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Script Writing Basics

Updated on November 19, 2012

Writing For film and Television

As a person who has taken courses on script writing, I would like to share some of the basics on the proper formats and techniques for writing the perfect film to television program.

Obviously, you need a story before you begin to write the script. You will need to decide the type of story for which you would like you script based. Will it be funny or dramatic?

There are really only two types of scripts. Humour or Tragic. Any story that is not based on comedy falls under the Tragic (Drama) category.

If you decide to write comedy, you also need to decide the type of comedy. Keeping in mind that comedy is very hard to write, since humour is very subjective. What you find hilarious, someone else my find silly or even stupid.

There are various types of comedy:

Satire, based on facts and news, and often pokes fun at current events, usually through sarcasm. The problem with this type of comedy is that it usually dates very quickly, and is therefore only funny for a short amount of time.

Political, similar to Satire, but leans more towards making fun of politics and politicians. This type of satire generally has a longer life span than Satire.

Raw humour, also called "Toilet humour" or "General humour" is usually based on comedy intended to entertain the lowest common denominator of audience. It is the most popular type of comedy, because it reaches the largest audience. However, more sophisticated or conservative audiences my be offended.

Complex humour, is the opposite of Raw. It is a more complicated comedy, meant to reach a more "up-scale" audience. Using this type of humour requires people to think, and therefore may not appeal to people who just want to "Sit back and laugh".

There are also many different types of dramas. I will not mention all of them here, but here are a few.

Science fiction, fiction based on scientific facts or possibilities only. Fantasy, same format as science fiction, but is not based based on facts. Fantasy usually contains mythical creatures and magic.These types of drama usually appeal to a "high-end" audience.

Adventure, drama containing many action scenes and wild adventures, and often with a single protagonist, or hero. This type of fiction usually appeals to a general audience, more specifically male.

Sports drama, the main story is based on a sport, with subplots involving characters not directly related to the sport itself, but rather the main plot characters.

Romance, main plot is a love story between two main characters, This type of fiction usually appeals more to a female audience.

That is about all about the types of plots. Let us now look at how to properly format your script, once you are ready to put your story on paper.


Formatting Your Script

There is a standard format for all scripts, so that anyone reading it can understand.

Here is the general script format for screenplays:

SCENE NUMBER

[SCENE INSTRUCTIONS]

CHARACTER NAME: [CHARACTER ACTIONS]

[SHOT INSTRUCTIONS] CHARACTER NAME: Character dialogue.

[SHOT INSTRUCTIONS] CHARACTER NAME: Character dialogue.

...and so on...

Here is a piece of a script that I am currently working on:

SCENE 9

[P] [OUTSIDE OF JENA'S HOUSE]

[MS] JAKE: [KNOCKING ON JENA'S DOOR]

[MS] JENA: [WALKING TO THE DOOR, OPENS IT]

[SLOW-IN AS DOOR OPENS]

[MT] JENA: Jake. what are you doing here?

[2S] JAKE: Ummmm, I am here to talk to your son,

[HOLD] JENA: Why?

[HOLD] JAKE: Ah, well, I wanted to know how to become cool again.

[HOLD] [JENA CLOSES DOOR A BIT AND YELLS TO THE RIGHT]

[HOLD] JENA: Jeremy! Jake is here, and he wants to know if you can help him to stop being such an annoying dork!

Generally, all creative decisions are the responsibility of the director on a film, and are the responsibility of the producer on a TV program. However, as a creative writer, you can put your own creative notes, as above, to how you would like the scene played out. In most cases, producers or directors will follow the wishes of the writer, but do have the right to change it.

Here are some formatting short forms used for script formatting, as above.

Scene Instructions:

[P] Placeholder or [ES] establishing shot. Used to show the audience where the next scene is taking place, usually a wide shot without the primary actors. This is commonly used on TV sit-coms.

[AA] Use ambient audio.

[MUSIC] Add music in post, describe music type.

[SFX] Add sound effect in post, describe effect.

Visual Instructions:

[AL] Use ambient light.

[VFX] Add visual effect in post, describe effect.

[LFX] Lighting effect, describe effect.

Shot instructions:

[WS] Wide shot, include all actors and surroundings as possible.

[MS] Medium shot, single actor, waist and up only.

[TS] Tight shot, single actor, neck and up only.

[CU] Close up, actor's facial expression or single object only.

[MT] Medium-tight shot, single actor, chest and up only.

[MW] Medium-wide shot, multiple actors waist and up only.

[2S] Two shot, show two actors in a medium shot.

[3S] Three shot, show three actors in a medium shot.

[HOLD] Hold previous shot.

[IN] or [OUT] Zoom in or out.

[RACK PUSH] or [RACK PULL] Rack focus in or out.

[FAST] or [SLOW] Speed of zoom or rack.

[HIGH] or [LOW] Special instructions to indicate a shot from above or below the actor or object being shot.

[TRUCK] or [DOLLY] Special instructions, move camera forward/backwards or left/right while shooting.

[FORWARD] [BACK] [LEFT] [RIGHT] Direction of truck or dolly.

These are the basic creative instructions you can add to your script.

By using these in the appropriate format, will greaty improve the chances of your script being accepted for production.


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