Scriptwriting Fundamentals

Cinematographer’s room
Photo by Noom Peerapong / Unsplash

There are two sides to screenwriting: formatting and storytelling. In this two-part lesson, we'll discuss both.

Story structure

When it comes to story, there are many different models with a lot of different terminologies:

And there are plenty of guides out there to help writers (some of which we'll explore later):

Screenwriting books

But I find many of these either are overloaded with plot points, try to rewrite the terminology, or don't explain things clearly enough. So, let's strip things done to the basics and focus on something less formulaic, more flexible for different story types, and focused more on character.

WOARO

Enter Jerry Cleaver's Immediate Fiction:

Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver

After reading his book, I developed this simple formula:

( Want/ Obstacle) + ( Action/ Response) + Outcome = Story

What does that mean?

A character wants something, but an obstacle stands in her way. Therefore, she takes action, which gets a response, creating conflict. She will continue taking new actions, facing new responses, until she comes to an outcome that is either positive or negative.

Why WOARO?

  • It offers a balance between plot and character.
  • It creates a self-contained piece of the action.
  • It reflects all human action: want, action, and response all define who we are and our character.
WOARO is a self-contained piece of the action.

Want

These are the goals that drive your characters, and two types occur in a story:

External

These wants operate within the boundaries of the story and push it forward. It is often what the audience expects from your story: get the treasure, find the killer, get the romantic love interest. They are external and specific and push your character to take action and propel the story forward.

Internal

The other operates outside the boundaries of your story. These are the BIG character goals that drive us through life. They could be happiness, love, wealth, power, or status. They are internal and abstract and not defined by a concrete value. They rarely change.

  • Want is only dramatic if only the protagonist can’t imagine a world without it. The character must feel that satisfying their want is life or death.
  • Want is the flag you as a writer set in the ground to signal the end.

Obstacle

A story can’t exist in a vacuum. There is always something in conflict with want.

  • Obstacles can be other people with their own wants, actions, and responses.
  • They can also be inner desires, drives, or ghosts that haunt a character’s past.
  • The resolution of an obstacle leads to an outcome.
  • Good writers (and directors) help orientate their audience by utilizing these principles.

Action

Actions are what a character does or says to get what they want. These are the moment-by-moment actions and dialogue that you show on the page. They occur in every character in your story.

  • Think about actions as active verbs that can be done to someone else (transitive verbs). For example, Tom hits Bill, or Sally kisses Greg.
  • They need to be on the page.

Response

Actions need a response. It is the consequences of the hero or the villain’s actions. There are two levels:

  1. An external response, like fighting, yelling, or running away.
  2. An internal response, like emotions or internal thoughts.
  3. When writing for the screen, we have to show external responses.
  4. Try to avoid writing internal responses. This is the focus of the director and actor.
  5. The actions and responses of a character define them.

Outcome

This occurs when the want is either achieved or isn't (win or lose) at the end of the story.

  • It happens when our characters reach the limits of their resources and abilities when no further responses and no further actions can be taken.
  • However, wanting never ends.
  • It must be realized and shown on the page.

When Working with WOARO, ask these questions:

  • Who wants what?
  • Where is the want on the page? Can it be stronger? Can it appear earlier?
  • Where is the obstacle? Where does it appear? Can it be earlier? Can it be stronger? Can it not be ignored?
  • What’s the action? Where is it? Can it appear earlier? Can they be more assertive or direct against the obstacle and towards the want?
  • What's the character's response?
  • What is the outcome? Does the character get what they want?

WOARO as Story

  • W/O + A/R + O defines the shape and beats of all scenes, sequences, acts, and scripts.
  • Each screenplay act (e.g. Act 1) is the fulfillment of a character’s action
  • Action and Response are the heart of the visual story. SHOW IT!
Think of WOARO in terms of containers.

Should you always use WOARO?

No. You need to understand it, but you should go to the plan only when the story isn't working.

Is WOARO the only way to go?

No, there are plenty of different approaches—however, most of them follow the same model. WOARO creates engagement with the audience and is pretty much universal in Western storytelling.

There are other forms, ones that push for anti-plot, no plot, or non-causality. However. for this class, we'll focus on the fundamentals of the story.

And please notice that I did leave the door open for other things like open-endings and non-linear time.


Photo by Pereanu Sebastian / Unsplash

Script Formatting

The second part of scriptwriting is, of course, formatting.

This lesson will cover script formatting basics and some of the usual concerns people have when learning scriptwriting.

A good resource will always be David Trottier's The Screenwriter’s Bible.

Scriptwriting Programs

First and foremost, your scriptwriting program should cover many of your essential formatting issues. Margins, tabs, and title pages are built into the many apps listed below.

Have you picked yours? Sometimes it takes us a while to get comfortable with it, and will never be the one that works for you. Since there are plenty of free or freemium options (free but paying for it offers a better experience), it's best to try several out before committing (and spending) on just one.

Script formatting

To get a sense of what a script page looks like, look at this page from The Avengers, shared here for educational purposes.

Notice the amount of white space in relation to the text. We aren't looking for over-written pages, but keeping everything tight and simple.

A simple ratio to consider is that one page should equal one minute of screen time. This means that the descriptions, dialogue, and actions on the page should take one minute if viewed.

An example of a script page.

Here is the Full Avengers script (PDF) for viewing

Bonus Material: The Origins and Formatting of Modern Screenplays, from Filmmaker IQ

Elements of a Screenplay

Four major elements comprise the construction of a screenplay:

  • Scene headings (or slug lines)
  • Narrative descriptions
  • Dialogue
  • Title page

Scene Headings (or Sluglines)

The first element is the scene heading, which is used whenever introducing a new location or a new time.

They are composed of three pieces:

  • The Camera location: INT. or EXT.
  • The Scene location: CHUCK’S BEDROOM
  • The Time of Day: DAY, NIGHT, LATER, or CONTINUOUS

Altogether, they will look something like this:

INT. CHUCK’S BEDROOM - DAY

Camera Location

Always think about the location of the camera central to your main character. Are they inside a space or outside?

When it comes to forests and oceans, both are considered exterior since they are outside of a space. An interior would be a structure within that space, like a cottage or a submarine.

Scene Location

This is an indicator for your cast and crew to know where the scene takes place.

Don't use a description here. That will be included in the narrative descriptions later.

Time of Day

DAY and NIGHT are the only times of day I want you to use. Some scripts will have other notations like MORNING, EVENING, and NOON, but unless there is specific information in the scene (for example, the sun rises), it is most likely not relevant. DAY and NIGHT are only indications for the crew when they are filming the scene.

LATER is used when time has passed in the same location, and CONTINUOUS is used when one scene leads into the next.

Since space has no light, you can skip the time of day completely.

Other Special Sluglines

There are a few special scene headings that will be used.

Dream Sequences

These will look like this:

  • SARAH’S DREAM
  • INT. HOUSE - DAY - SARAH’S DREAM
  • INT. HOUSE - DAY (SARAH’S DREAM)

Flashbacks

And there is a special notation for flashbacks:

  • EXT. BUDAPEST - DAY (5 YEARS AGO)

Vehicles

When dealing with a vehicle, think about where the action is taking place (Is it inside the vehicle or outside?). If there is one character outside speaking with another inside, then where is the focus? (I'd most likely lean toward the exterior.)

As well, if the vehicle is travelling, then you can use a slugline like:

INT. CAR - DAY - TRAVELLING

French scenes (Secondary Sluglines)

These are used when focusing on several smaller locations in a large area.

For example, in Casablanca, there is INT. RICK’S CAFE, but inside it, there is AT THE BAR or GAMING ROOM or RICK’S TABLE.

French scene example.

Notice that you don’t need to add interior or time.

First, you need to add an opening master slug-line (INT. RICK'S CAFE - DAY) to set up the location, and then add in your French scenes.

You can also create French scenes that focus on characters:

French scene using characters.

Inserts

INSERTs are used to point out a small, specific detail:

Example of an insert.

A similar strategy would be how you would treat FLASHBACKS. Also, notice how this moves away from the INSERT, which is attached to old-school scripts and not as clean and modern as newer stuff.

Computer Screens

This is a variation of the INSERT.

The typed words are in quotation marks.

Example of a computer screen.

A more readable style could be:

Another example of a computer screen.

You could also use the location slug lines to indicate it:

My favourite example of using screens.

Narrative Descriptions

These contain actions, settings, characters, sounds, and transitions. Once you've introduced a location, always set the scene with a narrative description, detailing any new locations and which characters are in the scene.

Only write what you can see and hear in the narrative description. Never write thoughts, smells, or backstories. If it can't be filmed, it shouldn't be described.

When writing narrative descriptions, always work in active voice and present tense.

On the first introduction of a character, write their name in UPPER CASE in the narrative description only. Never do this in dialogue. Once they are introduced, use normal capitalization for their proper names (i.e. Joe) and no capitalization on common nouns (i.e. the man).

Capitalize on important SOUNDS, IMPORTANT and UNIQUE MOMENTS. But don’t abuse. Do not capitalize props.

Most importantly, use brevity. Use short descriptions and only three to four lines of action per paragraph. Remember, white space is important and that one page should equal about one minute of screen time.

If you aren't directing, try to avoid camera directions and transitions.

Montages

Montages are often used to show a short sequence, usually focused on a specific idea or action. It is often without dialogue and used to compress a long passage of time into a brief moment of screen time.

An example might look like this:

Example of montage.

Introduce the section with MONTAGE and then detail the action that it describes (SARAH and MIKE BUILD THE CAR). Each moment is then set off with a double hyphen, then a space (-- They gather the parts.).

One final note is to keep consistency. End each moment with a period on each line.

Dialogue

There are four main parts to your dialogue:

  1. Character Cues - written in ALL CAPS and centred on the page.
  2. O.S. and V.O. - If a character is off-screen but in the scene, use (O.S.) and if they aren't in the scene, then use (V.O.).
  3. Parentheticals (also called wrylies): These are located below the character cue and tell how a line is delivered (sarcastically, angrily, etc.). You are discouraged from using these unless absolutely necessary. Like transitions and camera shots, they are directions and will be ignored by the cast and crew.
  4. Dialogue. Treat it like action and keep it short. Be sure to write clearly, and not like a comic book (i.e. WHAAAAAAAT!?!), or with forced accents.

An example of dialogue might look like this:

Example of dialogue.

Please notice how every scene leads with a narrative description, setting up the locations and characters within a scene before leading into the dialogue.

Example of Telephone Conversation

A unique case for dialogue is telephone conversations. There are multiple approaches,  but here is a simple example of how to introduce one.

Introduce each character in their location before connecting them with the phone call.

Example of a telephone conversation.

You will return to the scene at the end of the conversation, so use a SLUGLINE.

For example:

Example of the end of a phone conversation.

Speakers or Intercoms

V.O. is used to indicate characters speaking through speakers, televisions, or a telephone. Another solution may be to use a parenthetical below the name indicating where the sound is coming from (i.e. from the intercom).

Dialogue in Montages

Dialogue is allowed in montages. As Trottier states here:

Another example of it in use is The Muppet Movie (2011):

Cover Page

The next element is the cover page. Most writing programs will do the work for you but make sure that you have all the pieces correct:

  • Your title is CAPITALIZED.
  • Your name is listed below it with the designation "Written by:"
  • Your contact information is listed in the bottom corner (often right, but determined by your writing program).
  • No DRAFT designations. This is used for production and isn't required for your initial script.
Example of a cover page.

THE END

This final element is located at the end of your script and lets your reader know there are no more pages. You have three choices:

  1. Right-aligned (like a transition) - FADE OUT.
  2. Right-aligned - FADE TO BLACK.
  3. Centred - THE END.

Make sure it is written correctly.

Good luck with your scripts.