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Screenwriting is the art and craft of writing scripts for film, television or video games.

Writing for film is potentially one of the most high-profile and best-paying careers available to a writer and, as such, is also perhaps the most sought after. While it is increasingly difficult to make a living as a Hollywoodmarker screenwriter, that does not stop tens of thousands of people from trying every year, as the capricious nature of the film industry makes it possible for a complete unknown to launch a career simply by writing a commercially-appealing screenplay and getting it into the hands of the right people.

Screenwriting in the entertainment industry

The act of screenwriting takes many forms across the entertainment industry. Often, multiple writers work on the same script at different stages of development with different tasks. Over the course of a successful career, a screenwriter might be hired to write in a wide variety of roles.

Some of the most common forms of screenwriting jobs include:

Spec script writing

Spec scripts are feature film or television show scripts written on speculation, without the commission of a studio, production company, or network. The vast majority of scripts written each year are spec scripts, but only a small percentage make it to the screen. A spec script is usually a wholly original work, but can be an adaptation of an existing source.

In television writing, a spec script is a sample teleplay written to demonstrate the writer's knowledge of a show and ability to imitate its style and conventions. It is submitted to the show's producers in hopes of being hired to write future episodes of the show. Budding screenwriters attempting to break in to the business generally begin by writing one or more spec scripts.

Note that while writing "spec scripts" is part of any writer's career, the Writers Guild of America forbids members to write "on speculation" The distinction is that a "spec script" is written as a sample by the writer on his or her own; what is forbidden is writing a script for a specific producer without a contract.

Feature assignment writing

Scripts written on assignment are screenplays created under contract with a studio, production company, or individual. Assignment scripts are generally adaptations of an existing idea or property owned by the hiring company, but can also be original works based on a concept created by the writer or producer. Because assignments are created for hire, the writer typically has less creative freedom than on a spec script, and must meet specific criteria dictated by the producer.

Rewriting and script doctoring

Most produced films are rewritten to some extent during the development process. Frequently, they are not rewritten by the original writer of the script. Many established screenwriters, as well as new writers whose work shows promise but lacks marketability, make their living rewriting scripts.

When a script's central premise or characters are good but the script is otherwise unusable, a different writer or team of writers is contracted to do an entirely new draft, often referred to as a "page one rewrite." When only small problems remain, such as bad dialogue or poor humor, a writer is hired to do a "polish" or "punch-up".

Depending on the size of the new writer's contributions, screen credit may or may not be given. For instance, in the American film industry, credit to rewriters is given only if 50% or more of the script is substantially changed. These standards can make it difficult to establish the identity and number of screenwriters who contributed to a film's creation.

When an established, successful writer is called in to rewrite portions of a script late in the development process, they are commonly referred to as script doctors. Prominent script doctors include William Goldman, Robert Towne, Mort Nathan, and Quentin Tarantino.

Television writing

A freelance television writer uses spec scripts or their previous credits and reputation to get contracted by an existing tv show to write one or more episodes. After the episode is written, the teleplay is submitted to the network and rewriting or polishing may be required. Subsequent drafts of the script may be done by the freelancer or by the show's staff.

A staff writer for a television show generally works in-house writing and rewriting episodes for the show. Staff writers - often given other titles, such as story editor, or producer - work both as a group and individually on episode scripts to maintain the show's tone, style, characters, and plots.

Television show creators, also known as show runners, write the pilot episode and bible of a new television series. They are responsible for creating and managing all aspects of a show's characters, style, and plots. Frequently, a creator remains responsible for the show's day-to-day creative decisions throughout the series run.

Writing for soap operas

The process of writing for soap operas is different than that used by prime time shows, due in part to the need to produce new episodes five days a week, fifty-two weeks a year. In one example cited by Jane Espenson, screenwriting is a "sort of three-tiered system":
a few top writers craft the overall story arcs. Mid-level writers work with them to turn those arcs into things that look a lot like traditional episode outlines, and an array of writers below that (who do not even have to be local to Los Angeles), take those outlines and quickly generate the dialogue while adhering slavishly to the outlines.


Espenson notes that a recent trend has been to eliminate the role of the mid-level writer, relying on the senior writers to do rough outlines and giving the other writers a bit more freedom. Regardless, when the finished scripts are sent to the top writers, the latter do a final round of rewrites. Espenson also notes that a show that airs daily with characters that have decades of history behind their voices necessitates a writing staff without the distinctive voice that can sometimes be present of prime-time series.

Writing for game shows

Game shows feature live contestants, but still use a team of writers as part of a specific format. This may involve the slate of questions, and even specific phrasing or dialogue on the part of the host. Writers may not script the dialogue used by the contestants, but they work with the producers to create the actions, scenarios, and sequence of events that support the game show's concept.

Video game writing

With the continued development and increased complexity of video games, many opportunities are available to screenwriters in the field of video game design. Video game writers work closely with the other game designers to create characters, scenarios, and dialogue.

Theories on writing a screenplay

Fundamentally, the screenplay is a unique literary form. It is like a musical score, in that it is intended to be interpreted on the basis of other artists' performance, rather than serving as a "finished product" for the enjoyment of its audience. For this reason, a screenplay is written using technical jargon and tight, spare prose when describing stage directions. Unlike a novel or short story, a screenplay focuses on describing the literal, visual aspects of the story, rather than on the internal thoughts of its characters. In screenwriting, the aim is to evoke those thoughts and emotions through subtext, action, and symbolism.

There are several main screenwriting theories which help writers approach the screenplay by systematizing the structure, goals and techniques of writing a script. The most common kinds of theories are structural. Screenwriter William Goldman is widely quoted as saying "Screenplays are structure".

Three act structure

Most screenplays have a three act structure, following an organization that dates back to Aristotle's Poetics and developed with respect to feature films by Syd Field, author of Screenplay and The Screen Writer's Workbook. The three acts are setup (of the location and characters), confrontation (with an obstacle), and resolution (culminating in a climax and a dénouement). In a two-hour film, the first and third acts typically last 30 minutes, with the middle act lasting an hour.

In Writing Drama, French writer and director Yves Lavandier shows a slightly different approach.. As most theorists, he maintains that every human action, whether fictitious or real, contains three logical parts: before the action, during the action, and after the action. But since the climax is part of the action, Yves Lavandier considers the second act must include the climax. Which makes for a much shorter third act than what is found in most screenwriting theories.

Besides the three act structure, one could also use four or even five acts in a screenplay, though these would be used to suit longer stories than the classic 120 page format.

The Hero's Journey

The Hero's Journey, also referred to as the Monomyth, is an idea formulated by noted mythologist Joseph Campbell. The central concept of the Monomyth is that a pattern can be seen in stories and myths across history. Campbell defined and explained that pattern in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces(1949).

Campbell's insight was that important myths from around the world which have survived for thousands of years, all share a fundamental structure. This fundamental structure contains a number of stages, which includes
  1. A call to adventure, which the hero has to accept or decline
  2. A road of trials, regarding which the hero succeeds or fails
  3. Achieving the goal or "boon," which often results in important self-knowledge
  4. A return to the ordinary world, again as to which the hero can succeed or fail
  5. Application of the boon, in which what the hero has gained can be used to improve the world


Later, screenwriter Christopher Vogler refined and expanded the Hero's Journey for the screenplay form in his book, The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers(1993).

Syd Field's Paradigm

Screenwriting guru Syd Field wrote the seminal book Screenplay, and posited a new theory, which he called the Paradigm. Field noticed that in a 120-page screenplay, Act Two was notoriously boring, and was also twice the length of Acts One and Three. He also noticed that an important dramatic event usually occurred at the middle of the picture, which implied to him that the middle act was actually two acts in one. So the Three Act Structure is notated 1, 2a, 2b, 3, resulting in Aristotle's Three Acts divided into four pieces.

Field also introduced the idea of Plot Points into screenwriting theory. Plot Points are important structural functions that happen in approximately the same place in most successful movies, like the verses and choruses in a popular song. In subsequent books, Field has added to his original list, and students of his like Viki King and Linda Seger have added to the list of Plot Points. Here is a current list of the major Plot Points that are congruent with Field's Paradigm:

Opening Image: The first image in the screenplay should summarize the entire film, especially its tone. Often, writers go back and redo this as the last thing before submitting the script.

Inciting Incident: Also called the catalyst, this is the point in the story when the Protagonist encounters the problem that will change their life. This is when the detective is assigned the case, where Boy meets Girl, and where the Comic Hero gets fired from his cushy job, forcing him into comic circumstances.

Plot Point 1: The last scene in Act One, Turning Point One is a surprising development that radically changes the Protagonist's life, and forces him to confront the Opponent. In Star Wars, this is when Luke's family is killed by the Empire. He has no home to go back to, so he joins the Rebels in opposing Darth Vader.

Pinch 1: A reminder scene at about 3/8 the way through the script (halfway through Act 2a) that brings up the central conflict of the drama, reminding us of the overall conflict. For example, in Star Wars, Pinch 1 is the Stormtroopers attacking the Millennium Falcon in Mos Eisley, reminding us the Empire is after the stolen plans to the Death Star R2-D2 is carrying and Luke and Ben Kenobi are trying to get to the Rebel Alliance (the main conflict).

Midpoint: An important scene in the middle of the script, often a reversal of fortune or revelation that changes the direction of the story. Field suggests that driving the story towards the Midpoint keeps the second act from sagging.

Pinch 2: Another reminder scene about 5/8 through the script (halfway through Act 2b) that is somehow linked to Pinch 1 in reminding the audience about the central conflict. In Star Wars, Pinch 2 is the Stormtroopers attacking them as they rescue the Princess in the Death Star. Both scenes remind us of the Empire's opposition, and using the Stormtrooper attack motif unifies both Pinches.

Plot Point 2: A dramatic reversal that ends Act 2 and begins Act 3, which is about confrontation and resolution. Sometimes Turning Point Two is the moment when the Hero has had enough and is finally going to face the Opponent. Sometimes, like in Toy Story, it's the low-point for the Hero, and he must bounce back to overcome the odds in Act 3.

Showdown: About midway through Act 3, the Protagonist will confront the Main Problem of the story and either overcome it, or come to a tragic end.

Resolution: The issues of the story are resolved.

Tag: An epilogue, tying up the loose ends of the story, giving the audience closure. This is also known as denouement. In general, films in recent decades have had longer denouements than films made in the 1970s or earlier.

The sequence approach

The sequence approach to screenwriting, sometimes known as "eight-sequence structure", is a system developed by Frank Daniel, while he was the head of the Graduate Screenwriting Program at USCmarker. It is based, in part on the fact that, in the early days of cinema, technical matters forced screenwriters to divide their stories into sequences, each the length of a reel (about ten minutes).

The sequence approach mimics that early style. The story is broken up into eight 10-15 minute sequences. The sequences serve as "mini-movies", each with their own compressed three-act structure. The first two sequences combine to form the film's first act. The next four create the film's second act. The final two sequences complete the resolution and dénouement of the story. Each sequence's resolution creates the situation which sets up the next sequence.

Screenwriting formats

Screenplays and teleplays have set of standardizations in place, beginning with proper formatting. These rules are in part to serve the practical purpose of making scripts uniformly readable "blueprints" of movies, and also to serve as a way of distinguishing a professional from an amateur. It is very important that the correct format is used, as the script is likely to be disregarded very quickly. There are practical reasons for this. An incorrectly formatted script can be very difficult for actors to read from, when testing the script out. If you are unsure exactly what is required, then at least be consistent, and keep things as simple as possible.

Feature film

Motion picture screenplays intended for submission to mainstream studios, whether in the US or elsewhere in the world, are expected to conform to a standard typographical style known widely as studio format which stipulates how elements of the screenplay such as scene headings, action, transitions, dialog, character names, shots and parenthetical matter should be presented on the page, as well as the font size and line spacing.

One reason for this is that, when rendered in studio format, most screenplays will transfer onto the screen at the rate of approximately one page per minute. This rule of thumb is widely contested — a page of dialog usually occupies less screen time than a page of action, for example, and it depends enormously on the literary style of the writer — and yet it continues to hold sway in modern Hollywoodmarker.

There is no single standard for studio format. Some studios have definitions of the required format written into the rubric of their writer's contract. The Nicholl Fellowship, a screenwriting competition run under the auspices of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, has a useful and accurate guide to screenplay format. A more detailed reference is The Complete Guide to Standard Script Formats (Cole and Haag, SCB Distributors, 1980, ISBN 0-929583-00-0).

Screenplays are traditionally 90-120 pages long. Comedies and children's films tend to weigh in at the lower end.

Screenplays are almost always written using a monospaced font, often a variant of Courier or Courier New, both mostly used as 12 pt font.

Television

For American TV shows, the format rules for hour-long dramas, like CSI, and single-camera sitcoms, like Scrubs, are essentially the same as for motion pictures. The main difference is that TV scripts have act breaks. Multi-camera sitcoms, like I Love Lucy and "Seinfeld", use a different, specialized format that derives from radio and the stage play. In this format, dialogue is double-spaced, action lines are capitalized, and scene headings are capitalized and underlined.

Drama series and sitcoms are no longer the only formats that require the skills of a writer. With reality-based programming crossing genres to create various hybrid programs, many of the so-called "reality" programs are in a large part scripted in format. That is, the overall skeleton of the show and its episodes are written to dictate the content and direction of the program. The Writers Guild of America has identified this as a legitimate writer's medium, so much so that they have lobbied to impose jurisdiction over writers and producers who "format" reality-based productions. Creating reality show formats involves storytelling structure similar to screenwriting, but much more condensed and boiled down to specific plot points or actions related to the overall concept and story.

Documentaries

The script format for documentaries and audio-visual presentations which consist largely of voice-over matched to still or moving pictures is different again and uses a two-column format which can be particularly difficult to achieve in standard word processors, at least when it comes to editing. Many script-editing software programs include templates for documentary formats.

Physical format

American screenplays are printed single-sided on three-hole-punched letter size (8.5 x 11 inch) paper, and held together with two brass brads in the top and bottom hole. The middle hole is left empty. In the UK, double-hole-punched A4 paper is often used, although some UK writers use the US letter paper format, especially when their scripts are to be read by American producers, since otherwise the pages may be cropped when printed on US paper. Despite the use of double-punched paper, it is common to see scripts in the UK held together by a single brad punched in the top left hand corner. This makes it easy to flip from page to page during script meetings and may have something to do with the taller page of A4.

Screenplays are usually bound with a light card stock cover and back page, often showing the logo of the production company or agency submitting the script.

Increasingly, reading copies of screenplays (that is, those distributed by producers and agencies in the hope of attracting finance or talent) are distributed printed on both sides of the paper (often professionally bound) to cut down on paper waste out of environmental concerns. Occasionally they are reduced to half-size to make a small book which is convenient to read or put in a pocket; this is generally for use by the director or other production crew during shooting.

Although most writing contracts continue to stipulate physical delivery of three or more copies of a finished script, it is common for scripts to be delivered electronically via email. Although most production companies can handle scripts in most formats, it is better practice to supply scripts as a PDF file where possible. This is because it gives the writer final control over the layout of the script, which may otherwise vary depending on what fonts and/or paper size the recipient uses to print the script out. The formatting software programs listed at the bottom of this article produce industry formatted standard screenplays in PDF.

Dialogue and description

The following is an example from an unproduced screenplay which may give the reader an idea of how a scene without camera angles can be descriptive, and perhaps even poetic, so as to convey the proper time frame (1910) and/or ambiance:

A BUNCH OF GARDENIAS

makes a sudden burst of BRIGHT RED. A hand removes each petal—one at a time.The petals fall on the ground.

Following the petals--

A part of a woman's SHOE is seen. It is strangely ornate with a shabby heel.

Giggles erupt, and the extravagantly painted face of a very young prostitute appears.

Her hand is at the arm of a man who is older by at least a couple of decades.


Imagery

Imagery can be used in many metaphoric ways. In The Talented Mr. Ripley, the title character talked of wanting to close the door on himself sometime, and then, in the end, he did. Rain is commonly used to express a character feeling depressed, while sunny days promote a feeling of happiness and calm. Imagery can be used to sway the emotions of the audience and to clue them in to what is happening.

Imagery is well defined in City of God. The opening image sequence sets the tone for the entire film. The film opens with the shimmer of a knife's blade on a sharpening stone. A drink is being prepared, The knife's blade shows again, juxtaposed is a shot of a chicken letting loose of its harness on its feet. All symbolising 'The One that got away'. The film is about life in the favelas in Rio - sprinkled with violence and games and ambition.

Dialogue

Dialogue is very important to the film industry, because there are no written words to explain the characters or plot; it all has to be explained through dialogue and imagery.

Plot

While the story is what will be told (narrative); the plot is how the story will be told (narration). This vocabulary is not indisputable, though. Sometimes in literature story and plot are used exactly the other way round.

Screenwriting portrayed in film

Screenwriting has been the focus of a number of films:



Screenwriting software

Various screenwriting software packages are available to help screenwriters adhere to the strict formatting conventions described above. Such packages include BPC-Screenplay, Celtx, DreamaScript, Final Draft, Montage, Movie Magic Screenwriter, Scripped, and Zhura.

The first screenwriting software was SmartKey, a macro program that sent strings of commands to existing word processing programs, such as WordStar, WordPerfect and Microsoft Word. SmartKey was popular with screen writers from 1982-1987, after which word processing programs had their own macro features.

Copyright protection

United States

In the United Statesmarker, completed works may be copyrighted, but ideas and plots may not be. Any document written after 1978 in the U.S. is automatically copyrighted even without legal registration or notice. However, the Library of Congressmarker will formally register a screenplay (http://www.copyright.gov ). U.S. Courts will not accept a lawsuit alleging that a defendant is infringing on the plaintiff's copyright in a work until the plaintiff registers the plaintiff's claim to those copyrights with the Copyright Office. This means that a plaintiff's attempts to remedy an infringement will be delayed during the registration process. Additionally, in many infringement cases, the plaintiff will not be able recoup attorney fees or collect statutory damages for copyright infringement, unless the plaintiff registered before the infringement began. For the purpose of establishing evidence that a screenwriter is the author of a particular screenplay (but not related to the legal copyrighting status of a work), the Writers Guild of America (http://www.wgawregistry.org or http://www.wgaeast.org) registers screenplays. However, since this service is one of record keeping and is not regulated by law, a variety of commercial and non-profit organizations exist for registering screenplays. Protection for teleplays, formats, as well as screenplays may be registered for instant proof-of-authorship at the Creators Vault (http://www.creatorsvault.com).

See also



References

Specific references:
  1. The Great American Screenplay now fuels wannabe authors from seattlepi.nwsource.com
  2. Lydia Willen and Joan Willen, How to Sell your Screenplay, pg 242. Square One Publishers, 2001.
  3. Skip Press, The Ultimate Writer's Guide to Hollywood, pg xiii. Barnes and Noble Books, 2004.
  4. credits policy from wga.org
  5. Virginia Wright Wetman. "Success Has 1,000 Fathers (So Do Films)". The New York Times. May 28, 1995. Arts section, p.16.
  6. TV Writer.com from tvwriter.com
  7. 08/13/2008: Soapy Scenes, from "Jane in Progress" a blog for aspiring screenwriters by Jane Espenson
  8. Skip Press, The Ultimate Writer's Guide to Hollywood, pg207. Barnes and Noble Books, 2004.
  9. Trottier, David: "The Screenwriter's Bible", pg4. Silman James, 1998.
  10. Excerpt on the three-act structure from Yves Lavandier's Writing Drama
  11. Gulino, Paul Joseph: "Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach", pg3. Continuum, 2003.
  12. Guide to screenplay format from the website of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
  13. 17 USC 411 (United States Code, Title 17, Section 411)
  14. U.S. Copyright Office Circular 1
  15. 17 USC 412
General references:

  • - Paperback
  • - Paperback
  • - Paperback
  • - Paperback


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