How To Turn Your Story Into A Screenplay

By John J Burhop

Have you written a short story or a novel? Perhaps you have a great idea for a story but simply haven't written it yet, or just haven't finished it yet. In any case, you can still turn that great idea into a successful screenplay. Does your story contain interesting characters doing and saying interesting things in interesting places? Is there plot, conflict and resolution? If your answer is yes, then you have all the ingredients for a successful screenplay.

In order to write a successful screenplay, you will need to know basic screenplay format. There are many components of a screenplay but I will cover the six most fundamental in order to get you started. They are: Scene Heading, Action, Character, Dialogue, Parenthetical and Transition. The first component of screenplay format is Scene Heading. For example:


EXT. represents "exterior" or outside. The only other option is INT. which represents "interior" or inside. After EXT. or INT., insert one space, then use all capital letters to indicate a location. The location can be something as general as LIVING ROOM (assuming there are no other living rooms in your screenplay) or something as specific as CONFERENCE ROOM G, U.S. PENTAGON. After you have set the location, you need to establish whether it is DAY or NIGHT (also always in all capital letters). Space once, type a dash, and then space once more. DAY or NIGHT should be sufficient to cover every scene in your screenplay. Overuse of terms such as MORNING, AFTERNOON, EVENING, etc. tend to annoy agents, directors and whoever else will be reading your screenplay. Sometimes it may be necessary to indicate a specific time of day such as SUNRISE or SUNSET but keep anything other than DAY or NIGHT to an absolute minimum.

After the Scene Heading, tap your Enter key twice. You are now ready to include Action in your scene. One of the most important rules for writing a screenplay is DO NOT PUT ANYTHING IN YOUR SCREENPLAY THAT CANNOT BE FILMED! I cannot stress this rule enough. More than 90% of screenplays get rejected outright because the writer includes Action which cannot be filmed. Here is an example:


Mary sits up among a pile of garbage. She has no memory of who she is.

This is incorrect. You cannot film the inner workings of Mary's mind. You need to arrive at the fact that she has amnesia in a physical (filmable) way. Such as:


Mary sits up among a pile of garbage. She looks around, confused. A HOMELESS MAN approaches her.


Are you in some kind of trouble, lady?


I don't know. In fact, I don't even

know who I am.

In this example, everything written can be filmed. You probably noticed that I capitalized HOMELESS MAN in the Action text. Here's why. Whenever a Character is introduced for the first time, their name or specific description (such as HOMELESS MAN) must be in all capital letters. This is true for every casted Character in your screenplay. This is so the director knows, at a glance, exactly how many primary and secondary Characters need to be cast before filming begins. Even a Character as minor as a JANITOR who regularly moves past the office window should be introduced with capital letters. After the Character is introduced for the first time, their name or description should follow normal grammatical rules within the Action text (e.g. homeless man, Mary). However, the Character should always be capitalized when centered and reciting dialogue such as in the previous example. Crowd scenes and passerby constitute "extras" and therefore need not be introduced with capital letters. The previous examples all assume that Mary has already been introduced earlier in the screenplay.

You probably also noticed that the Dialogue is centered beneath the Characters' names which are also centered. Dialogue does not follow the same margins as the rest of the screenplay. It is generally centered 2.5 inches from each edge of the page but there are a few variations. I highly recommend purchasing a copy of screenwriting software which will automatically set the margins for all the components of your screenplay. Final Draft is a very popular program that is generally accepted throughout the industry. Try to keep your dialogue to no more than a few sentences at a time. Excessive blocks of dialogue are another annoyance that will get your screenplay rejected. Also remember that people rarely speak in complete and proper sentences. Keep your dialogue natural and flowing.

Parentheticals are sometimes necessary but this is another minefield that screenplay writers often step into. The director does not need to know every time your Character takes a deep breath or raises an eyebrow. Here is an example of an unnecessary parenthetical:


(scratching his filthy beard)

Are you in some kind of trouble, lady?

Directors HATE being told how to direct. You are providing the framework for your film; the director will decide how to portray the homeless man. Of course, sometimes Parentheticals are necessary, such as when a Character is speaking to someone specific among a crowd.


(to the old man in the front row)

Have you achieved your dreams, sir?

Finally, there is Transition. Some examples of Transition are CUT TO:, DISSOLVE TO:, FADE IN:, FADE OUT:, and FADE TO BLACK:. They always appear on the right margin. These should also be used sparingly. When one scene ends and another begins, a Scene Heading is almost always adequate. Using CUT TO: when moving from one scene to another is unnecessary 99 percent of the time. When a new INT. or EXT. appears in your screenplay, it's pretty obvious that you've cut to the next scene. There are exceptions, of course, otherwise there wouldn't be a CUT TO: option. But these instances are generally rare. For example, if your Character is having a flashback or a psychotic episode, you may want to CUT TO: the images in their mind as they burst forth. I'll leave you with an example that covers everything I've discussed here. I'll include some formatting notes in case this article is not properly formatted on this particular site.


Mary stumbles into an alley and collapses onto a pile of garbage.


Mary sits up among the pile of garbage. She looks around, confused. A HOMELESS MAN approaches her.

[dialogue is always centered]


(staring at Mary's purse)

Are you in some kind of trouble, lady?


I don't know. In fact, I don't even

know who I am.

Mary's eyes lose focus.

[transitions are always on left margin]CUT TO:


Mary is walking down the aisle at her wedding.



Mary regains her focus just in time to see the homeless man duck around the corner with her purse.

If you follow these basic rules, you can turn your story into a screenplay in no time. Screenplays are generally 90-120 pages and generally follow the rule that one page equals one minute of film. Most agents and directors prefer the lower end of this range. Overly wordy screenplays can be confusing and hard to keep track of. Tell your story in short, concise pieces and leave out extraneous details that aren't directly relevant to your plot.

I'll admit that when I first began writing my science fiction novel "Rise of The Kek" (as seen in Asimov's Science Fiction magazine, Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine, and Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine), I always pictured it on the big screen. I never expected to receive high literary praise- I was writing a story, a story that I constantly visualized whenever I added a new scene or sentence. Sound familiar? I did eventually turn my novel into a screenplay and you can do the same.

If you found this article helpful, I would greatly appreciate a positive comment or a click on the thumbs-up "like" button or a click on the Google +1 button.

John Joseph Burhop is the author of "Rise of The Kek," a unique science fiction novel that utilizes time dilation as the primary mode for interstellar travel, and "The Universe Can Never Be Complete," a collection of poetry from John's more colorful high school and college years. Both titles are available as eBooks from Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo, Diesel and other distributors.

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