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NISI MASA Script Contest 2009 - European short film Competition – A Short Scriptwriting Guide

short film Competition – A Short Scriptwriting Guide Basic Guidelines for Screenwriting by Fedor Sendak

Basic Guidelines for Screenwriting

by Fedor Sendak


Believe it or not, but there are some rules and conventions you are expected to follow when writing

a script for the NISI MASA Script Contest. You may ask “Why follow any rules, if screenwriting is

about creativity?” Well, there is an answer to that:

When you desire to have your script read to professional people from the film industry, you best try and follow these conventions as much as possible, always and whenever you submit your writings. How clueless they might seem to you, script readers (like: commissioning editors and producers) who have a pile of scripts on their desk might most likely throw "unconventionally" formatted and styled scripts into the trashcan without even reading them. Simply because in this way they separate the newbie’s from the (may be upcoming) professionals. It saves them a lot of time. Since we want to raise the professionalism of new talent, let's start today with getting you familiar with these professional standards. At the same time, this format will give our jury a better opportunity to compare and read your script without any confusion in the lay out.

The lay out of your script

A script layout should look something like this:

your script A script layout should look something like this: A Short Screenwriting Guide © 2006-2009

NISI MASA Script Contest 2009 - European short film Competition – A Short Scriptwriting Guide

Length and format There are certain standards in formatting who will help to gauge more or less how long a film a script will make. This is very useful for producers. With a well written script, these standards allow us to measure a script's length by saying that: "a page of script equals roughly a minute of screen time". This is a very rough guide and not to be completely trusted. For instance action films scripts often are short but take longer on screen compared to a dialogue based script. Since the NISI MASA Script Contest is a competition to write a short film, it is important to -more or less- be able to judge how many pages you write. So when you follow the standard format for scripts, it ensures the same amount of “screen action” is covered by each page (on average). In standard format, a page is roughly equal to a minute of screen time. So by looking at your page numbers we should be able tell how long your film is. Therefore also don’t forget to number your pages, and start at 1 on the first page with a scene on it.

Standard Format Rules Here is a basic list of how your script should be formatted.

Typeface: Courier size 12

To achieve the standard format, always use Courier (or New Courier) Size 12. This is a fixed-width font.

Margins Left margin should be 4 cm Right is 1.3 cm

Top and Bottom Make them 2.5 cm each.

Dialogue 6.5 cm from the left will be about 7.5 to 9 cm wide shouldn't extend more than 15 cm from the left. Please, never make the mistake to CENTRE dialogues or character names!

Character's Name at 9.5 cm and above the dialogue.

Page Numbers should be located in the upper right hand corner and then double space and continue writing.

See the sample script page (next page) and notice

the font used ( C o u r i e r )

the size of margins all round

the number of lines on a page

the length of the lines of dialogue (always indented)

the spacing between scenes, etc.

NISI MASA Script Contest 2009 - European short film Competition – A Short Scriptwriting Guide

short film Competition – A Short Scriptwriting Guide Sample page (reduced) First Page A screenplay always

Sample page (reduced)

First Page A screenplay always begins with “FADE IN:” This has nothing to do with a fading transition on the screen, but it is an international custom for how you should start your script.

Last Page At the end of your script you should type The End and centre it, or double space, to the far right of the page, and type FADE OUT. Again this “FADE OUT” has nothing to do with a fading transition on the screen, but it is just customary to end your script in this way.

Scene Headings: Location INT/EXT: This refers to the location of the scene. If it is inside it is INT (for interior); if it is set outside it is EXT (for exterior). This should be followed by the location.

Scene Headings: Time

DAY/NIGHT: This refers to whether the scene occurs in the day or night. This follows the location.

Note: There is no such thing as EVENING or MORNING. Just use DAY or


NISI MASA Script Contest 2009 - European short film Competition – A Short Scriptwriting Guide

Introducing your characters The first time a character appears in your script, you write the name in CAPITALS, followed by a

'first impression'-description of the character. Please do not write only the age of this person. I

mean, how can we ever see a person is 44 or

up with something better. When you write: “JOHN a fragile, middle aged man” it is already better.

45? Just use your screenwriting talent, and come

Acting instruction under dialogues Avoid acting instructions under the dialogues as much as possible. The emotions should be clear

from the context most of the time

will not make good cinema in the end!

don’t take the easy way by writing it under the dialogue. That

No numbering for scenes Avoid numbering scenes at this moment. Do not forget to number the pages though. You only number the scenes when it is a 'shooting script' which will only be seen by yourself or when actually shooting the film. Now, they make no sense, since scenes can still move within the script.

Don't direct inside the script. An often seen mistake is to include camera movements in your script. Although we admit there are occasions that this can't be avoided, in 99% of the cases it shouldn’t be there. This should be the job of the director, not the writer. Directing terms includes “CUT TO”, “WIDEN SHOT”, “PAN ACROSS”. You only use these – very very rarely - when the moment will be completely misunderstood without it. In general these are terms only for the shooting script. This is why you might see them in some professional scripts. Those scripts are not meant to be read by people like from a jury. Actually it will “clog up” and distract the read. Your script should flow smoothly as a readable piece, not a series of instructions.

Some format difficulties can be easily solved by using screenwriting software. Check out the next pages to find the right program to use for your script!

NISI MASA Script Contest 2009 - European short film Competition – A Short Scriptwriting Guide


There is software available that helps you getting your script into the right format. Below some of the most know programs for screenwriting including their websites. Many screenwriting programs are standalone desktop applications. Others are web applications and run in a web browser, so no need to install any software. These work with a personal log in. There are also applications available as add-ins for generic word processors such as Microsoft Word. Sometimes screenwriting programs also incorporate production scheduling and budgeting capabilities or provide additional collaborative editing tools.

REMARK: We haven’t tested all these programs. If you have any experience or recommendation, please let us know. Write me at fedor@meccapanza.eu and I will implement all valuable information you give me.


Page 2 Stage Platform: Windows Page 2 Stage is designed expressly for people writing screenplays, scripts, and plays. The program is available in 30 languages. Page 2 Stage is now free. However, you must enter a username and password to unlock Page 2 Stage. Otherwise the scripts you create in demo mode will always be marked 'demo'.

ScriptBuddy (free version) Platform: Internet application ScriptBuddy is Web-based. In order to use it, you need an account with ScriptBuddy. Your screenplays are stored in your account so no one else can access them.

ScriptTeX ScriptTeX is a free macro package for TeX to format screenplays and other scripts.

Sophocles Platform: Windows A standalone word processor for writing screenplays and other dramatic scripts. It provides customizable, industry-standard support for feature film and television formats, along with advanced, fully automated revision handling for screenplays in production. Sophocles also provides a number of unique tools to help you visualize your story’s overall structure.

Zhura Platform: Internet application Zhura is a free web-based screenwriting software application for writing and formatting screenplays to the film industry standard, as well as other formats. Zhura allows users to collaborate on scripts in public or in private groups.

Scripped Platform: Internet application Scripped is an online screenplay services company offering three services: script writing, script registration, and script coverage. Scripped currently does not facilitate collaboration among screenwriters.

NISI MASA Script Contest 2009 - European short film Competition – A Short Scriptwriting Guide


Script Wizard Platform: Windows Full service script writing add-on to Microsoft® Word. (PC only). Tools to write, format, page break, scene number, edit, proof, print and deliver scripts via fax or email. Ideal for both professionals and students working in Microsoft Office environments. Script Wizzard is not for free. Check out the website.

Final Draft Platform: Windows and Mac Final Draft is a word processor specifically designed for writing movie scripts, television episodes and stage plays. It combines word processing with professional script formatting in one package.

Movie Magic Screenwriter Platform: Mac The program is designed to automate the formatting of Action, Character Name, Dialog and other elements associated with writing screenplays using Command line completion. This is done mainly via the Tab and Enter/Return keys.

Movie Outline Platform: Windows and Mac Movie Outline was created by a produced writer to take the complexity out of the screenwriting process. Its intuitive design is based on the principle of step-outlining which allows you to plan your cinematic structure, develop characters and format your screenplay scene by scene.

Montage Platform: Mac Montage is screenwriting software developed for Mac OS X. Montage allows the creation, editing, and management of screenplays on Macintosh computers. Montage can import Final Draft documents. text and RTF formatted files, it includes custom, pre-formatted templates for film, TV, and theater.

DreamaScript Platform: Windows and Mac DreamaScript Screenwriting Software allows you to use templates and methods. MAC/PC

NISI MASA Script Contest 2009 - European short film Competition – A Short Scriptwriting Guide


Short film means short story First and foremost be aware that you are writing a short film. Make sure you write a story which can be completed in a couple of minutes. That might exclude some stories you want to tell. You will have to save these for later.

Keep it Simple if Possible When your script is easy to shoot from a production point of view, the better its production values will be. This because the time, energy and money can be spent on doing it well rather than to just managing to do it. So be smart! We advice you to use a maximum of 3-4 main characters (i.e., those who and take a major part in the story). Your audience has only ten minutes to get to know and understand your characters, so the fewer you present the easier it will be for them to make an impact. Notice that it is not compulsory. We also advice to use a maximum of three locations, but of course you are free to ignore our advice in this.

Dialogues The screen is first and foremost a visual medium. Find ways of telling visually what is happening or what is important. Sound-&-vision scenes in place of dialogue will move the

action forward and can cover a lot of ground quickly. Where possible, show it rather than explain it

in the dialogue. With dialogue, avoid long speeches unless there is a particular reason for one -

short sharp exchanges can work better than long discussions. Try to use rich and interesting ones rather than the mundane speech we might hear every day.

A thing to keep emphasizing on is that scripts are the basis of the visual medium of film. Don’t say

what you can show instead. If the character is upset don't have him say "I'm really upset!” just

show it to us, cinematographically. E.g. have him smash a cup on the table instead.

First Draft Realize your first draft can be full of mistakes and errors! Yes! It is just a sketch! Just get that story out. Put it on paper as quick as possible. No worry, it might be not visual enough. This is not a problem for the first version of your artwork. You can correct all this later. You can still improve on it until you send it. Read our tips again, and you can still then change things that appear not good enough. Writing is rewriting!

Style and Visual storytelling

Try to see each sentence (or sometimes paragraph) as a shot. Write down only pieces of visual


a novel. You are writing a blueprint for a film at the moment. Find your style. A script should be easy to read. Images have to appear when one reads it. A dry and clear style will have the best result.

things we can actually see. Beautiful prosaic sentences don't belong here. That's for

Order of Information What you see first, you write first. Write it the way it appears on the screen. So if you have written

something we cannot actually see

think it over. Try to tell the thing in a visual (or aural) way.

Credibility Literally everything can happen in the universe of cinema. But when you involve people in your story, make their decisions credible. If you want your characters to do something unusual or unlikely, then give them the motivation to do it. That's all it takes to make your audience believe and go along with the story. But also remember, the imagination of people is also huge! Use it People lose interest only when a character does something they can not imagine that someone

would do ever do that. Even in a science fiction piece, characters should behave credibly within the

terms of the story - i.e., “In that situation, yes, he or she would do that

about acting and writes should try to ask themselves: “How would it be to play this as an actor?”. It will make you write a playable and solid, credible script.

.” Anyone who knows

NISI MASA Script Contest 2009 - European short film Competition – A Short Scriptwriting Guide

Conflict and crisis Drama is mostly about conflict and crisis – not about people wanting the same things or agreeing with each other. A scene will often work best if characters want opposite things at the same time. And a attractive script often begins with a character at an emotional crossroads, and the decision they take leads to the story most of the time. Screen your ideas and writings on this.

Indirect Information As remarked before, people have a huge imagination. Also people are socially and psychologically smarter then you might think. Therefore it is recommended to keep the audience busy with thinking, while they are watching your film. If not, they might get bored easily and you will loose their attention! One way to do this is to check your script on how the information gets to your audience. Do they have to make their conclusions themselves, or are you making them for them. If they have to think, they will get more involved, and you will reach their heart more easily.


Make sure your story is a suitable story for a short film.

Write visually, since the primary quality of film is visual storytelling.

Give information indirectly, to make the audience actively go along with the story.

Use dialogue imaginatively and only for what is not possible to express in images or sound.

Make your character's actions and decisions credible, so the audience can identify themselves with them, or at least imagine a person who acts like that, could exist.

Write a producible script. A script which can be shot easily and in a short time.

Preferably use a maximum of 3-4 main characters.

Preferably use a maximum of 3 locations.

Remember variety in people, places and scenes makes your film more vivid.

Rewrite your script and keep improving it.


Before you start These questions might be helpful to ask yourself about character before you start your screenplay.

Who is your story about?

What kind of trouble are my characters in?

What does your character want and what will your character do to get it?

What is your character most afraid of (his/her ghost)?

What's the big question the audience will be wondering about throughout the movie?

While writing These questions might be helpful to ask yourself when you are in the middle of writing a screenplay, or when (you think) you are finished.

Is there an opening hook?

Can you put the primary conflict more up front?

Do you set the Genre and Tone of the film from the start?

Did you introduce the protagonist in a unique and interesting way?

Why does the story start at the point it starts?

What is your movie really about?

Our last advice Please realise "Writing is re-writing". The first draft won’t be as good as you wish it would be. Of course it is not good! A first draft never is. It is in the refining, re-writing, re-plotting and fine-tuning that great scripts get made. So our advice: don’t think too much. To get started is important, since you will make the script by writing it, not by thinking about writing it a thousand times.