What is a Screenplay? Meaning and Significance
The screenplay is a blueprint of the visuals that play out on screen. It is written in a format which helps its reader visualize exactly how every moment will play out. Hence, just by reading the screenplay – every department of a film production i.e. the director, actors, cinematographers etc, can envision the project, even before the director instructs the execution of the story.
Here’s a wonderful example of how the screenplay pans out on screen.
To check out more such amazing videos, check out Screenplayed.
Before we dive into the stages of the screenplay, let’s answer a popular question that pops up often during the understanding of screenplay.
Is there a difference between a screenplay and a script?
No. Not really. There will be tons of books and sites trying to tell you that both have nuanced differences but personally, these nuances are too small to even care about. They are interchangeable. So you can call your script a screenplay or vice versa and ignore this question for the rest of your life!
Stages of the Screenplay
There are five stages of the screenplay.
The first in the stages of the screenplay is the logline. A logline is one or two sentences that describe your story. A good logline defines the central dramatic narrative of the story in an apt yet concise manner. Creating a logline is a very useful exercise to test if your story is working as a narrative. To help understand this step, let’s look at some loglines.
- SILENCE OF THE LAMBS – A young F.B.I. officer must confide in an incarcerated and manipulative killer to receive his help on catching another serial killer who skins his victims.
- LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE – A dysfunctional family decides to take an arduous road trip from Albuquerque to Los Angeles in their yellow minibus, to fulfil their seven-year-old daughter’s dream of competing in the “Little Miss Sunshine” beauty pageant.
- HER – Set in the near future, a lonely introverted writer is on the verge of divorce. During this period, he buys an Artificially Intelligent Operating System for assistance but gradually falls in love with it.
These above loglines capture the essence of the story well and that’s what you should aim to do.
Logline writing exercises are so very vital to screenwriters as writing a good logline can provide impetus to writing a screenplay oozing clarity. That is why a good logline manages to capture the story in just line or two. On the contrary, the failure to write a concise logline can direct you towards the weaknesses of your story. If summarizing the story is becoming very difficult than it helps you understand which one or several parts of the story need to be rewritten to convey your story idea clearly.
A logline also helps you understand the size of the idea. An idea might be brilliant but not large enough to sustain a 90-minute feature. On the contrary, an idea might be so large that it would translate better in a multi-season series rather than a short film.
Your logline will help crack the correct format for your idea. Below are loglines for ideas other than feature films.
Short film Idea – A recently paralyzed young woman who thinks her life is over, is forced to crawl for help up a fifty-foot embankment to save her injured mother after a car accident on a lonely road.
Series Idea (Breaking Bad) – A high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer turns to manufacture and selling methamphetamine to secure his family’s future.
Second in line in the stages of the screenplay is the One Page. The one-pager is often called a pitch. It highlights the major beats and the key moments of the story. It is important to write a one pager like a story rather than a screenplay. This means that it should have a comprehensible beginning, middle and end. The end doesn’t have to be revealed at this stage, but the reader should be given a sense of where the conflict is headed. The best one-pagers will point to a conclusion but not completely describe it.
In order to keep it concise, every line should be designed to give new information. The aim should be to make all of it interesting and revealing. The reader should get a sense of the genre, story flow, central characters and the hook. The hook is the feeling of intrigue your story brings which makes the reader wants to know more. The reader should feel empathy for your characters and want to follow their journey to see how it plays out.
Next in the stages of the screenplay is the Treatment. This stage is the marketing and production inclined stage. The treatment gives everything a producer needs to know about the look and feel of the story. This stage covers the tone, the style and pacing of the story, with added references for a comprehensive understanding.
A film treatment will be a much more in-depth summary of the project and it can be anywhere between 4 to 20 pages long. Some are even longer but this range should give you enough space to pen down every important detail your story might audio-visually have.
The story here should be summarized in three acts. The 3 act structure in context to a treatment can be broadly described as Setup, Conflict and Resolution.
Act 1 will be the Setup act. Here the world of the story and the characters are introduced. By the end of this act, the conflict the character faces should also be introduced.
Act 2 will be the Conflict act. This is where the conflict is expanded and the reader is given an understanding of why the character has to make severe and unpredictable choices due to them being at loggerheads with the conflict.
Act 3 will be the Resolution act. This is the last and conclusive act. The character’s conflict with the situation has risen to such an extent that something’s got to give. How the character manages to resolve the situation and make the final choice completes their journey. This act will determine how we see the character once the story ends.
Using this storytelling format will help make the treatment insightful in terms of storytelling as well as production value.
Adding photos and references for characters, backgrounds and costumes can be done as you want to give the reader as much idea of the way you’re seeing the project play out on screen.
The fourth of the stages of the screenplay is called the Step Outline. A step outline or a beat sheet is a detailed telling of a story. It is the script without dialogues. It captures all the important story beats and plot movements. The step outline briefly details every scene of the screenplay’s story and often has indications for dialogue and character interactions. The scenes can be numbered for convenience.
Write out every scene in the sequence of how you want it shown in the script. The scenes should be written keeping in mind the purpose of the scene and how the character or plot changes from the beginning of the scene to the end of the scene. Keeping this in mind will help you easily track if a scene is important or merely filler, in which case, it should ideally be removed. Add important dialogue to the scenes if you feel they are too significant to ignore.
By the end of the outline, make sure every set-up is paid off. This will leave the reader convinced that all conflicts (both internal and external) have been resolved and heighten their emotional satisfaction from the story. Also, this helps you keep track of all the details that need to be sketched out in the screenplay.
At last, after all the brainstorming and outline we reach the final stage. The most important of the stages of screenplay. Ze screenplay itself! The idea of working on all the aforementioned stages will help you have a very well developed idea at this point. You are proficient with your characters, backstories, subplots and three acts. Every important detail is already laid out in front of you and now you must just write them out with as much flamboyance and flair you want.
This is not to say that this stage is easier than the previous ones. Your previous stages of the screenplay have just given you the best possible platform to execute the toughest part of your dream.
Screenplay writing is not like prose writing (as you have already noticed) and hence one must get accustomed to the change in writing format. To understand the format better, let’s discuss the elements that makeup screenplay writing.
Elements of Screenplay
Scene Headings – Heading give context to the scene in terms of location and time. They are written in all caps and first mention the interiority or exteriority of a location. This is followed by the location and concluded by the time of day.
Action – Actions are all the movements we can see or hear on screen. This is the descriptions of basically everything you wish the reader should know to envision the scene movement. This is written right below the scene headings. Making the action descriptions graphic and auditory helps readers picture your story better.
Dialogue – This element seems self-explanatory. Every line said by a character (including Voiceovers) will be cover here. The character names are written in capitals and their dialogues are written below it. Dialogue should be written without caring about grammar. Please write dialogue exactly how you picture the character speaking.
Parenthesis – This element is used in brackets between the character names and their dialogues. This should be used sparingly as parenthesis suggests a specific action a character does while delivering dialogue. Using parenthesis decreases the significance of the element.
Transitions – While concluding a scene, transitions are used. They are written on the right bottom of the scene and inform the reader that there is a switch of a scene. Transitions can be used creatively to suit the narrative but it is suggested that they are used thoughtfully so that the scene feels well concluded or well switched over to the subsequent scene.
To get used to the formatting, we must read screenplays too. You can find sample screenplays of movies here at Script Reader Pro.
Now that we are through with all the stages of the screenplay, let us look at some resources that will take our craft to the next level.
Screenwriting can be an annoying task due to the difference in the formatting of it. This is where good screenwriting software will take your skills a notch higher. Of course, there are tons of great products in the market but these are the 3 I have used and would recommend to fellow writers.
Final Draft – This is by far the most popular and sought after software in the market. It probably is the most expensive as well but the product is worth every penny due to its unmatched tools like Story Map (for outlining), Beat Board (for beat sheets) and Alternate Dialogue (for storing additional dialogue options).
The price of the latest version is around 250 dollars. If you can splash some cash then you should go for this software as it is the benchmark apparatus for every screenwriter out there.
CeltX – If you are looking for a low budget alternative then CeltX is your option. While there is a free downloadable version, CeltX also has a cloud version which helps you write on the fly. It is pretty basic and effective in its usability and sports some useful pre-production tools like call sheets, storyboards, shot lists, and a scheduling solution. It also offers a variety of imports like PDFs and word documents and is a solid alternative to Final Draft.
StudioBinder – The last offering is an online alternative called StudioBinder. This tool is a part of the massive film educative site that studiobinder is. It provides an easy to use a free platform upon a simple sign up on their website. With its intuitive predictor, it helps writers focus on their flow rather than keep track of their format. While the previous two options are much more popular, this is an option newbie screenwriters can use to explore the craft on the go.
I hope you enjoyed your reading of the stages of the screenplay. Do let us know if you have any queries on any stages of the screenplay, then do share your comments and feedback below and I will be sure to get back to you. Until then, happy screenwriting!