Screenwriting Format Overview

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1) Sluglines, also known as Scene Headings.

 These appear at the beginning of a new scene and tell us the scene’s setting. They look like this:

INT. KITCHEN WALL – DUSK

 

Sluglines are made up of these three elements:

1) INT. or EXT.

Short for Interior and Exterior, this tells the production crew whether or not they’ll need to wear sun block on the film shoot.

 

2) Location.

Where the scene takes place. These should be short: LIBRARY CIRCULATION DESK or TRAILER PARK or AL‘S BRAIN.

3) Time.

Usually just DAY or NIGHT but can be as specific as 4:59 A.M. (if, say the bomb is set to go off at 5:00.) Sluglines are always in ALL CAPS. There are usually two spaces between INT./EXT. and Location, and then space, hyphen, space between Location and Time.Occasionally, you’ll need a Sublocation to clarify the Location. That looks like this:INT. KITCHEN WALL – SUPPORT BEAM SURFACE – DUSKRemember, a new scene occurs every time there’s a shift in Time, Location, or both. So you’ll be writing a lot of Sluglines. 

 

2) Action.

This describes what is happening on the screen, and which characters, if any, are involved. It looks like this:

INT. KITCHEN WALL – SUPPORT BEAM SURFACE – DUSK

 

Terry the Termite and his brother, Chomper, are huddled in a dark corner, deep in the kitchen wall. Chomper is pacing nervously up and down a small section of the kitchen’s main support beam stopping for a nibble every now and then while Terry is perched dead center on a metal bolt protruding from the beam.

 

With a few exceptions we’ll talk about later, Action follows standard rules of capitalization. It’s single-spaced and always in present tense. (If the action happened in the past, the Slugline will tell us this. Thanks, Slugline.)

 Also, you always need some Action after a Slugline, even it’s only a single line. Like this:INT. KITCHEN WALL – SUPPORT BEAM SURFACE – DUSKA termite is gnawing on the beam.

3) Character Name.

 This always appears above Dialogue and tells us which character is speaking. It looks like this:TERRY

Character names are always in ALL CAPS.

 And sometimes you’ll have minor characters that you won’t want to name. It’s okay to just call them CLERK or PEDESTRIAN or MONKEY WARRIOR. If there are several of the same type of character, add a number: COP #1 or BODY BUILDER #2,

4) Dialogue.

The words the character speaks. It looks like this:TERRY
Chomper, I wish you would stop that. You aren’t helping anything (He scratches his shoulder) and you’re stirring up wood dust. Can you just relax a little? It will be dark soon enough. We can move around a little more then.
Dialogue is single spaced and follows standard rules of capitalization (If it’s in all caps, you’re probably reading a TV script). Unlike in novels, there are no quotes around Dialogue, unless the character is quoting someone.Now, here’s an example of how all four elements come together on the page:INT. KITCHEN WALL – SUPPORT BEAM SURFACE – DUSKA termite is gnawing on the beam.TERRY
Chomper, I wish you would stop that. You aren’t helping anything (He scratches his shoulder) and you’re stirring up wood dust. Can you just relax a little. It will be dark soon enough. We can move around a little more then.
Presto! You now have the four basic building blocks you need to write a screenplay. If you would like to start your screen play now, go right ahead!

Are you hungry for more? Then read on …

 

SLUGLINE VARIATIONS:

 Now that you’ve learned how to write a standard Slugline, here are few variations that come up in specific situations:1) If a scene starts in a general Location, let’s say IN THE KITCHEN WALL, and continues as the characters move between Sublocations, such as KITCHEN and LIVING ROOM, you don’t need to repeat the Location or the Time with each new Slugline. You can do this:INT. KITCHEN WALL – SUPPORT BEAM SURFACE – DUSKTerry jumps up, careful to stay on the bolt.TERRY
Be glad he can’t find us! The day he does … Sorry, kiddo, I’m just hungry, and tired, and I miss …
LIVING ROOMEddie the Exterminator is cleaning a variety of bug zapping tools.
EDDIE
Yes, my precious. Those little buggies won’t be able to resist you.
With some help from context, we understand that the two characters are moving around in the same house in continuous time. 2) Finally, if a scene occurs in a Location, followed by a scene in the same Location but at a later time, the word LATER can be used in the Slugline.INT. KITCHEN WALL – SUPPORT BEAM SURFACE – DUSKTerry jumps up, careful to stay on the bolt.TERRY
Be glad he can’t find us! The day he does … Sorry, kiddo, I’m just hungry, and tired, and I miss …
.
INT. KITCHEN WALL – SUPPORT BEAM SURFACE – LATERTerry sits on the bolt wrapping himself in cotton swab.

TERRY
I can’t shake it Chomper. I just wanted some sandwich. I thought the coast was clear…

 

CUTS:

 Once upon a time, it was standard to use the words "CUT TO:" to indicate a change in scene. Nowadays, the cut that comes with a scene change is implied by a new Slugline and CUT TO isn’t used as much.The best time to use CUT TO is when you really want to emphasize the juxtaposition or shift between two scenes. Like this:INT. KITCHEN LAMP – NOONTerry faces his father angrily.TERRYThat’s it. I can take care of myself you know. My whole life it’s been, "Stay right there Terry." "Don’t touch that Terry." "Look at Terry, the termite who can’t eat wood!" You never let me go anywhere or do anything because of my condition. Well, there’s a whole world out there and it’s not all about wood. I just want to live a little, on my own terms. I am getting across that doorway — wood or not! I am leaving this house!CUT TO:
Terry slumped on the peg, with his brother shaking him.
CHOMPER
He’s gone.

Note that you may see writers using terms like JUMP CUT or SMASH CUT to imply a super-fast, in-your-face editing style. If using BRUCE LEE KARATE CHOP CUT makes you feel awesome, then go for it; just know that many pros consider it amateurish. Besides, not matter how it’s written, a cut always happens in 1/24th of a second – the amount of time it takes to switch from one frame to the next.

 

ACTION SEQUENCES:

 Writing an action sequence can take a little getting used to, as you learn to translate what you envision on the screen into words. In general, keep in mind that the way you format action should mimic its pace. The faster the action, the more you’ll want to break it up into little bits. Feel free to use fragments to keep the pace fast. You can also use capitalization to emphasize and draw attention to elements. Terry is on vacation for this one. The scenes I wrote are more internal than action-filled, so let’s substitute a cool action scene here, like this:EXT. DOORFRAME – DAYTerry runs for his life, clutching crumbling cotton and holding it to his body. He looks over his shoulder.SCREECH. GIANT SILVER TUBE brushes past him. SPARKS fly as it careens against the narrow doorway frame.TERRY
Bounces off the wall and hits the floor.
He scrambles up and LEAPS.

BAM. He hits the ground outside and is already running.

 

MORE DETAILS:

 

Parenthetical:

These are used within dialogue to describe what a character is simultaneously doing, who she’s talking to, or how he is speaking. They look like this:CHOMPER
(shoving wood shavings into his mouth methodically, spitting bits as he speaks)
Are you crazy? At this point, touching wood may kill you, and the doorway is framed in wood. There is no way past it without touching it!A parenthetical always lives inside parenthesis and on its own line. If they hit their right margin, they wrap around to the next line, as you see above.A parenthetical also takes up space, slows your pace, and annoys actors, who don’t like being told how to say their lines. So try to only use a parenthetical where not using one would lead to confusion, such as this:EDDIE THE EXTERMINATOR
(singing aloud)
Tall ones, small ones, I’m gonna eat some termites.
(to Terry)
You!

 

Voice Over (V.O.):

 Used when a character or narrator can be heard talking from some unknown place (the future, heaven, inside our head). It looks like this:It’s a beautiful day in the picturesque town of Squiresville, but all is not as it seems.

CHOMPER (V.O.)
He wanted so much to see the world beyond.

 

Off Screen (O.S.):

Used when a character in the scene can be heard but isn’t actually on the screen. It looks like this:Terry tries to get Chomper to stand still.SMASH. Chomper scrubs on the wooden beam, skinning his knee.

EDDIE (O.S.)
I can hear you, my little buggies, and I will find you!

 

Capitalization within Action:

The very first time a character’s name appears in Action, it appears in ALL CAPS. Some writers also use ALL CAPS when a sound effect appears in Action. Others capitalize important props. This would look like this:

TERRY looks quickly around and dives off the kitchen lamp. The tea kettle WHISTLES. EDDIE runs into the kitchen and sees Terry. Terry is frozen in fear, a piece of sandwich in his mouth. BIG DADDY T lets out a yell and launches himself, SPLINTER in hand, at Eddie’s face.

 

Camera Directions:

These indicate how close the camera is, how it will move, focus, etc. Directions include POV shots, pans, tilts, push ins, pull outs, dolly moves, tracking shots, close ups, wides, etc.It’s incredibly tempting, as a story mastermind, to direct your movie on the page using Camera Directions. Resist this temptation. You aren’t the director (yet). Unless there’s absolutely no other way to communicate a visual sequence upon which your entire plot hinges, leave Camera Directions out.

Page numbers:

 These go in the upper right-hand corner. There’s no page number on the first page of a screenplay.

Scene numbers:

DO NOT put scene numbers on your scenes. These are only for shooting scripts and are used to help the production crew plan the shooting schedule.

 

Cover page:

 Centered on the page, ## down, is the title of your film in ALL CAPS, then a double space and then "by," another double space, and "your name."

In the lower right-hand corner, ## in and ## down, put your name, mailing address, telephone number, email, and, if you’ve decided to register your script with the Writer’s Guild, your Writer’s Guild registration number.

 

FONT, MARGINS, AND SPACING

 

Screenplays live on letter-sized paper (8.5 x 11 inches). They’re always written in Courier font, 12 point, 10 pitch. No bold, no italics.

 

Page Margins:

 

Left: 1.5 inches Right: 1 inch Top: 1 inch Bottom: 1 inch

 

Screenplay Element Margins:

 

Slugline: left margin 1.5 inches Action: left margin 1.5 inches Character name: left margin 3.7 inches Dialog: left margin 2.5 inches, right margin 2.5 inches (or 6 inches from left edge of page) Parentheticals: left margin 3.1 inches, right margin 2.9 inches

 

Spacing Between Elements:

 

Between Slugline and Action: double space Between Action and more Action: double space Between Action and Character Name: double space Between Character Name and Dialogue: single space Between Dialogue and the next Character Name: double space Between Dialogue and Action: double space Between Character Name and Parentheticals: single space Between Parentheticals and Dialogue: single space Between Action and Slugline: double space Between Dialogue and Slugline: double space

 

 

 

 

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