Understanding Screenplays

Module code: EN3175

Module co-ordinator: Dr Harry Whitehead

Writing screenplays requires creativity, a broad comprehension of the highly structured formatting of scripts, and an awareness of the many technical rules of the medium. This practical module combines the analytical and the creative. You'll learn how to read screenplays critically and practically, develop a working knowledge of the medium and the industry itself, and begin to write for yourself.

The first two thirds of the course will concentrate on reading scripts, becoming familiar with their very rigid format, and learning the realities of screen production. Focusing on two or three particular film scripts, we will consider the technicalities of laying down screen action on the page, as well as issues of plotting, conflict, showing not telling, and character development. We will also discuss some of the practical film-making issues that a screenwriter must bear in mind when developing a script that – in perhaps the most competitive of all creative industries – has any chance of making it to production.


The course will progress in this way:

  • Week 1 – Introduction
  • Week 2 – The Format of a Script (how a script is laid out on the page and why)
  • Week 3 – TV and Film Genres
  • Week 4 – Character and Conflict
  • Week 5 – Plot and the 'Inciting Incident'
  • Week 6 – 'Show Don’t Tell'
  • Week 7 – Workshop 1: Choosing a Short Story to Adapt
  • Week 8 – Workshop 2: Developing the Script (group work)
  • Week 9 – Workshop 3: Pitching the Adaptation (each group pitches the story and discusses the issues it presented in development)

The module will be delivered by weekly two-hour seminars, which will include short lectures and film viewings. Students will be required to read scripts and other practical and theoretical works on the subject and to make presentations on particular topics for discussion.

In the final three weeks of term, students will split into groups. Each group will choose a short story (from a given selection) that they believe may work as an adaptation into a short film. Key issues will be clarity of character and story, visual potential, and the practicalities of 'showing' the story through narrative action. In the final week, each group will 'pitch' their story to the seminar and discuss the issues that arose in group development. As part of their assessment, each student must then individually adapt the short story into a final script.

By the end of the module, you will have acquired...

  • An ability to read a script and understand its layout and formatting requirements
  • A broad comprehension of the medium and of the industry itself, including some of the practical film-making requirements of a script
  • The ability to write a short film script adaptation of around ten pages that illustrates comprehension of the medium's formatting requirements and rules


  • An essay of between 1,000 and 1,500 words that evaluates the script adaptation in terms of its use of plot, conflict, dialogue, characterization, and other aspects of the medium