A Brief Introduction to Writing Screenplays in Three Parts

A Brief Introduction to Writing
Screenplays in Three Parts
• Production
• The Screenplay
• Terminology and Conventions
• Producer
– The chief of a movie production in all matters save the
creative efforts of the director. A producer is responsible
for raising funding, hiring key personnel, and arranging
for distributors.
• Actor
– A person who plays the role of a character. Historically,
the term “Actor'' referred exclusively to males, but in
modern times the term is used for both genders.
Writing in Film
• As the text stresses, writers for film are
generally not as respected as writers for theatre.
Many Hollywood films are written by staff
writers, or are edited or re-written by staff
writers after the original writer has relinquished
rights to the material.
– Very few writers are as uniquely positioned as M.
Night Shyamalan or Andrew Niccol
– Even best-selling novelists often forfeit their rights
to their stories
• Director
– The principal creative artist on a movie set. A director
is usually (but not always) the driving artistic source
behind the filming process and communicates to actors
the way that he/she would like a particular scene
played. A director's duties might also include casting,
script editing, shot selection, shot composition, and
editing. Typically, a director has complete artistic
control over all aspects of the movie, but it is not
uncommon for the director to be bound by agreements
with either a producer or a studio. In some large
productions, a director will delegate less important
scenes to a second unit.
• Editor
– A person who performs editing, reconstructing the
sequence of events in a movie, usually in consultation
with the director on a movie. This term usually refers to
someone who does visual editing.
• Cinematographer
– A person with expertise in the art of capturing images
either electronically or on film stock through the
application of visual recording devices and the selection
and arrangement of lighting. The chief cinematographer
for a movie is called the director of photography.
• Writer
– A general term for someone who creates a written work,
be it a novel, script, screenplay, or teleplay. A screenwriter
either adapts an existing work for production as a movie
or creates a new screenplay. A writer may belong to the
Writer's Guild of America.
• Writer's Guild of America , or WGA
– The Writers Guild of America is the sole collective
bargaining representative for writers in the motion picture,
broadcast, cable, interactive and new media industries. It
has numerous affiliation agreements with other U.S. and
international writing organizations and is in the
forefront of the debates concerning economic and creative
rights for writers. Of its close to 5,000 member, only
about 200 are employed full-time as screenwriters.
• Key Grip
– The chief of a group of grips, often doubling for a
construction coordinator and a backup for the camera crew.
Key grips work closely with the gaffer.
• Gaffer, or Chief Lighting Technician
– The head of the electrical department. In Early Modern
English, this term meant "old man."
• Script Supervisor
– A person who tracks which parts have been filmed, how the
filmed scenes deviated from the script; they also make
continuity notes, creating a lined script.
• Foley
– The art of recreating incidental sound effects (such as
footsteps) in synchronization with the visual component
of a movie. Named after an early practitioner. Foley
artists sometimes use bizarre objects and methods to
achieve sound effects, e.g. snapping celery to mimic
bones being broken. The sounds are often exaggerated
for extra effect--fight sequences are almost always
accompanied by loud foley-added thuds and slaps.
• Extra
– A person who appears in a movie where a non-specific,
non-speaking character is required, usually as part of a
crowd or in the background of a scene. Extras are often
recruited from wherever they are available.
Filming Terminology
• Action
– "Action" is called during filming to indicate the start
of the current take.
• Cut
– A change in either camera angle or placement,
location, or time. "Cut" is called during filming to
indicate that the current take is over. A "cut" of a
movie is also a complete edited version.
• Dailies or Rushes
– The first positive prints made from the
negatives photographed on the previous day.
During filming, the director and some actors
may view these dailies as an indication of how
the filming and the actors' performances are
• Lock it down
– A direction given by the assistant director for
everyone on the set to be quiet. It is called just
prior to “speed.”
• Safe Area
– A camera's viewfinder actually shows (and records on
film stock) a greater area of the scene than will appear
in the final product. Markings are etched in the
viewfinder to indicate to the camera operator the
extents of the "viewable" film (called the live area). An
area beyond that (called the safe area) is also marked; it
is in this area that the production sound mixer might
direct the boom operator to place the boom
• Scene
– A continuous block of storytelling either set in a single
location or following a particular character. The end of
a scene is typically marked by a change in location,
style, or time.
• Set
– An environment used for filming. When used in
contrast to location, it refers to one artificially
constructed. A set typically is not a complete or
accurate replica of the environment as defined by
the script but is carefully constructed to make
filming easier but still appear natural when viewed
from the camera angle.
• Speed
– An announcement made by either the director of
photography or camera operator indicating to the
director that the camera is operating at the correct
speed. Called just after “lock it down” and just
before “action.”
• Take
– A single continuous recorded performance of a
scene. A director typically orders takes to
continue until he or she is satisfied that all of
his or her requirements for the scene have been
made, be they technical or artistic. A continuity
report stores the status of each take. Of the ones
that don't contain obvious errors, the director
will order some to be printed.
• Wrap or Windup, Wind
– To finish shooting, either for the day or the
entire production.
The Screenplay
• Script
– A general term for a written work detailing
story, setting, and dialogue. A script may take
the form of a screenplay, shooting script, lined
script, continuity script, or a spec script. A
script is often sold for a particular price, which
is increased to a second price if the script is
produced as a movie. For example, a sale may
be described as "$100,000 against $250,000".
In this case, the writer is paid $100,000 up
front, and another $150,000 when the movie is
• Screenplay
– A script written to be produced as a movie.
• Shooting Script
– The script from which a movie is made. Usually
contains numbered scenes and technical notes.
• Lined Script
– A copy of the shooting script which is prepared by the
script supervisor during production to indicate, via
notations and vertical lines drawn directly onto the
script pages, exactly what coverage has been shot.
• Continuity Script, or Continuity Report
– A detailed list of the events that occurred during the
filming of a scene. Typically recorded are production
and crew identification, camera settings,
environmental conditions, the status of each take, and
exact details of the action that occurs. By recording all
possible sources of variation, the report helps cut
down continuity error between shots or even during
• Spec Script
– A script written before any agreement has been
entered into ("on spec" or speculation), in hopes of
selling the script to the highest bidder once it has been
• Treatment
– An abridged script, it is longer than a synopsis.
It consists of a summary of each major scene of
a proposed movie and descriptions of the
significant characters and may even include
snippets of dialogue. While a complete script is
around 100 pages, a treatment is closer to 10.
• Synopsis
– A summary of the major plot points and
characters of a script, generally in a page or
Formatting a Screenplay
• Most Hollywood films are 120 minutes long; most
European films are 90 minutes long.
• A page of screenplay—no matter if it is all dialogue, all
action, or some combination of the two—equals
approximately a minute of screen time.
• Screenplay Formula, according to Syd Field
– Set-up, Exposition
pages 1-30
– Plot Point I
pages 25-27
– Confrontation
pages 30-90
– Plot Point II
pages 85-90
– Resolution
pages 90-120
Formatting a Screenplay, continued
• Screenwriters do not, in general, have to worry about
camera angles when writing. The directors will read the
script or screenplay and then decide how to film it.
• Screenwriters need only introduce the scenes by stating
whether the scene takes place inside (INT.) or outside
(EXT.), where specifically it take place, and when (usually
either DAY or NIGHT). These scenic cues start at the left
Formatting a Screenplay, continued
• After introducing the scene’s location, double-space and
then give a description of characters or places can follow.
This should not be more than a few lines long. This begins
at the left margin, as well.
• Characters’ names are capitalized in the description as they
are introduced.
• Once characters speak, their names, all capitalized,
followed by their dialogue, is centered on the page.
Formatting a Screenplay, continued
• Stage directions should appear in parentheses under the
speaking character’s name, single-spaced.
• Sound effects or music effects should be capitalized within
any descriptions.
Common Terms
(the subject of the shot)
A person, place, or thing
ANGLE ON BILL leaving his
apartment building
(subject of the shot)
Also a person, place, or thing
FAVORING BILL as he leaves
his apartment
A variation of a SHOT
walking out of his apartment
A change of focus in a scene
You go from an ANGLE ON
Bill to a WIDER ANGLE which
now includes Bill and his
Another variation on a shot,
often used to “break up the
page” for a more “cinematic
A NEW ANGLE of Bill and
Jane dancing at a party
A person’s POINT OF VIEW,
how something looks to him/her
ANGLE ON Bill, dancing with
Jane, and from JANE’S POV
Bill is smiling.
A change in perspective,
usually the opposite of the
POV shot
Bill’s POV as he looks at Jane,
Jane looking at Bill
Often used for POV and
We see Bill’s shoulder and head
shot of Jane
Focuses on the movement of a
A MOVING SHOT of the jeep
racing across the desert.
walking toward Jane.
A close-up.Use sparingly for
ecstatic, as he stares at Jane.
A close shot of “something,”
like a photograph, newspaper
headline, or gun.
INSERT of faded photograph,
showing Bill and Jane’s
Ways to begin a screenplay or
a scene
ANGLE ON Bill putting on
dress shoes
Ways to end a screenplay or a
JANE opening closet, sorting
through clothing, and pulling
out a flowered dress
Screenplay Facts
• Over 15,000 screenplays are registered with the Writers Guild of
America each year.
• About 80 to 90 feature films are made by studios and independent
production companies each year.
• A literary agent gets a ten percent commission on anything he/she
• Prices for a screenplay vary from $400,000 to the Writers Guild
– A high budget movie that costs over $1 million to make earns
about $20,000 for the writer(s)
– A low-budget film earns a little over $10,000
• If someone options a film, they pay the writer 5-10 percent of the
agreed upon price. If the option is picked up, then the writer
receives the rest on the first day of shooting.
Progress Report
• Please e-mail me to tell me here how your
Applications Project is going? What have you decided
to do? Where are you in the process?
To read a draft of the Gattaca screenplay, go to
• Field, Syd. Screenplay: The Foundations of
Screenwriting. New York: Dell Publishing,
• Giannetti, Louis. Understanding Movies.
Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall,
• Internet Movie Database. http:// www.imdb.com
• Niccol, Andrew. Gattaca. Dir. Andrew Niccol.
Sony Pictures, 1994.