Basic Formatting of a Screenplay


Formatting a screenplay is basically pretty simple but the devil is in the details. You have your scene headings, descriptions, actions, characters, parenthetical and dialogue. But remember, screenplays are not a novel and are written visually. They should also be a quick read, so don’t bog them down with a lot of unnecessary chatter.

First, there is the scene heading AKA slug lines. Keep this short and sweet. Also, if you use the scene more than once, keep the headings consistent because a film crew only wants to set up a scene once and as we should all know by now, movies are not filmed in chronological order. Start with INT. (interior) or EXT. (exterior), then the name of the scene, followed by DAY or NIGHT. Why? Because everyone needs to know, where they are and what type of basic lighting is going to be needed.


Second, the description. As I said before keep it short and sweet, don’t go all flowery but don’t void them altogether. Everyone needs to know what the scene looks like. Is it neat and tidy, is it trashed, does the room have a personality, or is it sterile.

Third, action. What’s happening in the scene. Every time you write an action line, stop and ask yourself, ‘What does this look like?’ Don’t just say Character #1 is angry with Character #2, this tells us nothing. Is he\she shouting? Throwing things? Do they have their fists up ready to fight or just waving their hands around? What is the audience seeing? Be careful of huge action blocks. Remember your work should be easy to read. A person doesn’t want to have to wade through and entire page to find the one line of action that pertains to them. If you keep the actions (or any block in your script) to four lines or less it makes it much easier to read. If Character #1 is fussing with papers, and Character #2 is pacing, put each action in its own action block.

FYI – When introducing your character for the first time write the name in capitals. Also, give them a brief description or identifying marker. Be careful not to limit your casting to just a few people. If you want Danny Devito to play your character, he may not want too.

Forth, character names. This is self-explanatory but I would suggest that if you’re just starting off that you keep the names simple and easy to pronounce. Don’t make them rhyme unless the story calls for it.

Fifth, parenthetical. Don’t use this unless absolutely necessary! Many actors don’t like to be told how to act. Yet if the scene calls for a specific simultaneous action you can get away with it. (cry)(mumble)(sniffle)(easing him out of his office)

The same can be said about Camera angles and many Directors don’t like to be told how to direct.

Sixth, dialogue. This is also self-explanatory but make sure each character has their own voice. A lot of personality can come through by what a person says. However, be careful, you don’t want an entire page with just dialogue so break it up with action. Even in real life, things are happening. Sit down for a cup of coffee with a friend and SEE what happens as you talk. Are they adding sugar and cream to the mug? Do they talk with their hands? What is their facial expression? Does anything else happen, like a waiter interrupting to ask if you need anything else.

Yes there are exceptions to the rules, but you have to know the rules first, to know when you can get away with breaking them.


About Stacy Bender

Author of Ursa Kane and the Sav'ine series.
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