Your visual narrative starts in words. Here we’ll talk about a ‘spec script’ as opposed to a ‘shooting script’. The ‘spec script’ is pre-production facing; in fact, the term technically refers to scripts which are not even ‘optioned’ or solicited by a studio. It is designed to be easily written and read as a narrative. The “shooting script” has some formalities associated with it in order to turn it into an actual production.
The master screenplay format is an easy way to get everyone on the same page. It reads easily enough, even for long-form stories and provides space for note taking. Often times, these screenplays will accompany storyboards which explicitly lay out what’s being shown visually. It’s designed to be easy to “break down” for planning production logistics, as well as to be “lined” by a script supervisor during production. This format is tried and true, steeped in multiple generations of veteran narrative filmmakers.
These scripts usually employ a “monospaced” or “fixed width” type (Courier is common). This is a fancy way to say that every character occupies the exact same amount of space on the screen (≈10 characters per inch). The general idea is that each page of your properly formatted script will take up a minute of finished screen time, i.e. a 30-page script should run about 30 minutes.
There are lots of rules (and pretense) in this world, but some generally-accepted guidelines include: Scene headings are all caps, beginning with INT. or EXT. to indicate whether the scene is inside or outside. “Parantheticals” are simple instructions inside parenthesis which some directors despise. Transitions are right-justified and all caps as well. Remember, on large productions, you as the writer might submit a script and then leave it in the hands of completely different people to produce the project. The most important thing is that you include just enough detail to convey what’s most important to the story, while still respecting the decisions of those who will carry it forward after you.
An interesting note: The script is written from wherever the camera is. So if the camera is in a living room looking out at a parade, the scene header is interior even though you’re shooting the parade.
The open-source editor “Visual Studio Code” with the Fountain extension provides an easy way to write your screenplay wherever you are. Just follow simple formatting rules in a plain text file and the software will do the formatting for you! It’s sort of like how tags in HTML are used to create a visually-pleasing web page from simple text. The “syntax” is color coded for legibility and the “Zen mode” makes for a truly divine writing experience!
After installing Visual Studio Code using the link above, install the extension “Better Fountain” by Piers Deseilligny. Make sure your preview mode is set to “Fountain” in the lower left. Now, all you do is write! Press F1 or use the commands in the left-most pane to do handy things like see a live preview of your screenplay and export a PDF. The time indicator in the lower right even gives you a guess at the total runtime of your project.
Follow basic formatting rules to get you started (full syntax here):
The two-column script can be a simpler solution for music videos, commercial/corporate advertisements, instructional videos and documentaries.
The two-column script puts the video elements on the left and the corresponding audio on the right. It’s an easy way to see what’s going on with picture and sound at the same time. Formatting requirements are a bit more open-ended than in the dramatic screenplay world. Oftentimes, these two-column scripts benefit from being understandable to the average viewer. Special instructions and shot types can also be included. Sometimes an additional column is added to the left to designate a specific section of a long-form project. It can be helpful to treat dialog with special formatting so the spoken content is easy to discern. Fenn likes to keep the speaker capitalized and followed by a colon (or just use “VO” for voiceover), and to differentiate “music and effects” with “M&E”. A header with a page number in the upper right can also be useful, as well as a “slug” that states the project title and persons involved. Depending on the scale of the project, I sometimes like to add an additional column which serves as a basic storyboard, picking images from my mood board or treatment, or even a preliminary location scout.
Scripting and editing a doc is a bit confusing since you’re working with “unscripted” material. Much of the process begins to gain direction in post. Two column scripts can be especially useful for docs because the exact on-screen content can be left a little more vague.
Great Lynda Resource: