Top Ten Screenplay Essentials - The Script Lab / by Jared Jones



1. Story and Character

A screenplay starts from a High Concept idea, from the development of an unforgettable character, or in the best case from both.

2. Outline Before Writing

Know at least how the story ends, begins, as well as the screenplay’s five major plot points before writing the script.

3. Three-Act Structure

The experts can debate sequences, but all agree the story is told in three acts, with a turning-point to end Act I and II.

4. Original Voice

Clear and concise writing is key, keeping action description at four lines or less, but the action should still sound original.

5. Screenplay Form

Professional screenplay format is a must as well as correct page appearance: lots of white space, no “I” pages, and block pages.

6. “What happens next?”

All scenes must move the story forward, reveal character, or both. Any scene that does neither are not necessary and should be cut.

7. Short Scenes

A screenplay must move fast, so three pages should be the absolute maximum before you cut to a new location. Half a page is typical.

8. Brief Dialogue

Remember, film is a visual medium. You show the story. Never tell it through verbal storytelling. Keep lines of dialogue short.

9. Under 120 pages

One script page equals one film minute, so a drama is about two hours (120 pages); a comedy is closer to 90 minutes (90 pages).

10. Know the Logline

In one sentence, you must be able to pitch “what the story is about,” and make a comparison to other successful Hollywood films.


Listen to this Scriptnotes podcast from John August and Craig Mazin on a list of the so-called rules budding screenwriters are told to follow but are mostly untrue including:

  • Your script must be 120 pages or fewer
  • The inciting incident must happen by page 15
  • The first act break must be on page 30
  • The midpoint is really important
  • The second act break must be on page 90
  • No scene can be longer than three pages
  • Use only DAY and NIGHT unless you absolutely must say MORNING or EVENING
  • Never use “cut to”
  • No camera directions unless you’re also the director
  • No using we see
  • No all caps in action lines no bold caps italics
  • Don’t use beat or ellipses for more than one character because that makes it sound the same
  • Don’t use actual song titles
  • Don’t make asides to your readers
  • Avoid voice-over
  • Don’t use the word is
  • Don’t use the word walks
  • No adverbs ending in “ly”
  • No “ing” verbs
  • Nothing in your script can be longer than four lines and you’re allowed to break this rule five times
  • No monologues
  • No brand names
  • Readers are draconian if you violate a rule they will throw your script out immediately
  • Your idea has to fit into a once sentence logline
  • There can be no flashbacks and certainly no flash-forwards
  • Don’t world build too much
  • Your hero must be likeable
  • Characters must change by the end of the movie
  • No one is buying screenplays about such-and-such a topic
  • You’re no Tarantino, you’re no so and so, so don’t bother writing those movies
  • Your instincts aren’t as good as these rules
  • Write what you know
  • You must read this particular book on screenwriting
  • Screenwriters should know their place (meaning: such-and-such kind of thing is either the director’s job, costume designer’s job, the production designer’s job, the actor’s job)

John and Craig go on to talk about why these are not rules and why they exist.

Writers — for your sanity, please listen to this podcast!