This lesson will cover script formatting basics and some of the usual concerns people have when learning scriptwriting.
Of course, the primary resource will always be your textbook.
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 pay for the expensive option accidentally.
- Final Draft - pricey and not recommended for when you are first starting.
- Trelby - free. Open source and a little goofy, 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 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 descriptions, dialogue, and actions on the page should take one minute if 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
Four major elements comprise the construction of a screenplay:
- Scene headings (or slug lines)
- Narrative descriptions
- Title page
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 composed of three pieces:
- The Camera location: INT. or EXT.
- The Scene location: CHUCK’S BEDROOM
- The Time of Day: DAY, NIGHT, LATER, or CONTINUOUS
All together, they will look something like this:
Always think about the location of the camera central to your main character. Are they inside a space or outside.
When it comes to forests and oceans, both are considered exterior since they are outside of a space. An interior would be a structure within that space, like a cottage or a submarine.
This is an indicator for your cast and crew to know where the scene takes place.
Don't use description here. That will be added in the narrative descriptions later.
Time of Day
DAY and NIGHT are the only times of day I want you to use. Some scripts will have other notations like MORNING, EVENING, NOON, but unless there is specific information in the scene (for example, the sun rises), it is most likely not relevant. DAY and NIGHT are only indications for the crew when they are filming the scene.
LATER is used when time has passed in the same location, and CONTINUOUS is used when one scene leads into the next.
Since space has no light, you can skip time of day completely.
Other Special Sluglines
There are a few special scene headings that will be used.
These will look like this:
- 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)
When dealing with a vehicle, think about where the action is taking place (Is it inside the vehicle or outside?). If there is one character outside speaking with another inside, then where is the focus? (I'd most likely lean toward the exterior.)
As well, if the vehicle is travelling, then you can use a slugline like:
INT. CAR - DAY - TRAVELLING
French scenes (Secondary Sluglines)
These are used when focusing on several smaller locations in a large area.
For example, in Casablanca, there is INT. RICK’S CAFE, but inside it, there is AT THE BAR or GAMING ROOM or RICK’S TABLE.
Notice that you don’t need to add interior or time.
First, you need to add an opening master slug-line (INT. RICK'S CAFE - DAY) to set up the location, and then add in your French scenes.
You can also create French scenes that focus on characters:
INSERTs are used to point out a small, specific detail:
A similar strategy would be how you would treat FLASHBACKS. Also, notice how this moves away from the INSERT, which is attached to old school scripts and not as clean and modern as newer stuff.
This is a variation of the INSERT.
The typed words are indented like dialogue and in quotation marks.
A more readable style could be:
You could also use the location slug lines to indicate it:
These contain 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 which characters are in the scene.
Only write 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 the first introduction of a character, write their name in UPPER CASE in the narrative description only. Never do this in dialogue. Once they are introduced, use normal capitalization for their proper names (i.e. Joe) and no capitalization on common nouns (i.e. the man).
Capitalize important SOUNDS, IMPORTANT and UNIQUE MOMENTS. But don’t abuse. Do not capitalize props.
Most 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, usually focused around a specific idea or action. It is often without dialogue and used to compress a long passage of time into a brief moment of screen time.
An example might look like this:
Introduce the section with MONTAGE and then detail the action that it describes (SARAH and MIKE BUILD THE CAR). Each moment is then 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, then use (V.O.).
- Parentheticals (also called wrylies): These are located below the character cue and 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:
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 is 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.
You will return to the scene at the end of the conversation, so use a SLUGLINE.
Speakers or Intercoms
V.O. is used to indicate characters speaking through speakers, televisions, or a telephone. Another solution may be to use a paranthetical below the name indicating where the sound is coming from (i.e. from the intercom).
The next element is the cover page. Most writing programs will do the work for you but make sure that you have all the pieces correct:
- Your title is CAPITALIZED.
- Your name is listed below it with the designation "Written by:"
- Your contact information is listed in the bottom corner (often right, but determined by your writing program).
- No DRAFT designations. This is used for production and isn't 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.
- Centred - THE END.
Make sure it is written correctly.
THE BIG REMINDERS:
In this class, always show the story unfolding:
- Never direct it.
- Only DAY or NIGHT
- Never write “we see” or camera directions (“the camera pans to…”)
- Keep us in the fictional space of the story.
- Keep on top of your page counts.
Each week, you are expected to submit 4-5 pages of your upcoming script.
- Written in the active, present tense.
- Proper screenplay format (including sluglines; parenthesis, ALL CAPS on the introduction of characters).
- Includes a title page that uses the proper format.
- Only 5 errors are allowed on each page.
Due: Sunday, Jan. 17 at 7 p.m. (Saskatchewan time).