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What is a Screenplay?

Understanding scriptwriting, or writing a screenplay, is a whole different ball game from other forms of creative writing such as writing novels. The format and technical nuances of a screenplay varies greatly from other kinds of writing, and can seem daunting. But once you get a good grasp of the format and structure of a script, you can easily channel your energy and focus into the creative aspects of crafting your story.

Writing a screenplay requires clarity and precision in your overall visual picturization of your story. The elements of a screenplay require in-depth detail of scene settings, scene openings, character movement, mood, dialogue and scene closings. These details might be tough to flesh out in the preliminary stages of your writing. But as your writing process develops, these elements will come to surface and can be added to your screenplay to beef it up.

To better understand the elements of a screenplay if you are starting out, or would like to recap on the basics of writing a script, here is what you need to know.

What is a screenplay?

A screenplay is a guiding written work for moving media, such as films, television shows, theatre pieces, and even video games. Screenplays, either original or adapted from already published materials and stories, reflect in detail how characters should carry themselves and deliver dialogue, outlines their corresponding action lines and dialogue, and gives the reader a clear picture of the scene setting, opening, and closing.

Screenplays are considered the blueprints or bibles for films and dramas. It is written in a specific format and style to allow coherence and clarity for readers and actors to follow easily. The format also comes in handy when films are being financed and budgeted according to screenplays; the script length, number of scenes, actors involved, etc.

Elements of a Screenplay

Industry standard screenwriting formats include the following elements :

1. Scene Headings or "slug lines"

Scene headings serve to break the physical space on the screenplay and allow readers to understand the story’s geography and overall flow. Master scene formats are also mostly organized into scenes and not camera cuts. Scene headings state either "INT" for interior spaces or "EXT" for exterior spaces. The space specification is then followed by a scene setting description and the time of day (Day, Night, Morning, Afternoon, Evening, etc.) during which the scene is occurring.

In some cases, scenes can begin in one space and end in another, and you can use either "INT/EXT" or "EXT/INT" to denote this. Screenwriters also often use multiple hyphens to input more detail in the scene headings :


Scene headings and subheadings are one of the first things directors, assistant directors, and line producers on a film or a show look at for their call-sheets or action plans for the day.

For other departments such as Costuming and Imaging (hair, makeup, outfits), the details provided in scene headings is vital for continuity purposes. Details such as when and where a scene is happening, in relation to the overall plot has an impact on every department and party on set.

2. Page numbers

Page numbers are indicated at the top of the right margin on pages, at the exception of the title page and the first page.

3. Action lines

Action lines serve a very crucial purpose as it indicates the details of the scene and of whoever is involved in it. Action lines are written in present tense and are made as detailed as possible, to provide as much information to whoever is referring to it, be it actors, the director, producers, calefares, the art and props team, etc. It describes what can be seen or heard in a scene; visual or audible actions. It inform readers about whatever they would be able to see and hear in finished products, apart from language or dialogue.

All capital letters can also be used to emphasize more significant sounds, actions, and physical objects in a scene.

4. Character names

Character names are stated explicitly to indicate who is speaking, acting, or moving. Names are stated in all-capital letters before dialogues or action lines for clarity.

When a new character is introduced a screenplay, the all-capital name would be followed by an age reference and a few lines about their personality, look, or traits.

5. Dialogues

Dialogues are written right after a character name to indicate their lines. Formatting dialogue is uncomplicated, but its but it is the most difficult part of screenwriting.

6. Transitions

Transitions are utilized in screenplays to reflect the flow and transitory points between scenes. In current screenplays, we do not see many transitions being included. Transitions have evolved to become "CUT TO", "DISSOLVE TO", "FADE OUT", or "FADE OUT", albeit rarely. Instead, details are input in scene headings or subheadings.

7. Parentheticals

Parenthetical are used amongst dialogue to denote small but significant actions or changes in the actors' mood. Parentheticals guide the actions, movements, and moods of actors in a scene.

Parentheticals can be included anywhere in between dialogues; before, after, or in between. as well as above the character’s name to show how the character should deliver the lines.

8. Camera shots

Camera shots are used to highlight the camera angle from which a scene is being shot from, and to indicate if there would be any changes in the camera perspective and movement.

9. Specified script font and margins

Screenplays are written in "Courier" font or typeface, with a standard size of 12pt. This standard screenplay font allows for a page to screen ratio of 1:1. This size and typeface also stuck because of readability and clarity. It also allows for an estimation of the length of the film, drama, or performance. One page of a screenplay is assumed to play out in 1 minute of real or screen time.

Page margins are also kept to 1” for both the top, bottom, and right side margins. The left margin is standardized to 1.5” to allow for binding space.

For writers who are new to screenplay writing or are still figuring out the technical and formatting requirements of writing a screenplay, JotterPad's screenplay template can be used as a visual reference for how the above-mentioned elements and how an industry standard screenplay would look like. This template helps writers to format everything from the font size and type to scene headings, character names, dialogues, page margins, line-spacing, and so on seamlessly.

The technical details and elements that are required to craft a screenplay, on top of the creative and story-writing aspects, can seem daunting or overwhelming. But the formatting and structure will come in handy while reading, reviewing, and submitting your screenplay for others to take a look at. It allows for clarity and easy readability, and will make the processes that come after crafting your screenplay much easier and hassle-free.