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Screenplay - small girl with clapper board

In this chapter we’ll look at:

The screenplay
Developing your movie idea — high concept?
Low budget movies
Where do I send it?

The screenplay

A screenplay is part story, part technical guide. Your story emerges through the dialogue and actions of your characters; the technical part comprises the descriptions and directions that give an idea of how the story will look on screen. Here’s a sample of a fictitious screenplay:


What the screenplay tells us

The screenplay comprises the following elements:

Scene description
Description of action
Camera directions

The scene-header

The scene-header establishes background, it tells us:

whether the scene is inside or outside. In this case it’s an interior (INT.) scene as opposed to exterior (EXT.).

the location: the hallway of a block of flats.

the time. In this case: night.

Each time the action moves to a new location you must establish where we’ve ended up. For example, if the Old Man invites Billy inside, the next scene-header might read:


Scene description

In the above the scene description tells us about the hallway and the action taking place there. Don’t take too long to describe a scene — it breaks the flow of the story. Be as economic with words as possible.

Camera directions

If this scene ever appeared on the big-screen it might consist of dozens of camera shots. We might see close-ups of Billy’s face as he looks at the door numbers; close-ups of his feet as he walks down the corridor; the car keys jingling in his hand; shots from above, behind or the side. The permutations are endless but ultimately it’s the director’s job to decide how this action will be captured; your job as screenwriter is to write a general account of the action, not plan it in fine detail.

The only camera direction in this scene is CLOSER ANGLE: THE DOOR. Here we’re telling the reader that the focus of our attention has shifted; before we were interested in the whole corridor, but when Billy finds what he’s looking for we concentrate on the doorway. Keep camera directions to a minimum; you should only include them when you can’t describe the image you want to see on-screen in any other way.

The instruction CLOSER ANGLE is deliberately vague, but there might be occasions when more detailed instructions are required. Here are some of the most common camera directions:

The camera gives us a panoramic view of a location. Some people use the abbreviation EST meaning establishing shot.

Like the full shot but at a closer angle. In a long shot we should be looking at something specific. For example, if the full shot showed us a stretch of coastline then a long shot might zoom in on a distant lighthouse standing on the shore.

An even closer angle. The camera is now firmly focused on the lighthouse; it occupies most of the field of view.

Even closer. We can clearly see the lighthouse keeper standing on the gantry at the top of the lighthouse.

We’re now firmly focused on the lighthouse keeper, he occupies the whole field of view.

The camera is focused on the face of the lighthouse keeper as he squints at the horizon; we’re pretty much looking up his nose.

Other useful shots are:

These describe the number of people who should be in the field of view at any one time. If our scene features two couples at a dinner table we might write the direction TWO SHOT OF WILLIAM AND MARY if we just want to see William and Mary, or FOUR SHOT OF WILLIAM, MARY, JIM AND JILL, if we want to see everybody.

The camera moves as the subject moves. The subject might be a character walking along the sidewalk, riding a bike or driving a car. In this case the camera might be held by a roving operator, being pushed along a camera track or riding in the back of a truck.

Another way to capture a moving subject. In a pan the camera stays in one place, but swivels to follow the action.

In a ZOOM SHOT the camera’s field of vision increases (zooms out) or decreases (zooms in). A zoom can be slow or fast, but unless you state otherwise most people will expect a zoom to be fast and dramatic. Zoom shots are sometimes mistaken for dolly shots and visa versa.

In a DOLLY SHOT the camera sits on a length of track that allows the operator to smoothly move the camera into or out of a scene. In a zoom shot the camera doesn’t move; in a dolly shot it does.

A combination of dolly and zoom can produce an interesting effect called (predictably) the DOLLYZOOM. By dollying in on a subject and zooming out at the same time the subject can be made to appear to rush into the camera while remaining static.

A POV shot shows us the action through the eyes of one character. The POV is the movie-maker’s equivalent of the novelist’s First person narrative (see Narrative).

In a low angle shot the camera is low, looking up. In a high angle shot it’s high, looking down. The ultimate high angle shot is the OVERHEAD where the camera is directly above the subject.

Screenplay, length and layout

There are recognised formats for laying out movie scripts and it’s essential you present your screenplay in the correct way. If you look at our screenplay sample you’ll see that:

The font is 12-point Courier (a standard for any script).

Scene-headers, scene descriptions and camera directions are typed from a common left-hand margin (on standard paper this margin would be 1.5 inches from the left of the page).

Character names are typed near the centre of the page along a common margin (4 inches from the left).

Character directions (such as ‘Hesitant’) are typed from a common margin (3.5 inches from the left).

Dialogue is confined to a central column of text (3 inches from the left; 2 inches from the right).

Dialogue and scene descriptions are single-spaced.

Gaps are double-spaced (eg the gap between one character’s dialogue and the next character’s name).

Important information (such as a name) is written in small caps.

Note that none of the text is centred; it’s all written from a margin. Fashions in formatting can change so ensure your script is in a format acceptable to the person receiving it. Specialised screenwriting software will allow you to change formatting options and fine-tune your script as required. See Tools of the trade for more on screenwriting software or visit The Writer’s Guide website (

Why format is important

There are three reasons why your screenplay should conform to the conventions:

Uniformity: producers, agents, script-editors and studio readers have to sift through dozens, if not hundreds, of scripts in a week. They’ll find your script much easier to follow if it’s written in the accepted style.

Credibility: if you haven’t bothered to present your work the right way, what are the chances you’ve bothered to write a decent script? (See Submissions.)

Length: presenting your screenplay in the accepted style makes it easier to judge how long the final movie will be. On average, one page of a standard screenplay takes up a minute of screen time. One convention has it that a script must be between 90 and 120 pages long, and many readers will automatically reject a script that’s too short or too long.

Study screenplays

The best way of getting to know how screenplays work is to read them. The following sites have a wide selection of scripts for free download:

Simply Scripts (

Awesomefilm (

Internet Movie Script Database (

To see samples of screenplay templates go to the BBC’s Writers Room (

Find the screenplay of a movie you’ve seen and read it. How do the mental images conjured up by the screenplay compare with the on-screen action? Take it a step further and get a copy of the movie so you can compare it scene by scene with the screenplay. A movie will typically undergo considerable changes between final draft and final edit and it can be instructive to see what was left out or added in. 

Famous movies that changed

Blade Runner: a Sam Spade-style voice-over had to be slapped over the opening to explain the story and a happy ending was tacked on.

Pretty Woman: the original script had Richard Gere dumping Julia Roberts at the end of the movie.

Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story: the Average Joes originally lost to Ben Stiller’s Purple Cobras.

Fatal Attraction: in an early cut Glen Close’s character commits suicide and leaves evidence to frame Michael Douglas for her supposed murder.

Sunset Boulevard: the1950 classic had started out with a morgue corpse talking to the camera but test audiences thought it was so hilarious the opening had to be re-worked.

There’s a saying in Hollywood: movies are never finished; they’re just abandoned.

Developing your movie idea — high concept?

High-concept movies are those with a strong premise — a central idea that can be summed up in a few words. Tootsie is a high concept movie that can be summed up like this: 

A talented but temperamental actor finds the only way he can get work is by pretending he’s a woman.

This précis immediately conjures up all sorts of interesting possibilities. It sounds like a movie we’d want to watch.

Whether it’s big-budget or low-budget it’s always going to be easier to sell a high-concept movie. If your movie idea can’t be summed up in a short sentence perhaps you should come up with something else (see also ‘Dramatic concept’ in Getting started).

Try this

Here are some high concept ideas. Which movies do they belong to?

Space-faring roughneck attempt to save the world from an asteroid collision.
A divorced father disguises himself as an Scottish Nanny and gets hired to look after his own children.
A family have to escape from a dinosaur wildlife park after its inhabitants run wild.
Unemployed steelworkers make money by becoming male strippers.
Pampered zoo animals escape to a new life in Africa.

Premise and Treatment

A premise is a brief overview of a story divided into three sections: beginning, middle and end (see Basic story structure) each section described in 150 words or less. In a treatment the story is described in far more detail; it’s a scene-by-scene breakdown that describes where each scene takes place, who’s in it, what they’re doing, what information we learn and how the action in that scene leads to the next. Essentially a treatment is a screenplay with all the dialogue, directions and detail left out.

Writing a premise and/or treatment can be a useful planning exercise and some agents and producers prefer reading a premise or treatment before they tackle a full script. If you’re writing a treatment for the benefit of someone else make it entertaining, turn it into something that reads like a short-story or a description of a movie you’ve just seen at the cinema.

Selling your idea

The Hollywood producer Robert Kosbery takes high-concept movie ideas dreamt up by ordinary people and sells them to studios. If you’ve got a high concept idea and haven’t the time or inclination to turn it into a script, why not give Robert a try? Outline your basic idea in 25 words or less and include a more detailed outline of 100 to 150 words. Get in touch through the Movie Pitch website (

Low-budget movies

When you’re writing your script go to extremes: if it’s a blockbuster, don’t give the budget a second thought; if it’s a low-budget project, make it as cheap as you possibly can. Low-budget movies occasionally make a bundle (Paranormal Activity had a budget of $15,000 and made close to $200 million) but these are the exception. The less your low-budget script costs on paper the greater its chances of being picked up.

Top tips for low budgets

Avoid unnecessary scenes
Each time you shift the camera you have to relight the set and reposition the actors. Setting up often takes longer than the shooting so move the camera as little as possible by cutting down on the number of scenes. Say you’re using a house to shoot three interior scenes: one in the kitchen, one in the living-room and one in the bathroom. Do you need all three rooms? If all your protagonist does in the living-room is watch a news report on the television, put a portable in the kitchen and slash your setting up time by a third.

Avoid complex, time-consuming scenes
Any scene involving a moving vehicle or stunt comes under this category. Aside from the fact that you should employ professional (ie expensive) stunt people, these scenes take time to set up: even something as simple as a jump from a first-story window might take a whole day. Also factor in likely editing time. A fight scene might take a day to shoot and another one or two days to cut together properly.

Avoid extras
Extras often want pay and if there’s a bunch of them it’s going to add up. You might be lucky and get a crowd of people who are happy to work for nothing but organising them will always be a headache.

Avoid public places
Scenes in public places are problematic. You should get permission from the relevant authorities and might have to pay for the privilege. Keeping unwanted passers-by out of shot is often difficult and time-consuming.

Avoid exterior night-shoots
Night scenes are hard to light properly (often requiring a generator van) and professional technicians will want overtime rates. A way round this is to shoot during the day and artificially darken the picture using filters — but this can look tacky. Computer effects can help, but they cost.

Avoid too many speaking roles
Speaking actors get paid more than those in non-speaking roles. Aside from the money angle, the fewer speaking actors there are the easier it will be to organise them in rehearsals and on set.

Avoid pyrotechnics and guns
Special effects involving explosions are dangerous, expensive and time consuming. Firearms are also a problem. Some prop companies specialise in realistic weaponry but even a gun that fires blanks should be supervised by a professional armourer. If you don’t intend to shoot your weapons or see them being fired, authentic-looking replica guns are available but don’t wave them around in public places.

Avoid children and animals
Actors avoid children and animals because they grab all the attention; you should avoid children and animals because they’re expensive. Animals rarely perform on queue, are often costly to hire and need handlers to look after them. Children also need minders and the amount of work they can do in a day is limited by law.

If you follow the above advice to the letter you’ll probably end up making a movie about a deaf mute who spends all day staring at a wall. Don’t let money worries stifle your creativity when you write your first draft, but when you’ve finished go back over your script and look for ways to save cash. Is everything you’ve got down absolutely necessary? Do you need that giant mechanical armadillo? Does Uncle Bernie really have to turn into a werewolf? Why does the villain play polo? Why not ping-pong or poker?

Where do I send it?

When your screenplay is done you have a number of submissions options:

If you want to get an agent involved in your project don’t send your script to production companies beforehand. If an agent reads your screenplay and likes it they won’t be happy if you’ve already sent copies to a dozen other people — that’s their job. For advice on agents and where to find them see Submissions.

Production companies>
Most production companies employ professional readers to sort through the gazillion scripts they’re sent every day. Some will consider anything that lands on their doormat; others will only look at scripts submitted through an agent.

Before sending out a script many writers take the precaution of registering a copy with the Writers’ Guild of America (see Writers and the law). This costs a small fee ($20 at time of writing) and establishes the completion date and form of the script being sent out for consideration. Some production companies insist that all scripts sent to them must be registered beforehand. Some companies will also ask you to sign a waiver or submission release before reading your script. By signing a waiver you essentially agree not to take action against the company if they make a movie similar to your script in the future. Production companies receive thousands of scripts every year and the law of averages means that a significant proportion are going to be very similar.

To find companies, their contact details and submissions policies go to the Independent Film Production Company website ( As well as independents this site also has details for the major Hollywood studios.

In the UK The Artists’ and Writers’ Yearbook is a good source of information on film companies.

If you’ve written your screenplay with a particular actor in mind try sending them a copy via their agent. However, the more successful the actor, the less chance they’ll see it. Some actors look at every script that’s sent to them; others (the ones in work) rely on their agents to filter their mail and send on promising material.

In the UK the Spotlight directory ( lists actors and their agents and gives contact details in return for a fee.

Another fee-based contact service is IMDb Pro ( A free trial is available.

Main image: Marco Govel c/o Shutterstock

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