The Origins and Formatting of Modern Screenplays

I. The Origins of the Screenplay

Our fascination with film goes back to the late 1800s. Film started off as a novelty – practically a parlor trick using photographic techniques and the newly invented light bulb to project what looks like moving images on a screen.

Lumiere Poster

One of the earliest and most famous demonstrations of film was the Lumiere Brothers’ screenings which opened Paris France on December 28, 1895. It was a collection of 10 short films which had catchy titles like “Workers leaving the Lumiere Factory”, “Bathing in the Sea” and “Baby’s Breakfast” – these films were all approximately 40 seconds long and didn’t need anything more than a simple written description.

And that’s the way it was for the first few years of motion picture development. These synopses called “Scenarios” and were used both as a description of the film and in marketing.  Who wouldn’t want to see Edison’s 1897 sordid tale: “Pillow Fight” described as

“Four young ladies, in their nightgowns, are having a romp. One of the pillows gets torn, and the feathers fly all over the room.” Sounds like a solid hit.

But filmmakers discovered that you could start splicing different pieces of film together to tell a story. George Melies famous “A trip to the Moon” was sketched out as a series of scenarios.

  1. The Scientific Congress at the Astronomic Club.
  2. Planning the Trip. Appointing the Explorers and Servants. Farewell.
  3. The Workshops Constructing the Projectile.
  4. The Foundries. The Chimney-stack. The Casting of the Monster Gun/Cannon.
  5. The Astronomers-Scientists Enter the Shell.
  6. Loading the Gun.
  7. The Monster Gun. March Past the Gunners. Fire!!! Saluting the Flag.
  8. The Flight Through Space. Approaching the Moon.
  9. Landing Right in the Moon’s Eye!!!
  10. Flight of the Rocket Shell into the Moon. Appearance of the Earth From the Moon.
  11. The Plain of Craters. Volcanic Eruption.
  12. The Dream of ‘Stars’ (the Bolies, the Great Bear, Phoebus, the Twin Stars, Saturn).
  13. The Snowstorm.
  14. 40 Degrees Below Zero. Descent Into a Lunar Crater.
  15. In the Interior of the Moon. The Giant Mushroom Grotto.
  16. Encounter and Fight with the Selenites.
  17. Taken Prisoners!!
  18. The Kingdom of the Moon. The Selenite Army.
  19. The Flight or Escape.
  20. Wild Pursuit.
  21. The Astronomers Find the Shell Again. Departure from the Moon in the Rocket.
  22. The Rocket’s Vertical Drop into Space.
  23. Splashing into the Open Sea.
  24. Submerged At the Bottom of the Ocean.
  25. The Rescue. Return to Port and Land.
  26. Great Fetes and Celebrations.
  27. Crowning and Decorating the Heroes of the Trip.
  28. Procession of Marines and Fire Brigade. Triumphal March Past.
  29. Erection of the Commemorative Statue by the Mayor and Council.
  30. Public Rejoicings.

These first scripts written were really just a technical aid for the directors to notate what was to be shot and in what order.

By 1903 with Scott Marble’s scenario for Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery you started to see the emergence of what was later to be called the “Master Scene Format”. Master Scene format breaks down the film into master scenes (not cuts), each scene having a scene heading followed by a description of the action.


Two masked robbers enter and compel the operator to get the “signal block” to stop the approaching train, and make him write a fictitious order to the engineer to take water at this station, instead of “Red Lodge,” the regular watering stop. The train comes to a standstill (seen through window of office); the conductor comes to the window, and the frightened operator delivers the order while the bandits crouch out of sight, at the same time keeping him covered with their revolvers. As soon as the conductor leaves, they fall upon the operator, bind and gag him, and hastily depart to catch the moving train.


The bandits are hiding behind the tank as the train, under the false order, stops to take water. Just before she pulls out they stealthily board the train between the express car and the tender.


Messenger is busily engaged. An unusual sound alarms him. He goes to the door, peeps through the keyhole and discovers two men trying to break in. He starts back bewildered, but, quickly recovering, he hastily locks the strong box containing the valuables and throws the key through the open side door. Drawing his revolver, he crouches behind a desk. In the meantime, the two robbers have succeeded in breaking in the
door and enter cautiously. The messenger opens fire, and a desperate pistol duel takes place in which the messenger is killed. One of the robbers stands watch while the other tries to open the treasure box. Finding it locked, he vainly searches the messenger for the key, and blows the safe open with dynamite. Securing the valuables and mail bags they leave the car.

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II. The First Studios

Filmmaking continued to grow as an industry in the early 1900s with big names directors like D.W. Griffith becoming a celebrity. The filmmaking process centered around these directors – in a director unit of production meaning movies were generated by directors who were in charge of getting the entire project done from start to finish.

But times were changing.

Thomas Ince3

Thomas Ince

In September of 1911, a small time filmmaker named Thomas Ince, wearing a borrowed suit and a borrowed diamond ring, convinced New York Motion Picture Co. to give him the job of setting up a west coast studio to make Westerns – a particular passion of his.

On the west coast, Ince would revolutionize the filmmaking process by applying scientific principles in the way that Henry Ford revolutionized the automobile industry. Using careful planning for the films, he pioneered the use of the  “Continuity Script” which contained information on who was in the scene, the action in the scene, notation for interiors and exteriors, camera requirements and cost control. By breaking down the scenes he could create shooting schedules where he could assign different camera units to produce the scripts simultaneously.

This was wholly new for the time. Before it was just producers putting out one film at a time. Now a huge number of pictures could be made and the cost predicted and controlled.  Ince became hugely powerful and by 1915 joined up DW Griffith and Mack Sennet at Triangle Motion Picture Company. There he directed a few films but his real contribution was as a central producer… Triangle was one of the first vertically integrated film companies – meaning they had access to all the means of production and distribution under one roof – the beginnings of the powerful central office studio system.

The central office worked like a manufacturing plant – using the division of labor to streamline the filmmaking process to produce as many movies as possible. You had writers, directors, cinematographers, actors, editors and sound recordists (after 1926) – each working simultaneously on different projects to fill up the studio’s billing which were shown at theaters the studios owned or had exclusive deals with. Gone was the director unit production – and in came the Central Producer System – the studio system.

But at the heart of it all, what kept the manufacturing wheels grinding away, was the continuity script that Thomas Ince had introduced.. It gave the studio the ability to track costs and time and although there was some artistic leeway given to directors, the shots and cuts were pretty much laid out in advance so the studio knew exactly what they were paying for.

And this continuity script with all the camera direction and production information was the type of script that was used for all of Hollywood’s Golden Age of Cinema – including Casablanca which many consider one of the best scripts ever written.


The End of the Studio System

Through mergers and acquisitions, Hollywood studios grew so powerful that they started to garnering anti-trust red flags in Washington D.C.  Through ownership or partnership with movie theaters, the studios where essentially oligoplies that controlled both how the film was made and how it was shown. This was not good for anyone who was independent of the Big 5.

In the pivotal case of United States vs Paramount et al in 1948, the studios were forced to divest all interests in their movie theaters. Before the court decision, Studios could sell their movies using block booking which forced the theaters to buy large bundles of movies often a complete season’s worth sight unseen. To make money the studio would just churn out as many movies as possible which they could force on the theaters. After the Supreme Court decision, they could only bundle up to five movies. The game had changed and now it was much more about marketing those movies.

Other forces like the rise of television also ate away at the studio power. By 1955, the central office system pretty much dead as studios focused mainly on financing and distribution which were far more lucrative than actually making films.

What arose was a new package unit system of production which centered around the producers. Independent producers took projects to studios looking for financing and distribution deals. These producers also assembled the directors, actors and craftspeople that would make go and make the film – essentially creating a whole package for investors. And that’s where we begin to see the style of screenplay we have today coming into use…. the Master Scene Script.

Instead of including all the camera angles and scene numbers that the continuity script had – the Master Scene screenplay was all about Readability. It was a document to tell the story of the film – for producers to generate interest from all parties that would go into making the film.

It was only after movie had been greenlit and a director selected – then the Master Scene screenplay would be turned into a shooting script – resembling that of the continuity script under the studio system with all the technical details like camera angles and cuts added under the guidance of the director.

Elements of the Master Scene Screenplay

If you are writing a script today that you want other people to produce, then you need to be writing in the Master Scene Format.

The Master Scene Format has six main elements and we’ll touch on them very briefly.

  1. Scene Heading
  2. Action
  3. Character Name
  4. Parentheticals
  5. Dialogue
  6. Transitions


The first element is the scene heading – often called the slug line. All screenplays written in the master scene format are broken into individual scenes not cuts. Each scene heading is written in all caps and begins with INT or EXT for Interior or exterior. This is followed by the name of the location and a designation of day or night.

The second element is the action portion of the script. This is written in present tense language and should only include what can be seen and heard. In other words, no writing about what people are thinking – this is a film you’re making not a novel. Sounds Effects that are key to the story but heard off screen need to be put in ALL-CAPS as well as the name of a character when you first introduce him or her.

The next element is the Character name. This goes on it’s own line in ALL caps. If the character is off screen or delivering a voice over you can designate it so with an O.S or a V.O.

Underneath the Character name are Parentheticals that shade the meaning of the dialogue delivery. Remember the key to the Master Scene format is Readablility so only include parentheticals that are absolutely necessary for understanding the context of the story.

Then there are the dialogue blocks which are written in their section off set from everything else.

The final element is the scene transition. This is a holdover from the continuity script days. These go on the far right of the script and explain the transition between scenes. Again, the purpose of this format is Readability so only include transitional elements when they are absolutely important to the story you’re trying to tell.

Remember the role that the screenplay in the modern package unit production system – it is a document to sell the story to potential collaborators.  One of those collaborators may be a director and although you may have a great idea of how to shoot a scene you’re job is not to tell the director how to do his or her job. You can hint at what’s important by drawing attention to things in your writing, but leave out the camera direction.

Now the precise formatting of all these elements is absolutely crucial. You must have a 1.5 inch left margin with a 1 inch top and bottom margin and the dialogue blocks 3.7 inches from the left side of the page. Each element has it’s own specific rule for spacing and if you’re attempting to write a screenplay, you could try to set up all the margins yourself but you’re really asking for a world of hurt going that route. There are industry standard screenwriting software programs like Final Draft as well as free versions like Celtx that can handle all your formatting for you and realistically, writing is hard enough. Don’t make it more complicated.

There are a few reasons for these strict rules. On average, 1 page of screenplay formatted this way will result in 1 minute of screentime. So a 120 page script should land right around 2 hours of finished movie. And when it comes down to pre-production, a properly formatted script can be broken down into 1/8ths of a page to be scheduled for production. This format also has a lot of white space which leaves plenty of room for the director and actors to scribble their notes.

But perhaps the most important reason for these rigid formatting rules… its the first clue for the script reader to tell if the writer is a serious screenwriter or just a wannabe dreamer. If you don’t care enough about your movie to format it in the way that the industry wants, make it easy to read and free of major typos, then nobody in the industry will care about your movie either.


With all the books that have been written about the screenplay it’s sometimes easy to forget that the screenplay is still a production document – a living blueprint for a film to be made. As the role of the writer has changed from the studio system to the producer system, the needs of the screenplay and how it has been formatted have changed as well. If you are producing your own work, you can write whatever style and format you so desire. But a word of caution – filmmaking is not a solitary pursuit and you will need to bring other people into your project and your screenplay is your first impression of you, your professionalism, and your movie. Make sure you make it a good one.


The Origins and Formatting of Modern Screenplays Quiz