Why Does Hollywood...?

Can you explain to your readers how to read a screenplay? That way, when someone asks me in the future, I can just send them this link. --Chris B.

Used in projects page as well as "How do you read a screenplay" yesterday's news post.
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This request comes from my writing partner with whom I’m working on a killer screenplay. He’s a great guy and long past due for a featured question on this blog. “How do you read a screenplay?” hits a person differently based on their industry experience, so this article assumes you’ve never read one. It’ll cover the basics of both formatting and constructive feedback.

Screenplays/Teleplays follow specific formatting and rules so that production, casting, and programming requirements are spelled out when industry people read them. Traditionally, courier 12pt font is used with sizable margins so that one page equals one minute of movie runtime. A 90-page screenplay, in theory, is an hour-and-a-half movie. Page to page, this isn’t actually the case: A page describing lots of action could take up multiple minutes whereas a dialogue-heavy page could be cut down to 30 seconds in the editing room. Overall, however, a 90-page screenplay will around 90 minutes. This is why most studios/producers won’t even consider a script unless it’s between 90-120 pages (until you’re established and successful).


Let’s say your friend is an aspiring Hollywood writer, and they’ve sent you a project to read. You’ll first see the title page with the author’s name, email, and other pertinent info in the bottom left corner. If it looks any different than this, you’re likely in for a rough experience.

After that, near every script starts with “Fade In…” because it simulates the black movie screen starting the show. It’s also a reminder that you’re NOT READING A BOOK. A good movie script is merely the blueprint for the final product. While you read, feel free to use your imagination as to how this will look in a movie theatre or on a TV screen.

Similarly, since movies are only audio and visual, a screenplay CANNOT have lines expressing how a character smells, or how an object feels. Internal thoughts are a gray area. A writer can express what a character is feeling if an actor can portray that look on their face. Otherwise, the screenplay will have to use another way to convey that information.

What a coincidence! This example title page happens to be from the screenplay I mentioned...


Fun bonus fact--character names should be capitalized upon first introduction as should important props, visual effects, and sound cues. As this is the first page of the script, this example has frequent capitalization because the reader is seeing many of these items for the first time.

After “Fade In,” there are four main components:

  1. Scene Heading
  2. Action Block
  3. Character Speech
    1. Screen Direction
    2. Parentheticals
    3. Dialogue
  4. Transitions

Firstly, a scene heading tells a reader where things are taking place. It starts with either the abbreviation INT. or EXT. These are just shortened forms of “Interior” or “Exterior” (does the scene take place inside or outside?). Occasionally, you may see INT./EXT. This is if a scene has characters frequently moving inside and outside–like a car moving down a road or two characters talking on either side of a screen door.

After that, the scene heading will give a location (Local Diner, The White House Front Lawn, Parisian Sewers) followed by the general time of day. Some scripts simply say “day” or “night” while others are more specific, like “noon” or “dusk.” Still other headings may be in chronological relation to the previous scene. Words like “a moment later,” “continuous,” or “meanwhile” are common here.


Secondly comes the action block. This covers description of what the setting looks like or what is happening on screen. While there’s no definitive rule on how long these block paragraphs are, a paragraph break USUALLY means a new shot for the camera or a cut point for the editor.

To that point, unless your writer friend is an established auteur (*cough* Tarantino *cough*), their action block should rarely go over three lines, and only go over four lines a couple times per script. If that’s not the case, they’re either not breaking the paragraphs where they should be, or they’re over describing things. (I used to think I could because I was being deep and artistic. I wasn’t; I was being convoluted and pretentious.) Do NOT let this criticism slide with your writer friend; this tendency is an artistic bacterium, infecting everything a burgeoning writer touches. The only antibiotic is conciseness.

Soooo, spoiler alert, but Tim's a little controlling...


This parenthetical is actually for the sound mixer, since both Tim and the audience are hearing Joe from the floor above.

Thirdly comes character speech. Consisting of a centered name, this part of the screenplay is straightforward. Obviously, any words below the character’s name is their dialogue. That said, you may see parentheses that mean specific things near these names:


(V.O) – Voiceover – When a character or narrator is talking but isn’t physically present in or near the scene

(O.S) or (O.C.) – Off screen or Off Camera – When a character is talking but IS physically present in or near the scene

(Pre-lap) or (Post-lap) – When a character’s lines bleed past their scene into another. 

(Cont.) – When the same character is talking, but their lines are interrupted by an action block or a page break.


Similarly, you may see an adverb or adverb phrase BELOW a character’s name. This is called a “parenthetical,” and it tells an actor how to say the line. Naturally, figuring out how to say a line is an actor’s job, so a screenplay shouldn’t overuse this device as it can throttle creativity or rub a director the wrong way.


Finally, a screenplay will have a few transitions. These are two-to-three-word notations on the right side of the page and the end of a scene. “Cut to:,” “Dissolve to:,” “Fade to:”–these all suggest to the editor how the scenes will flow together.

If this were the early 1950’s, and your writer friend was typing a screenplay for a murderous, aging actress trying to reclaim her silent-film glory days, I’d say that their script needed a transition at the end of every scene. I’d also advise you to pull your friend out of that situation. In reality, an editor knows one scene must transition to the next–because that’s what an editor’s job is. Unless a transition serves as a divider between sections of the movie (e.g. the passage of time, the end of a Disney villain’s song), marking transitions is redundant. Tell your writer friend to cut “cut to” and cut to the chase.

The one exception to this rule is that every screenplay still ends with “Fade to Black” followed by “The End.” If you’ve made it that far into your writer friend’s passion project, congrats; this article has hopefully provided many areas in which you can constructively criticize their craft. Also, they owe you, so they can’t say no when you invite them to your community-theater production of Cats.

Another fun fact: The italic exclamation is a newer screenwriting device called an "internal." It's a physical reaction that the writer hopes a reader will share with the character. When used effectively, it grabs or boosts a reader's interest.


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