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Beginner's Guide to Writing a Screenplay

If you’re looking to turn your creative idea into something that could be adapted into a play or movie, then you should consider screenwriting or movie scriptwriting.

In this article, I'll tell you how to write a screenplay or a movie script, whichever name you choose to refer to it. This will include how to format a screenplay and the main elements of screenwriting.

What is a Screenplay?

A screenplay, also known as a movie script, is the written work used for a film, television show, or stage production. Generally speaking, a screenplay refers to the movie in a written format specifically used in the film industry and a script is a term used for theatre work. However, the two terms are interchangeable.

A screenplay is different from other writing, such as fiction novel writing, as movement, actions, and expressions are all denoted along with the dialogue. The scenes are also usually described in between dialogue in a way the camera would see them.

For example, you may see something written in a script like, “as the camera rises, we see a mob of women running towards us”. It describes how the viewer will see it on screen, rather than asking the reader to picture it in their head.

What are the Main Differences Between a Novel and a Screenplay?

  1. How Long it Is – This is one of the major differences between a screenplay vs. writing a novel. Writing prose is very detailed. It has to paint a picture for the reader and usually does that with many aesthetic details. When you write a screenplay, it’s important to ask yourself often if the story is visually adaptable to be on film. It can’t be too long. The average feature-length screenplay is around 120 pages, give or take. Therefore, you will have to accomplish character development, settings, plot points, and much more quickly.
  2. The Focus on Dialogue – Dialogue is central to screenplay writing. When you’re writing a novel, your character will be able to express internal thoughts. You’ll also be able to set the scene and describe it in detail. The opposite is actually needed in screenwriting. There is no internal dialogue and therefore the scene and the character’s feelings will have to come across in the form of actions or visible displays of emotions. A common trap most writers fall into is making their dialogue too “on the nose”. While sometimes it may go unnoticed in novels, within a screenplay that ends up on screen it stands out like a sore thumb and turns people off.
  3. Budget Constraints – When writing a novel, the sky is really the limit. You can send your characters anywhere and do whatever is needed to develop the plot. In contrast, when you write a screenplay, you must take budget constraints into consideration.  If there are a lot of special effects needed such as explosions, car crashes, robots, etc., it may lessen the chances of your screenplay being accepted. While it may be good, it will just read as being very expensive to a producer.
  4. Formatting Differences – Novels are usually written with or without an outline and as free-flow writing that is later edited. Screenplays are written in a tighter format. Generally, screenwriting software is used to make this process easier. However, keep reading below and we’ll explain how to format a screenplay.

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Jay Carver

Jay Carver is a screenwriter, director and producer. Through his production company J-Style Films, he has done work for companies such as Turner Broadcasting. In the past, he has worked with Hollywood actor Omari Hardwick and won several film festivals including "Best Director".