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Writing a Great Screenplay

Script Format
"A great screenplay is118 pages or less in correct format, with paragraphs no more than 4 lines long, with castable parts, with a story I've never heard before," Rima Greer states in the book What Everybody Wants. Obviously, as important as it is that there be a script, equally important is the necessity for that script to be written in the correct standard format appropriate for a given filming situation.

A one-camera film production requires a specific script format quite different from a three-camera television production. Many people starting out in the business of script writing are unclear as to what the appropriate form is when writing a script. They go about writing the story down as if writing a novel, from top to bottom of the page. Script formats are much different than that of the novel format as will be discussed later.

When you first glance at a completed script, it may appear as merely randomly placed words spread over a page, but this is not the case. Actually, each individual format for a script is logically and concisely planned to suit the individual needs and aspects of the given filming situation. It is pretty safe to assume that if you took a novel and a camera to a location and tried to film a scene it would be nearly impossible.

A well-formatted script is the basic tool used by directors, actors and the entire crew while filming is taking place. Not only does a standard format provide a framework and essential guideline for a specific filming technique, it also serves as an indicator for timings. One script page in proper format generates approximately one minute of screen time. A two-hour feature film screenplay should be approximately 120 pages in length. Pacing of a screenplay is extremely important. Because a 2-hour film is 120 pages long, what happens on page 60 is approximately half way through the film.

Producers are very aware of pacing, and may actually ask a writer to change what occurs on a specific page to better suit the point in the film at which it would take place. While it is usual for a novelist to create a character's identity by describing every detail of their life (for example what they are wearing, what their house looks like, every item they own and where it is placed), a screenwriter does not have this luxury. Normally it is the screenwriter's job to briefly describe the character and then it is left up to the director, costume designer, set designer, etc. to add in the details.

a script must be designed to be read easily, flowing from page to page in smooth transition
Film is a series of visual images (24 frames per second), with a sound track, and it is meant to be projected and viewed. The page is meant to be read. The experiences are different and the internal times are different. It only takes about fifteen seconds to read a well-designed page while it takes a whole minute to view the film. In simplest terms, a script page (11 inches) = reading time (approx. 25 seconds) = Projection time (one minute) = fictional time (variable). Basically, a script must be designed to be read easily, flowing from page to page in smooth transition.

There are several basic do's and don'ts that one must take into consideration when writing a screenplay, as pointed out in The Complete Guild to Standard Script Formats by Cole and Haag. The first is to use standard line lengths for direction and dialogue. To achieve this, one must count the number of characters and spaces in the script. For direction, 55 characters and spaces is the standard, while for dialogue 35 characters and spaces are used.

Personal direction on the other hand is 16 characters and spaces. It is important to point out that in order for direction and dialogue to keep these correct forms, margin and tab settings must be placed in the appropriate locations. The tab key in particular is used for things such as character names, personal direction under character names, and scene endings or transitions.

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