When setting out to film something, the first step is to write it. Whether this is a complete script for your short film or a rough outline for your newest YouTube video, it’s important to get a plan on paper before you begin to shoot the thing itself.
If you’re working with a cast and crew, a script is the vital first step in getting what is in your head into their heads. It will allow your collaborators to see that you have a complete story. Often, if you’re trying to convince others to join you on your bold creative endeavor, it helps to be able to show them where you’re going.
However, there’s another reason to write out a script that is less practical and purely creative. Put simply, writing a script forces you to see if your own idea will work all the way through. There’s nothing more disheartening than beginning to shoot something and realizing you’re not quite sure how to get from the middle to the end. By putting everything in a script beforehand, you’ll catch a lot of the problems before cameras have even been turned on. And trust us, it’s much easier to fix a problem “on the page” than it is to fix it on set or—even worse—in the editing room. Even for a free-wheeling, seat-of-your-pants filmmaker, a script can be a safety net in case improvisational inspiration doesn’t strike when you need it to.
“Writing a script forces you to see if your own idea will work all the way through”
So what is a screenplay/script?
A script explains the events of the film, so collaborators both in front of and behind the camera can work towards the same goal.
Example Screenplay Page
Vacant streets are illuminated by STREET LAMPS and MOONLIGHT. No stars in the smog-filled sky. Skyscrapers loom above, looking like dark monoliths with their lights turned off...
EXCEPT ONE. This building has a single set of lights on. The thirteenth floor acting as the building’s fluorescent belt.
INT. THIRTEENTH FLOOR HALLWAY - NIGHT
Limping down the hall in a trench coat is AGENT MUSTARD (40). A SCAR runs the length of his cheek and his shifty eyes never stop darting around like he’s looking for the man who did it.
He reaches a door, checks over his shoulder, and pushes it--
INT. CONFERENCE ROOM - CONTINUOUS
The door opens into a poorly-lit, empty conference room. With no one sitting around the long wooden table, Agent Mustard decides to take the chair at the head. He lights a cigarette.
Mustard turns. Apparently the room isn’t empty after all.
Standing in the shadows is AGENT WOOD (80s, bitter, ready for death). He stares out the window at the L.A. skyline.
He puts out his cigarette.
EXT. DESERT - DAY
Agent Mustard stares ahead with a shocked expression. Can’t believe what he’s looking at.
This example was written in Final Draft, one of many tools you can use to format your screenplays.
One of the best ways to learn how a screenplay works is to read a lot of screenplays! Most screenplays for modern films can be found online by googling a movie’s title along with the words “Screenplay” and “PDF.” You can find everything from massive blockbusters (Avengers: Endgame, Inception) to award-winning dramas (Knives Out, Nomadland). As you read scripts, you’ll notice that stylistic choices for the finished product are often suggested in the writing style. The best scripts feel like the movies they will become.
On the other hand,
Dragging it out. Making us long for it to come to a conclusion…
And just when we least expect it, the script will finally reach…
A script should tell us what the audience sees and hears. Unlike a novel, where you can play psychologist and burrow deep into your characters’ psyche, a script should focus on the surface. If you want us to know what a character is thinking, you’ll have to describe the way they are behaving rather than just transcribing their inner thoughts.
“A script should tell us what the audience sees and hears.”
But a script shouldn’t tell the audience everything we see and hear! Sometimes beginner writers (especially if they have aspirations to direct as well) get bogged down with describing every aspect of their vision, and the script becomes too dense to make sense out of. A good script tells readers what’s important.
In other words, don’t say this…
The classroom is colorful, but the focal point of the classroom is the plethora of first-grade students. The camera pans slowly across their young faces: A mischievous boy with freckles in a Power Rangers T-Shirt, a sweet girl wearing a floral dress, a dull boy staring out the window at a bird while drool comes out of his mouth, and on and on…
The Substitute smiles at the students, considering each and every one of them and SMACKS a ruler into his hand, which makes a loud THWACK noise. It’s clear he means business.
When this will do just fine:
Planning for Non-Narrative Films
Up until now, we’ve been talking about screenplays meant for narrative filmmaking— in other words, any kind of feature, short, or skit that involves characters interacting with one another. However, if you’re working on a different kind of project, a non-narrative project, a traditional screenplay may not work for you, but it is worth writing some kind of plan for what your audience will see and hear.
If you’re making a documentary, you’ll still likely want to write a screenplay at some point in your process. If your documentary is made up entirely of voice-over narration and existing stock or archival footage, then you can just write a script like normal.
On the other hand, if you’re setting out to make a documentary where you’re interviewing subjects, then you probably won’t write a full script at the outset. After all, you don’t know what your “characters” will say. Instead, at the start you’ll likely write an outline (aka a treatment which we’ll discuss in a second) about where you’d like the film to go. Then, you may choose to write an actual screenplay after the footage is shot.
If you’re making a vlog, then whether or not you’ll want a script will be dependent on the format of your videos. If you use a lot of graphics or narrate over existing footage or cut around to different locations, then a traditional screenplay format may be a good fit for you. If your videos consist of you speaking directly to camera with little else going on, it may be enough to simply write out your monologue.
If you’re making a music video or experimental film, then a screenplay might be absolutely essential or it might be an absolute waste of time! What you need to ask yourself is would it be beneficial to have your video/film planned from moment to moment or are you exploring a concept that you’d like to “find” in the edit?
Other Planning Documents
In addition to scripts, there are some other ways to plan your video that may prove useful for you.
A treatment is an outline of what is going to happen in your project written in present-tense prose. There are two main reasons you may choose to write a treatment:
Before Writing a Script: Some writers will create treatments prior to writing their screenplays as a way to outline. It’s a great way to make sure you have all of your story beats figured out before doing the more work-intensive parts of writing.
Or, if you have a great idea for a short film, but don’t want to write it yourself, then a treatment can be a way to share your story with potential writers or co-writers. Similarly, if you’re pitching the project to financiers or producers, then a treatment can be a good way to get them excited about your film before a script even exists.
Instead of Writing a Script: There are some projects where writing a traditional screenplay simply isn’t feasible, like making a documentary about events that haven’t happened yet, or perhaps you’re making an experimental film, unconcerned with traditional narrative. In these cases, a treatment can take the place of the screenplay as your primary planning document.”
Another way you can plan your film is by drawing sketches of how you envision your frame, a process known as storyboarding. Many directors will chose to do this after they’ve already written a traditional screenplay. The key here is that you shouldn’t worry if you’re not a great artist; you just want to get your point across.
Here are real examples by real directors:
Rian Johnson (Knives Out) • Source: Twitter
James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) • Source: Instagram
See? Being a great artist doesn’t mean being great at every kind of art.
However, there’s another kind of storyboard that’s important to our discussion here. There are certain projects where you might choose to storyboard instead of writing a script. This type of pre-production storyboarding happens when the project (music video, experimental animation, video essay, etc.) exists primarily as a series of images. In these cases, storyboards can become your primary writing document.
“You shouldn’t worry if you’re not a great artist; you just want to get your point across.”
Storyboards are often crucial for popular films with a lot of action sequences. Instead of describing the fight scenes punch-by-punch (which would be boring to read and in all likelihood ignored by the stunt director), screenwriters will choose to describe the broad strokes and emotional beats of a fight and leave it to the director to work out the specifics.
At the end of the day, every one of these documents— scripts, treatments, storyboards— has the same goal: To help the artist record and communicate their cinematic vision before they actually shoot it.
For many people, the best way to communicate their vision is through a screenplay, but this may not be true for you. Maybe a thoughtful treatment or a series of hand-drawn storyboards or even a quickly typed-up outline is enough for you to get going. You wouldn’t be alone in this. James Cameron (Aliens, Titanic) writes documents he calls “scriptments” (more than a treatment, less than a script). Meanwhile, George Miller never even wrote a screenplay for Mad Max: Fury Road, relying instead on hundreds of storyboards to plan his film out.
Therefore, you should pick the method that works best for you. Everything else is just formatting.
If you want to know how to properly format a screenplay, check out our post here.