The principal thing to understand about screenwriting as an artform: it's not literature unto itself, but rather a blueprint from which an artifact is made by a team of artisans. As the planner of this artifact, your plans are under no obligation to follow any specific format (unlike architectural blueprints, which need to conform to three dimensional space). You are free to put whatever on the page as long as it works for the creative team in charge of production.
This is not to say you're allowed to vomit word salad onto the page and hand it to a producer expecting them to understand it–there are no rules, but there are generally accepted conventions of format that make a screenplay translate more easily to the screen in the mind of the reader. Most screenwriting software handles about 90% of these conventions, but there are particularities within the language of the script that should be made clear for writers looking to better understand scene construction.
Those particularities in no particular order are as follows.
1) Scene headings, or sluglines, should be used to set the broadest terms of time and space of your scenes. If the setting of the script changes, it should be denoted with a scene heading. Establishing where the scene is taking place–the location, for the director/location manager/FX supervisor–as well as when, in terms absolute or relative to the previous scene. Example:
EXT. BEVERLY HILLS MANSION - DAY
Where and when is the scene? Pretty clear, right? Now the scene moves inside, so–
INT. MANSION - KITCHEN - DAY
No need to bring up the Beverly Hills aspect again, but make sure the reader knows where they are. Always be looking for material to trim off the edges. These headings each use absolute times; but, assume the audience is shown a character entering the walk-in pantry–
PANTRY - CONTINUOUS
First off, if the scene is already set inside, no need to reestablish an interior scene. Secondly, if a scene continues from one space to the next without skipping a beat, then that next scene should be marked as continuous. Other minor sluglines can be used to transit between areas of a large space or moments of a large timespan–
LATER THAT NIGHT
FURTHER UP THE STAIRS
ACROSS THE FLOOR
THE NEXT MORNING
OTHER END OF THE ALLEY
Remember: no rules, only what works efficiently within the generally understood conventions.
2) Time and space are the two most important aspects of scene construction. The scene heading establishes broad strokes, so the next line down would be an action line describing the largest details of the space.
INT. MANSION - KITCHEN - DAY
A fully equipped, lavish kitchen with a brick oven and a breakfast nook.
Within one sentence (an incomplete one, at that), a space with a certain aesthetic and functional aspects is clearly visible in the reader's mind. No need to mention every single piece of equipment–"fully equipped" explains that aspect and "lavish" tells the production designer that they can go overboard in set decoration. A brick oven is not seen in most home kitchens, so it's something to bring up–but it should only be there if it's used in the scene to develop plot or character. So the broader time and space is established, as are the major details. Next would be any fine details that are to be specifically employed in the scene as plot devices or symbolism. Following that, the placement of life within the scene.
3) When it comes to people in scene, write extras first, then characters. Extras are essentially part of the finer details, but they add time (unless for some reason they are frozen in time, but that's an odd case).
A small crew of professional CHEFS bustle about the enormous space, prepping food and barking orders at each other.
JAMAL WILLIAMS, 26, neatly buzzed hair and groomed goatee, dressed in a bright, sharply tailored suit which his immense muscles barely fit into, enters the room, checks his watch, and tisk-tisks.
This once empty space is now alive with the activity of nameless people and lit up by the entrance of this dashing young man. Take note: nothing was said about his ambition or his demeanor, nothing was said about who he is as a person. The only thing the reader should see is the same as what the audience should see. This leads into the next topic–
4) Action beats are the basic units of scene construction. Atoms make up molecules, cells make up organisms, and beats make up scenes. Every line of a scene should denote a shot, a shot-reverse, or a series of shots (or a specific kind of series called a montage). This aids the reader in seeing specifically what is happening as it happens–just like on a movie screen. Everything in a script should directly translate onto the screen and so lines like this:
Jamal is smelling the large vat of soup on the stove and doesn't like what he smells. He's so angry, there's more steam coming from his ears than the soup.
He may very well be disappointed with these chefs he's hired, but there is another problem here–three, actually. First, the present progressive tense is to be used sparingly. Action beats should describe things as they happen in sequence. Secondly, Jamal not liking what he smells is an internal action. Anything that happens in the minds of the characters is not something that can be shown on screen. This type of emotion should be externalized in a facial cue for the actor to go on. Thirdly, and most egregiously, the line about steam coming from his ears is completely useless to the art of screenwriting as a whole. You might be the best prose writer in the history of humanity, but that means nothing when you enter the arena of film. Prose has no place in screenwriting, and action beats like this which describe details in florid or editorialized terms should be expunged.
Jamal inhales the vat of soup on the stove--he sneers.
This beat is a third the size of the last one without sacrificing any content. Note the use of the hyphen–this is a good way to denote a shot-reverse as one beat happens and another happens as a direct consequence. Finally: if nothing happens for, like, five seconds of awkward silence–
Jamal shoves past one of the chefs. They angrily lock eyes.
The annoyed chef returns to work.
There is no need to dictate the actual amount of time that passes unless a clock is directly visible on screen. The mention of an empty beat in which two people are angrily staring at each other implies the passing of enough time to make it noteworthy.
5) Diction goes a long way in not just screenwriting but in every form of writing. While prose has no place in this artform, artful word choice is always appreciated.
Jamal gets his phone out.
Simple, and completely serviceable as an action beat; however, much can be said about the subject of the beat by the way it moves, and certain words have certain tones, connotations, implications, etc.
Jamal slips his phone from his coat pocket.
Retrieving anything from a coat pocket is always smooth, and Jamal seems like a smooth operator from this one motion alone.
Jamal digs his phone from his pocket.
Not as smooth on this one. The motion of digging a phone from a pocket is probably a tell that the character in question is annoyed or panicked. Not panicked enough for your tastes?
Jamal frantically digs his phone from his pocket--it bobbles from his hands and smacks into the floor.
Somebody's got a serious case of the Mondays. As a screenwriter, always be looking for ways to enhance your action beats with emotionally charged descriptors–in this pursuit, adverbs are your best friend.
6) Parentheticals are a handy dandy tool to make dialog more flavorful. The process of writing dialog elements under character headings is fairly simple and straightforward, so not much needs to be said on that matter. The cadence of the speaker can and should be controlled with punctuation (most effectively commas, hyphens, and ellipses) to give distinct voices to each character. Character headings and dialog elements are very difficult to mess up.
This is my house. I made it.
- O.S. is said offscreen by someone in the scene, usually employed to control space.
- V.O . is said offscreen by someone not in the scene, usually employed for narration.
- A parenthetical is a modifier to the speech other than the previous two–that being said, it should be used sparingly, only when the modifier is not already discernable.
Get your shit together and cook faster!
It's clear he's angry just by the fact that he's telling chefs to cook faster. Food cooks at the speed it cooks–it can't be sped up. These are professional chefs running a bit behind, and he's yelling at them to get their shit together. Let the dialog speak for itself–more accurately, the characters.
This bread is tasty.
This establishes a bit of poor manners on his part, and it wouldn't have been clear without the parenthetical there.
Can we get rid of that one guy over there?
Turns out Jamal is kind of a dick, but he doesn't want the rest of the kitchen to know that he's conspiring with the head chef to fire one of the crew. Naturally, he's going to lower his voice and take the head chef aside. Other words to denote this kind of lowered voice include sotto (as in sotto voce), low, quiet, whispering, silent, etc. Once again: no rules, as long as the point gets across within generally understood conventions.
7) Last and probably least, transitions are so unimportant that many writers don't even bother to use them. 95% of the transitions between scenes will be made using the classic CUT TO: so there's not much of a point to using it. There are ways to create cleverly subtle imagery in scene transitions; for example, through the use of a match cut:
Jamal grabs a ham bone off the counter and angrily tosses it in the air. On the bone--
MATCH CUT TO:
An elongated space station drifts in orbit around Earth.
Props to Stanley Kubrick on this one, as it is one of the greatest cuts in the history of editing. It should be noted that the use of a technique like this is highly unnecessary and may very well annoy a reader who's more focused on the story than the prettiness of the imagery. A match cut can be used to highlight a certain plot device as well–a crystal of unobtainium, perhaps. Another transition to be used sparingly is the SMASH CUT.
Jamal pounds his fist into the fridge door--
SMASH CUT TO:
INT. MMA ARENA - NIGHT
Jamal's fist collides with the face of his opponent, up against the fence.
How did Jamal make his money and why does he have such a short, violent temper? He's a pro MMA fighter, of course, and to transition between those two things with such a violent crash gives a certain energy to the transition. So, you've just finished a major movement in your script and you need to move to the next–perhaps, an act break, or a long day–
Jamal collapses into bed and sprawls out, his feet still on the floor.
INT. GYM - DAY
Slept like a log after a hard day, let's say, getting his ass kicked in the ring. This kind of ass-kicking could act as a major plot point in which Jamal considers changing his ways, and a dissolve feels like a transition to a new period in which he has to work his way up to something and learn a lesson. This kind of meddling in the direction is, again, unnecessary and could be left aside; but, once you feel confident in your writing skills, you could try to cleverly implement these tools to add content where no reader expects to find it.
Ultimately, there are only four rules to follow for screenwriting:
- What can be seen
- What can be heard
- Only as much of either as is necessary to understand the scene
- Interpret the former three as you please
The way you choose to follow this rules establishes your style. Maybe you break conventions on purpose; maybe your scripts are rife with emotion and wordy like a Dickens novel. Whatever it is that works for you and the reader is ultimately up to only those two people. These seven topics are my way of helping you to be as clear and concise as possible while also maximizing meaningful content during scene construction. In a well written script with properly constructed scenes, the read is said to be transparent, i.e. it translates to screened imagery easily and makes my job as a reader much more efficient.