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What is a screenplay?

A screenplay is a script for anything viewed on a screen, whether it is a film, a short, a web-series, a television show (also called a teleplay) or even a video game. It’s the story on the page told through sounds, dialog, and action.

Though it all begins with the Screenwriter, the screenplay is a blueprint for the entire production. It is what the Director uses to develop her vision; it’s what the Actors use to mold their characters; it’s what the Costume Designer uses to dress the Actors and what the Production Designer uses to set the scene.

Each department uses the script to do its job, from budgeting, to shooting, to post-production.

Most people, by the time they read a script, are usually reading what is called a shooting script. That’s when it’s ready to go to the team gearing up for production.

But the script has a life before and after production, and it’s important to understand each stage of a script’s life and where you, as a Writer, fit in. The shooting script is not where the story begins, so let’s start where it does!

These are the elements of a screenplay you may not already know about:

  • Spec script
  • Script development
  • Shooting script
  • Lined script
  • Continuity script

Spec Script

A spec script (spec is short for speculation) is a script that is written by a Writer who is (alas) only hoping it will get made; that means there is no fee waiting at the end of the draft.

Though it is important to follow formatting rules, a spec script is written to engage the reader, so it should flow from scene to scene without jarring statements like what we see or what we hear.

When you read a novel, nobody needs to tell you to visualize. You just do. All it takes is good, concise prose. So, as a general rule, there is no camera direction in a spec script, nor should there be any transitions such as CUT TO or DISSOLVE TO.

Why? Because camera direction is the job of the Director and the Cinematographer, and transitions and when to cut is decided by the Editor and the Director. The only time you should see a transition in a spec script is FADE IN and FADE OUT.

Most scripts that are available online are shooting scripts, so many newcomers read these and think they are a good model for spec script writing but they really aren’t.

It is not the job of the Writer to decide what kind of shot serves the moment or how to transition to the next scene. You’ve got enough to do!

It’s the Writer’s job to tell the visual story so the Director can imagine it herself. Of course, it is the Writer’s job to visualize the story and must use their subtle and magic writing skills to inspire the Director to put on screen what they have in their mind. That’s the craft.

Credits are another thing that don’t go in a spec script. When you toss in something like “roll credits” in the middle of a scene, it takes the reader out of the story… or worse, they think the script is the work of a hack.

Script Development

Once a script gets past the decision-makers and wins the golden ticket of a sale or option, the script goes through a process called development.

This is when the once solitary job of the Writer becomes collaborative. All the great minds of a production company (or an independent Producer) shape the script with the Writer, and then the Director, to make the screenplay the best it can be and mold it to fit the budget, locations, and, of course, talent.

This is the gestation period of the script as it gets worked over from every possible angle and agenda before it gets the long-sought dream of the “green light.” But it is also one of the most important processes. This is when everyone looks at the script to make sure the story is working.

Are all the setups paying off? Are there clear plot points and character arcs? Even if you worked through this on your own as a Writer everyone will have an opinion and this is the time to sort things out with the creative team.

There’s also the technical and budgetary side of things. How are you going to shoot that explosion or that rocket flying through space?

Things can get cut because they’re too expensive. Then what? A rewrite.

This is the time to hash out what the options are and decide what is possible under the production’s restrictions.

You’d surprised what can change a story. If you can’t afford that mansion you wrote for the main character you need to rewrite that character and backstory to fit what you can afford.

Shooting Script

Once the screenplay is polished to perfection it’s time to get to (more) work!

This is when the shooting script is made. What makes a shooting script different is that scene numbers are added and changes are tracked. If a scene is deleted, it is marked OMITTED rather than renumbering all the other scenes.

If scenes are added, they get a letter following it like Scene 2A, 2B, etc. The script is a living, breathing document all tracked with precision (and colors) by a Script Coordinator as discoveries and changes are made all through production (and post-production, but I’ll get to that).

The shooting script is where you will see camera direction.

This is now the Director’s interpretation of the story and she is telling the crew how she intends to shoot it and what tools will be needed. This is when things like ANGLE ON or DOLLY TO are added.

Also, in a shooting script, the props will be in caps. This helps the Art Department keep track of props from scene to scene, but it simply isn’t necessary in a spec script.

Which leads to another big difference with a shooting script and a spec script.

The shooting script may scrap the beautiful prose of a spec script in order to efficiently break the scenes down into shots and set up the framework for pacing.

Lined Script

A lined script is the document a Script Supervisor puts together as the pages are being shot, which is delivered to the Editor every day of production.

It has a ton of information all intended to help the Editor piece together the film.
Although it is an extension of the shooting script, it is the document in which improvised dialog or alternate action is noted, so it is the most complete form of the script until the picture is finished.

That’s when the script takes on its last from.

Continuity Script

It has been said that the film edit is the final rewrite of the script. And there is a lot of truth to this statement.

During post-production, the script can still change and often does. There are several ways the script can evolve in post.

First, scenes are often moved around to shape the story and pacing. That, of course, changes the script. But what a lot of people don’t know is that after the first edit of a film, scenes are often added or dialog is replaced.

If the story isn’t working, pickup shoots are scheduled and the script, so to speak, goes back into production and all of this needs to be recorded.

The same goes for ADR (Automated Dialog Replacement), which is dialog recorded in a studio.

Sometimes the scripted lines aren’t paying off on screen, and the words an Actor says need to be changed, whether they are syncing to something he says on screen, or whether it is placed over the shoulder while the Actor’s face is off-camera. Both of these involve updating the script.

The continuity script is the final script that incorporates all the changes from production and post and serves as a legal document for copyright purposes. It can also be called a combined action and dialog script.

Aside from its legal purpose, it is also used for foreign language release and closed caption creation. It includes all the details from the finished film including sound effects, Actor accents and sometimes emotions, and even music lyrics if they are sung.

Summing It All Up

Some of these things vary from television to other mediums, but as you can see, the script has a very active life beyond the copy you send off to Producers.

The important thing to remember if you are an aspiring Screenplay Writer is that any scripts you read online to expand your understanding of the craft (bravo to you!) are most likely shooting scripts. Before you start writing you should definitely learn the correct formatting for a spec script.

Let me clarify a bit what I mean about formatting. In some aspects, formatting is taken care of by screenwriting software such as Final Draft. It properly indents for you, uses caps for characters, etc. When I am talking about formatting, I am referring to how you use these tools.

For example, when a character is introduced, it is in all caps; from then on out, the character’s name is not in caps. A prop is not in caps, but sounds are.

These are the rules that readers are used to and when you don’t follow them it might make you look like an amateur, but more importantly, it makes readers struggle to read what you have written and you, as a Writer, should make sure that never happens!

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