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Screenwriting and Playwriting

Molly T., writing center tutor

Please keep in mind that these are only general guidelines; always defer to your professor's specifications for a given assignment. If you have any questions about the content represented here, please contact the Writing Centers so that we can address them for you.


The theater and film industries are glamorous artistic communities, but they wouldn’t exist without diligent and creative writers to imagine the scripts. There are many possibilities for creative outlet in the fields of playwriting and screenwriting—just learn the conventions of the genre, and you will be headed to the Tonys or the Oscars in no time.

Playwriting and screenwriting are different from other forms of creative writing; they are not only meant to be read but also to be performed—whether onstage or on screen. Dialogue is the driving force of plays and films. Your dialogue should propel the story forward, hurtling it towards complications, conflicts, and desires. This means everything is more dramatic! (It is called drama for a reason).

There are many sub-genres in playwriting and screenwriting. Some general types of plays and films include the following: comedies, tragedies, dramas, and musicals. Films get more creative with genres, including such categories as Action Adventure and Romantic Comedy.

Before starting to write a play or film, you should consider the elements of good storytelling. Many of the rules that apply to fiction also apply to playwriting and screenwriting. It is all about telling a compelling story that your audience will want to watch. Because of this, the actors reading the scripts will need directions on how to act onstage. Most scripts also include annotations for wardrobe, directors, lighting, and whatever else the writer imagines—or what you think the play or film will look and sound like.

The “cookie cutter” script is 3 acts long: the first act (protasis or exposition), the second act (epitasis or complication), and the final act (catastrophe or resolution). The middle act is usually the longest. Although this is the industry standard, it is by no means a rule of thumb. Most of Shakespeare’s plays were 5 acts, and some plays are even one act long. Think of it in terms of a short story. You want your conflict development to be longer than your setup or your resolution. The drama in plays and movies is in the buildup of the conflict in the second act or epitasis. Remember that each page of dialogue in a script should equal one minute of stage or screen time. Of course, the stage direction and other annotations will take up more space, so this time estimate is not exact, but a useful tool to discover how long your script will take to perform.

The crucial aspect of playwriting and screenwriting, as with storytelling, is developing a conflict based on your protagonists’ desires. The conflict could be external or internal, but the importance of play and screenwriting is that, generally speaking, the conflict should be expressed through dialogue and decision-making. To build the conflict, there must always be obstacles to the protagonist’s desires. The characters should talk through their decisions with themselves (soliloquy) or with others (dialogue) before making a decision that will propel the plot forward. Consider Macbeth, for example. The plot of the story wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if you did not see Macbeth and Lady Macbeth explicitly desiring power and later rationalizing and discussing their decision-making process before and after they murder the king.

Another playwriting and screenwriting convention that differs from fiction writing is in the character descriptions and developments in a script. An entire section at the beginning of scripts is devoted to explicit, concise character descriptions including desires, personality traits, physical attributes, age, wardrobe, and name. The action in the script is always devoted to the characters and development of their stories and conflicts, where in fiction characters may not be the most important aspect of the story.

One of the aspects of play and screenwriting that distinctly differentiates it from fiction writing is in the document design. Where in other forms of creative writing the author is able to control what the piece looks like, industry standards dictate form and layout. Both writing styles require the writer use specific word processing programs to adhere to industry standards. Be sure to know you are submitting your script in the proper word processing format to conform to professional expectations in the field.

Preferred Bibliographic Style

No industry standard for playwriting


  • Font: 12-pt. Courier pitch

  • Features are traditionally between 95 and 125 pages long

  • Write directions in active voice

Common Play and Film Types

  • Screenplay

    • Feature

    • Made for TV movie

    • Television

    • Shorts

  • Stage play

    • Ten-minute script

    • One-act

    • Full- or Feature-length plays or scripts

    • Musicals

Key Terms

For screenwriting:

  • Spec Script or Specs: a script not commissioned by a production company, but written by a writer in the hopes it will be picked up

  • Fade In, Fade Out: camera directions to apply a fade to the beginning or end of scene

  • Ext. = exterior shot

  • Int. = interior shot

  • O.S. Off-Screen

  • V.O. Voiceover

For playwriting:

  • Act: A large division of a full-length play, separated from the other act or acts by an intermission.

    • Scene: Action taking place in one location and in a distinct time that (hopefully) moves the story to the next element of the story.

  • Beat: a parenthetically noted pause interrupting dialogue, denoted by (beat), for the purpose of indicating a significant shift in the direction of a scene, much in the way that a hinge connects a series of doors
  • Header: an element of a Production Script occupying the same line as the page number, which is on the right and .5" from the top. Printed on every script page, header information includes the date of a revision and the color of the page
  • Off: short for offstage. Typically written as (off) next to a character name when a character speaking dialogue is offstage while she speaks.

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