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Understanding Your Project’s Format

Whether you’ve decided on film, TV or the web for your project, you probably will write something: a script, an outline, a treatment, character biographies or maybe just some notes for your extremely talented cast and crew. Here are your main options.

Photo: J0nny1992


The script or screenplay has been the dominant blueprint for filmed anything, and contemporary screenwriters use a specific format. Basically this breaks down to a scene setting, description and dialogue. Read a few scripts for films and television shows to see what this looks like. Even if you know the format, reading scripts can only make you a better writer. That said, writing a script takes a lot of time, energy and practice. Most writers will go through several drafts of a project before they’re satisfied. Since you’re probably not Aaron Sorkin, no one has paid you millions of dollars so you can write your story as a script. The months or years you might need to complete it will have to be on spec, which is Hollywood talk for your own dime. On the other hand, any producers, financiers and actors who haven’t sworn a blood oath to you and your vision will all want to see the script before agreeing to work, so it might be worth the investment of your resources. And speaking of time, it’s also good to remember that one page really does equal one minute of screen time.

Further Reading:

Outline vs. Treatment

Many writers – but by no means all – like to outline their stories before they write their scripts. These outlines can be loose: a collection of scenes on index cards or a list of important story points i.e beats. They can also get more detailed, with character and scene descriptions written out in complete sentences. A treatment is basically an insanely detailed outline that can sometimes read like a novella for the project. Television series also have what’s known as the show’s bible, which is basically a treatment for the show’s seasons combined with an encyclopedia of information about the characters and important story points. The advantage to an outline is that you have a sense of where you’re going before you actually write a screenplay. However, in addition to the extra time you’ll spend on your outline or treatment, you can also lock yourself into an idea that doesn’t work or limit your own creativity if you adhere too closely to a flawed structure. Of course, if you have a polished outline or treatment, you can also try to find partners on your project before actually sitting down to write the screenplay.

Further Reading:

Improv & Experimental Formats

Or you can use that outline to wing it! Yes, not every project needs a script. Some filmmakers like John Cassavettes and Christopher Guest have used treatments and character biographies as the basis for films, allowing the cast to improvise the dialogue and story points.

Maybe you’ve heard of a movie called “This Is Spinal Tap?”

Fun fact: IMDb normally rates movies from one to 10. This Is Spinal Tap received a rating of eight…out of 11.

Even television shows like “Curb Your Enthusiasm” have allowed actors to improvise within scenarios and story points. Why would you want to do this? Well, if you’re working in an extremely low budget format and you trust your cast, you can get out there and actually start shooting without spending all that time trying to perfect every single detail (which will likely get changed on the fly or rewritten if you’re actually fortunate enough to have your project make it to production). This approach can also lead to a kind of balancing act though: you’ll need to have enough detail and direction so that you don’t look like a bunch of amateurs messing around with a video camera, even if that’s basically what you are. Non-fiction projects also require less in the way of a formal script or structure, though often your time simply gets redirected into research and post-production.

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