How to read a screenplay

When I got my first idea for a piece of fiction, I used the platform I was familiar with, WordPress, to present it here: https://landofdeadtrees.wordpress.com/

However, I was interested what this idea would look like as a movie, so I started a script for it (not totally finished yet). In that process, I learned a bit about how writers make scripts for movies.

The screenplay

It’s a bit of an odd-looking thing. There’s lots of room in a screenplay to scribble notes in the margins and such. The dialogue runs down the center of the page and is pretty narrow. The movie business has been using this format for years. It must work for them.

The more “scrunched” format of the ordinary novel, or even stage play, is apparently partly a function of the costs associated with printing paper books. We have become used to a printed format where most of the page is filled with words – with perhaps the occasional illustration.

Because computer files don’t require paper, it is now possible to publish movie or radio or stage scripts in the form in which they are actually used by directors, actors, technical people, etc.

The idea of publishing in this format appealed to me mainly because the punctuation rules for written dialog are so involved that I didn’t particularly want to learn them. I have read many stories written in the ordinary way, and I must say, it seems totally natural as one is reading. Yet one might notice that if you were just watching two people talking, all the “he said’s” and so forth would not be necessary, and you would have to judge their intentions and emotions by the expressions on their faces, not by extra lines in the written story. I wanted to present just a basic visual idea of how I thought a story could play out, so this “sparse” form seemed like it would suit my purposes.

Technical aspects

Somewhere it is written, “every screenplay begins with the words FADE IN and ends with the words FADE OUT.” This may be technically correct, but I saw no reason to include these in my screenplays. These are camera (or effects) instructions and most of that will be missing from pre-production screenplays. The story is carried forward through its scenes, the action and dialog between characters.

If you sit down and watch almost any modern film or video, you will notice how often the environment of the shot can change. A stage play, like the old sitcoms, might take place entirely in one location. That was a simple and economical way to tell a story. Motion pictures have always pulled away from that limitation, like radio dramas and novels before them. In a modern motion picture the viewer may even become confused about exactly where the action is taking place. In the screenplay, each change of scenery must be announced by a SCENE entry (in all caps). It is up to the Director and Cinematographer and Editor to decide whether the scene changes are obvious or confusing to the viewer.

Traditionally, any inside or indoor scene description begins with “INT.” for “interior.” And external or outside scenes start with “EXT.” for “exterior.” Though I was loose with this rule in View From The Forest, I followed it more closely in Space Captain. It is also traditional to indicate time of day in the scene header, at least “day” or “night.” In my screenplays I often left this out.

Under the scene title is the action, a description of what is going on in the scene, who appears in it and where they are located. A lot of this is up to the screenwriter. Where it seems that certain aspects of the scene should be obvious, or left up to the imagination of the Art Director (or someone else), the descriptions here might sometimes seem minimal. Technically, this description helps Art, Costumes, Props, Lights and others determine exactly what they need to provide for each scene, as well as informing the actors of what they are supposed to be doing.

The dialog consists of a narrowed column of text running down the middle of the page. It may include (parentheticals) indicating voice tone or demeanor, or whether we see the character while he is speaking or only hear him over the phone or off in some other room. Each character is announced by a short name or nickname in all caps before his lines. It is traditional for only one character to speak at a time, but there are ways to make the dialog messier if this is desired for artistic effect.

With the caveat that I am a beginner in all this, the above are the basic technical points to keep in mind while reading a screenplay.

View From The Forest

This story is offered as a short introduction to the most basic concepts of Permaculture, along with my long-lived love for trees and forests. The main characters are two trees who live side by side in a small forest. Though the idea of talking trees is not a new one, my studies perhaps give a new perspective on what they might say to each other if they really had that capability.

View From The Forest screenplay

inside the arboretum

Space Captain

Space Captain screenplay

Space Captain is a story of three ETs who get trapped on Earth in the long distant past and make peace with their fate. I got the idea from my Scientology studies, then ran into a version of the song Space Captain, which I vaguely remembered Joe Cocker doing a long time ago. The idea of the song went perfectly with my story idea, so I picked the song title for the name of this story.

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