A screenplay, or script, is a written work by screenwriters for a film, television program, or video game. These screenplays can be original works or adaptations from existing pieces of writing. In them, the movement, actions, expression and dialogues of the characters are also narrated. A screenplay written for television is also known as a teleplay.
Format and styleThe format is structured so that one page equates to roughly one minute of screen time, though this is only used as a ballpark estimate and often bears little resemblance to the running time of the final movie. The standard font is 12 point, 10 pitch Courier Typeface.
The major components are action and dialogue. The action is written in the present tense and is limited to what can be heard or seen by the audience, for example descriptions of settings, character movements, or sound effects. The dialogue is the words the characters speak, and is written in a center column.
Unique to the screenplay is the use of slug lines. A slug line, also called a master scene heading, occurs at the start of every scene and typically contains three pieces of information: whether the scene is set inside or outside, the specific location, and the time of day. Each slug line begins a new scene. In a "shooting script" the slug lines are numbered consecutively for ease of reference.
Physical formatAmerican screenplays are printed single-sided on three-hole-punched paper using the standard American letter size. They are then held together with two brass brads in the top and bottom hole. The middle hole is left empty as it would otherwise make it harder to quickly read the script.
In the United Kingdom, double-hole-punched A4 paper is normally used, which is slightly taller and narrower than US letter size. Some UK writers format the scripts for use in the US letter size, especially when their scripts are to be read by American producers, since the pages would otherwise be cropped when printed on US paper. Because each country's standard paper size is difficult to obtain in the other country, British writers often send an electronic copy to American producers, or crop the A4 size to US letter.
A British script may be bound by a single brad at the top left hand side of the page, making flicking through the paper easier during script meetings. Screenplays are usually bound with a light card stock cover and back page, often showing the logo of the production company or agency submitting the script, covers are there to protect the script during handling which can reduce the strength of the paper. This is especially important if the script is likely to pass through the hands of several people or through the post.
Increasingly, reading copies of screenplays are distributed printed on both sides of the paper to reduce paper waste. Occasionally they are reduced to half-size to make a small book which is convenient to read or put in a pocket; this is generally for use by the director or production crew during shooting.
Although most writing contracts continue to stipulate physical delivery of three or more copies of a finished script, it is common for scripts to be delivered electronically via email. Electronic copies allow easier copyright registration and also documenting "authorship on a given date". Authors can register works with the WGA's Registry, and even television formats using the FRAPA's system.
Screenplay formatsScreenplays and teleplays use a set of standardizations, beginning with proper formatting. These rules are in part to serve the practical purpose of making scripts uniformly readable "blueprints" of movies, and also to serve as a way of distinguishing a professional from an amateur.
Feature filmMotion picture screenplays intended for submission to mainstream studios, whether in the US or elsewhere in the world, are expected to conform to a standard typographical style known widely as the studio format which stipulates how elements of the screenplay such as scene headings, action, transitions, dialogue, character names, shots and parenthetical matter should be presented on the page, as well as font size and line spacing.
One reason for this is that, when rendered in studio format, most screenplays will transfer onto the screen at the rate of approximately one page per minute. This rule of thumb is widely contested — a page of dialogue usually occupies less screen time than a page of action, for example, and it depends enormously on the literary style of the writer — and yet it continues to hold sway in modern Hollywood.
There is no single standard for studio format. Some studios have definitions of the required format written into the rubric of their writer's contract. The Nicholl Fellowship, a screenwriting competition run under the auspices of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, has a guide to screenplay format. A more detailed reference is The Complete Guide to Standard Script Formats.
Spec screenplayA "spec script" or speculative screenplay is a script written to be sold on the open market with no upfront payment, or promise of payment. The content is usually invented solely by the screenwriter, though spec screenplays can also be based on established works, or real people and events.
TelevisionFor American TV shows, the format rules for hour-long dramas and single-camera sitcoms are essentially the same as for motion pictures. The main difference is that TV scripts have act breaks. Multi-camera sitcoms use a different, specialized format that derives from stage plays and radio. In this format, dialogue is double-spaced, action lines are capitalized, and scene headings, character entrances and exits, and sound effects are capitalized and underlined.
Drama series and sitcoms are no longer the only formats that require the skills of a writer. With reality-based programming crossing genres to create various hybrid programs, many of the so-called "reality" programs are in a large part scripted in format. That is, the overall skeleton of the show and its episodes are written to dictate the content and direction of the program. The Writers Guild of America has identified this as a legitimate writer's medium, so much so that they have lobbied to impose jurisdiction over writers and producers who "format" reality-based productions. Creating reality show formats involves storytelling structure similar to screenwriting, but much more condensed and boiled down to specific plot points or actions related to the overall concept and story.
DocumentariesThe script format for documentaries and audio-visual presentations which consist largely of voice-over matched to still or moving pictures is different again and uses a two-column format which can be particularly difficult to achieve in standard word processors, at least when it comes to editing or rewriting. Many script-editing software programs include templates for documentary formats.
Screenwriting softwareVarious screenwriting software packages are available to help screenwriters adhere to the strict formatting conventions. Detailed computer programs are designed specifically to format screenplays, teleplays, and stage plays. Such packages include BPC-Screenplay, Celtx, Fade In, Final Draft, FiveSprockets, Montage, Movie Magic Screenwriter, Movie Outline 3.0, Scrivener, Movie Draft SE and Zhura. Software is also available as web applications, accessible from any computer, and on mobile devices, such as Fade In Mobile and Scripts Pro.
The first screenwriting software was SmartKey, a macro program that sent strings of commands to existing word processing programs, such as WordStar, WordPerfect and Microsoft Word. SmartKey was popular with screenwriters from 1982 to 1987, after which word processing programs had their own macro features.