This lesson is going to cover the basics of script formatting and cover some of the usual concerns people have when first starting out.
First and foremost, your scriptwriting program should cover many of your essential formatting issues. Margins, tabs, and title pages are built into the many apps listed below.
Have you picked yours? Sometimes it takes us a while to get comfortable with it, and will never be the one that works for you. Since there are plenty of free or freemium options (free but paying for it offers a better experience), it's best to try several out before committing (and spending) on just one.
- Celtx - Although this one is free, be cautious not to accidentally pay for the expensive option.
- Final Draft - pricey and not recommended for when you are first starting out.
- Trelby - free. Open source and a little gooofy, but popular with people on a PC.
- Writer Duet
- Fountain | Highland - my favourite
- Other writing apps
To get a sense of what a script page looks like, look at this is page from The Avengers, shared here for educational purposes.
Notice the amount of white space in relation to the text. We aren't looking for over-written pages, but keeping everything tight and simple.
A simple ratio to consider is that one page should equal one minute of screen time. This means that the decriptions, dialogue, and actions on the page should take one minute if they were viewed.
Here is the Full Avengers script (PDF) for viewing
Bonus Material: The Origins and Formatting of Modern Screenplays, from Filmmaker IQ
Elements of a Screenplay
The construction of a screenplay is complosed of four major elements: Scene headings (or slug lines), narrative descriptions, dialogue, and the title page.
Let's go through each one.
Scene Headings (or Sluglines)
The first element is the scene heading, which is used whenever introducing a new location or a new time.
They are are composed of three pieces:
- The Camera location: INT. or EXT.
- The Scene location: CHUCK’S BEDROOM
- The Time of Day: DAY or NIGHT
Some scripts will have other notations like MORNING, EVENING, NOON, but unless there is specific information in the scene (the sun rises or setting), then it is most likely not relevant. For now we'll focus on just DAY or NIGHT.
All together, they will look something like this:
There are a few special scene headings that will be used. There is the special Notations for dream sequences:
- SARAH’S DREAM
- INT. HOUSE - DAY - SARAH’S DREAM
- INT. HOUSE - DAY (SARAH’S DREAM)
And there is the special notation for flashbacks:
- EXT. BUDAPEST - DAY (5 YEARS AGO)
Other Special Sluglines
French scenes (Secondary Sluglines)
These are used when when focusing on several smaller locations in a large location.
For example in Casablanca, there is INT. RICK’S CAFE, but inside of it there is AT THE BAR or GAMING ROOM or RICK’S TABLE.
Notice that you don’t need to add interior or time.
To begin with you need to add an opening master slug-line (INT. RICK'S CAFE - DAY) to set up the location, and then add in your individual French scenes.
You can also create French scenes that focus on characters:
INSERTs are used to point out a small, specific detail:
This is a variation of the INSERT.
The typed words are indented like dialogue and in quotations marks.
A more readable style could be:
You can also add location slug lines in here as well.
These contain the actions, settings, characters, sounds, and transitions. Once you've introduced a location, always set the scene with a narrative description, detailing any new locations and what characters are in the scene.
Write only what you can see and hear in the narrative description. Never write thoughts, smells, or backstories. If it can't be filmed, it shouldn't be described.
When writing narrative descriptions, always work in active voice and present tense.
On first introudction, characters are written in UPPER CASE in the narrative description only. Never do this in dialogue. Once they are introduced, use normal capitalization for proper names and no capitalization on common nouns.
Capitalize important SOUNDS, IMPORTANT and UNIQUE MOMENTS. But don’t abuse. Do not capitalize props.
Mose importantly, use brevity. Use short descriptions and only three to four lines of action per paragraph. Remember white space is important and that one page should equal about one minute of screen time.
If you aren't directing, try to avoid camera directions and transitions.
Montages are often used to show a short sequence, often focused around a specific idea or action. It is often without dialogue, and used to compress a long passage of time into a short moment of screen time.
An example might look like this:
Please notice the introduction of it with the MONTAGE and the deatiling of the action (SARAH and MIKE BUILD THE CAR). Also, each moment is set off with a double hyphen, then a space (-- They gather the parts.).
One final note is to keep consistency. End each moment with a period on each line.
There are four main parts to your dialogue:
- Character Cues - written in ALL CAPS and centred on the page.
- O.S. and V.O. - If a character is off-screen but in the scene, use (O.S.) and if they aren't in the scene use (V.O.).
- Parentheticals (also called wrylies): These are located below the character cue and used to tell how a line is delivered (sarcastically, angrily, etc.). You are discouraged not to use these unless absolutely necessary. Like transitions and camera direction, they are direction and will be ignored by the cast and crew.
- Dialogue. Treat it like an action and keep it short. Be sure to write clearly, and not like a comic book (i.e. WHAAAAAAAT!?!), or with forced accents.
An example of dialogue might look like this:
Also, please notice how every scene leads with narrative description, setting up the locations and characters within a scene before leading into the dialogue.
Example of Telephone Conversation
A unique case for dialogue are telephone conversations. There are multiple approaches, but here is a simple example of how to introduce one.
Introduce each character in their location, before connecting them with the phone call.
At the end of conversation, you will return to one of their scenes, so treat it like as such and use a SLUGLINE.
The next element is the cover page. Most writing programs will do the work for you, but make sureL
- Your title is CAPITALIZED.
- Your name is listed below it with the designation "Written by:"
- Your contact information is listed in a bottom corner (often right, but determined by your writing program).
- No DRAFT designations. This is used for production and not required for your initial script.
This final element is located at the end of your script, and lets your reader know there are no more pages. You have three choices:
- Right aligned (like a transition) - FADE OUT.
- Right aligned - FADE TO BLACK.
- Centered - THE END.
Make sure it is written correctly.
A few Last (but important) Rules:
In this class, always show the story unfolding:
- Never direct it.
- Never write “we see” or camera directions (“the camera pans to…”)
- Keep us in the fictional space of the story.
Write a 2-3 page scene that uses proper formatting (respect those page counts). The scene must include:
- One use of montage
- One telephone conversation
- Written in active, present tense.
- Proper screenplay format (including sluglines; parenthesis, ALL CAPS on introduction of character)
- Includes a title page that uses proper format.
- Only 5 errors allowed on each page.
Due: Sunday Sept. 6 at midnight (Saskatchewan time).