A Brief History of the Screenplay Format

Screenplay Format

The earliest format of screenplays for films were no more than a synopsis and this resulted in them rarely being more than one paragraph.

Pillow Fight – Format in 1897

An example is the script for the 25 second 1897 film “Pillow Fight” which reads;

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

Films started to tell stories instead of merely filming “events” after the turn of the century, and so screenplays needed to include more narrative detail.

After 1901, as films grew in length and narrative concerns grew more prominent, the importance of scripting as a creative tool increased.

Le Voyage Dans La Lune – Format in 1902

Georges Melies wrote a “screenplay” for his 1902 film “Le Voyage Dans La Lune” (A Trip to the Moon), which was nothing more than a list of the scenes to be shot in the order in which they were to be shown – none longer than a short sentence;

  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.



What would come to be known as the Master Scene Format was first used in 1903 by Edwin S. Porter’s when he adapted Scott Marble’s melodrama for the stage “The Great Train Robbery” into a film. Porter wrote a paragraph of description for each scene which contained detailed action of what was to take place in the frame.

The Great Train Robbery – Format in 1903


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.

When filmmakers started moving the camera in the middle of scenes in order to get different angles and sized shots, the cost of production became more expensive. This prompted the studios to pioneer screenplays that became known as “continuities”.

“Continuities” contained important information directing what shots were to be used, anticipating continuity issues and the accompanying labour, location and set requirements. All of this was done to ensure that Producers could accurately predict the cost of shooting the film. For the first time these documents could be referred to as a “blueprint” for a film.

Talkies raised the Stakes

The birth of the soundtrack and talkies raised the stakes and because they now contained speech, the screenplay became as important to film, as the script was to theatre productions – dialogue was suddenly crucial. Screenplays of course had to include dialogue and they still listed instructions for where the camera was placed and the size of the shot. This format remained the standard until the collapse of the studio system years later.

Writers started to revert to a form of the master scene format roughly at the beginning of the 70’s, and the continuity script became the shooting script, where the director decided on the shots to be used in each scene. These screenplays had no camera angles, only scene descriptions, character action, and the accompanying dialogue.

At some point this format was standardised, and scripts became increasingly literary documents that were filled with visual images and devoid of technical instructions.

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