Screenwriting is the act of writing what's known as a script or screenplay for film, television and web series. It involves a special set of rules that makes it different from a book or play. This module of Film It covers formatting, scene writing, script structure, themes, and character.
Recommended for Year levels: 4-10
Learning areas: English, Drama, Media, Media Arts
Capabilities: Creative and critical thinking, Personal and social
Writing the script is part of the pre-production process. Once it is written, it will be edited and passed on to the director.
Scripts include all essential information such as the setting of each scene and dialogue, but there’s a lot more in a script than these things.
Characters take us through the story. We experience the story from their perspective. Through the characters, we can feel empathy (for a hero), or even fear (if they are a villain). The more the audience learns about the characters, and the more interesting and complex the screenwriter makes them, the better the script will be.
Every film or TV drama is structured. So before you write a script you will plot, plan and structure the bones of the story. There are different ways to do this, and we'll introduce you to a few.
When planning a script, start with a theme or an idea. You can separate theme from the plot by saying the plot is what happens in the film, and the theme is what the film is about. Your theme might change or grow as your story develops, but it gives you a great starting point.
There is a universal way of formatting scripts which means that once the writer has finished, the script can be clearly interpreted by everyone who works on the film. It has to be consistent so it can be used to plan locations and shots.
1. Formatting scripts
Formatting is how words are arranged and laid out on the page. Try using scriptwriting software such as Celtx or Writers Duet as they have shortcut keys that make formatting it easy.
A script is broken into elements which are formatted according to a set of rules. Screenwriters are also expected to use the Courier New font. Here are the different elements you see in a script:
A scene heading, or 'slug line' is where you set the scene. In a scene heading we need to know:
- If it is taking place indoors or outdoors (interior or exterior? INT. for interior and EXT. for exterior)
- Where it is (in a living room? A city street?)
- Time of day (day or night?)
Here's a quick example:
INT. CITY STREET - DAY
You describe where the characters are, what is happening, and what you want the audience to see. For example:
Alex and her mum stand in front of a rambling old house. A 'SOLD' sign hangs out the front.
Character and dialogue
When you first introduce a character in action, you write their name in capitals so it stands out. Every time after this you write it normally.
Once you have set up the scene, the action and your main character, you can introduce your character’s dialogue. You start by writing their name.
The dialogue is fitted neatly under the character's name, so it’s easy for the actors to know when they have to say something, as opposed to doing something. Notice too that when characters have dialogue, their name is in bold and centred on the page.
Before you write a script, read an example. You can also watch videos like this script-to-screen comparison of Up.
Here is a scene, but it's laid out all wrong!
Ext. Old house. Day.
Alex and her mum stand in front of a rambling old house in front of them. A ‘sold’ sign hangs out the front. Mum: Home sweet home! Alex: I want to go back to our old house. Mum: Just give it some time and it will feel like home. Alex: Whatever.
Alex storms off.
|1. Rewrite the above scene and ready it for the screen. See if you can put this scene into the correct script formatting using scriptwriting software.|
Watch the video below on script formatting first if you like:
Using the present tense
The tense is really important in formatting your script. When writing a script, we use the present tense. This makes the story immediate and active. It’s happening as we read it.
To keep the story exciting, it’s important to keep the action clear and short. This makes it easy for the reader to follow. If there is too much description, the reader will lose interest.
Here's another scene that's not quite working yet:
INT. CLASSROOM – DAY. It was a sunny day outside and inside the classroom was cold, with pink and blue walls. One wall was covered with recent projects made by students in the class, one on the human digestive system, another on the human brain, and one on how lungs work. There were ten tables in the classroom, each seating two to three students. The tables were quite new, as were the chairs. The school bell rang, and soon after, Ms Holly came into the classroom and wiped the previous day’s class instructions from the whiteboard. Soon students began trickling in and took their seats. Ms Holly: OK guys, it’s that time again. Jake: Oh no, not again! Ms Holly: Sorry Jake, but this must be done every week.
|1. Re-write and format the above scene. Make sure it is in the correct tense, the action is brief and clear, and that unnecessary description is removed.|
2. Screenwriting shorthand
Now you have the basics and tense sorted, you might like to add some shorthand techniques to your script.
Parentheses are used when a character needs to make a small action during their dialogue, or if the writer wants to indicate how the line is being spoken. Use parentheses sparingly, and keep it short. For example:
Voice over (V.O)
This is a voice that is heard but not seen. It may be the inner voice of a character or someone on a phone call.
With off-screen, the character is still in the scene, just not on camera at that exact moment. So if one character was talking to another who was in another room, you could use (O.S) for the character that's in the other room. Or maybe with a phone conversation, the character on the other end of the line could be heard but not seen.
Here's an outline for a scene you can rewrite for the next activity:
Christine has to make a phone call she is dreading. A narrator describes to the audience her fear. Eventually, she makes the phone call, but she is extremely nervous throughout the conversation.
|1. Write a short scene for the above scenario with Christine, and include a parenthetical, a line of dialogue that is V.O, and a character who speaks O.S.|
3. Writing scenes
Writing a scene goes beyond just having a scene header, including action, characters and dialogue; each scene needs to drive the story forward and tell us about the characters. So something important should happen or be shown in each scene. This moment can be significant to the plot, the world of your story, the characters, or all three.
So here is a scene we've added for The Time Machine. At the moment, this scene just shows Alex going about her morning routine just before she finds the time machine device.
We've also used another screenwriting term with the scene heading called 'continuous'. This just means the action is continuous even though Alex changes location from the bedroom to the bathroom. You can use this where the action is unbroken so you don't have to write a new scene heading every time.
Read the scene first:
INT. ALEX'S BEDROOM – MORNING, CONTINUOUS
Alex wakes up and gets out of bed.
In the bathroom she brushes her teeth.
Back in her bedroom and she is in her school uniform.
She moves a box on her floor and notices quite a large hold in the floorboard. She pulls at the floorboard and it comes loose, revealing a small compartment underneath. She peers inside.
There are a couple of things wrong with it. Although it's getting us to the point where she finds the time machine, it doesn't tell us much about her situation, the fact she has just moved house, or how she feels about it.
|1. Rewrite the above scene so that what happens tells us more about Alex's situation and her feelings. When you write your own scenes always ask yourself whether the scene is a) driving the story forward through something significant happening b) telling us about the world the character is in c) telling us about the character themselves, their thoughts and feelings. If your scene isn't doing at least one of these things then you might need to rethink it.|
4. Structuring scripts
Beginning, middle and end
Let's start with how to structure a script. Stories usually have a beginning, middle and an end, and this makes it easy to break a script into three parts, or ‘acts’. But what usually happens in each act?
In the beginning, we are introduced to our character in their normal world. It could be as normal as sitting on the couch watching TV. But then something has to happen. A problem needs to occur, or a goal needs to be set to set the story in motion and spur our character into action.
In the middle the character must try and solve a problem and or achieve their goal in front of them. However, they will encounter challenges and obstacles along the way.
By the end the character will have solved the problem or achieved their goal. They usually learn new skills or a 'life lesson' along the way. All is resolved, but the normal world is not quite the same following their journey. It’s different because of the change that has occurred within the character or the world.
|1. Open the three-act structure document below. It has the three acts of a project we've called The Time Machine all out of order. Your task is to re-structure the plot points so the story makes sense.|
The Pixar method
To kick start your own story, try this method used by Pixar. It's helpful in sketching out what might happen across the beginning, middle and end of your story.
There was once a character called ____________
Each day they __________ until one day__________.
Because of that, this happened_________________
And then, this happened_________________
Until finally _____________.
|1. Quickly fill out the blanks above using the example of The Time Machine. How well does it fit?|
|2. Now, using the simple story structure template below, brainstorm ideas and plan your own short script. This doesn't have to be your final project, it can just be an exercise for now.|
Structuring key points and moments
Now you've got an idea for a script, time to flesh out in more detail what happens in your three acts. We're going to focus on seven structure points used by many screenwriters. Though these structures are used in feature-length films, you can also apply them to short films. Just be aware that in a short film you might not fit all these points in as well as a feature-length film might.
Also, our main character is called a protagonist, and a protagonist doesn't just feature in a story, they help drive it forward along with the plot. Sometimes things just happen yes, but it's more interesting if the protagonist's decisions affect the story.
- Set up
This is the start of the story, before anything has happened. We use the set-up to introduce the world and the protagonist, and what the world is like to begin with.
- Inciting incident
This is the event that sets the story in motion. It’s something that makes the protagonist sit up and pay attention. It’s their call to adventure. Sometimes, this is called the 'hook'.
- First act turn
This is the point where the protagonist stands on the threshold of their adventure. They decide to take the challenge to leave their ordinary world, propelling us into the new world. The ‘new world’ might be as small as going to the haunted house next door, or as big as traveling into a volcano. It doesn't need to be a physical place, the 'new world' could be an uncharted social or emotional world.
This is the middle of the story or the halfway point. At the midpoint, something might change; the protagonist may learn something new, face a new problem or change direction on their journey. Things are not going so well, but there’s no going back.
- Lowest point
This is when the protagonist has lost their way. They feel like giving up. Sometimes this is called the ‘dark night’.
The protagonist picks themselves up and faces the last challenge.
The protagonist triumphs, the normal world is restored, and everything is as it should be. However the world isn't exactly how it used to be. Something has changed in the world or how the protagonist sees it.
There are different theories about a protagonist's journey through these three acts, one of those is called the hero's journey and you can find out more in this video essay What Makes a Hero.
|1. Look at the advanced structure worksheet below and fill it out with your own story. Don't forget to identify the theme for your story. Once you have this structure, this will make writing your script much easier because have planned all the key moments from beginning to end.|
5. Theme, tension & endings
Identifying the theme
Before you go any further, delve into your theme. Themes are ideas that are explored in a story or film. Remember, theme goes beyond plot. That's because the plot is what happens in your story, whereas the theme is what your story is about.
In the script we've been working on (The Time Machine) the plot is about Alex, a girl who is thrown back in time and then has to try and make her way back home. However, the story is really about a girl who is having trouble moving school, wants things to go back to how they were and to be with her friends. So the theme is about dealing with change and growing up.
|1. To get started list three of your favourite films, create a table and identify the 3-5 plot points that tell the story, and the ideas the films explore. This will help you identify the themes.|
|A favourite film||Plot of the film||Theme of the film|
|Jurassic Park||Dinosaurs get cloned on an Island and break out||Man trying to control nature (and failing!)|
Resolution and other endings
The Time Machine ends happily with the normal world restored (Alex getting back to her own time). You don’t always need a traditional resolution, as there are other ways to end a story. Think how to make your script original by experimenting with one of these endings:
When a story doesn’t have a neat or happy resolution and instead leaves the audience in suspense. Think about your favourite super hero movie as they often give the protagonist one last challenge. This is often used to set up a sequel.
Maybe the protagonist doesn’t get what they wanted? What would this be like?
This is when something unexpected happens, and you trick the audience. A twist ending can be hard to do well.
|1. Think of some alternative endings for the Time Machine|
|2. Think of some alternative endings for your project. Make sure you think about how the theme of your story might be affected as a result. For example, having Alex stuck in the past in The Time Machine would make it harder to explore the idea that Alex needs to grow up and accept her family have moved. The theme would change suddenly and become more of a 'be careful what you wish for' type of story.|
Timeline and tension graphs
We use structure to make sure the story has a journey, contains dramatic questions, and contains highs and lows for the characters.
Earlier you planned your story through structure points across three acts. Take the same story, or another one, and use the template below. This is a timeline and tension graph. In a tension graph you can see where the drama builds and falls, with tension high at points such as the climax, and lower at points like the resolution.
Check out the example from The Time Machine and notice the line throughout the graph which indicates when the tension is high, low; building or dropping.
|1. Now it's your turn. Fill out the tension graph template using your own story to make sure your story contains highs and lows.|
If your story doesn't fit the pattern in the template above, draw your own tension graph using the tension graph blank document below. For example, if you have a tragic ending there might be no relief of tension at the end. Or, if your story starts with a dramatic flash-forward to a tense part of the story, your tension graph would look different. It will be up to you to decide where you think the tension is high, and when there is relief for the characters and your audience.
Before you write your script, flesh out your character by delving into their personality, their history, their likes, and their fears.
Download and fill out the protagonist activity below for your protagonist. If you have more characters, you can do this exercise for them too.
Goals and obstacles
For your story to be exciting your characters need to have clear goals. This is something the character wants. Goals can be really simple, for example, Libby wants to get her biscuit back from the dog. Or they can be really big, for example, Libby wants to save the world. In the example of The Time Machine the problem Alex faces is the possibility she'll be stuck back in time. Her big goal is to get back to her own time.
Check out this video essay called Writing the perfect villain below to see how you can make your antagonist just as interesting as your protagonist.
|1. Invent two characters for your script. A protagonist (if you haven't already) and an antagonist.|
|2. Download and complete the protagonist and antagonist activity. Once it's completed, use it as the basis for a paragraph describing each character.|
Even if you don't have an antagonist for your story, you should still have an antagonistic force. This means something non-human is working against your character. It could be coming from society, the physical world, or within the protagonist themselves.
We call these antagonistic forces.
There are different types of antagonistic forces, and many films have both antagonists as well as antagonistic forces.
Character vs. nature
Good survival films often pit human characters against nature, where 'nature' can come in many forms. There are too many films to mention where characters are confronted by natural disasters such as tornadoes, super storms, tsunamis, volcanoes and the like. But nature as an antagonistic force can include characters simply trying to survive the elements, and there are many films about humans trying to survive harsh environments such as jungles and deserts.
Character vs. animal
Think films like Jaws or Jurassic Park, both films where animals threaten the lives of the characters. Lots of horror films like to pit characters against unnaturally large or vicious animals, as do thrillers like The Birds.
In Jurassic Park, characters face off against a number of animals in the form of cloned dinosaurs. Characters are also up against technology in a way too, as the dinosaurs are the product of genetic meddling.
Character vs. the supernatural
Anything that involves ghosts, demons, vampires, werewolves or any other supernatural force a protagonist must face or battle.
Character vs. society
Often the society characters are pitted against are ones set in the future, but there are many films set in the past and contemporary settings where characters battle societal oppression. This could be in the form of racism, poverty, or unjust laws. It could also just be about a character who doesn't fit in with the society around them for other reasons. They could be an outsider, or simply hold very different views to the majority of people around them.
Character vs. themselves
Often characters have to overcome themselves in order to reach their goal. This is where you make your character their own worst enemy. A good protagonist should have a flaw that slows them down anyway but setting up the character as the main antagonistic force takes it to a whole new level. We love this student made film called Rewind where the main character Sam is his own worst enemy!
Character vs. technology
Often the kind of conflict we see in science-fiction films, where the technology that was supposed to help humankind poses a danger. Or, the technology created by humans turns against them.
|1. Brainstorm as many examples of films you've seen or know of that fit into the above categories.|
|2. From your list, can you see any that fit into more than one category?|
|3. From your list, can you see any that have an antagonist AND an antagonistic force?|
Interesting characters are often enhanced or made more interesting because of the story they are in. Likewise, good stories are even better when they contain interesting characters. The two work hand-in-hand.
|Let’s see how well you know your protagonist by writing scenes around the following scenarios.|
|1. Your character has to leave their school or workplace in a hurry, but they can’t tell their teacher/boss why they need to go.|
|2. Your character wakes up to find council workers about to cut down the magnificent tree outside your character’s home.|
|3. Your character is at a train station when they notice a man drop his wallet without realising, just as he is boarding a train.|
|4. Your character is on a spaceship heading towards the new human colony on Mars.|
|5. Create your own scenario/scene, then try re-writing your favourite but this time include your antagonist into the scenario and see what you come up with|
Just as the plot has a beginning, middle and end, so does a protagonist's story. This is called a character arc. This just means that your character will grow and change from their experience, and the lessons they learn along the way. If a character doesn't change or learn anything then it won't be a very interesting story.
A character arc works on the same timeline as your plot, as the plot always works alongside and with the character.
|1. Using your character info, add your character arc into the story and character arc worksheet below. This character arc will go alongside the plot you have already mapped out.|
|2. Make sure you explain what the 'character question' is. Your protagonist will have a goal or a problem to overcome, but character questions go a little deeper than plot, and will often relate to the script's theme. Try and make the character question, and the character arc about what your protagonist learns, how they grow, how they change. In The Time Machine, the plot question is about whether or not Alex will get back home, but her character question is more like "will Alex accept the changes in her life and move forward?"|
|3. Now, write a short scene between your protagonist and antagonist, remembering the antagonist is in the way of the protagonist achieving their goal.|
Want to learn more about story, script and characters before you start writing your script? There is lots more you can learn and practice in the art of screenwriting. Searching the blog of American screenwriter John August is a good place to look for specific tips regarding screenwriting. The Kahn Academy also have great content created with Pixar about storytelling.
Check out the next Film It module, Exploring shot types.