How to write text messages in a script / Format texts in a script

If you are writing a movie or television script that takes place these days, the point will likely come when your main character sends or receives a dramatic text message. Some of us even text more than we speak – so some movies have as much text as dialogue. But how to format SMS in a scenario?

We will present here some examples of films which manipulate texts with art. The best way to write something, as it always is in screenwriting, is to make it as easy to read as possible. As Last night in Soho and Oscar nominee 1917 Writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns recently told us that you want readers to forget they’re reading a script and instead view your story on screen.

Okay, turn off your SMS alerts and let’s dive in.

How to write texts in a screenplay

Why not start with the film that won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay at the last Oscars? Promising young woman director-writer Emerald Fennell clearly knows what she’s doing.

Like all great screenwriters, Fennell keeps things as simple as possible. There are not many SMS in Promising young woman, but the lyrics are very important for the film. The texts we’ll be watching come at the end of the movie, but we don’t think sharing them here would ruin anything if you don’t have the context for the rest of the movie. (Besides: See Promising Young Woman! If you care about screenwriting at all, this is a must-have.)

Fennell handles the question of how to format a text message in her script very elegantly – she simply writes it in action. Here’s how she describes a character, Ryan, receiving a text:

And then Ryan actually gets the text:

How to format a text message in a script or script

In your own scripts, of course, you can ignore the whole moment the character sees that a message is pending – Fennell only increases the tension, for reasons that will become evident when you see the movie. You can download the Promising young woman PDF script here, since Focus Features, the film’s distributor, made it available online for last year’s awards season.

Maybe no movie released last year had more text than Party, Eugene Kotlyarenko’s horror satire about a driver whose Night of Madness airs online as growing audiences make their voices heard, Greek-style, through a series of internet commentaries, texts and other written communications. (Surprisingly, Kotlyarenko wrote the 7,000 internet comments that appear in Party.)

Kotlyarenko and Gene McHugh, the co-authors of Party, treat the texts the same way Fennell did in Promising young woman: They just write them in action. They write the texts, but don’t center the name of the person sending the text, like you would with the name of someone speaking a line of dialogue. Here’s an example of how they handle texts from a character named Bobby:

How to write and format text messages in a script or script

Here is another example of Party:

How to write texts in a screenplay or script

How to write a text exchange in a screenplay

What if there is a two-way text exchange? Here’s how the pilot script for the Emmy-winning comedy Ted lasso, by Jason Sudeikis and Bill Lawrence, manages an exchange between the main character and his friend Coach Beard:

How to write text messages in a script

Pretty dramatic stuff!

You can also ask yourself, as a screenwriter, if your texts should appear on the screen, alongside the characters, or in close-up of their phones. And the good news is: it’s not your problem!

Here we refer to more formidable screenwriting tips from Wilson-Cairns: Don’t incorporate camera movements or other directions into your screenplay. How your texts appear on screen depends on the director and cinematographer.

Do you have more questions on how to format text messages in a timeline? Contact us in the comments, we will get back to you promptly. And feel free to share any other script that you think is a good idea to include text messages.

Main image: Crucial text in an episode of Ted Lasso.


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