Guest post: Screenwriting 101 by Nancy Dodd

Tonight’s guest blog post, on the topic of screenwriting is brought to you by Nancy Ellen Dodd, MPW, MFA, author of The Writer’s Compass: From Story Map to Finished Draft in 7 Stages.

Screenwriting 101

Maybe even tougher than selling poetry is selling a screenplay. While there is nonstop television programming and movies available, how many of those are reruns? The cost of creating a movie or a new television show is high and only limited financing is available. Getting distribution can be as daunting as getting financing.

But, wait! That being said, with today’s technology and new media, it is easier than ever to create your own video and get it seen by an audience on the internet. This is what I tell my screenwriting students, “Get together with your friends and do it yourself.” However, you’ll want to start with a good screenplay.

What You Should Know About Screenplays

Creating films is a collaborative effort and the screenwriter is usually less important than the director and actors, and often even the producers. The exception to that is a screenwriter who is well known or the auteur—the director who has the vision and writes the story. Just think of the last movie you watched, do you know who the screenwriter was? The screenplay is often only considered a blueprint because many changes may be made from the original screenplay to the shooting script to what happens on location, to what winds up on the cutting room floor—with input from many sources.

A screenplay is a very condensed form of storytelling. The most important aspect of a screenplay is the imagery with dialogue running a close second. Because you are forced to show / not tell, metaphors often work well in developing the imagery. The trick in screenwriting is to create imagery while using fewer words.  I often remind my students that when you write a screenplay you have to leave room for the director to direct, the actor to act, the cinematographer to film, the set and costume designers to design—all of that to say that when you write you have to tell a story without telling these people how to do their jobs. Again, the exception would be the director who is writing the screenplay.

It is generally considered that each page of a screenplay is approximately a minute of finished video. In other words, a 120-page script would be a 2-hour movie. Because there are so many people and costs involved, every minute of the final footage can be very expensive and there are lots of scenes that are shot more than once and / or by more than one camera. Everything in that minute of film has to be procured and placed by a crew. Lighting and sound crews also have to be incorporated into the process for the best outcome.

The screenwriter has to take all of this into consideration, including what it will cost to create every scene and to pay extras when writing the screenplay. An unknown screenwriter will have a difficult time selling a screenplay requiring a $100 million in financing, especially in these economic times.

Formatting a Screenplay

Screenplays have their own unique formatting. There are several websites and books that will give margins for correct formatting of screenplays. A couple of books I use are The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier and The Hollywood Standard by Christopher Riley.

Most screenplays are 90-120 pages. If this is your first screenplay, keep it closer to 90-110 pages. Courier font in 12 is generally used. The screenplay is constructed with narrow and brief sections of dialogue, under a centered character name, to make them easy to read and to remember. Wider description or “action shots” in between contain needed description and information to move the story forward. Scenes in screenplays are denoted by a change of setting and there are special lines called “Headings” or “Slug lines.” These consist simply of whether it is an interior INT. or exterior EXT. camera shot; the location, MARLEY’S HOUSE; and the time MORNING.

Acronyms are often used such as V.O. means “voice over” and C.U. means “close-up”. The character is capitalized the first time being introduced and sometimes words that are noted for sounds are capitalized. Scenes are often ended with words such as “Fade Out” or “Cut to” or “Smash Cut” along with other words to denote which special transition, if any, should be used to change scenes.

Search for examples online to get a feel for how a screenplay is written and worded. Look for the “original” screenplay or drafts, not shooting scripts or transcripts, both come at later stages, the transcript being only the dialogue of the actual film used for closed captioning and not written in correct formatting.

Writing a Screenplay

There are several things to remember when writing a screenplay. A well-written screenplay will not have too much white space, meaning too much dialogue, or too little white space, meaning too much narrative and not enough dialogue. Yes, appearance of the screenplay does matter. Incorrectly formatted screenplays are a tipoff that the writer is a novice and will be given less credibility.

The movie will be seen and should be shown and not told, therefore what the film will look like matters. However, remember the rule about not telling people how to do their jobs. The scenes should be written with minimal details—enough to make the reading interesting, not enough to bog it down or be too precise. Same thing with camera angles and shots, let the director and cinematographer determine the best angles and shots. However, the exception to that would be giving key information. For example. If a ring on the character’s hand is key to the story, in the action shot you will want to say something like:

The details of the four-leaf clover on his gold ring are visible, even while he hides his hand behind his back.

In this case you are telling both the cinematographer and the actor how to do their jobs, but rather than being overt, you are being subtle in showing that the ring is important to focus on and that the character is trying to hide the information.

I always suggest that you write the screenplay out fully, then go back and condense it down as much as possible once the structure is in place.

The best way to get a feel for the rhythm of a screenplay is to read the final drafts before the shooting draft in the genre you are interested in writing. Remember, you are telling a story, but the story will be seen and you can’t tell or explain the things you would through narrative in a book, you have to show them.

Below is a brief sample from the opening of my screenplay Seventy Times Seven, which has received several awards. V.O. means voice over. The character is capitalized the first time being introduced and sometimes words that are noted for sounds are capitalized.












That’s brilliant. Thank you, Nancy!

For more than 25 years Nancy has invested thousands of hours of studying writing including two graduate degrees: a master’s in Professional Writing (MPW, which is a multi-discipline approach to writing) from the University of Southern California and an MFA in playwriting at USC’s School of Theatre. She has received numerous awards for her writing and some of her stories have been read on public radio. Nancy has also studied writing with several successful, award-winning writers. Her book, The Writer’s Compass: From Story Map to Finished Draft in 7 Stages, covers the full creative writing process. She’s published more than 130 articles and been editor of two print and two online publications. Presently Nancy is academic editor of the Graziadio Business Review, a business journal for the Graziadio School at Pepperdine, and currently teaches screenwriting at Pepperdine University to undergraduate and graduate students. Her website is

If you would like to write a writing-related guest post for my blog then feel free to email me with an outline of what you would like to write about. If it’s writing-related then it’s highly likely I’d email back and say “yes please”.

The blog interviews return as normal tomorrow morning with article and short story author and dating novelist Siggy Buckley – the two hundred and seventy-eighth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. And I enjoy hearing from readers of my blog; do either leave a comment on the relevant interview (the interviewees love to hear from you too!) and / or email me. You can also read / download my eBooks and free eShorts at Smashwords.

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