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What Is a Screenplay?

Writing a screenplay takes both technical formatting knowledge and writing ability.
Through action and dialogue, the screenwriter tells a story meant for a film format.
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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 17 September 2014
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A screenplay is a manuscript for a film. Written by a screenwriter, screenplays are typically the first completed step of a film. Writing a screenplay takes both technical formatting knowledge and writing ability; many writers complete dozens of drafts and revisions before reaching a version that may be ready for production.

The basic components of a screenplay are action and dialogue. "Action" is used to describe things such as the location of a scene, the personality, appearance, and features of characters, and the visual actions that occur in each scene. Since film is a visual medium, action may be more extensive and descriptive in a screenplay as opposed to a play. "Dialogue" refers to the words that the characters speak. Through these elements, the screenwriter tells a story meant for a film format, just as a playwright creates works meant to be performed on stage.

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Commercial screenplays typically adhere to a specific style and format. Many screenwriters use software that automatically formats dialogue, action, and other elements with the correct margins, spacing, and capitalization rules. Formatting rules differ between genres; a TV script may look significantly different from a film script. Among professional screenwriters, adherence to proper formatting frequently serves as a basic code that suggests that the writer understands the business; new screenwriters are often encouraged to learn formatting rules by heart in order to ensure that their scripts are taken seriously by other industry professionals. Independent filmmakers, or those that operate outside of the major film-making platforms, may choose to ignore or re-interpret formatting rules for artistic reasons.

Writing ability is key to writing a good screenplay. Although some people may have an inborn talent for natural-sounding dialogue or creating compelling storylines, many screenwriters improve simply through writing many screenplays, listening to notes from friends and professionals, and continually working on becoming better writers. Some of the factors that determine screenwriting ability include the ability to create a compelling, logical story, the invention of interesting characters, and an understanding of what can and cannot be done on screen. This third factor can greatly influence the chances of a screenplay getting made into a film; even an extremely well-written script may be dead in the water if it includes elements that are impossible or incredibly expensive to replicate onscreen.

A screenplay typically forms the basis for an entire film production. Without the screenplay, producers wouldn't know how many actors to hire, designers wouldn't know what costumes would be appropriate, and actors wouldn't know what to say or what happens in each scene. Though screenplays often go through extensive re-writing on the way to the screen, they can serve as the heart and primary inspiration that draws a group of filmmakers together to make a movie.

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