Video and Audio Versions
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 David Trottier's The Screenwriter’s Bible. If you don't find it in there or the lesson below, you can always contact me and I will help answer your question.
What is a script?
Think of it as a blueprint of your story for the cast and crew. The script follows certain technical formatting requirements which we'll practice over the semester, but it also should engage the reader's emotions.
First and foremost, your scriptwriting program should cover many of your essential formatting issues. Margins, tabs, and title pages are built into many of the apps listed below.
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
- Arc Studio
- StudioBinder - I haven't used this one, but it looks like it offers one script on a free account.*
- Fountain | Highland - my favorite
- Other writing apps
- Pages Warner Brothers template - free. I'm not 100% on-board with this one, but it's recommended by an old student. If you use it and I don't comment on the look of your page, then you're good.
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
Five major elements comprise the construction of a screenplay:
- Scene headings (or slug lines)
- Narrative descriptions
- Title page
- THE END
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
Altogether, they will look something like this:
INT. CHUCK’S BEDROOM - DAY
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 a description here. That will be included 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, and 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 immediately into the next. Think of a one-shot scene like the club in Goodfellas or the entire film of the military drama 1917.
Since space has no light, you can skip the 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)
There are many ways to do flashbacks (all of which are listed in the book). However, some preferred notations are:
- EXT. BUDAPEST - DAY (FLASHBACK)
- EXT. BUDAPEST - DAY - FLASHBACK
- FLASHBACK - EXT. BUDAPEST - DAY
After using the flashback, indicate the return to the present day:
- EXT. BUDAPEST - DAY (BACK TO PRESENT DAY)
- EXT. BUDAPEST - DAY - BACK TO PRESENT DAY
- BACK TO PRESENT DAY - EXT. BUDAPEST - DAY
It is important to remain consistent. Use the same format for both versions.
Finally, there is a special notation for flashbacks that hop around many different time periods:
- EXT. BUDAPEST - DAY (5 YEARS AGO)
- EXT. BUDAPEST - DAY - 5 YEARS AGO
Again, remain consistent as you return to the present storyline or another time period.
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 traveling, 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 the film 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:
This is a variation of the INSERT.
The typed words are in quotation marks.
A more readable style could be:
You could also use the location slug lines to indicate it:
The next element is narrative descriptions.
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.
❗️Open every scene with a narrative description, informing us who is in the scene and what they are doing.
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 physical 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).
You don't need to capitalize non-speaking characters.*
Capitalize on important or unique SOUNDS or 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 on 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.).
Add a double space between each line.*
One final note is to keep consistency. End each moment with a period on each line.
The next element is dialogue. It is composed of four main parts:
- Character Cues - written in ALL CAPS and centered 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 shots, they are directions and will be ignored by the cast and crew.
- Dialogue. Treat it like 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 a 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—all listed in The Screenwriter's Bible—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 parenthetical below the name indicating where the sound is coming from (i.e. from the intercom).
Dialogue in Montages
Dialogue is allowed in montages. As Trottier states here:
Another example of it in use is The Muppet Movie (2011):
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.
‼️ If you don't want to share your real contact information in this class, use firstname.lastname@example.org or 555-555-5555.
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.
Transitions and other elements*
In this class, we aren't concerned with transitions, except for their use in writing THE END. Transitions are a formatting element that indicates editing directions such as FADE IN, FADE OUT, or MATCH CUT. The expectation in this class is not to direct within your script, so I ask you to ignore these.
Another element scriptwriting programs will sometimes automatically insert are indicators such as CONT'D or MORE. Whether your writing program adds it or not, isn't an issue. Either way is fine.
These indicators are used to communicate to your cast and crew whether a scene or dialogue carries over to the next page. If you try to force it into your script if it isn't appearing, it often looks wrong on the page and I will circle it.
There are some cases when I will ask you to check the settings of your PDF export to make sure the program isn't breaking up the dialogue in odd ways or leaving too much white space at the bottom of the page. The settings vary between programs, so I won't detail it within this lesson.
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. Don't say "We see..." or "We hear...")
- Keep on top of your page counts.
(* indicates text that was added after the video was recorded.)
Tell me a 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 the active, present tense.
- Proper screenplay format to be used (including sluglines; parenthesis, ALL CAPS on the introduction of character)
- Includes a title page that uses proper format. (This is not included in the 2-3 page count).
- Only 5 errors are allowed on each page.
Due: Sunday, Sept. 3 at midnight ( Saskatchewan time ).
Submit the script in PDF format to your group.