Screenplay vs. script: What’s the difference?

It is a fundamental truth that words are the building blocks of communication. Words are essential, like breathing, and without these building blocks, the world would be chaotic. For writers and filmmakers, words are indispensable when telling stories because they move their narratives forward. No matter which medium you use to express yourself, words are needed at some point in the process.

In English, we sometimes lose the distinction between two similar words, especially when it comes to media. Let’s look at two terms that get used interchangeably: screenplay and script. While those two terms may appear to describe the same thing, in the media world, there is a difference.

So what do they mean, and what differentiates the two? Let’s break it down.

Screenplay vs. script

In a nutshell, a screenplay connects to film and television only. It’s considered a visual outline of what a production’s bringing to life on the screen. On the other hand, a script is a generic, broad term that you can use in various contexts. Sometimes, its usage doesn’t even fall into the visual medium.

However, production teams may use both “script” and “screenplay” during production. They both have their place in the video industry. However, there are still differences. A script is the initial outline of a production. It includes things like dialogue and actions, but it may not include foundational information needed for production. A screenplay is the finalized outline of the project, essentially being a step above a script. It consists of a thoroughly-developed narrative structure and visual directions to help the crew set up for shooting.

Screenplay vs. script: What is a screenplay?

When most people hear the word “screenplay,” they may instinctively think of the big screen, and they would be right. Though, that doesn’t cover the whole picture. Screenplay, or teleplay, refers to any written script intended for movies and television, the small, silver screen.

Think of a screenplay as a novel. It is the writer’s purpose and job to be as descriptive as possible to bring characters alive and create an elaborate world through the power of words. A screenplay is a canvas to do just that. It lays out a descriptive narrative of a film or TV and allows the reader to visualize what is happening on screen.

In the sample screenplay below, we can see it follows a specific structure and language. For instance, character tags provide headings for dialogue. Scenes are broken up by scene headings and subheadings. There are also elements like parentheticals to clarify tone and transitions, which instruct editors on transitioning into the next scene. Ultimately, screenplays are a defined outline of what technically needs to happen during production and post-production.

Why is it important?

So, what are screenplays used for, and why are they helpful to productions? For starters, a screenplay acts as a blueprint, outlining scenes, character interactions, dialogue and actions. Ultimately, it provides a narrative outline containing descriptive elements in telling and shooting a story. Screenplays detail what is shown on the screen, from auditory to visuals to behavioral to lingual. Thanks to the screenplay, the director, actors and the rest of the crew have a starting point, allowing them to drive up new ideas but keep the narrative grounded with the original production’s intent.

When it comes down to it, most films wouldn’t be possible without screenplays — at least not with the quality we expect them to have. Without a script, it’s easy for productions to overlook details and for the narrative to derail. For instance, Actors need a script. Otherwise, they would have to improvise their lines, likely changing the narrative.

Screenplay vs. script: What is a script?

If a screenplay is a written document that describes a visual story meant for the screen, then a script can be a written document meant for anything regardless of the medium. The word “script” comes from the Latin word meaning “to write.” A script can be for anything and is subject to changes, modifications and additions before being finalized. Unlike screenplays, scripts aren’t limited to film and TV production.

Essentially, scripts refer to any written document of a visual art form used across various mediums, including stage plays, podcasts, video games and radio programs. Regarding video creators, scripts can also be used as part of a YouTube channel and for other video content creators on platforms such as TikTok and Twitch. 

Why is a script important?

The special thing about a script is that anyone can take advantage of it and use it for their specific platform. You can think of a script as a basic outline. For example, if someone’s creating a podcast, they should have a basic script to help them bring up topics they want to talk about during the recording.

Content creators may find that having a script can be helpful in the process of creating videos as well. No matter what kind of content you choose to make, whether it’s comedy skits or talking head videos, scripts help you know what you’re trying to achieve with the video. Additionally, the script acts as a safety net in the creative process since it’s always there if you need to fall back on it.

Scripts can even cross into the realm of video games. With so many current video games pushing the boundaries of their narratives, scripts are necessary. For example, the 2013 video game “The Last of Us” tells the story of Joel. Joel, a smuggler, is tasked with escorting a teenage girl to safety in the middle of a post-apocalyptic United States. This video game has a script that it follows, and it provides developers an outline, including a basic setting and dialogue to help them build a visual world around it. A script in this format doesn’t go into depth like a screenplay, but it gives just enough to play out in its chosen medium.

Script vs. screenplay: the same, yet different

Therein lies the difference between a script and a screenplay. A script can look like a screenplay, with settings, descriptive backstories and characters, but it can also just be a basic outline full of talking points. No matter what medium one chooses to use it for, a script is a valuable asset and gives stability to the creative process. In other words, not all scripts are considered screenplays, but all screenplays come from scripts.

Screenplays are vital to every production in cinema and television production. If you want an even deeper deep dive into screenplays, be sure to check out our article on screenplays. We also have seven editing tips that will take your screenplay from good to great.

Erin Vierra
Erin Vierra
Erin Vierra is a freelance writer and a music news editor for mxdwn.

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