Elements of the Master Scene Screenplay

If you are writing a script today that you want other people to produce, then you need to be writing in the Master Scene Format.

The Master Scene Format has six main elements and we’ll touch on them very briefly.

  1. Scene Heading
  2. Action
  3. Character Name
  4. Parentheticals
  5. Dialogue
  6. Transitions

The first element is the scene heading - often called the slug line. All screenplays written in the master scene format are broken into individual scenes not cuts. Each scene heading is written in all caps and begins with INT or EXT for Interior or exterior. This is followed by the name of the location and a designation of day or night.

The second element is the action portion of the script. This is written in present tense language and should only include what can be seen and heard. In other words, no writing about what people are thinking - this is a film you’re making not a novel. Sounds Effects that are key to the story but heard off screen need to be put in ALL-CAPS as well as the name of a character when you first introduce him or her.

The next element is the Character name. This goes on it’s own line in ALL caps. If the character is off screen or delivering a voice over you can designate it so with an O.S or a V.O.

Underneath the Character name are Parentheticals that shade the meaning of the dialogue delivery. Remember the key to the Master Scene format is Readablility so only include parentheticals that are absolutely necessary for understanding the context of the story.

Then there are the dialogue blocks which are written in their section off set from everything else.

The final element is the scene transition. This is a holdover from the continuity script days. These go on the far right of the script and explain the transition between scenes. Again, the purpose of this format is Readability so only include transitional elements when they are absolutely important to the story you’re trying to tell.

Remember the role that the screenplay in the modern package unit production system - it is a document to sell the story to potential collaborators.  One of those collaborators may be a director and although you may have a great idea of how to shoot a scene you’re job is not to tell the director how to do his or her job. You can hint at what’s important by drawing attention to things in your writing, but leave out the camera direction.

Now the precise formatting of all these elements is absolutely crucial. You must have a 1.5 inch left margin with a 1 inch top and bottom margin and the dialogue blocks 3.7 inches from the left side of the page. Each element has it’s own specific rule for spacing and if you’re attempting to write a screenplay, you could try to set up all the margins yourself but you’re really asking for a world of hurt going that route. There are industry standard screenwriting software programs like Final Draft as well as free versions like Celtx that can handle all your formatting for you and realistically, writing is hard enough. Don’t make it more complicated.

There are a few reasons for these strict rules. On average, 1 page of screenplay formatted this way will result in 1 minute of screentime. So a 120 page script should land right around 2 hours of finished movie. And when it comes down to pre-production, a properly formatted script can be broken down into 1/8ths of a page to be scheduled for production. This format also has a lot of white space which leaves plenty of room for the director and actors to scribble their notes.

But perhaps the most important reason for these rigid formatting rules... its the first clue for the script reader to tell if the writer is a serious screenwriter or just a wannabe dreamer. If you don’t care enough about your movie to format it in the way that the industry wants, make it easy to read and free of major typos, then nobody in the industry will care about your movie either.

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