15 Simple Screenplay Rules You Need to Know
There are lessons to master about story, structure, and characterization in your screenplays — these fifteen simple but important screenplay rules have nothing to do with them. They won’t make you a better cinematic storyteller. They won’t catapult you up the Hollywood totem pole. However, they will certainly make your scripts more professional-looking, streamlined, and easier to read — the happier the script reader, the better chances of getting that coveted Consider or Recommend when they write their script coverage.
Remember and implement these simple rules, and you’ll jump ahead of 95% of the screenplays and screenwriters out there.
1. Keep Title Pages Simple
Studios and companies don’t need or want too much information on the title page. It’s the 21st century. They don’t need your mailing address, home phone number, cell phone number, and pager number (you may laugh, but it happens). Chances are your query was sent through email. If they want your contact information beyond that email address, they’ll ask for it through email.
While copyright numbers and WGA registration numbers are fine, know that it’s not necessary. You have those numbers in your records and in the unlikely event that your script’s content is stolen and produced by another, your records of those numbers will be more than enough.
Other unnecessary elements include draft numbers, loglines, character breakdowns, or any other superfluous information.
All that your title page needs is the title of the script and who it is written by.
2. Only Use FADE IN and FADE OUT at the Beginning and End of Your Script
Too many novice screenwriters use FADE IN and FADE OUT transitions — and variations thereof — throughout the whole script as stylistic camera or editing directions (more on that later). That’s not what those transitions are for. FADE IN is the first text on the first line of your script (the beginning).
FADE OUT — or FADE TO BLACK — is for the end of the script. Writing THE END in place of either of those will work as well.
DISSOLVE TO is the proper transition to use within the script, if needed.
It’s a common mistake, but a very annoying one.
3. Slug Lines — a.k.a. Location Headings — Should Only Have Three Pieces of Information
INT/EXT LOCATION – DAY/NIGHT
Those are the general choices. Specific examples include:
INT. CAR – DAY
EXT. HOUSE – NIGHT
Interiors are comprised of any location set inside of a building, structure, vehicle, etc. Exteriors are outside. Thus, if your character is in a school class room, and they are beckoned into the hall by a friend, you don’t write EXT. CLASSROOM – DAY when they are in the hall. Instead, you create a new location by writing INT. HALLWAY – DAY. Why? Because the hallway is still inside the school.
If your character is inside of a car, which is obviously driving outside, it is an interior scene, not an exterior scene. Some screenwriters add things like MOVING (INT. CAR – MOVING – DAY), but it still creates a slug line that is too busy. The scene description (referred to as action within screenwriting software) should be used to convey that they are driving.
Some other additions include SAME or LATER in place of DAY or NIGHT. SAME conveys that the scene takes place within the same moment of the previous scene, as would be the case with telephone conversations, cutting back and forth between action sequences, etc. LATER conveys that we’re in the same location established in the previous scene, but at a later time.
Using terms like EARLY MORNING, DAWN, DUSK, in place of DAY or NIGHT should only be used if it is partial to the story. Obviously, a vampire movie script would be a good excuse to use DAWN or DUSK now and then. But, again, keep it simple. DAY or NIGHT is all we need. The scene description can be used to convey other information like time of day.
Lastly, slug lines should not contain dates or times ala EXT. TOMBSTONE – 1850 – DAY or INT. BEDROOM – 5:56 AM – DAY.
Time and dates should be communicated within the scene description below the slug line — preferably within the first sentence. Too many screenwriters use the slug line to convey date and time.
If the date or time needs to be conveyed to the eventual audience visually, use Supers or Title Cards (one in the same) in the left margin within the scene description. Examples and variations include:
SUPER: May 14th, 1850
TITLE CARDS READS:
May 14th, 1850
Avoid this like the plague though. Too many supers and title cards throughout the script means that it’s going to be a very busy read. Keep it simple — slug line/location heading, scene description, character names, and dialogue. Supers, title cards, and transitions should be used few and far between.
4. Little to No Camera Directions
Things like CAMERA PULLS BACK, WE ZOOM IN, CAMERA DOLLIES RIGHT, EXTREME CLOSE-UP, and other camera directions have no place in a spec script (script written under speculation that it will be sold and produced).
Screenwriters often read scripts directed by auteurs like Quentin Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, and Paul Thomas Anderson. You surely will see camera directions in those types of scripts. If you’re reading shooting drafts that have been published or shared, camera directions may be in there as well. That doesn’t mean you, the non-auteur, should be including them in your script.
Most will say to only include them if they are partial to the story, but you just shouldn’t include them at all. You’re the writer, not the director. Unless you’re the director too, then nevermind.
5. Dialogue Never Follows the Slug Line
Another common mistake occurs when screenwriters write their slug line/location heading and then immediately follow that with dialogue (and accompanying character names).
This should never happen. Whenever you move into another location, there has to be at least one line of scene description between the slug line/location heading and the dialogue (and accompanying character names).
Before you start to think of reasons why this should be allowed, just stop and assume that it isn’t to avoid poorly formatted screenplays.
6. All New Notable Character Names Need to be in CAPS the First Time They Appear
When a new character appears, you have to cue the reader to their first appearance by putting their name in CAPS that first time. This is generally saved only for characters that have dialogue or are prevalent to the story. A passerby that doesn’t have a line and doesn’t have anything to do with the story (likely only appearing in one scene), doesn’t need to be featured in that manner.
Furthermore, the first name you use for one character has to be the name you use throughout the whole script. You cannot introduce them as GUY and then once they are introduced or referred to by name in dialogue, change it to JOHN. Introduce him as JOHN from the get-go. While this may make it difficult to have some sort of reveal moment or anything within your script, do your best to set those reveals up within the scene description.
An exception would be if you had different versions of your characters from different time periods — or any equivalent. In those cases, you can use YOUNG JOHN, OLD JOHN, or something to that effect.
7. Scene Description Is Not for Background
It’s a common cheat for screenwriters to use the scene description to explain away story elements, character history, and background.
Screenplays are a visual medium. You are tasked with telling the story cinematically through visual actions, reactions, and audible dialogue. If it’s not going to be on the screen, you can’t include it within your screenplay, which is a blueprint for communicating to the director and cinematographer what is to be seen and heard on screen.
Thus, you can’t describe a character as “a trouble-maker who has been through prison multiple times and is a recovering drug addict.” You would have to showcase scenes of that character in prison, going to drug addict support group meetings, or include all of that information within the dialogue.
If it’s not going to be shown on the screen, you can’t include it in the script. And if you need it to be shown on screen, you have to do so through scenes and the format that communicates those scenes — slug line/location headings, scene descriptions, character names, and dialogue.
8. Dialogue Is Not for Exposition
Exposition is defined as “a comprehensive description and explanation of an idea or theory.” In screenplay context, it’s information that is communicated through dialogue explaining either what has already been described within the screenplay (redundant) or what has clearly happened off screen.
Expositional dialogue is the worst kind of dialogue — and often the biggest crutch that a writer clings to in order to explain elements that they did not show onscreen in their scenes.
Yes, exposition is sometimes needed, but avoid it whenever you can. It points to the age-old screenwriting adage of Show, Don’t Tell.
9. CUT TO Transitions are Useless in Screenplays
Forget what you’ve seen in the screenplays you’ve read from older classics. The transition CUT TO between scenes is overly redundant because once we move from one new scene or location to the next, we obviously CUT TO that next one (with minor exceptions). There’s no need to waste important screenplay real estate by typing CUT TO in between every — or any — scene or location.
10. It’s Not Your Job to Dictate Where Actors Should Improvise
A common annoyance in screenplays occurs when the screenwriter uses the scene description to tell us that characters are engaged in small talk, are talking on the phone, or that actors portraying those characters are tasked to improvise.
Again, everything within the screenplay needs to communicate what is going to be seen or heard onscreen — thus, in this case, we need to know what those characters are saying.
If a character is in the background talking on the phone as is not meant to be heard, you need to communicate that within the scene description.
John is talking on the phone just out of earreach.
In short, don’t be lazy. If there’s something meant to be heard onscreen — or not — it’s your job to tell us.
11. Use “We See” Few and Far Between
When you’re writing scene description, it’s okay to use “we see” as a way to communicate an image or action every now and then.
We see the shadow of the shark within the water.
When it’s in a majority of scene description blocks, it’s overbearing.
We see the shark’s fin penetrate the water. Brody rushes to the side of the boat. We see the fin turn and move briskly towards the boat. As we see Quint and Hooper ready their equipment, the fin disappears underneath the boat.
That’s too much.
12. Less Is More
The true testament of a seasoned screenwriter is the ability to convey style, atmosphere, and substance with as little scene description as possible — and the same goes for dialogue as well.
Less Is More is a mantra that all screenwriters need to embrace because it serves the script so much better than overwriting, which describes too much atmosphere, too much direction, and too much information for the reader’s mind to process while they’re trying to visualize your cinematic story.
Overwritten Version of Scene Description
Correct Version of Scene Description
The latter version takes it to the extreme, but you hopefully get the point.
In screenplays, detail is poison. Film is a collaborative art form. The director, cinematographer, set designer, makeup artist supervisor, special effects supervisor, and so many others will decide the details. Your job is to convey the broad stroke image as quickly as possible so the reader can visualize it quickly and move onto the next image they’re supposed to be seeing.
13. It’s Not Your Job to Create the Movie Soundtrack
You may feel the need to create atmosphere by including song selection throughout your script — it’s time to stop that habit now.
First and foremost, your inclusion of a particular song in your script is saying that it’s partial to the story. But what if the studio that produces your script can’t get the rights to the song — either because another studio owns it or the rights holder doesn’t want it used?
Secondly, if it is partial to the story enough where you’ve included it within the script, what happens if the script reader doesn’t know the song or band? That’s an instant disconnect.
Instead, just use the scene description to explain what type of music your character is listening (Grunge, Classic Rock, Indie Rock, Hip Hop, etc.).
If your character isn’t listening to music and you simply included the song as something to be played over the scene, that’s not your job.
14. Smarty Pants Vocabulary
Put down the thesaurus and just use plain and simple words. Remember, your job is to convey images, sounds, and dialogue in the most simple ways possible. Big words that nobody really uses will only slow the read of your script to a halt.
15. Don’t Market Your Script to the Wrong People
When all is written and done, and you’re ready to get your script out there, don’t just look for the top agents, managers, and producers to query them. You have to choose very wisely who you approach.
You’re not going to take your erotic thriller to Disney. You’re not going to market your period romance drama to Michael Bay’s production company. Utilize IMDBPro to find movies that are similar to yours and then find out who is producing them. Then find out who wrote them and who represents those writers.
Blanket marketing is a newbie mistake. Target specific people and companies for specific scripts.
Bonus Rule! Don’t Write Sequels, Reboots, or Remakes to Already Produced Movies
You don’t own the rights. The studios and rights holders aren’t going to read them because they’re only going to entrust their intellectual property to well-established screenwriters.
If you’re doing it for fun — fan fiction — that’s one thing. Writing them in hopes of the studio seeing your “brilliant” take on Batman, Superman, or Star Wars? It’s a waste of your time.
Follow these fifteen screenwriting rules (plus the bonus) and you’ll find yourself in good standing with most script readers — offering you a better chance at making those screenwriting dreams come true.