Screenwriting Basics #2: The Format

A screenplay is a blueprint that not only tells the story, but contains the basic information needed to make the actual movie. Unlike the men of Mulan, it should not be as mysterious as the dark side of the moon.

Screenwriting requires using a tried and true format that is immediately easy to read, well organized, and follows some basic rules. If you’re writing your first or even your hundredth script and want to look professional, this is the way to do it. That’s why this Screenwriting Basics is all about format. 

Scene Heading/Slug Line – contains pertinent practical information on when and where the scene takes place. Also called a slug line. (Ex: INT. BEDROOM – DAY would be “Interior bedroom in the day” or EXT. HOUSE – NIGHT “Exterior House at night.”)

Action lines – Describes what is happening in the scene, written in present tense.

Dialogue – centered under the character name of who is speaking out loud.

Parenthetical – a description of how the line is spoken. Use sparingly.

Let’s look at a snippet from Stranger Than Fiction:

In the above example you see where I marked basic elements of screenplay format — the character names, dialogue, scene description and even a parenthetical.

Now let’s look at a portion of a scene and its script. Spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen this movie from 2006. This is the moment that Harold, our main character, finally calls the author who has been narrating his life:

Now let’s look at this scene:

The script had to make it clear what was happening in this scene, and that includes what Kay is typing versus what is actually happening in the scene. Kay’s dialogue “Don’t answer that!” is in italics because the normally pretty chill author is now feeling very tense.

I might have thrown you off with this slug line of the scene (INT. GARMENT LOFT – CONTINUOUS). It says “Continuous” instead of “night or day” because it’s coming right after a scene of Harold dialing the phone, so they are right up against each other time-wise. For now, keep it simple at Day or Night so your Assistant Director can schedule things easier.

Note that the writer, Zach Helm, doesn’t feel the need to describe the slow camera dolly in to Kay as this climactic moment approaches. He lets the words tell the story and trusts the director and cinematographer to put their creative touch on later. You too don’t want to be held accountable for “directing from the page,” but perhaps that’s a lesson for another day.

It’s a lot of work putting together a film production, and you need a clear blueprint so every crew member knows what to bring to the table.

Want further reading on the subject?

Check out the Hollywood Standard Vol 2, the definitive formatting guide for screenwriters.

You can also read a more detailed overview of format over at Screencraft.

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