We’ve said it before, the best way to become a better screenwriter is to read plenty of scripts. But how exactly do you read a script?
In order to read a script, you need first to get familiarised with its format. Make sure to also read it entirely at once first, and later make a breakdown of each scene. In the last place, identify common themes within the script and learn from the writer’s style and voice.
A screenplay is a very particular piece of writing. Not only is the content meant to be told in a visual manner on a screen, but the formatting is also completely different than a book, a comic, or a play.
In order to make a great movie, you need a great script.
And today, we will tell you exactly how to read a screenplay, from formatting to act structure, scene breakdown, character arc, and a lot more.
1. Format of a script: scene headings, action lines, and dialogue
We always advise writers to use screenwriting software when they write a script.
That’s because the software will take care of the very particular formatting a screenplay requires. From where every element goes to the very script-like font 12-point Courier that was used on typewriters back in the day. Yes, we still use that font… Hollywood always suffered from a serious case of nostalgia.
When you look at a script, it always starts with a title page.
On the title page, you can find the title of the script, the name(s) of the writer(s), and information such as if the script is based on an existing story or book.
Represented writers also put their representation’s contact on the bottom left of the first page (name, email, phone number). Writers who aren’t repped will put their own contact there.
After the title page, you get directly into the story and this is what the formatting looks like on any given page.
Each scene starts with what is called a “scene heading.” It’s used to inform the reader of where the scene is located. It can be something like:
INT. LIVING ROOM – DAY
EXT. PARK – NIGHT
the “INT.” stands for interior and is used for all the scenes that happen inside.
the “EXT.” stands for exterior and is used for all the scenes that happen outside.
You might come across a scene that reads:
INT/EXT. CAR (MOVING) – DAY
This simply means that the shot shows the inside and outside of a car that’s currently driving.
Following the scene heading, we have what is called the action lines.
The action lines tell the reader what actions are taking place in the scene.
EXT. PARK – NIGHT
A few street lights. Mostly silence.
The park finds a couple of PEOPLE quietly walking their dogs.
This part informs the reader of the actions that are taking place in the set location.
While reading, you will shortly come across your first character introduction.
INT. HOUSE – DAY
A cluttered home. Light shines through the blinds.
SIMON (30s), soft and hesitant, gets ready in front of his mirror. His hair lacks a good haircut and his leather jacket is discolored.
This doesn’t only give us the setting of what the house looks like, but it also introduces a character and gives us information on who he is, personality-wise while using things we can identify about him.
Every time a new character is introduced, their name will appear in ALL CAPS.
After you are introduced to a character, you will often see that character have an interaction with someone and use dialogue.
This is how that will appear in the script.
INT. HOUSE – DAY
Suddenly, Simon’s mom, LAURIE (60s) tough and unwilling to compromise, walks into the room.
She gives him a cold stare.
Gosh, I always hated that jacket.
Simon looks at himself in the mirror and gulps.
It’s all I have left of him.
Just a reminder of how terrible your father’s tastes were.
Go on. We’ll be late for the funeral.
As Laurie exits the room. Simon slowly reaches for his phone and dials an EMMA.
Please tell me you’re coming too. Mom is driving me crazy.
What else is new?
A few things are happening in this scene as far as the use of dialogue.
Just after Laurie criticizes Simon’s dad about his clothing choices, we are using what is called a parenthetical.
Parentheticals are used in scripts to give direction to actors or to introduce a short pause in the dialogue.
We recommend using them sporadically since actors will often give you an amazing take you hadn’t thought about for a piece of dialogue you wrote.
Towards the end of the scene, we use parenthetical to inform the reader that Simon is now talking on the phone.
Off Screen/Voice Over
When Emma responds to him, we use the indication (O.S.) which means Off Screen.
This tells the reader that in that moment, Emma is not seen on the screen and can only be heard through the phone.
O.S are common in screenplays and not to be confused with V.O.
V.O stands for voice-over and is used when there’s a narration in a screenplay. A voice speaking over a scene or multiple scenes (like the iconic voice of Carrie Bradshaw in Sex And The City).
In general, the formatting leads to a lot more white space than books have. It’s a clean look that complements the fast pace of a script.
2. Read the script entirely once
We always advise the reader to separate their process into different reads.
Your first read will often be for you to dive into the story. During that time, try not to analyze the script too much.
The first pass is for you to form your general impressions and get a feel for the story.
While a feature script will most likely end anywhere between 90 and 100 pages, you can imagine that in terms of the film, one minute on screen is one page of a script.
3. Create a breakdown of every scene
Once you had your initial read, write a quick summary of each scene on a piece of paper.
Seeing the scenes laid out on paper, on cards or on a whiteboard will help you identify the act breaks more easily, the major plot points, and the overall progression of the narrative.
Speaking of act breaks, movies are written in a three-act structure.
Usually, the first act sets up the story, the second act shows confrontation and the third act is the resolution of the story.
In general, the first act should:
- introduce the main characters
- set up the ordinary world
- present a conflict
It’s common for a first act to be about 25 to 30 pages.
At the end of the first act, the inciting incident happens that sends our character into the second act, the so-called journey.
The second act will:
- escalate the conflict
- show your main character encounter different issues
- have obstacles in the character’s journey
This act raises the stakes. It’s the longest act in the script and often an act in which writers get stuck. It’s very important to have high stakes and know them well before you start writing your script, that will get you through the second act.
At the end of the second act, there’s either a false defeat or a false victory for the main character. We believe the character either lost it all or got exactly what he wanted.
This takes us to the third act where:
- the main character faces their final confrontation
- the character’s arc completes, he or she learned something through their journey
- the story resolves and we know where we leave our hero or heroine
4. Identify the common themes
Every story has different aspects to it, different levels, and different layers.
Consequently, each story will have many themes. It’s crucial that you are able to understand a story’s themes and undertones and subtext.
If we go back to Simon, we are watching scenes of a son getting ready for his father’s funeral. At this stage, we can imagine that the themes of the story will have to do with:
- Family (since there’s a complicated family dynamic here with Simon’s mother)
- identity (dealing with the loss of a parent)
- loneliness (we’ve established Simon is quite reserved)
- Free vs Fate (will Simon break free from his mother or become her pawn like his dad was?)
These are themes we could imagine for a story like this and if the writer does his work, it will be easy for you to identify these themes throughout the script since they will be a major part of the protagonist’s journey and arc.
5. Learn from the writer’s style and voice
Have you ever read a script by Quentin Tarantino or Shonda Rhimes? You’ll immediately be able to know that you’re reading a script by them without even reading their name on the title page. That’s because of what the industry likes to call “the writer’s voice.”
As a writer yourself, you want to work on your voice. Make it unique, make it exciting, make it yours.
From reading screenplays, you’ll be able to identify certain words and sentences that stand out. You want to write those down and use them as an inspiration to create a more colorful vocabulary for yourself.
And that is commonly how you read a screenplay. From learning the formatting to dispatching your reads into several categories, writing breakdowns, and identifying act structures and themes.
By reading screenplays this way you will not only become faster and more experienced with reading, but you will also learn to identify plotlines and substories quicker when watching movies and overall, you will become a much better writer simply by reading and studying screenplays.
Happy reading fellow creatives! And feel free to use Simon’s story and turn it into an award-winning screenplay, we’re giving you permission to do so!
Article by Lena Murisier