Screenwriting Format: What You Need to Know
Whether you have dreams of lighting up the silver screen or you want to break into the television industry, there is one tool that writers must have at their disposal: a solid understanding of screenplay format. Before you ever set words to paper, you need to know what it is that film industry professionals are looking for in a screenplay. Whether you’re able to abide by their standards is their first clue as to whether or not you are the type of professional that they want to work with… and if you don’t follow their guidelines and their format, they might not even give your script a second glance.
You want your screenplay to be as professional as possible – something you can learn more about in this screenplay writing course on Udemy. That means understanding all the different components of the screenplay, as well as their purpose. Learning how to write in the proper format is an essential first step in learning how to write a stellar script.
The Components of a Screenplay
The standard screenplay consists of four primary components – Character Names, Dialogue, Sluglines (or Scene Headings), and Actions. These components tell the people producing your screenplay what is happening, where it is happening, who is doing what, and who is saying what.
The way that you use these four elements will likely change a little bit depending on your style as a screenwriter. Some screenwriters allow for more freedom when it comes to action, only narrating the most essential actions that occur within the story. Others may include more specific directions. Let’s take a look at these components in more detail so you have a better understanding of the role they play within a screenplay.
Very specific formatting is used for each of these components in order to make it more obvious to the reader (that is, the director, the actors, and other individuals working on the production of the film) what is going on.
The character’s name is almost always capitalized in order to differentiate it from any dialogue on the page (except for in descriptions of action). When used to indicate dialogue, the character name is centered and capitalized above their lines. If a character appearing in a story doesn’t have a name, you’ll still want to give them a unique descriptor to identify them. With groups of characters, each individual is usually numbered – i.e., “WOMAN #1”, “WOMAN #2”, etc.
Dialogue appears beneath the name of the character that is speaking it. All dialogue will be singled spaced, unlike the rest of the script, and will follow the usual rules regarding capitalization. For non-vocal cues in dialogue, the utterance will usually be presented in brackets. For example, [Laughing], [Sighs], and [Beginning to Cry] may all be used. To place emphasis on certain words or to indicate shouting, italics, bolding, and all caps may be used.
For dialogue that appears as a voiceover – that is, dialogue that is narrated rather than spoken on screen by the characters – the character’s name will have (V.O.) appearing next to it. Similarly, if a character is speaking off-screen but isn’t narrating, the marker (O.S.) may be used.
Actions indicate what the characters are doing. Character names appear with standard capitalization – except for the first time they appear in a scene, in which case their name is written in all caps – and the entire description is oriented toward the left of the page. Parentheticals may be used to indicate things like body language or the emotions that a character is feeling. In some cases, you want to indicate that a character is speaking and performing an action at the same time. In this case, the action will appear as a parenthetical within the dialogue.
Sound effects and props may be capitalized within action. This isn’t always the case, but can be a good idea when you want to emphasize the importance of a sound effect or a prop to the people reading the script.
Sluglines (or Scene Headings)
The sluglines in a script serve to show where an action is taking place. Like character names, sluglines are all capitalized, and appear on the left side of the script. The first part of the slugline will describe whether it is an interior or an exterior shot (with the labeling “INT.” or “EXT.” respectively).
There are a few different variations to the standard sluglines. The word “CONTINUOUS” may be used to describe a scene that is continuing over several different locations. This indicates to the director and the actors that there must be a seamless flow from location to location. Additionally, if multiple spots are being used in the same location, it’s not necessary to establish where the scene is taking place every time. For example:
INT. MIDDLETON HIGH SCHOOL – CHEMISTRY LABORATORY
Elizabeth and William put away their books and walk toward the door.
Elizabeth moves toward William but he is already walking away. She gives him a hurt look before walking away in the opposite direction.
You can also establish using the sluglines when a scene is taking place. For example, MORNING, AFTERNOON, and NIGHT may all be used to indicate the type of day. For scenes occurring in the same location but at different points, the phrase LATER may be used to indicate the passage of time.
One more thing you can do with the sluglines in a script is to indicate a quick change of scene. “CUT TO” is not used as often to indicate a scene change, but may be used to show an immediate transition between scenes. “JUMP TO” may be used to indicate a much quicker cut – you will typically find this kind of direction in action-oriented scripts.
INT. MIDDLETON HIGH SCHOOL – GYMNASIUM
ELIZABETH and TARA are seated on the bench, watching a group of boys, including WILLIAM, play basketball on the gym floor.
(Pointing toward William)
See? Him, that’s the one.
(Cocks her head to the side).
You’re right. He is cute.
Yeah. And he’s so unattainable. Why do I always fall for guys like that?
EXT. MIDDLETON HIGH SCHOOL COURTYARD – CONTINUOUS
Elizabeth and Tara are seated on a bench studying. Elizabeth is glancing at her SMARTPHONE, which clearly displays the discreet photograph she took of William earlier.
Every time I see him I die a little inside.
(Reaches over and grabs Elizabeth’s shoulders.)
You need to get a grip. You haven’t even spoken to him yet.
What if I say something stupid?
INT. ELIZABETH’S HOUSE – BEDROOM – NIGHT
Elizabeth is on her SMARTPHONE.
Tara? I said something stupid…
A Note About Screenplays
You have a vision, and that’s understandable. But screenwriters do need to realize that it’s not their job to write out every single camera direction, every movement the characters make, or details about every prop the characters used. That’s not a good idea because it makes the script too rigid, and doesn’t allow for creative expression on the part of the actors and director. Use just enough detail to tell your story, and remember to leave some things up to the imagination. This can be hard to do if you’re used to writing novels and short stories. If you would like more information on transforming a novel you’ve already written into a screenplay, however, check out this great Udemy course that will teach you how to do so.
You can learn more about how to become a screenwriting pro by enrolling in Udemy’s screenwriting workshop. You’ll learn even more about screenwriting formats as well as give you more information on the creative side of writing a stellar screenplay. And once you’ve got your screenplay written, polished, and ready to go, be sure you learn how to get your screenplay optioned and made into a blockbuster movie.
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