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Nuts and Bolts of Screenplays

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The Introduction

In the introduction to his 1912 dramatic writing how-to, Play-Making, William Archer opens with this pessimistic observation:

There is thus a fine opening for pedantry on the one side, and quackery on the other, to rush in. The pedant, in this context, is he who constructs a set of rules from metaphysical or psychological first principles, and professes to bring down a dramatic decalogue from the Sinai of the lecture-room in the University of Weissnichtwo. The quack, on the other hand, is he who generalizes from the worst practices of the most vulgar theatrical journeymen, and has no higher ambition than to interpret the oracles of the box-office.

I can't profess to tell you if there are rules to screenwriting, or even if dramatic writing is something that can be "taught." What I can do, at the risk of being maligned as a quack by William Archer's spirit, is look at what constitutes a screenplay in the context of a milieu heavily influenced by Hollywood, or more specifically, the nuts and bolts of the script itself—the formatting, elements, and rationale behind many well-established conventions. I'll leave what it takes to make a great story in more capable hands.

Anatomy of a script

The formatting screenplays follow is practically iconic, at this point. Centered character names and pseudo-centered blocks of dialog make it stand out as an artifact from any other form of writing. But is there a point to this structure? Why not keep everything left-aligned, as in a stage pay? Or integrate dialogue into paragraphs, as in novels?

The standard motion picture screenplay breaks down into the following components or elements.

Scene Heading

By tradition, screenplays open with the transition "FADE IN:" The next non-blank line will most often be a scene heading. Styled in all caps, and sometimes referred to as a slug line:

FADE IN:

INT. JOE'S HOUSE DAY

It breaks down into three sub-elements:

  1. Whether it's inside or out: INT / EXT
  2. The name of the location
  3. Time of day. In most cases, simply "DAY" or "NIGHT" suffices.

The scene heading indicates a new location or move from interior to exterior or vice-versa. The name "scene heading" is misleading, since a continuous scene, from the standpoint of story flow, may occupy multiple locations. For example, a burglar being pursued through back alleys, across rooftops, and trespassing apartments through fire escapes, may enter a new physical location with practically every shot. But to the audience, this sequence would properly be regarded as a single "scene." In a sci-fi piece, a character may even move from one universe to an entirely new one within a single scene. To indicate continuity between physical locations within the scene, the suffix (DAY / NIGHT) is often substituted or extended with "CONTINUOUS:"

INT. APARTMENT - BEDROOM — CONTINUOUS

The burglar peeks in the window. The room's occupants are asleep in bed...

Action

The action element is the prosiest part of a screenplay. Purists, arguing films should be primarily visual, will say it is the only part that matters. Unlike novel prose, however, it is written in present tense and should be as objective, free of authorial remarks as possible. It is literally a description of action. It's the actors’ job to interpret the meaning of action and impart emotion to the role.

ATTRIBUTION “Jurassic Park” (early draft), Michael Crichton

Action is the most import element and the one mostly likely to suffer at the hands of the amateur. William Archer would point out it’s easier to provide a list of don’ts than offer dos. Even so, it is worth mentioning a few pitfalls when writing action.

Do not use action to describe the setting. Action describes agents, be they human, animal, or robot, doing something, or explicitly not doing something, if that is the point. Any scenic elements that pertain should be, as much as possible, woven into the action when and where they apply. This is not to say small indulgences are utterly forbidden. Especially with a spec script, which serves as more than a mere technical document, some world-building details won't go amiss.


ATTRIBUTION: “U N T I T L E D” (released as “G A T T A C A”), Andrew M. Niccol
ATTRIBUTION: “Adaptation”, Charles Kaufman

Just don't dedicate paragraphs to scenic exposition.

Grammatical correctness is your enemy. Action paragraphs do not need to be complete sentences. One of my favorite screenplays from a technical perspective is Dan O'Bannon's(*) Alien, which relies on single-line sentence fragments throughout:

INT. PASSAGEWAY NEAR AIR LOCK - "B" LEVEL


Ripley staggers toward an emergency panel.

At far end of corridor.

Pinging sound.

Misty atmosphere.

Tries to activate the door.

Cannot.

Lambert appears other side of bulkhead.

Activates door from outside.

Rush of oxygen.

ATTRIBUTION: “Alien”, Dan O'Bannon et al

With action, as much as anywhere in life, the axiom, "keep it simple, stupid" applies. This does not mean you can throw the rules of grammar out the window. You just don't need to write like you're writing the Constitution.

Don't include shots. Ever looked at a screenplay online and seen

ANGLE ON

Fiona lifting her sword from its sheath...

Probably you are reading a shooting script. Spec scripts and pre-production scripts, by convention and best practices, should avoid shot elements. If you are writing a spec script, the reason for no shots is political. It's not the writer's job to decide the shots—it is the director’s. The practical reason is that shots slow the reading down and may indicate lazy writing. Instead of

CLOSE UP ON Olga's hand as it turns green...

why not

A patina begins to creep over Olga's hand...

The latter, simply by virtue of what it describes, tells the reader "close up" without needing to resort to calling out a shot.

If you are writer/director, you may feel entitled to a pass allowing you to include shots. In my experience, thinking about shots before the thing is written serves as a diversion to avoid thinking about the actual story. You certainly may include shots as a writer/director, but if you find that you are, it might be wise to take a step back and consider whether priorities are in need of some realignment.

Dialog

ATTRIBUTION: “Network”, Paddy Chayefsky

Dialog, more than anything, gives conventionally formatted scripts their distinctive look. It breaks into two sub-parts, the character name and the dialog itself. The character name is centered. Meanwhile, the dialog portion has narrower left margins to give it a centered feel while still being left-aligned.

Generic names are often used for incidental characters: "FIRST SOLIDER," for example. An inevitable don’t in every screenwriting how-to is "Don't write too much dialog!" This is a rule that almost never gets applied in practice. In TV, characters standing around talking is a lot cheaper to shoot than a car chase. My own take is that filmmaking can be a form of visual storytelling, or it can, with equal validly, be recoded drama. Neither is any more "correct."

Dialog is the taking part. It is periodically punctuated by parentheticals. These are the equivalent of stage direction in a play.

              HERE IS A NAME
  Here is some dialog.
                  (here is the parenthetical)
      And here is more dialog.

Parentheticals allow a fragment of action, “beat” pause, or other incidental to be embedded into a block of dialog instead of having to break for a full paragraph of action text. They are on their own line and further indented from the dialog itself. Parentheticals can serve to qualify: "Sotto voce" is probably a harmless direction where it is not otherwise obvious something should be said in a low voice. They also provide a tempting way to introduce missing emotion. Adjectives need to be avoided. It’s up to the actor to provide emotional interpretation, while context of the line should indicate subtext. If an emotional value cannot be inferred, then there is probably something more deeply wrong with the scene. 

Parenthesized suffixes are sometimes appended to the character name element. "V.O." and "O.S" are the most common. 

        NARRATOR (V.O.)
        Some long-wind narration
           about events long, long ago
starting here...

V.O. stands for "voice-over," while O.S. stands for either "off-screen" or "over scene," depending on one’s preference. Some would treat O.S. and V.O. as synonymous. Personally, I like to reserve V.O. for true voice-over narration (another alleged no-no) and use O.S. for off-screen dialogue originating within a scene.

You will also often see some variant of "CONT’D," which indicates the continuation of dialogue broken by a section of action, or indicating dialog that began on the previous page.

         EDISON (CONT'D)
                Other advantages of D.C. power
include...     

Transitions

Transitions elements are allowed, even where shots are not. The benefit they bring is arguably limited. The most common transitions are:

FADE IN:

FADE OUT.

CUT TO:

DISSOVLE TO:

Opening a screenplay with "FADE IN:" and ending with "FADE OUT" followed by "THE END" is conventional. Use elsewhere is up to the writer. My guess is their use mainly stems from TV writing where, taking inspiration from stage plays, "acts" are sections of the episode punctuated by commercial breaks. In a film script, transitions can help underscore major breaks in the story, much like chapters in a novel:

...  She watched as the boat steamed out of the port.   

FADE OUT.

FADE IN:

EXT. NEW YORK — DAY

     SUPERTITLE: 20 Years Later

Steamships have been replaced by airliners...

A CUT TO: can also serve to indicate a jump cut within a scene,

Castro starts wiping down the table —

CUT TO:

It is now dark outside and there are no more

customers in the restaurant.

though most of the time dropping in a whole new scene heading is probably a better idea:

Castro starts wiping down the table...

INT. CASTRO'S RESTAURANT — NIGHT

It is now dark outside and there are no more

customers in the restaurant.

A page-a-minute

You may wonder at all of the formality that goes into screenplay formatting. The ostensible reason is that a page of screenplay equates to a minute of screen time. And screen time is money. Writing style, the ratio of dialog to action, pacing, and other factors will skew this rule. But in my experience, it works out close enough to give you an approximation. 

For this reason, if you are writing on spec, aim for a target of 90 pages—120 pages being the absolute maximum. The justifications may be superstitious, but those reading your script will believe it. A 200-page monstrosity is going straight in the bin without consideration, even if it’s the latest Peter Jackson Epic sprawled over three hours. And don't cheat by tweaking the margins or reducing font size. 12-point Courier with 1.5" Left and 1" right margins for US Letter should be about correct for your action elements, though some software may shift text more to the right for easier binding or allows.



 

Element

Left Margin

Right Margin

Width

Scene Heading

1.5

1

6

Action

1.5

1

6

Character Name (Dialog)

4.2

1

3.3

Dialog

2.9

2.3

3.3

Parentheticals

3.6

2.9

2

Capitalization

ATTRIBUTION: “Fantastic Four”, Mark Frost and Michael France

All caps are used frequently in screenplays. Although individual writers will make their own exceptions, here are the conditions in which all caps is conventionally used:

Element

When?

Scene Heading

Always

Action

Follow normal casing rules of the language

Character Name (Action)

Capitalize first appearance; thereafter treat as proper noun

Character Name (Dialog)

Always

Dialog

Follow normal casing rules of the language. All caps sometimes used for emphasis

Parentheticals

Never

Diegetic Sound

Always

Shots

Always

Transitions

Always

Roughly speaking, dialogue (content and parentheticals) and action follow the same casing rules as normal prose, while everything else is in all caps. By convention, the first appearance of a character is also in all caps. It can sometimes be helpful to apply the first character rule to an inanimate object that frequently reappears. For example, introducing a car as "the RED TOYOTA" and thereafter referring to it as "Red Toyota" can help single out a particular and important car in a chase scene, especially if we don't yet know this is Silvia's red Toyota.

Within action, non-action meta-elements such as shots and diegetic sounds are conventionally all caps—that is to say, elements that are added through the magic of the filmmaking process as opposed to expressed by actors on screen. A screenplay with excessive amounts of all caps in the action paragraphs should be treated with suspicion. Mostly likely story considerations have been swamped by excessive attention to technical details. Unless a sound is really critical to moving the story forward, like an off-screen wolf howl, leave it out. Foley artists know what they're doing and can figure out better than you what sounds besides dialogue to incorporate.

Spacing

In most cases, elements are separated by a single whitespace line. Some software tools may refine spacing further, or allow customization. Otherwise, single-space within elements and double-space between them. As with resumes, whitespace is your friend. The more breathing room text has the better. Saying that, a sequence such as a rapid-fire montage may profit from less than double spacing to help emphasize the fast pace.

What is a shooting script?

A shooting script is a very different animal than a spec script or a pre-production draft. Shots (within reason) are allowed. It is a locked-down, producer-approved final version. NOTHING CAN CHANGE.

Of course, the real world being what it is, things do inevitably change...

All those colors

Because a shooting script inevitably does change after production starts, keeping actors and crew all on the same page—so to speak—becomes a serious problem. An ingeniously simple, pre-iPad era solution was devised. Each revision is printed on different color paper.

  • Production White
  • Blue Revision
  • Pink Revision
  • Yellow Revision
  • Green Revision
  • Goldenrod Revision
  • Buff Revision
  • Salmon Revision
  • Cherry Revision
  • Second Blue Revision
  • Second Pink Revision
  • Second Yellow Revision
  • Second Green Revision
  • Second Goldenrod Revision
  • Second Buff Revision
  • Second Salmon Revision
  • Second Cherry Revision

Rather than waste paper printing a whole new 120 pages for everybody on set, only the section that has changes needs to be reprinted. Just yank out the corresponding white and insert a blue. Screenwriting tools like Final Draft make staying on top of these revisions even simpler, as do apps, which these days are increasingly supplanting the printed word.

Scene Numbers

Another feature of the shooting script is scene numbers.



 

Do not submit a spec script with scene numbers. You can use them for your own benefit. Just be sure to remove them before submission.

Software-generated scene numbers from programs like Final Draft are tied to scenes’ heading elements, so may not correspond to true scenes. One hack to work around this is to create a pseudo scene heading based on another element, such as Shot. Reserve true scene headings for the start of a true scene.

If a scene is removed it is replaced with the slug line to keep the original numbering intact:

42   SCENE OMITTED                       43

Conversely, letters are prepended or appended to deal with new scene insertion. This new scene would follow scene 42:

A42  EXT. STARSHIP IBERIA - EARTH ORBIT   A42

Tools

To help you format your screenplay, a number of software tools are available. The most ubiquitous is Final Draft. In addition to word processing, Final Draft will keep track of revisions, add and update scene numbers, and even generate reports such as character and locations lists for use by production. Many post-production applications can now import screenplay files. This makes it easy to line up the footage being edited with the shooting script. Voice recognition means syncing script to footage can be automated to a significant extent.



 

Adobe Story is part of Creative Cloud and can be assessed online for free if you are registered with Adobe. It can import from Final Draft and other third-party screenplay formats and features report generation. Additionally, it will convert to and from different formatting, such as so-called multi-column scripts—useful in production. If you are looking for a "full stack" solution sporting interoperability with other production and post-production software, and are a Creative Cloud user, Story is an option to consider.

Deviations

What I have outlined covers what is likely to be considered the "industry standard" for screenplay formatting. Is this the only way? Of course not. If you are writing on spec and submitting to producers, then this is probably the format you'll want to stick close to, as a matter of etiquette, if for no other reason. But, if not, use the formatting that works best.

Television screens often deviate. A sitcom, for example, can basically be formatted like a stage play. The locations are the same, episode to episode, and the plots are almost totally dialog driven. Animation scripts are a beast of their own. For production, a multi-column script may be used, while actors performing the voice-overs need only be given the dialog portion of the script.

Conclusion

Whether or not there are rules to screenwriting, there are definitely rules to screenplay formatting. These rules have a technical justification, which may or may not be valid. However, it is a standard that is widely followed. For this reason, familiarity with the rules will not go astray even if, at the end of the day, you decide to throw the book out the window.

Since formatting can be a headache, consider software tools like Final Draft to help make the task easier. If nothing else, careful attention to formatting will give your product an added air of professionalism. And whether we like it or not, books do get judged by their cover, as much as by their content.

Addendum—Style Reference [optional]

Here is a list of option style guidelines, mostly relating to punctuation, you may or may not choose to follow. They are intended to help with readability more than anything else and are by no means comprehensive.

GENERAL

X.  X

Double space following a terminating punctuation in all cases.

[ADJECTIVE USE]

NEVER!

BOLDED TEXT

Re: anything not “photographed”. Titles, for instance.  (Style as action.)

ACTION

LOCATION NAME

In lieu of a full slug line mid-scene.

SPECIFIC NOUN

i.e., implicit ANGLE ON. [NB: This might negate the capitalization of the first appearance of a character!]

INSERT OBJECT

Like above, but reserved mainly for photos, monitors, and documents containing important information, i.e., to the complete exclusion of the BG from fame—or as the BG, if you like. (Style as shot or scene heading.)

X -- X.

Separates “shots” mid-action. (Avoid the dash as punctuation, i.e., in its “standard” use, action must proceed in a linear fashion always, and this should be reflected in even in sentence construction.) 

Specific Noun

Capitalize first letter(s) as though a proper name is given. Use for characters and important objects. (Choose a particular name and stick to it until a good reason is given to change it.)

X.X.

Use periods after letters representing an abbreviation. (Do not use periods in cases of acronyms that are to be pronounced as a word, as in NASA, e.g.)

[NUMBERS]

Spell and punctuate exactly as the number should be read, unless it is obvious or the number is excessively long. (Use per cent, not %.)

DIALOGUE

X -- X

Standard dash use.

X --

[return]

-- X

Uninterrupted dialogue stream where there is a parenthetical or paragraph of action that breaks up dialogue. (In case of parenthetical, the dash will replace a period.  In case of action, the cont’d parenthetical will make the intention clear on its own; normal punctuation may be used.)

X--

Abrupt termination before the natural end of the sentence, as in case of interruption.

X...X

Slight pause or to join clauses that shouldn’t go together (i.e., grammatically incorrect writing).

X....  X         

An alternative to using a beat parenthetical.

(X)

The English equivalent of dialogue spoken in another language.

“X.”

Use where a sentence, even if of one word, is being quoted.

“X”.

Use where only a phrase or a word that does not constitute a sentence is contained in quotes.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

(*) Revised by Walter Hill and David Giler.

Discussion 5

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This is great info for aspiring screenwriters like myself. I'm still learning the format and rules and this answered a lot of questions and will be a great reference. Thanks!!

I'm glad I was able to provide some useful insights. The feedback is very much appreciated!

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Great article, and one I will surely revisit many times. Thank you!

Thanks a lot for the positive feedback!

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