How to read a screenplay

by Bryan Marvis

A FEW NOTES on SCREENPLAYS (For readers unfamiliar with the format)

Screenplays are, indeed, a strange and often confusing literary animal.  

Unlike novels, plays, short stories, poetry, and non-fiction, screenplays are rarely read by the general public.  For the most part, movie scripts end up not in homes or classrooms or libraries, but in the hands of people who would like to make movies.  And, the fact is, most of these people (including many screenwriters), would much rather spend their time reading an instruction manual in an obscure foreign tongue than spend a few hours reading a screenplay!

Nevertheless, screenplays are the starting point for virtually every film ever made. 

A standard professional format and style have been developed over the years to make screenplays a “blueprint” for a movie.  When it’s done well, a script can be an efficient and highly evocative first draft of a movie intended for millions of audience members.  Just as a thoughtfully made and beautifully designed home begins first with ideas that are put down on paper and in architectural drawings, the basic ideas and framework that lead to a motion picture can be found in a well-crafted screenplay.

A number of oddities, however, make scripts a bit strange to read.  

First of all, they employ a format that for novice readers often seems stilted, and confusing with its abbreviated terms.  (More on those terms in a moment.)  

Secondly, unlike almost any other type of writing except the short story, screenplays absolutely must adhere to a certain number of pages.  Generally, a feature-length script is around 110-120 pages total, though it can range from 80 to 140 if the story requires less or more.  That means it is incumbent upon the screenwriter(s), above all, to tell their tale with efficiency, clarity, and only the most telling details.

Most novice readers expect scripts to be overloaded with arcane camera directions, music cues, and other very technological details.  In fact, the primary mission of a screenplay is to provide the basic elements of a screen story – the scenes, locations, conflicts, characters, dialogue – and those components lead the director, actors, and technicians toward the eventual cinematic realization of the words on the page.  

The great challenge for a screenwriter, then, is to do all of this in not-so-many pages.  Not an easy task!   The job of a screenwriter is mostly utilitarian: how do we tell this story crisply and clearly in so few pages?  Like a poet, the screenwriter attempts to evoke much with very little.  Occasionally, a script may approach a kind of poetic expression, but screenwriters generally search for unadorned language that is simple and direct, without being too obvious/overused.  

Now, about those abbreviations and the format.  

First, the basic component of the movie script is the master scene.  This always begins with a heading that indicates whether the scene is indoors (INT.) or outdoors (EXT.).  Occasionally, you’ll have both, as in I/E.  

Next, you have the location in capital letters, followed by DAY or NIGHT or something approximate to those.  Sometimes, if this information is absolutely essential, the specific time of day or night could be included in parentheses.    

Sometimes, you’ll find one master scene leading to another and the time is indicated by MOMENTS LATER or CONTINUOUS to show that this is essentially a continuation of the previous scene, but often in a different locale.  

Also, the master scene may include additional information, usually in parentheses, that helps to clarify the essence of this particular scene.  Examples would be: (FLASH BACK) or (FLASH FORWARD) or (DREAM) or (NIGHTMARE).  

A master scene is always followed by a brief description.  

Each time a new character is introduced, her or his name is in capital letters, followed by a few physical details.  

When there is something said by a character, dialogue is introduced by the name and followed by whatever is said.  Occasionally, a parenthetical may be added for clarification, but these are generally frowned upon unless absolutely essential. 

If a character’s words are heard, but the character is not seen, two abbreviations are used: V.O. for voice-over (like narration,), and O.S. for off-screen.  

(B.G., by the way, is simply shorthand for background.)      

There are a handful of camera directions or perspectives that may be used, but screenwriters generally limit or avoid these and attempt to describe events as visually as possible. 

POV, for example, indicates that something or someone is seen from a character’s point of view, followed by BACK TO SCENE to indicate a return to a wider view.   

ANOTHER ANGLE can be employed to shift the focus or attention on a different object or person.

Many, but not all, screenwriters use CUT TO: as a standard transition between scenes.  DISSOLVE TO: (essentially a blending of two shots) can also be used to indicate a more dramatic change in time/place or a crucial link between two scenes.

The only transition that every script must have is FADE IN: at the beginning, and at the end, FADE OUT.  

One of the many things a screenwriter cannot do is tell the reader something that cannot be shown or clearly ascertained by what is seen or heard.  In other words, there are no “internal” thoughts described, as in a novel, unless voice-over narration (V.O.) is used.

There are many other rules, as well as devices that screenwriters may use to focus attention on a moment, but the aforementioned are among the fundamentals.   

As Mark Twain astutely observed: “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”  

No wonder writing (and reading) screenplays is such a challenge!   

AND A FEW WORDS ON WRITING FOR T.V. (TELEPLAYS)

Though virtually all of the above apply to writing for television, there are a few differences in format and style between the two mediums.  

First, the structural format of a teleplay often includes breaks for ACTS.  This is likely a holdover from the days when all television was interrupted by commercials. 

Commonly, there are four acts, sometimes preceded by what’s called a TEASER.   Again, in the old days, this was the short “hook” that grabbed a viewer’s attention before the first commercial.   

Unlike screenplays, some words are capitalized for emphasis in the descriptive lines, mostly those that describe sounds or groups of people, though key objects can also be capitalized.  

Finally, as with screenplays, teleplays adhere to a structure that permits no more than a certain number of pages.  For the most part, hour-long series fall in the 50-60 pages length, with half-hour shows coming in around 30-35 pages.