriters of Aladdin, Mask of Zorro, and Pirates 1, 2, & 3 who also ghost wrote (uncredited re-wrote) Men In Black.
The site is all content and no ads. They were paid by AOL to write the series back in the day (late 90s), and now share the content for free and update when they want to.
I idolize these writers and the amount of knowledge they pack into the columns.
Some YouTube channels make great video essays. One specifically for writing is Lessons from the Screenplay.
How to Write A…
[internal links with more resources, under construction]
- UCB Comedy Sketch.
- Groundlings Sketch.
- Feature Script.
- This article summarizes some of the staple books out there. Much of which don’t need to be read beyond the first few chapters.
- A series of scenes make up a script. What needs to be in each? How to outline a scene so you know it works in the larger picture of the screenplay.
- Logline. (different than a tagline or synopsis)
What is Improv?