A page of screenplay roughly approximates one minute of screen time, and when a film is being produced, production is scheduled around how many pages will be shot at a time. It’s all about numbers of pages, and unlike it goes with other fiction writing, practically no one will ever ask how many words are in a screenplay. For a feature-length script, you can expect to write between eighty and one-hundred-twenty pages. The length of a short varies and is a bit subjective (different film festivals and writing competitions will have different page-count caps for what they consider a short), but generally under thirty pages is considered a short.
Show, don’t tell.
The concept of “show don’t tell” is familiar to most writers. Basically, it says that instead of telling your readers something, you want to let them witness it themselves. For example, instead of saying, “Katie is a nice person,” you want your readers to see Katie being nice so that the readers themselves can think, Wow, Katie’s a nice person. Readers like to take stock of a situation themselves and come up with their own feelings; they don’t like to be told how to feel.
This is also true in film. Viewers want to watch a film, witness what’s happening on-screen, and come to their own conclusions. Unlike with a novel, where we’re often privy to the inner thoughts of a character, when we’re watching a film, we’re an outsider looking in. It’s a lot like watching strangers in real life; we can’t hear their thoughts. Although you can use narration in film in the form of voice-over, relying on it too heavily won’t make sense in every kind of movie and doesn’t use the medium to its best entertainment value. Viewers of a film want to feel like they’re watching a stranger and figuring out what’s going on with them by witnessing the character’s actions and motivations, as opposed to being fed information through voice-over.
So, for example: Let’s say in our story, Katie has just had lunch in a group where a new girl, Martha, is there. We want our audience to come away thinking Katie is a kind and thoughtful person.
In nonscreenplay writing, we could perhaps accomplish all of this by saying, “On her drive home, Katie couldn’t shake the idea that Martha might have felt left out at the lunch table, and she wondered how she could have done better to include her.” Knowing she was thinking about Martha on the way home would, for some readers, bring us to the conclusion she’s a nice and thoughtful person.
But on-screen, that would just look like Katie driving. It might be a stronger narrative choice to show the lunch itself in-scene and see Katie make an active effort to make Martha feel included.
Reveal your character’s backstory in-scene.
Although you can jump back in time in a film (it’s called a flashback), like voice-over, it’s a tool that should be used sparingly. Screenplays flow in location-based scenes, and the story in a screenplay will primarily reveal itself in the present.
Backstory, therefore, rather than being woven into the story in the way it might be in long-form narrative writing, is revealed through exposition, which alludes to particular facts in the present so that your audience knows they are the truth in the world of the story.
For example, if you have two twenty-something people in a café who are siblings, you will need to find some way for them to reveal their relationship to the audience. Maybe one of them says, “Have you heard from Mom?” or maybe one of them will introduce the other to a friend and say, “This is my sister.” In a novel, of course, you could just say, “Sarah sits across from her brother, Bob.” And while you can say that in the screenplay, keep in mind that the screenplay will not be read by your audience; it will only be read by the people making the film.
Other than hearing your dialogue, your audience is never going to read your words.
This is one of the hardest things for fiction writers to get their minds around. When you’re writing a screenplay, you’re writing a roadmap: It’s an instruction manual the film crew will use when they make your movie. Therefore, screenplays tend toward functional writing over flowery writing and simple language over complex language, and descriptions are broken up into smaller, more digestible paragraphs than you might see in a novel or short story.
As a general rule of thumb, when you’re writing action description—the paragraphs that tell the director what your character is doing other than talking—each time you move from one thought to another, or one action to another, it’s time to start a new paragraph. It’s rare for a paragraph in a screenplay to be more than three to four lines, and one or two lines is also completely acceptable if it gets the job done.
As I explained above, although you might reveal some backstory to the readers of your screenplay, if you don’t give a roadmap for what’s going to happen in front of the audience so that they can understand that same backstory, it’s moot. Writing a screenplay is about asking yourself what function the words you’re putting on the page will serve: What will they tell the actors to do, or what will they tell the director to create—and what will witnessing those things lead your audience to understand?
Lest this all has you feeling a bit like a fish out of water as you prepare to take the leap into screenwriting, don’t fret! If you are a fiction writer, you already have the most important foundational qualities that a screenwriter needs: an understanding of, and an appreciation for, what makes a good narrative. Strong characters, stakes, goals, action, passion—those are the most important ingredients for all forms of storytelling, no matter what nuances exist with the way the story is told logistically. Although screenplays do have their quirks, screenwriting is a really fun, exciting way to tell a story. You might even find it’s your preferred method of storytelling!
Lauren Harkawik is an essayist, fiction writer, and reporter. Her work has been featured in publications including Narratively’s Hidden Histories series, in New Reader Magazine, and in the print journal Salt Hill. Lauren lives in southern Vermont, where she and her husband Garret are raising their two daughters, Imogene and Esphyr.