If you’ve watched the first lesson in this course you should have a solid understanding of the origins and purpose of the Master Scene Script. This lesson will cover some of the more advanced topics regarding screenplay formatting.
We will mainly cover topics regarding special story situations. Spacing is handled by screenwriting software and there really is no good reason to write a screenplay without using some sort of formatting software. Here is a quick visual guide to spacing:
Some of the approaches to handling special story circumstances in this lesson are a matter of style. The importance of the Master Scene Script is to sell the story to potential collaborators – treat the solutions in this lesson as suggestions as there are quite a number of acceptable variations the industry.
Popular script writing programs will be able to format your title page.
Keep the title page minimal. Don’t include copyright notice or WGA registration number. You don’t need to put an address on the title page, an email address will usually suffice. The contact information can be left or right justified.
Covers and Binding
Covers for screenplays are optional but can give your screenplay a little more durability. Use a heavier card stock for the cover of your screenplay – a minimum of 60lb paper. The color is up to you but white or off white colors are preferred. Nothing should be written on the back cover. There is some debate as to whether or not to leave the front cover blank or include the title and name of writer similar to the Title Page.
The screenplay needs to be 3-hole punched with brads in the top and bottom hole to bind the script. Use 1.5 inch fasteners for most feature length scripts. Thin scripts for short films can use 1.25 inch brads. Do not use brads longer than 2 inches are known as “killers” for their tendency to stab the reader as they are working through your script.
Formating Variations – Scene Headings and Slug Lines
When writing a scene that takes place in a general location where characters move between sublocations, you don’t have to repeat the location or the time. Use this technique if the change in location occurs inside what would be considered a “scene”.
If you have major location changes in a scene but you want to convey that the action is being carried over from one location to the next you can use “Continuous” in the time of your scene heading. Be careful not to overuse this to the point where the reader forgets when this scene is suppose to take place.
If you have a scene that takes place immediately afterward in the same location you can “Later” in the time of day to denote the passage of time.
When using a proper name of a location in your scene heading be sure to enclose it in quotes.
If a scene moves from interior to exterior, a new scene heading is required. The primary reason for this is it gives the production department a clue as to how to schedule the scene. The exception is when it’s suppose to be a tracking scene that follows the characters from inside to outside.
You can add additional details to the scene heading using a hyphen or [brackets] after the time of day to designate things like [TRAVELING] for a car scene or [FLASHBACK] to denote it as a flashback.
Another way to indicate a FLASHBACK is to place it on it’s own slugline before the Scene Heading. This is useful if the Flashback covers several scenes. Make sure to add an END FLASHBACK when coming out of it.
Other forms of slug lines exist that go inside your master scene. These slug lines act as special indicators and are useful for inserting special shots or for drawing out an important visuals. This is an example of using slug lines to indicate a text message received on a phone using the slugline “ON SCREEN” – we use the “JOHN” to come out of this screen shot.
Often times you’ll be facing a scene that requires two different locations to be intercut, such as a telephone conversation. Once both locations have been established, you can use “INTERCUT” to designate cross cutting without having to re-establish each scene heading each time a character speaks.
The master scene script breaks down the movie into individual scenes – not cuts. So when approaching an action sequence use your writing to set the pace of the scene. The faster the action – the more you’ll want to break up the sentences and paragraphs to create a sense of direction. For spec scripts, it’s best to keep the details to only the most important points necessary to keep the story moving along.
Avoid generic phrases or cliches that don’t contribute to our understanding of the character or situation. Always try to give the characters something to do that gives us insight into their character.
There are three general instances that require using ALL-CAPS in the action segment:
- The first time in the script a character name appears in an action.
- Important sound effects
- Important props
Montages are a staple of editing and really only finalized in the post-production step. However, you may find that you need to designate a montage in the script. There are several ways of designating a montage depending on what you are trying to do with the scene.
Here is an example of a montage occurring all in one location (a cliche dressing room montage).
Here’s the same example only the montage occurs at a new location.
Here’s an example of a montage that encompasses different locations. Notice how the locations are designated with letters – this is important as these letters will be used for figuring out what locations will be needed during the scheduling stage of pre-production.
If your montage moves between different locations and is more involved than one line, you may consider writing them up as a series of short scenes and omitting the “MONTAGE” all together. The reader should be able to tell there is a montage in the context of the script.
You can blend these approaches when you write up your montages in your script. Be as economical as you can in a spec script as a lot of editing decisions can really only be made in post production.
When writing character names it is generally necessary to include only the first name when cuing them before a dialogue block.
Always identify a character speaking by a name – don’t use anonymous names (like “A MAN’S VOICE”) as they can get lost when breaking down a script. Although this can spoil the surprise, all dialog must be assigned to a charactor.
If a character’s name changes in the script, it can be useful to put the original name in parentheses when the character speaks. Any subsequent character name can be cued with just the new name alone.
Dialogue blocks that span a page break need a (MORE) at the end of the page break. Most screenwriting software packages will do this for you. On the following page you do not need to put a (CONT’D) unless your script is being turned into a shooting script.
(CONT’D) are used for dialogue blocks that are divided by a piece of direction. Example below:
Spell out all numbers when they appear in dialogue and avoid using symbols and abbreviations. This is in part a timing issue, to preserve the one-page-one-minute estimate for screenplays.
When a character recites poetry or song lyrics, enclose the lines in quotation marks. You may use slashes (/) to indicate the end of a line instead of starting a new line. This maintains the margins of the dialogue and preserves the timing.
There is no standard way to indicate dialogue in a foreign language. A common way is to write the lines in English and then italicize it in the script and put a parenthetical like “(in Spanish; subtitled)” for the the first speaking character and italicize the rest of the dialogue in the scene.
More Formatting Resources
Screenplays are as varied as the films that are produced from them. We have covered many of the common story situations that may come up but there are certainly more variations out there. The key to a properly formatted screenplay is readability – anything that detracts from readability will hurt you. Having said that, there is room for interpretation and style.
Here are a couple of resources that we have used to compile this lesson:
If you are still having trouble understanding screenplay format, check out screenplays either online or purchase official copies from Amazon. Note that many of the scripts found online are only transcripts made by fans of the film and may not be formatted properly.
Now that you have screenplay formatting down – you are ready for the much harder task of telling a story that will engage the audience.