Script format: the essential elements of a screenplay

Formatting a script correctly may seem like a low priority compared to coming up with a profitable, highly commercial movie idea that will attract big stars, but getting the script formatted right is actually very important. Any producer or manager can tell just by looking at the front page if you know what you’re doing. If something as simple as formatting is disabled, it’s likely that structure, character arcs, and highlighting are also disabled.

Yes, screenwriting software will absolutely help you with this process. But understanding the purpose of each element of the format will help you tell your story in the best possible way. While film is a visual medium, meant to be seen on the big screen, the first interaction with your story is always through a reading of your script – words on a page. Know that every little trace of ink on this page has a purpose and a function. Every bit of ink you leave on the page is also useful.

Here are the basics of formatting a screenplay.

Professional screenwriting software supports script format

As mentioned earlier, this is incredibly important. Under NO circumstances should a writer show a producer or manager/agent a self-formatted script in Google Docs or Microsoft Word. It’s ridiculous to say this because it’s screenwriting 101, but I recently read a screenplay created as an MS Word document and the dialogue margins were completely off (they were WAY too wide, maybe -be twice what they should be), which means the 127 page script (already too long) would probably be at least 150 pages in scripting software like Final Draft. This is a huge problem because each properly formatted page equals one minute of screen time and producers need to know how many minutes the movie will be.

I want to clarify that you don’t need to use Final Draft, but you should use established scripting software if you want to make a professional document. These days there are many good options and some are even free. Do some research and enjoy the benefits of the software which will only help you in several ways. I’ve tested at least a dozen (Trelby, Highland, Movie Magic Screenwriter, Writer Duet, etc.) and the learning curve on all of them is minimal and, in my experience, only takes a few minutes to learn how to utilize.

Slug lines

Also called scene headers, slug lines tell the reader exactly where the scene is and whether it’s day or night. They start with INT. for interior or EXT. for outdoors, followed by location, then DAY or NIGHT. The slug is written in capitals. Here is an example :

EXT. AMAZONIAN JUNGLE – DAY

Do not bold the slug line. For planning and shooting purposes, just write DAY or NIGHT, not twilight, morning, dusk, etc. If a sunset is crucial to a scene, put it in the action line description.

Subtitles

A sub-header indicates that the scene has moved to a new area within an established location. So you could write:

EXT. AMAZONIAN JUNGLE – BANKS OF THE AMAZONIAN RIVER – DAY

But if you’ve already established that you’re in the Amazon Jungle (as we did above) and are now moving to the banks of the Amazon River (into the Amazon Jungle), you can simply put:

BANKS OF THE AMAZON RIVER – DAY

Or:

AMAZON RIVER – DAY

Here you skip the EXT. Again, the point is to be clear while using as little ink as possible.

Script Format: The Essential Elements of a Laptop_Scenario

Lines of action

It’s the short description lines below the slug lines that describe what we see. They must be in the present tense with an active voice. Example:

Jane wades through troubled water. A nearby caiman bares its teeth. Jane’s scared face says she wants to turn back but she gathers her courage and sinks deeper into the water.

Action lines should not include camera directions. Some writers write “We see…” or “Pan to…” but you really want to let the director or cinematographer decide those details. Just tell us what’s going on.

Try to avoid long, action-packed paragraphs, as they will turn off your reader. If you need to describe a lot of actions, break them up into short two- or three-sentence paragraphs or even a single word. You want the reader’s eyes to continuously move down the page as the action happens.

Dialogue

Some screenwriting professors argue that dialogue should be “just the headlines” of what the character is trying to say. In other words, only include the most important parts. If you have a background in playwriting, you know that dialogue on stage can be long, flowery and include monologues. In the cinema, the dialogue must be lively and go straight to the point. Sometimes a monologue is warranted in a movie, but rarely.

Keep in mind that the best dialogue contains subtext or the unwritten meaning behind the words. As in real life, we rarely say exactly what we mean. We often dance around what we really want, especially if it makes us feel vulnerable. When a character uses subtext, it adds nuance and deeper meaning to the scene. Subtext can often conceal a character’s secret desire, need, or manipulation. Actors love subtext because it allows them to project their own goals onto the character.

Dialogue signals

Using (VO), (OS), or (OC) next to a character name is a way to indicate to the reader that there is a special arrangement or circumstance for the following dialogue. (VO) stands for “voiceover”, indicating that the character speaks but is not seen speaking in the scene, only heard. Think of the voiceover as the character revealing their innermost thoughts to the audience.

(OS) stands for “off screen” and is used when a character is not in front of the camera, but their voice can still be heard, perhaps behind a door. (OC) stands for “off camera” indicating that the character is part of the scene but not seen on camera at the time. (OS) seems to be more commonly used than (OC).

Wrylies

Also called parentheses, these are short emotional or delivery instructions for the actor regarding that specific line. They were given the name “ironically” for being an example of cliched or overused direction, so avoid using the word “ironically”. Use “sarcastic” or “playful” instead. Here are some examples of parentheses:

Scenario format: the essential elements of a scenario_dialogue 1Or:

Scenario format: the essential elements of a scenario_dialogue 2Keep your parentheses to a minimum. You don’t need to give instructions for every line, just the ones you think the reader might need help with. Actors generally don’t like being told how to deliver a line, so these are really for the reader. Parentheses should also not exceed one line in the dialog box. If you take two or three lines to give direction, just add it in an action line before the dialogue.

Transitions

There is an implicit transition from one scene to another as shown each time there is a new slug line. Adding “Cut to:” is not necessary and only takes up essential space in your script. But sometimes the writer wants the transition to have more impact or adhere to a genre trope. Here are some of the most used transitions which are capitalized and listed on the right side of the page.

SMASH CUT

This is a difficult edit or a quick transition to the next scene. There’s no soft fade or soft music that takes you there – instead, the cut is meant to be shocking. This type of transition helps to add importance to the new scene and quicken the pace.

“DISOLATE TO”

This transition is almost the opposite of a “SMASH CUT”. A crossfade is a slow fade from one scene to the next, giving the audience a moment to digest what they just saw and making it clear that what just happened is tied to the next scene, even if the way exactly which they are connected may not be clear. Again.

“INTERCUT”

This one just means that the action cuts between two scenes and by putting “INTERCUT” you don’t have to be so detailed with the slug lines.

Script format: the essential elements of a scenario_typewriter

“MATCH THE CUT”

This means that the last scene is visually similar to the next, showing a thematic connection. If your last scene is Cinderella dressing for the ball with the help of mice and birds, you can “MATCH CUT TO” the Evil Step Sisters dressing for the ball with many maids and seamstresses. You show a similar scenario but the characters are defined by the differences (ie: one is humble and poor, the other is rich and upright).

“JUMP CUT TO”

This transition means you’re fast-forwarding later in the scene or later in the day, likely with the same character. You should mention how much time has passed in the action lines below the transition so the reader doesn’t guess. “TIME CUT” simply means that the action of a scene cuts to later in the same place, possibly with the same characters, but not necessarily. “JUMP CUT” seems to be the more popular of the two.

“FADE IN:”

A classic. You use it at the beginning of the scenario and…

“VANISH.”

…this one at the end. Both are time-honored transitions, but they’re not really needed these days. However, some writers really like to use them, so it’s up to you.

It is important to use all transitions sparingly, if at all.

Read scenarios

The absolute best way to learn the right screenwriting format is to read scripts for your favorite movies. After reading a few of them, you will be surprised how familiar the format becomes to your eyes. The more you read, the more you’ll notice different stylistic choices. Ultimately, you are the master of your script and will likely develop your own style over time. If you see a stylistic choice in a storyline that appeals to you, steal it if it helps tell your story more clearly. You should also know that over the decades stylistic trends change in scenarios.

The bottom line is that the action and story of your screenplay should be as clear as possible and keep the reader emotionally involved from “FADE IN:” to “FADE OUT”. if you choose to use these transitions.