Formatting Fun: Scriptwriting Essentials
So now that you’ve got the basics of your screenplay worked out and ready, it’s time to cast your ever-eager gaze onto the art of formatting.
This is possibly one of the trickiest aspects of scriptwriting to master, but only because there are plenty of differing views and techniques at large. If you grab a copy of the Hollywood Standard, by Christopher Riley, you’ll find it’s jampacked with formatting gems that will really make your life (and everyone else’s in your near perimeter) a lot easier. He covers every formatting element in existence, from transition shots to camera work–always handy if you’re a script supervisor.
Today I’ll provide you with the tools to equip you in writing one scene according to professional formatting guidelines. It won’t be enough to write a whole feature or even a decent short, but keep your eyes peeled and eventually you’ll get there. Script formatting is a bit like learning to drive a car, rocky and uncertain at first, then gradually easier until one day you wake up and it’s second nature. Another practical way to go about it–hands down–is by installing Celtx (a scriptwriting software) onto your computer. It’s free, it’s easy to navigate and it segments your excessive babbling into formatted elements, practically on automatic.
There are, after all, certain stylistic conventions every script must adhere to, independently of your writing style.
For now though, let’s focus on the basics. Say hello to Courier 12, he’s your new best friend. Every script is written in Courier-or a variation of the font, thanks to its clarity. But more importantly, setting is the first thing you’ll need to whack us over the head with. Bringing us to the time-old questions of who, where, when and why–not necessarily in that order.
1. Scene Heading
Every new scene you write–even if it’s set in the same room but at a different time–requires a heading. You’ll answer three questions (maybe more if you want to be very specific). Is the scene outside or inside (exterior or interior)? What is the specific location, a hotel lobby or a beach? Does the scene take place during the day or at night?
You’ll need to insert a new scene heading every time one of these elements change.
Interior and exterior are always abbreviated to INT. or EXT. (capitalized). But where you abbreviate the Interior with a dot, you’ll separate the location from the time of the day with a hyphen. So your scene headings will look something like this:
INT. COFFEE SHOP - MORNING
EXT. BROOKLYN BRIDGE - NIGHT
This is what Riley calls a Master Shot Heading, and anything longer than that is usually unnecessary. The code is short and sweet. Beyond that, you might be wasting paper space.
The first thing to remember is that professional script-writers don’t tend to worry so much about their character’s inner thoughts for a reason. On the page, it doesn’t matter if Tom is agonizing over whether or not to jump from a balcony in a gun chase, if in the script it takes him a split-second to do so. The screenwriter must lay out the characters’ actions in a way that cinematographers and directors can easily visualize them–and quickly too. Never be ambiguous, you can’t afford to be vague for literary effect, describe exactly what is happening as if it’s happening NOW. Action is always set in real time.
Writers usually break the rhythm of each action down into one or two sentences each, so that the time it takes to read the action, is how long it actually takes to carry out in real time. This is so that the reader generally has the same imaginative experience as the viewer will have.
In Pulp Fiction, the writer establishes via the ACTION, that the coffee shop is in Los Angeles, it’s 9:00 a.m and the place is bustling with breakfast-goers. That’s one sentence.
Next, he establishes the two protagonists of that scene:
"Two of these people are a YOUNG MAN and a YOUNG WOMAN."
Whenever we introduce our main character, you should capitalize their names once, to establish their protagonism.
On Celtx, when selecting the Character from the drop box, the name of your character will automatically be centred in the document, and the Dialogue option will present itself just beneath that. Character names will always be capitalized.
You can also choose to portray the attitude or accompanying action with which your character speaks with the PARENTHETICAL option. The rule of thumb “Show, don’t tell” applies to the Parenthetical option, however. Parentheticals in every sentence is overkill.
JEREMY (Slurring) Leave me alone, I'm not drunk!
Or if the Dialogue spoken by your character takes place Off-Screen, you’ll write:
JEREMY (O.S) Leave me alone, I’m not drunk!
If your character is narrating but you can’t see them, it’s defined as a Voice-Over, and looks like this:
HENRY (V.O) As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.
Transitions are mostly used in scripts to define the abruptness with which each scene leads into the next. There is a lot of controversy nowadays as to whether these should only be inserted later in a shooting script, but as a writer, you might find them useful anyway.
The most common transitions are:
- CUT TO:
- DISSOLVE TO:
- QUICK CUT:
- FADE TO:
- FADE OUT:
- SMASH CUT:
Transitions are always capitalized and placed in the right-hand margin of a page, preceding a Scene Heading, as follows:
Jules finishes his burger, crumples the wrapper, and tosses it into the bin. Jules Let’s go.
INT. HOTEL LOBBY - NIGHT
These are the ABCs of formatting, but there’s a lot left to cover so next time, we’ll delve into the different transition shots. Meanwhile, get Celtx and start experimenting. Also, look for scripts online, you’d be surprised by how many famous scripts are just sitting there, waiting to be read. See how they separate action into sentences. Learn dialogue pace. And focus on the scriptwriter’s style. You’ll start to notice a pattern unique to each writer. The best scripts stand out not just due to spotless formatting–but also because of individualistic traits.
If you read a lot of scripts, you’ll notice an improvement in your own writing within a matter of weeks. Remember, practice makes perfect.
Elena Alston is a freelance writer and editor based in London. She writes about technology, screenwriting, culture and travel–and has a knack for bringing brands to life with words. There are two things she can’t live without: books and the sea. Not necessarily in that order.