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Arts & Entertainment

Screenwriting Guide: How to Write Your First Screenplay

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 6 min read

Learning to format and structure a screenplay takes time. With practice, you’ll be able to write a script with a compelling story that looks polished and professional, ready for submission to agents or production companies.



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What Is a Screenplay?

A screenplay is a document that describes the setting, characters, dialogue, and stage directions for movies and TV shows. Screenwriters submit spec scripts to production companies and studios for consideration; these screenplays typically contain minimal information about camera angles, shot selection, lighting, and sound effects. Shooting scripts, on the other hand, may contain more detailed information. Directors closely adhere to their shooting scripts. By the time a spec screenplay turns into a shooting script, it will have undergone numerous revisions.

How to Properly Format a Screenplay

Most screenwriters use screenwriting software to automatically format their scripts, but it’s still essential to understand how to format your work. Once you’ve learned to write in screenplay format, scriptwriting will become second nature.

  1. Page margins: You should have a 1½ inch margin on the left of the page, a 1 inch margin on the right of the page, and 1 inch of white space on the top and bottom of the page.
  2. Font: An industry-standard screenplay uses size 12 courier font.
  3. Title page: The script should have a title page with no content apart from the title and the screenwriter’s name, contact information, and representation (if applicable).
  4. Page numbers: Apart from the first page, every page of the script should be numbered.
  5. Character names: When you introduce a character for the first time, write their name in all caps, followed by a short description in parenthesis.
  6. Dialogue: Write the name of the character speaking in capital letters, centered on the page, and indented 3.7 inches from the left side of the page. Center the character’s lines on the page below their name. Each dialogue block should be indented 2.5 inches from the left side of the page.
  7. Voiceover: Signify voiceover by writing "V.O." next to the name of the character who is speaking.
  8. Off-screen or off-camera: Signify characters who can be heard speaking off-screen with O.S. (off-screen) in film scripts and O.C. (off-camera) in TV scripts.
  9. Dialogue descriptions: Center any descriptions of the character’s line delivery in parentheses directly above the dialogue.
  10. Action lines and stage directions: Align descriptions of action with the left margin of the page.
  11. Scene headings: Often called sluglines, scene headings belong in all caps, aligned left on the page.
  12. Locations: Scene headings must always be preceded by EXT for "exterior" or INT for "interior."
  13. Transitions: Write instructions like "FADE OUT" or "SMASH CUT TO" in all caps, aligned with the right margin.

How to Write a Screenplay in Three-Act Structure

Three act structure divides your screenplay into three distinct sections, each anchored around one or more plot points that drive the overall action. Over the course of the three acts, a complete story structure unfolds. The main character passes through a character arc, the plot builds toward the realization of the protagonist’s goal, and by the end, the action is resolved and loose ends are tied up.

  1. Act one: The first act typically starts with exposition—one or more scenes that establish the ordinary world of the story’s main character. Before the act is over, however, an inciting incident should occur—one that pulls the protagonist out of their normal world and into the main action of the story. The act concludes with some sort of turning point that launches the action into the second act.
  2. Act two: A screenplay’s middle act consists of a rising action that leads to a midpoint, then devolves into a crisis. The second act raises the stakes of the protagonist’s journey, perhaps revealing unforeseen danger. The second act typically ends with another turning point that makes it seem as if the protagonist will fail. This is sometimes called the “dark night of the soul.”
  3. Act three: The third act begins with what’s known as a pre-climax. This consists of events leading up to a climactic confrontation in which the protagonist faces a point of no return: They must either prevail or perish. This event launches into the actual climax, where the protagonist confronts an opposing force in some sort of ultimate showdown. Finally the story de-escalates in a denouement, where the events of the climax wind back down into normal life. Of course the protagonist’s life will never be the same again.

Note that almost all screenplays have subplots (also known as B-stories) that occur concurrently with the main plot. These subplots, often crucial to character development, may also follow a standard three act structure, but they way they play out varies greatly from story to story.

How to Write a Screenplay in Seven-Act Structure

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A seven-act screenplay structure actually nests within a three-act structure, breaking the narrative down into a series of smaller, more detailed episodes. Once you have a handle on the general scope of your screenplay, it can be useful to flesh out the story with this framework in mind.

  1. Hook: The hook is the first scene of act one. This is your starting point. In this first section, you establish the setting and introduce your main character. In every story, the main character goes through a transformation. In this first section, you must give the audience a solid feeling for who the main character is and what their life is like before they embark on their mission.
  2. Plot point one: After you’ve introduced your audience to the characters and setting of your story, next comes the inciting incident. This is the event that fuels the plot and sets the protagonist off on their journey, forcing them out of their comfortable existence. There must be a strong reason that compels them to reluctantly accept this challenge. It’s a point of no return and roughly where the traditional second act begins.
  3. Pinch point one: As act two gets underway, your character sets out on their journey and reacts to their new surroundings and challenges. External conflicts begin to apply pressure on them. This is where a writer introduces antagonists, or bad guys.
  4. Midpoint: About halfway through a story, there needs to be a major reversal. As a result, the protagonist sets their eyes on the prize and pivots their strategy from reaction to action. As the story begins its upward climb to the climax, the intensity and tension kick into high gear.
  5. Pinch point two: Something goes wrong when the protagonist hits an obstacle. It’s a turning point that creates suspense by making the reader question whether the protagonist will be victorious at the end. The protagonist doubts their own abilities as they gather the energy to face the enemy and complete their journey. As this section builds towards the big climactic showdown, the protagonist gains a new perspective, and they find the confidence to persevere as the end of a traditional act two draws to a close.
  6. Plot point two: It’s here that the story approaches the climax. This is where the protagonist finally confronts their nemesis face-to-face. This is the peak of a story’s dramatic and emotional intensity and must provide a big payoff for readers.
  7. Resolution: Also known as the denouement, this final scene (the conclusion of act three in a traditional structure) is where the protagonist returns to some semblance of normalcy or accepts their new normal. By the end of this act, character arcs conclude and the protagonist has undergone a transformation that leaves them in the opposite state they were in when the reader first met them.

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