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Official MicroFilmmaker Academy Selection
Scriptwriting 101:
Introductory Basics

by E. Russell Henninge

One of the things that I have noticed as I actively pursue educating myself in the art of filmmaking, is that many people are confused by the first element of making a film: writing the script and, more specifically, formatting the screenplay. When I first started out I, and many people that I had classes with, were unclear on what is expected in a screenplay. What do you include? What is not included? What is the proper format?

My goal here is to answer these questions and hopefully make one of the essential elements of filmmaking an easier process for you. A good story is the first place to start when making a film. At the heart of every good film is a good story. I know that sounds like I’m pointing out the obvious, but it does get missed. People sometimes think that if they have strong visuals, then the story can take a back seat. This is simply not true. That is not to impugn the importance of strong visuals, but the two must work together. What good is a nice looking film if the story is not engaging or interesting?

Granted, not everyone is a writer, just as not everyone is a director, or actor, etc. However, not only is it important to know where to start if you are a writer, but it is essential as a director to have a working knowledge of all the components that go into making a film. As a director, you do not have to be the world’s greatest writer, cinematographer, composer, or editor, but you do need to know enough about these areas to communicate with your crew. With that said, I will get off my little soap box and get back to the issue at hand: writing a script.

Many writers/directors think visually and they have in their minds the images they want to see when they put pen to paper. The temptation is to then include camera angles and shot descriptions in the screenplay. DON’T DO IT! Anything that takes the reader out of the story is bad. The director’s breakdown, shot lists, and strip boarding are all separate documents and they serve their own purpose, which makes it unnecessary to write your shots and directions into your script. You want the reader to be involved with the story from start to finish.

In the same vein, there are a couple different phrases to avoid as well, which will take the reader out of the moment.

  1. “We see Johnny walk away from the car.” Never refer to the audience with the word “we”.

  2. "Johnny is walking away from the car.” Avoid words like “is”. Not only will you find yourself over-relying on it, but it becomes a colorless way to express yourself and often times makes your word count unnecessarily drawn out. Less is more, and the economy of words is priceless.

For example: “Johnny is walking away from the car” sounds exactly like “Johnny walks away from the car” or even “Johnny walks from the car.”

With those little helpful tips out of the way, we can move onto format. While there is more than one format that some studios will be comfortable with, there is only one format that they will all accept and never have any problems with. That will be the type we will look at in this article.

Now, there are some software programs out there that are available to the consumer, such as “Final Draft” and “Movie Magic.” However, as not everyone can afford software, so long as you have a computer with some version of Word, you are in good shape. All you have to do is set your margins and tabs according to the numbers I am about to give and you will have a perfectly formatted script that anyone will be able to read and understand.

Okay, first things first…12 point Courier font is the only font you will use. The reason for this and the margins, etc., that I am about to give you, has to do with timing. The rule of thumb is ONE PAGE = ONE MINUTE. You will have one minute of screen time for each page of your script. However, if you use a different font (because you think it looks cool or whatever) you will throw the timing off and it will be impossible to accurately know how long your film will be.

Left Margin – 1 ½ inches (from left side of the page)
Right Margin – 1 inch (from right side of the page)
Top Margin – ½ inch (from top of the page)
Bottom Margin – Floater ½ inch to 1 ½ inches (from bottom of the page)

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