You have got a sound idea for your next movie or TV show. You are certain it will be a success and will generate a massive audience and profit. Yet you’re struggling with formatting a screenplay.
This is a problem. A problem that’s stopping you from taking the crucial first step to achieving your dreams.
As important as it is, you don’t know how to write a screenplay, let alone format it.
With that obstacle in your way, you have decided to let it go, or maybe give up.
But here is the thing: a screenplay is essential if you want to create your movie. For most projects, you will need it, no questions asked.
Formatting A Screenplay – The Purpose Of A Screenplay
A screenplay is a script that includes every action that happens onscreen, for instance, words said, actions, and location.
To tell you the truth: a screenplay is important. It tells all that is in a story, from subtle events to major ones.
No movie can be made without a screenplay. To create a film, the finished script should be in place first.
Making a movie without a screenplay is like preparing a complex meal without a recipe.
We all know the result when cooking without a procedure: everything will come out horrible.
The same applies to a movie — one that’s created without a screenplay will be unbearable to see.
With that in mind, you know how important a screenplay is. It’s the blueprint for the movie; without it, everything from scenery to action to dialogue will come out poorly.
But, if a screenplay is well written, it will make the filmmaking process much easier. It will be straightforward, and there won’t be any guesswork needed during shooting.
As a result, filmmaking will be smooth for the production crew. The movie or show will be so much better.
You would want that, wouldn’t you? I bet you would.
Elements Of Formatting A Screenplay
You have seen how important a screenplay is. So, would you want to learn the process to format your screenplay?
If so, then I’m going to give you the elements that will help you format a screenplay, even if you don’t have any idea about the process.
1. Slug Lines
Sluglines are the headings of the scene. They tell the reader about the location of the scene and the time in which it takes place.
As a rule of thumb, all slug lines must be written in ALL CAPS.
If the action takes place inside or outside a house, you should label it as (INT.) or (EXT.) respectively.
If the action takes place in a moving vehicle of any kind, be it a car or train, the same commands will apply.
After this, state the period, location of the scene, and time of the day in the respective order I mentioned.
As for the time of the day, you can simply label it as DAY, NIGHT, MORNING, EVENING, or anything else that’s suitable.
If you are continuing from where you left off on the previous scene, label it as CONTINUOUS in the time slot.
If the scene happens a couple of minutes afterward, label it as MOMENTS LATER. All the same, if it’s a flashback, write FLASHBACK.
It’s that simple.
You should write your slug lines carefully because they outline how the producer will shoot their scenes. If you mess it up, the end product may be far from what you expect.
2. Action Lines
Action lines follow the slug lines — they go right beneath the heading. Since you will be describing the present activity, all action lines should be written in the present tense.
You should try to avoid vagueness as much as possible. Don’t write like you are writing a novel.
Eliminate any inner thoughts or anything that can’t be seen by people on-screen. Aim for your writing to be clear. That’s all there is to action lines.
Remember, you aren’t writing to amuse. If you have any cheesy idea that you think may entertain the reader, forget about it altogether.
No one is going to read the screenplay—only the producers and those involved in the filming process will.
Your action lines must be straightforward and easy to follow. You wouldn’t want to make the producer guess what you are trying to mean. It would be bad.
And as for capitalization, if you present a character’s name for the first time, you should put it in capital letters.
The same goes for transitions, camera movements, and sounds.
Don’t capitalize random words on the page. It will confuse the producers during shooting.
This part of the formatting is simple. Whenever a character speaks, label their name on what they say.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be their full name — you can use their first or last name.
If the character is using another identity on a disguise, label the name of that identity.
The dialogue must appear at the center of the screen. The name of the character should appear above the line of the dialogue.
If the speech to be said is a voiceover, label V.O. beside the name of the character.
If the character is on the scene, but off-screen, label it O.S. and if he or she is off-camera, label it O.C. Both extensions, O.S and O.C, mean the same thing.
StudioBinder has an excellent outline here:
If the dialogue itself doesn’t explain exactly how something is said or done, then you should use parentheticals.
With them, your dialogue will become more clear. Examples of Parenthetical are
To include them, write them underneath the character ID.
Transitions are used to shift between 2 scenes. They are placed on the far right of the page, and they are written in capital letters.
Examples of them are:
Cut to- normally, this transition is used to mark the end of a scene.
Dissolve to- this one is used when 1 scene transforms into another scene.
Intercut- this transition is used to switch between 2 scenes.
An example is a phone call, where you will be shifting from one end to the other between the characters talking.
Much like slug lines, subheaders are used to indicate place and time. The only difference is that it’s included inside a scene.
Still, everything else is similar to the heading — capitalized and at the left side.
If you are in a large building, a subheader can be used to show a room change.
7. End of Act
This one mainly works for network television shows.
When you reach a point where the show will be cut for the commercial break, write the phrase “End of act 1” in your script.
Mind you, it should be centered and underlined.
Mistakes To Avoid When Formatting A Screenplay
Let’s take a look at some of the mistakes you should really avoid when formatting your screenplay.
Screenplays don’t need to have details on how to shoot a scene.
Your job is to write the events that will appear onscreen and anything that has to do with shooting must be left for the director and cinematographer.
They will decide which camera angles will work best. Besides, that’s their specialty after all.
Don’t try to do everything on your own, you are a specialist, not a generalist.
Undoubtedly, you are a genius with words, but you aren’t better than the directors at deciding which camera angles work best for the scenes in your screenplay.
It’s their domain, so leave it to them.
It’s like playing soccer: a goalkeeper can’t be a striker at the same time, in the same match.
The striker focuses on scoring and can only be a goalkeeper on rare occasions.
The same applies to you; you can’t focus on many specialties at once. Your job is to write actions and not otherwise.
You don’t get to decide the camera angles. The directors, cinematographers, and actors get to. So stick to your field.
Overuse Of Parentheticals
Parentheticals are great, and due to that, you should use them in your screenplay writing. You shouldn’t, however, go overboard.
That’s because it’s not always your job to discern how a scene should come out.
Your job is to write the screenplay and decide the actions. What comes after that isn’t your field. Don’t try to do everything on your own.
Once again, you may use them, but it is not always your job. During filming, the actors and directors will see what works best.
They will be the ones doing the work, so they will use trial and error to come up with the best way to interpret the actions on the scene.
You may use parentheticals, but leave most of that to actors and directors. They will decide how best to display a certain scene.
How To Format A Screenplay – Final Thoughts
Formatting a screenplay is hard indeed — it’s different from regular writing you see every day.
But if you follow the steps I gave you, you will get used to the process and it will become second nature to you.
You won’t become great right away but with time, your writing will get better. For now, just put in the work, because in the end, your efforts will pay off.
You will write great screenplays that any producer or director will be willing to work with.