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Screenwriting 101: The History of Screenwriting


Nearly all films are based on a screenplay, yet very few people actually read them, and fewer know how they work. As one of the most in-demand art forms today, screenplays are oddly misunderstood as no one outside of film production reads them. They are not exactly literature, as it belongs to cinematography, but not considered a film either as it has no images; the screenplay finds itself lost between art forms. Its place within art has always been bumpy, especially today as countless screenwriting manuals have been published, each of them claiming different ways to write for screens. Being one of the most popular forms of media, cinema attracts many artists eager to break into the industry, screenwriters included. The objective of this Screenwriting 101 series is to remove the veil from the elusive art of screenwriting, revealing once and for all the true nature of a screenplay.

Screenwriting 101 is divided into s:

  1. Screenwriting 101: The History of Screenwriting

  2. Screenwriting 101: How to Write and Format a Screenplay

  3. Screenwriting 101: Three-Act Structure I - Origins

  4. Screenwriting 101: Three-Act Structure II - Basics

  5. Screenwriting 101: Three-Act Structure III - Rigidity

  6. Screenwriting 101: Three-Act Structure IV - Failure

Screenwriting 101: The History of Screenwriting

In order to understand the condition of screenplays today, it is crucial to dive into its history. If film is considered a new art, the first public projection being in 1895 (Science Media Museum 2020), so is screenwriting. Unlike film, however, screenwriting has not been extensively studied and is not widely taught in schools like cinema. Its study is still fairly recent as it had not been brought to the forefront of filmmaking until the 80s with the proliferation of screenwriting manuals (Price 2013, p. 203). Firstly, filmmakers found themselves in competition with literature and theater, the more senior arts: “literature represented one of the older arts against which the new art of cinema had to assert itself” (Maras 2009, p. 44). Secondly, screenplays are almost exclusively read by screenwriters, making the pool of interested parties quite small. While it is true that directors, actors, and a plethora of artists read screenplays during the filmmaking process, rare are the ones who go out of their way to fetch previously published material. Finally, they were difficult to access since only physical copies existed and were either archived in studios for record-keeping or thrown away, “Everyone knows that when shooting is over, screenplays generally end up in studio wastebaskets” (Carrière 1995, p. 150). Despite these setbacks and ongoing debates among researchers, a rough history of screenplay has been revealed (Maras 2009, Price 2013, Staiger 1985). This article will focus on American history for two reasons. First, the modern idea of screenwriting was established by Hollywood from American manuals (Price 2013, p. 16). Second, since studies are fairly recent, foreign research has yet to be translated or thoroughly investigated. Thus, many foreign conceptions will be overlooked due to a lack of readily available research, mainly in France, Germany and the Soviet Union. It is important to keep in mind that screenplays evolved in distinct environments and industries other than Hollywood. Considering the fact that the American style of screenwriting is widely accepted as the standard today, the logical approach is to showcase its history.

Early on, the concept of screenplay did not exist. In fact, according to Steven Maras (2009), professor in media and communication, the compound term “screenplay” was not in wide use until the 1940s. This is simply because films were no longer than a minute, “Many of the machines of that time could not take more than fifty feet of film at one time, and it was not possible to give more than the hint of a story in the fifty to sixty seconds the picture ran” (Sargent 1913, 8). Between 1896 and 1910, a written plan for shooting was unnecessary, as films were too short to require one. As such, films of that period revolved around the novelty of the new medium, “At first films were marketed on the basis of the technological novelty of moving pictures” (Staiger, 1985, p. 201). Janet Staiger (1985), professor of communication in the Department of Radio-Television-Film, identifies five main categories to which films of the time belonged. The variety act, fictional narratives, scenics, topicals, and trick films. Variety acts and fictional narratives were both shot in studios and were often sketches pulled from stage plays. Scenics were scenes of everyday life from people all around the world, giving the viewer a glimpse into international cultures. Topicals are similar to the concept of news today: they would show current events, from sports to war, and natural disasters. Trick films used new technology to create visual and special effects which were never seen before. The most popular tricks were splicing, slow and fast motion, multiple exposures, and in-camera effects such as blocking the lens (Parkinson, 2012, p. 19). Although rudimentary techniques, they were brand new at the time. Tom Gunning (1986), a teacher of film history and theory, coined the term for this type of film, “cinema of attractions.” As the name suggests, films were attractions, similar to a circus. They were showing something in the nature of the spectacle, which is why their subjects were exotic to the viewer.

Perhaps the first conception of screenplay comes in the form of Salmi Morse’s The Passion Play of Oberammergau (1898). However, this interpretation is quickly debunked by Ted Nannicelli (2013), lecturer of film and television: “The script cannot be a film scenario properly so-called because Morse did not possess the concept ‘film scenario,’ let alone the intention to create one in 1879” (p.83). Morse wrote a stage play in 1879 that was later adapted into a film, thus eliminating the idea of a screenplay since it was a filmed stage play. Steven Price (2013), a professor in modern and contemporary literature and film, and Edward Azlant (1980), a professor of film history and screenwriting, corroborate this interpretation. As a matter of fact, none of the written documents from the 1890s and early 1900s are screenplays. “The temptation to describe such texts as scenarios or screenplays, however tentatively, is a logical error that, repeated sufficiently often, has led to a distorted view of screenwriting activity in the period” (Price, 2013, pp. 25–26). Price argues that early written documents were not screenplays as the source materials were stage plays or newspaper articles, not intended for film. Staiger further develops the argument, “Scripts if written were bare outlines of the action” (Staiger, 1985, p. 274). Excluding filmed plays and articles, scripts were nothing more than outlines, despite the fact that people were hired to write for films as early as 1898 (Stempel, 1998, p. 4).

Proper narrative documents prepared for film did not exist until the 1910s with the introduction of the scenario. The transition from outline to scenario came from a change in production. “During this period [1909], the industry shifted from the director system of production to a multiple director-unit system. One director and his staff could easily bring in a single reel each week” (Staiger, 1976, p. 107). The director system, as defined by Staiger (1976), consisted of a director in charge of all the major elements of production except the camera work, which was performed by a cameraman. This system lasted until 1909 when studios required a more efficient way to mass-produce films. Thus, the director-unit system was born. In this system, the director managed a unit of production. The unit would only work on its own projects, instead of all film productions across the company (Staiger, 1976, p. 211). The modifications in this system provoked a transformation in planning. To meet deadlines and increase efficiency, directors needed to improve their pre-production documents rather than delivering simply a mere outline. To save time and money, scenarios were used to show shot numbers, cast, characters, locations, and a synopsis (Staiger, 1976, p. 185). A scenario offered a proper structure for directors who could now shoot films out of order. Before the director-unit system, film crews had to shoot in chronological order, losing significant resources on travel time. Now, directors could keep track of each scene and location, allowing for the much more modern approach of filmmaking: shooting out of order. A crew could now film all scenes in a single location, regardless of the order in which they appear (Staiger, 1985, p. 214). For instance, if three shots were in the same location but at different times in the film, for example, shots 12,16 and 19, they could all be filmed at once. Thanks to the scenario, directors could rearrange the order of the filmed scenes in post-production.

Moreover, directors needed to create narrative structure in their films as audiences were becoming tired of the cinema of attraction and favoring narrative films (Staiger, 1985, p. 214). Needing to mass-produce good stories, studios resorted to hiring outside writers, because:

it was seen that the studio force could not produce each week a sufficiently strong story, and outside writers were invited to contribute suggestions […]. These mere synopses were developed in the studio into scripts since few of the writers possessed the knowledge of picture-making requisite to enable them to develop the script (Sargent, 1913, p. 8).

While it is true that scenarios were much more detailed than outlines, they were not screenplays. In the end, directors either developed their own stories or used synopses from which to develop their films. Additionally, the complete absence of any standardized format made scripts incomprehensible to anyone outside a single unit (Price, 2013, p. 76). “Not surprisingly, both the titles and the scenes of the assembly accord more closely with the film than does the scenario of five weeks earlier” (Price, 2013, p. 67). Scenarios were, at best, rough drafts of the movie. They were still just a piece in the assembly of a film, resulting in wild variances from one version of the scenario to the next. Considering both the need for new stories and the approximate nature of the scenario, it is unsurprising that most films still took material from magazines, novels, and plays (Staiger, 1976, p. 108).

Figure 2: Scenes were most often filmed in wide shots, from the actors' side. Still from "New York Hat" (1912) by D. W. Griffith

The scenario would soon be replaced by a new kind of document as audience preferences and technological advances would impact filmmaking:

two major changes occurred: first, the idea of quality changed between 1908 and 1917, and, second, the standard length of the film increased during the same period. Both of these changes caused the manufacturers to shift from the scenario script to the continuity script (Staiger, 1976, p. 177).

Continuity, verisimilitude, narrative clarity, and spectacle were the new standards of quality for Hollywood films (Staiger, 1985, p. 244). These three concepts somewhat overlap. Verisimilitude ensures the respect of logical, temporal, and spatial continuity as well as coherent psychology and mise-en-scène (Staiger, 1976, p. 181). Spectators grew increasingly conscious of verisimilitude in films, pointing out gaps in logic such as incoherent time lapses or out-of-character actions. For example, if a scene is set in the dead of winter in Moscow, it is illogical for characters to walk around wearing shorts. Continuity ensures logical, not necessarily chronological, progress within the story. It is worth noting that the concept of continuity at that time differs from that of today. Continuity in contemporary cinema refers to a series of camera and editing techniques that support visual continuity and not a type of script (Thompson, 1985, p. 288). Respecting these new narrative criteria was possible in the old director-unit system with the scenario, but the multi-reel feature film advanced as the new norm, requiring longer scripts (Price, 2013, p. 76). The new continuity script served two main purposes identified by Price (2013, p. 76). Firstly, continuities provided full-length scripts with shot details. Secondly, detailed continuities allowed producers to estimate budgets for their films as the script accurately indicated “every single shot detailed and numbered, the location, scene description, lighting and/or camera effects, intertitles, detailed actions and crosscutting” (Staiger, 1976, p. 185). Price (2013) notes that these purposes led to the widespread belief that a script is a blueprint for a film (p. 76). This new period of production is the central producer system (Staiger, 1985). This system places a producer at the top of the filmmaking hierarchy. Directors still retained all creative input, but producers had the final say in all of their firm’s films.

With the rise of longer narration in cinema came the need for better writers. To solve this issue, many schools introduced courses to train students in film and screenwriting, the Palmer Photoplay Corporation being one of the most successful in that regard (Morey, 1997, p.300). Along with schools, books on screenwriting started to be published. Epes Winthrop Sargent’s The Technique of the Photoplay (1913) was one of the first manuals of its kind. He starts off by claiming that “Photoplay, in a word, is not an adaptation of another branch of literary work, but is possessed of a technique all its own” (Sargent, 1913, p. 7). Screenwriting as its own art form was gaining momentum. If scenarios were roughly drafted versions of outlines and synopses, the continuity was a true full-length narration requiring skill. Despite this, people still viewed it as an inferior or alternate form of literature. “This method of first laying out a play in outline or scenario form comes to us from the writers of the regular or legitimate drama” (Slevin, 1912, p. 34). In this case, scripts are irregular or illegitimate dramas. The blueprint metaphor holds screenwriting back as it still is nothing more than a step in the process of filmmaking.

Figure 3: Continuities had extensive decor descriptions and shot calling. "C.U." at the bottom of the text refers to "close-up". Excerpt from the script of "The Lost World" (1925)

The continuity script in Hollywood lasted until the arrival of sound in the early 1930s (Price 2013, p. 76). The technological innovation posed a sizeable challenge for writers: how to include sound. In silent cinema, dialogues were scarce as they could only appear on-screen, interrupting the action. Writers now had to find a way to introduce dialogues and general noise in their scripts. They improvised:

no inter-studio agreement on screenplay format seems to have been implemented. Instead, the picture is a great deal more complicated, and messier, with considerable evidence that there was a greater or lesser degree of standardisation within studios, but little between them (Price, 2013, pp. 144–145).

Indeed, continuities were already distinct from one studio to the other, and sound further ruptured formatting. While it is true that within studios general guidelines were established, there was no such agreement between them. Consequently, the new type of script born from the change was a hybrid, the master-scene screenplay (Price, 2013, p. 144). Staiger’s (1985) analysis further supports this claim, “The form that eventually became standard (the master-scene) was a combination of theatrical and pre-sound film scripts, a variant of the continuity synopsis used in the 1920s” (Staiger, 1985, p. 562). Unsurprisingly, these “chimeras” led to confusion: “This [hybrid script] leads to an element of confusion, because the word ‘scene’ tended to refer both to master scenes and shots, with a new shot and a new scene each introducing a new ‘scene’ number” (Price, 2013, p. 41). Previously, scenes were numbered as shots since they were equal: one shot for one scene. Since screenplays now had to draw attention to specific actions or elements within a scene (Price, 2013, p. 141), additional shots were required. If a character drops an important letter, for instance, a shot of the fallen letter is necessary to highlight its importance. In this example, there are three shots in a single scene. Shot one: a character walking; shot two: the dropped letter; shot three: a character leaving, unaware of their slip-up. This problem is even more evident within dialogues. Directors swiftly adopted the shot/reverse shot technique to film dialogues, multiplying the number of shots per scene. When characters speak to each other, they are not always filmed in the same shot together. Rather, each character is framed separately based on whose turn it is to talk. When the first character talks, he is alone in the frame. That is considered the shot. When the second character answers, he is also alone in the visual frame. That is the reverse shot (or countershot). Through this method, the camera alternates angles from one character to the other. Conversations are composed of several lines between two or more characters. Therefore, there are an equal number of shots, unless characters are filmed in a two-shot where they are together in the frame. The arrival of sound resulted in the multiplication of shots within a scene. Scenes and shots used to mean the same thing, but now several shots exist in a scene and they’re numbered. To better understand the script during this time, it is more useful to view it as a spectrum. Price (2013) notes that the continuity and the master-scene screenplay are two ends of a continuum. As master scenes are composed of scenes and continuities of shots, most scripts from 1930 to 1950 belong somewhere between the two (Price, 2013, p. 144).

Figure 4: An early example of sound in script, "The Jazz Singer" (1927). A part-talkie film.

The transformation of the screenplay between the 1930s and 1950s is not fully understood. Price (2013) notes “The Classical Hollywood Cinema proposes, slightly ambiguously and elliptically, that in the 1930s Hollywood then effected a change from the numbered continuity to the ‘master-scene’ script that is the default screenplay format of today” (Price, 2013, p. 8). The master scene screenplay was introduced during that time. However, it was not the default format until the 1970s with the meteoric rise of screenplay manuals, most notably Syd Field’s, screenwriting guru, Screenplay (1979). Screenplays were a hybrid of the continuity and master scene, not purely one or the other. Furthermore, the old conception of the master scene is different from today. The precise rules and format did not exist in the old conception of the master-scene since it was manuals from the 70s that introduced them (Price 2013, 16). How then did today’s variation of the old master scene become the default? Screenwriting would require standardizing until manuals came along to establish clear rules. The answer is still up for debate. However, researchers agree (Stempel, 1998; Price, 2013; Staiger, 1985) that a single turning point marks a clear change for screenwriting: United States v. Paramount Pictures, 1948. “In 1948 the United States Supreme Court ruled in the case of the United States vs. Paramount Pictures. Paramount was found in violation of the antitrust laws. The outcome was that the studios had to give up control of the theaters they owned” (Stempel, 1998, p. 156). Until 1948, the eight major studios, Paramount, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, RKO Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., Universal, Columbia, and United Artists owned their theaters. This was a massive change since the majors could no longer control a guaranteed market for their films (Stempel, 1998, p. 156). In order to secure profits, major studios worked together to show their films in their theaters. Since they owned a vast majority across the country, only their films were ever shown (Balio, 1976, p. 402). Independent filmmakers and producers could not tap into the stage. Unable to ensure profits, studios could not have guaranteed work for their employees. Studios stopped signing contracts with artists as work was no longer a sure thing (Stempel, 1998, p. 156). Among these artists were screenwriters. Price (2013) adds that by the end of the 1950s, “writers were no longer employees on regular studio contracts but, in effect, were independent providers to independent or semi-independent producers within a system in which studios largely controlled financing and distribution” (Price, 2013, p. 202). The Paramount case of 1948 meant the end of contracts and the beginning of independent screenwriters.

Figure 5: An example of a script closer to the master-scene. Note the lack of "INT/EXT" indication in scene headers, wide text setup at the bottom and absence of camera direction. Excerpt from "Sunset Boulevard" (1950).

Now independent, screenwriters had to sell their scripts individually to producers and studios. This was the growth of the spec script. “[A] speculatively written screenplay is a physical property, a ‘selling’ script, written independently of production” (Price, 2013, p. 202). Spec, short for speculative, is the type of screenplay written post-1948. As they were no longer contracted to write, screenwriters had to sell their individual scripts. Thus, they were writing in speculation, with the hopes that it will sell. Screenwriters worked according to their studio’s rough guidelines for scripts. Since little similarities existed between studios’ script formats, veteran writers had to sell to their old studio, and new writers had to learn how to write a screenplay. They, according to Price (2013), turned to producing screenwriting manuals. Manuals favored the master-scene script over the continuity: “The screenplay completes the task of expression in terms of scenes” (Vale, 1944, p. 273). For the spec script, scenes take priority over shots. Eugene Vale (1944), screenwriter and best-selling novelist, identifies scene changes according to locations and time (Vale, 1944, p. 56). While continuities changed scenes for every shot, master scene scripts were built around time and space regardless of how many shots a singular scene would contain. The propagation and proper definition of the master scene contributed to its selection as standard. Lewis Herman (1952), screenwriter, further develops the definition by excluding shots and camera direction altogether, “That is a master scene. No camera angles have been indicated. Only a scene description, character action, and the accompanying dialogue have been attended to” (Herman, 1952, p. 171). As such, the master scene was a screenplay containing only scene descriptions, actions, dialogues, and structures based on location and time. By following these manuals, writers began to standardize the screenplay, or so suggests Price’s (2013) theory. He continues by pointing out similarities in format, notably font. Screenplays were written in the Courier font since the 1950s because it was widely available on typewriters (Price, 2013, p. 202). Combined, the rise of the spec script, screenwriting manuals and a common font set the scene for the standard screenplay of the late 70s.

Finally, the history of screenplay is murky and much research still needs to be conducted. “Film scholars, with some important exceptions, have naturally focused on films themselves and have tended to regard screenplays as, in effect, industrial waste products: what remains of value after production is the film itself, not the screenplay” (Price, 2013, p. 19). From bare outlines to detailed narratives, screenplays have always been overshadowed by cinema. At the whims of studios and the industry, screenwriters continuously adapted their craft to meet filmmaking expectations, rarely for the art itself. It is not until the late 70s that screenwriting finally started to stabilize itself, allowing everyone to discover the art and use the new format for themselves or for selling purposes. The screenplay underwent evolutions and variations between its standardization and today. The changes remain small as they mostly account for advances in technology, audience preferences, and simplifications. The following chapter in this 101 series will tackle the language, rules, principles, and general format of the medium as established in the 70s and today.


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Balio, T. (1976) Retrenchment, Reappraisal, and Reorganization, 1948-. In T. Balio (Ed.), The American Film Industry (pp.401-447). University of Wisconsin Press.

Carrière, J.-C. (1994). The Secret Language of Film (J. Leggatt, Trans.) Faber.

Gunning, T. (1986). The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, the Spectator and the Avant-Garde. Wide Angle 8(3–4), 63–70.

Herman, L. (1952). A Practical Manual of Screen Playwriting for Theater and Television Films. World Publishing Company.

Maras, S. (2009). Screenwriting: History, Theory and Practice. Wallflower.

Morey, A. (1997). “Have You the Power?” The Palmer Photoplay Corporation and the Film Viewer/Author in the 1920s. Film History 9(3), 300–319.

Nannicelli, T. (2013). A Philosophy of the Screenplay. Routledge.

Parkinson, D. (2012). 100 Ideas that Changed Film. Laurence King Publishing.

Price, S. (2013). A History of the Screenplay. Palgrave Macmillan.

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Science Media Museum. (2020, June 18). A Very Short History of Cinema.

Slevin, J. (1912). On Picture-Play Writing: A Hand-Book of Workmanship. Farmer Smith.

Staiger, J, (1976). Blueprints for Feature Films: Hollywood’s Continuity Script. In T. Balio (Ed.), The American Film Industry (pp. 173–192). University of Wisconsin Press.

Staiger, J. (1985). The Hollywood mode of production to 1930. In D. Bordwell, J. Staiger & K. Thompson (Eds.), The Classical Hollywood Cinema (pp. 88–245). Routledge.

Staiger, J. (1985). The Hollywood mode of production, 1930–60. In D. Bordwell, J. Staiger & K. Thompson (Eds.), The Classical Hollywood Cinema (pp. 548–579). Routledge.

Stempel, T. (1998). Framework: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film. Continuum Publishing Company.

Thompson, K. (1985). The formulation of the classical style, 1909–28. In D. Bordwell, J. Staiger & K. Thompson (Eds.), The Classical Hollywood Cinema (pp. 245–472). Routledge.

Vale, E. (1944). The Technique of Screenplay Writing. Grosset & Dunlap.