Beginning Screenwriting "Frequently Asked Questions" - Part 1

Beginning Screenwriting

Intermediate Screenwriting

  • Screenwriting is a Craft, not Art
  • Query first.
  • The First Reel Contract
  • Pitch Your Movie To Yourself
  • Cast Your Movie
  • Development Exec Myths
  • The Rubber Ducky
  • How We Know Character
  • Pat the Dog Scene
  • Secret Lives of Characters
  • It's Episodic
  • Love Thy Enemy
  • External Antagonist, Intimate Opponent and Tragic (or Comic) Flaw
  • Literary Names
  • How to Adapt a Book (Hitchcock Method)
  • How to Write a Script Based on a True Story
  • Editing Your Scenes
  • Foreign Language Dialogue
Other Links
    Writer's Guild of America
    Drew's Script-o-Rama
    "How To" Books
    Script Evaluation Service

Beginning Screenwriting

Here are some do's and don't's, according to me. I make my living as a production executive. I read scripts, have them read for me, option them, hire writers to write them and rewrite them, and try to get actors, directors and money attached to them. I've also written 25 screenplays, seven or eight of them commissioned, one sold but not produced, one produced, one in production. You don't have to take my word for it, but these may be helpful. Good luck!

Does Spelling Count?

You bet. And using a spell-checker isn't enough. If I see "your" for "you're" or "it's" for "its," I tend to recycle the script for scrap paper on the spot. Many people who read for a living find it agonizing to read bad spelling, and assume anyone who can't spell is an illiterate.

Basic Screenplay Format

A lot has been written about screenplay format, much of it overly rigid. However, an improperly formatted script is going to get chucked faster than a properly formatted script. The basic points are as follows:
  • It must look typed. That means no font other than Courier 12 . No boldface. No justified text. No italics. Use underlining instead.
  • Title page has title and screenwriter's name(s) in the middle, and where to find you (including your eddress) at the lower right hand. It does not have quotations, especially not in a foreign language. Sorry.
  • Never put a date on your script, or what draft it is.
  • No second page with quotations, either.
  • No dramatis personae, i.e. no page telling us who the characters are and what they're like. This is a theatre convention not used in movies.
  • First page starts with FADE IN:
    Don't repeat name of script or screenwriter.
  • Margins are supposed to be 1.5 inches left, 1.00 inches right (to account for the three-hole punch). Mine are usually 1.25 inches left, 1 inch right.
  • Sluglines take the form INT. JOE'S STORE -- BACK ROOM -- DAY or EXT. GRASSY FIELD -- NIGHT (STORM). No underlining.
  • Descriptive text is 60 characters (about 6 inches) wide.
  • Character names are all caps, centered over dialog, or indented. Diehards indent. I use centering. It's prettier.
  • Parentheticals ("wrylies") are centered under name and over dialog; or, for diehards, indented.
  • Dialog is 30 characters, or about 3 inches, wide.
  • Where we hear the character speaking but they are not in the scene, you put (V.O.) next to their character name to indicate Voice Over. Where we hear them speaking and they are in the scene but not on camera, you put (O.C.) to indicate Off Camera. This is sometimes written (O.S.) to indicate Off Screen. Either is fine.
  • Where the same character speaks again after some scene description, you put (cont.) in lowercase next to the character name. Otherwise the reader may assume your second character is responding, even though you've written the character name again. It's just a cue.
  • Where dialogue continues over a page break, you will need to repeat the character name at the top of the page and add (cont'd) next to the character name. That's so we know the character is still talking. Note that I, personally, use "cont'd" for a page break and "cont." for continued dialogue on the same page. That's so it's easier to locate the "cont'd"s when I repaginate. Note that (cont'd) is the only formatting cue that belongs in a selling script.
Again: in a selling script you should not put (MORE) at the bottom of the page where a scene continues on the next page, or a (cont'd) at the bottom of the page where dialogue. You should definitely not put (CONTINUED) at the bottom or top of pages where scenes continue. These, along with scene numbers, are formatting cues used only in scripts that are actually in pre-production or production, so that scene breakdowns can be done efficiently.

There are several programs such as Final Draft and Scriptware that will do your formatting for you as you write the script. They are totally necessary when you are in pre-production because they put in the formatting cues. They also do "A" and "B" pages, "X-changes" and a lot of other things you don't need to know about until you're in production. Personally, I find that for a selling script, a well-thought-out Word style sheet, as above, will do 98% of what a formatting program will do. I prefer to use all the tools Word gives me, and I don't feel like learning a new program. Heck, I'm still using Word 5.1!

Screenplay Length

Standard screenplay format generally clocks in at a page a minute. Exhibitors dislike any picture over two hours. Think about it. They have two really good shows on a week night, say at 7:30 and at 9:45. A longer show pushes the 9:45 past 10 pm, which is a psychological barrier for people who have to work in the morning. Or, it pushes the 7:30 show back to 7, which doesn't give people enough time to come back from work, put on jeans, eat some dinner and go out for a movie. So the exhibs put pressure on the distribs (the studios), who put pressure on the producers not to have overlong pictures.

Amusingly, Titanic went out listed at 2 hours 74 minutes, just so they wouldn't have to say it was over 3 hours long.

So, a spec screenplay should be from 105 to 115. Anything over that gives one more excuse to reject it. If you have a subject of great epic scope (I wrote an adaptation of The Odyssey), you can go over 120 pages, but anything over 130 pages is asking for trouble. A 130 page script just looks too damn fat.

A low budget spec screenplay, something that is intended for straight-to-video production under $2.5 million, should be 95 to 99 pages or so. Video distributors require movies to be a minimum of 92 minutes long. More pages take more days to shoot, and days cost money.

Comedy scripts may also be shorter. Comedy movies are rarely over 100 minutes long. Woody Allen once said that that ideal comedy length was 87 minutes. On the other hand, people talk faster in comedies, so you may need to break 100 pages in your script. Bear in mind that a shorter comedy is easier to keep funny. If you have a comedy script that's over 110 pages, cut out the least funny 10 pages (provided you don't cut out the emotional grounding of the characters that make us care enough to laugh at them).

Basic Style

In scene description, use short, declarative, visual sentences.

Don't use dependent clauses if you can avoid them. They're not visual; they convey a general sense of what's going on rather than putting pictures in the reader's mind. This tells what's happening:

While Tommy works frantically to adjust the steam valve, Nancy keeps lookout.

But this shows it:


works frantically to fix the steam valve.


stares nervously out the window. you two "shots," two mental pictures.

This style has the advantage of creating lots of white space on the page. Readers often skip dense blocks of text.

Obviously, there is no "basic" style for dialogue. That is entirely an outgrowth of character.

No Camera Direction

Please never direct explicitly the camera in your script. It's annoying because it destroys the reader's attempt to imagine the movie in his own head. It is as if you saw the film crew on the screen.

In other words, don't write:


walking along the floor.  We TRACK ALONG WITH the feet until they disappear...
This, however, works:

walk across the floor and disappear behind a door...
I call this a "virtual closeup". The reader "sees" only what the writer wants him or her to see. But the reader is not thrown out of the "movie" he is imagining in his head by your idea of what the director ought to do. (The director will probably ignore you anyway.)

DonŐt direct camera, even indirectly, if it's not important to a scene. In an action scene you will want to convey as much visual information as you can put in without slowing the pace. But in a dialogue scene, it may be unimportant how the camera moves. The dialogue and the acting are telling the story. The director will hopefully try to add to the scene by his crafty framing and movement, but unless you've come up with a shot so clever it is telling the story, I would keep your dramatic scenes clean.

As a general note, try to write the scene so that the visuals tell the story, not the dialog. What we see is often stronger than what we hear. According to his book Screenwriting Tricks of the Trade, Bill Froug suggests that, as an exercise, before you write a scene, you try to imagine how you would write it if you were making a silent movie.

This is not to say that dialog is somehow a poor cousin to cinematography, although some pure cinema fans (and a lot of French critics) might think so. It would be just as possible to have an entire movie that takes place in the dark with people talking, as to have an entirely silent film with no dialogue. It's just that a writer's impulse is often to put dialog everywhere. The less dialog you have, the more effective each line is. Your actors' faces will be 40 feet tall on the screen. Trust them to get their feelings across with a minimum of dialog.

To really see the tension between the two, as an exercise, write a 10 minute screenplay that takes place in pitch blackness, then write a 10 minute screenplay without dialogue.

This leads to ....

Only Write What You Can See and Hear

Some beginners write lines of description like this:

The O'Brien family has just moved into their new house, a small brick 
bungalow outside Santa Barbara, but it hasn't helped.  They've been on 
each other's nerves for days.

What we will actually see is some people in a kitchen. How will we see, as written, how long they've been in their house, or what it looks like on the outside? How will we see they've been on each other's nerves? The audience won't be reading your description, will they?

Some beginners put lines like that into the script to tell them what the scene's about as they're writing. Fine. Put them in, write the scene, take them out. Other beginners expect those lines to carry the scene. Not acceptable.

You must stick to what you can see and what you can hear. The devil is in the details:


A small brick bungalow with dead grass and two stunted palm trees.  Dull 
green mountains in the distance.  Somewhere, SEAGULLS complain. 


Some boxes have been shoved to one side, power cords hanging out of 
them, to make room for three days' worth of dirty dishes.  More boxes 
on the floor.  The faucet is dripping.  Amanda storms in, starts 
clattering the dishes into the sink.

               I'm doing them!
                           CATHERINE (O.S.)
Amanda clatters the last plate into the sink, runs to the dining room side.

               I hate this house!  I hate it!  
               I hate it!  I hate it!  Why'd we 
               have to leave?
She runs out the other end.  The front door SCREECHES open and
SLAMS shut.

Catherine slumps in.  Tosses her cigarette in the sink.  To herself:

               I hate it too, honey.  But it's just 
               for a little while.
Here the "set design" is such that anyone would feel miserable in the house, and sure enough, they do. But I haven't written anything you can't see or hear.

Notice how I've broken up the paragraphs of action. This suggests individual camera angles without distracting. It also helps the format achieve the page-a-minute standard that production managers love.

Breaking up action paragraphs is particularly important when describing an action sequence. A big chunk of solid text is practically unreadable. Break your paragraph shot by shot, if it feels right:

JOE hits the ground rolling, firing the .45  BAM!  BAM!  BAM! 
as he rolls-

STEVE takes a slug in the gut, smashes backwards through the 
window, glass shattering-



-CRUMP!  Steve slams into a car roof, bloody, arms sprawled 

You probably "saw" Steve fall in slow-motion. Good. That's what I wanted.

Cut To's and William Goldman

In between scenes, you put "CUT TO:" in your right margin, with a space before and a space after.

After the "CUT TO:" comes a slugline that looks like this:


The CUT TO: says you're in a new scene. The slugline tells the reader where the new scene takes place.

Note that you do not use a CUT TO: when the scene is continuing in different parts of the same location, but you do use a slugline. So, for example, between an exterior and an interior, you would not use a CUT TO:


The Creepy Guy sneaks inside.


The Creepy Guy sneaks up the stairs.  They CREAK.


Joe waits, hands on his revolver.
All of these actions are taking place in the same place and time, and they're all connected. Save your CUT TO's to emphasize when you're leaving the place or time.

In a "selling script" (any script not actually in production), do not number your scenes. It's distracting and pretentious, suggesting it's so perfect it's a shooting script.

Bill Goldman is famous for not using sluglines in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He just uses CUT TO's. The script reads like a breeze, with a wonderful sense of energy and movement.

It is the sure sign of a beginner to use this format. It is irritating and unprofessional. When I was on a production at Hollywood Pictures, an extremely overpaid writer handed in a script in this format. We had to have an assistant go in and add the sluglines back, at which point the script turned out to be not ten pages too long, as we'd thought, but twenty pages too long. In the end, the studio not only junked this script, but refused to show more than a few pages of it to any later writers.

Do not use this format until you are William Goldman, or paid like him.

Character Names

When you give a character a name, you give him or her flesh. I'm really finicky about what names I give characters. I feel they should project their personality if at all characters. They need to be real enough names to be believable -- nobody named "Daedalus" please, unless it's a nickname the character consciously has -- but they should tell us something. BOB is an ordinary guy. JOEY is an ordinary working class guy. ERIC has an edge. There's something sexy and daring about a girl named DAKOTA. MR. FINSTER is a kindly grocer the kids make up rhymes about. And so on.

I don't give all characters names. I find it's useful to leave secondary characters with a descriptive monicker rather than a name: LONER. That way the reader knows she won't have to keep track of them later. On the other hand, never name characters THIEF #1, THIEF #2. Make them FAT THIEF and SNEERING THIEF. That puts an image in a reader's head.

For bonus points, you can sucker the reader into thinking someone's not important by not giving them a name. Then later, when LONER -- surprise! -- starts dating the heroine, he becomes NICK THE LONER for a few lines until we know he's NICK.

Avoid giving female characters male names. ItŐs hard to remember that SAM is really Samantha. Avoid KIM and LESLIE as men's names for the same reason.

Never use a name that's hard to read or pronounce. It's a distraction.


Also known as "parentheticals," these are those little parenthesized instructions to the actor that come between the character name and their dialog. They have several obvious uses, for example when a gesture is not worth giving a whole line of action to:
	            (shakes hands)
              Been a long time, huh?
(Note: these examples are not necessarily properly formatted. That will depend on your browser.)

They are also used to tell how the line is to be delivered:

	      Glad to see you.
They are not to be used when the line is obvious:
	      You bastard!  I'll kill you!
Duh. Of course he's angry. Just cut the wryly in this case.

They are not to be used because the screenwriter is too lazy to come up with a line that expresses the right emotion:

	       Been a long time.
The frequent overuse of the parenthetical instruction "wryly" is why they get called "wrylies." The line should be rewritten:
	       And here I figured you'd be
	       a dead sumbitch by now.
The best use of the wryly is where the meaning of the line in context is the exact opposite of the usual meaning:
	       Glad to see you.
In theory, even this parenthetical will come out in a careful read, and it will certainly come out (or get changed in an interesting way) in rehearsals (assuming there are rehearsals). Therefore, some people will tell you that you should cut out all parentheticals, particularly directors. Some of them are even writers. But they're star writers who get paid so much for their script that everyone assumes their dialogue is brilliant.

In fact, your script will, if you're incredibly lucky, run a gauntlet of a dozen readers, development assistants, development execs, execs, agents' assistants, managers' assistants and actors. All of them are trying to get through a huge stack of bad scripts, often a stack sitting on their bedside table that is an obstacle between them and sleep. They will not give your script the benefit of the doubt. They will read it in half an hour. If a line is not blazingly obvious, and there's no parenthetical to tell them its tone is the opposite of its supposed meaning, they'll just be confused why all of a sudden Joe is glad to see someone they thought he hated, kind of like in a French movie where two people who hate each other are suddenly making out. Confusion is your enemy. Most readers never recover from it, because they will almost never take the time to figure out what went wrong. They'll just keep reading on, faster and faster, so they can finish and get to sleep.

So keep the important wrylies in.

That said, try to cut out all the wrylies you can. Actor's hate'em. Directors hate'em. They think you're trying to do their job.

What is a 'beat'?

A beat is a kind of wryly used solely to indicate a moment's silence, a short pause. Think of it as an indication of rhythm:

                           Hi, how the hell are you?
                           Hey, whoa, wait a second, you're 
                           supposed to be in Cleveland!
The beat allows time for what someone says to sink in, or for the speaker to have a new thought.

Richard Attenborough, director of Gandhi, with whom I had the good fortune to work developing Barry Schneider's brilliant unproduced script The Sailmaker, does not like "beat," incidentally. He feels it is an intrusive way for the writer to force his sense of rhythm on the actor and the director. He feels that, like most wrylies, "beat" is only there to help the lazy reader.

Well, sure, but until you're working with Lord Attenborough, your script is probably not being read very carefully, and your readers are lazy. But more importantly, you're writing the words, so why aren't you allowed to write the silences, which are equally important?

The problem is that "beat" does not fill the silence, only mark it. When I need a heavy beat, I try to show what's happening during the beat:

                           Hi, how the hell are you?

Tony grins mischieviously.

                                     JOE (cont.)
                           Hey, whoa, wait a second, you're 
                           supposed to be in Cleveland!
If it's a softer beat, where nothing special is happening, I use an ellipsis.
                           Hi, how the hell are you?  ... Whoa, 
                           wait a second, you're supposed to 
                           be in Cleveland!
The ellipsis is less intrusive, but the reader may not to give it as much weight as you would like. The above example, for example, doesn't really score.

Beginner's FAQ/Part1

Beginner's FAQ/Part 2

Intermediate FAQ/Part 1

Intermediate FAQ/Part 2

NOTE: This Web page is Copyright 1999-2002 by Alex Epstein. It may be freely quoted and/or copied, provided Alex is properly cited with his URL, Muse of Fire, so people can find it as it is updated it, and provided this copyright notice is not removed.