Every film starts as a story, and every story is written in a screenplay. Coming up with ideas and developing the story is hard enough, but one thing that many people overlook is the fact that screenplays should adhere to certain formatting standards. While most people are familiar with the notion of a screenplay, not all of them are aware of the exact elements to consider when writing for film or TV, and here we go into detail about how they are used.
Start with a header
Headers identify key aspects of the scene you are writing. They are always aligned to the left of the page, and each scene starts with its own header in the first line. They specify whether a scene takes place in an interior or exterior, the set of the scene itself, and the time of the day. They usually look like this:
EXT. PARK – DAY
Go into detail with action lines
Action lines are nothing more than the description of the scene. They can be as long as the action that transpires during the scene. These lines describe nothing but action, although different writers have different styles and some include things like camera movements or characters’ thoughts and feelings into their descriptions. Here is an example:
Lots of people at the park are basking in the sun, playing with their kids and pets, and exercising.
Introduce your characters
The first time you write about a character, you need to introduce them in your screenplay. This usually happens in the action lines first, for which you need to write their name in all caps as a way to identify the first time they appear in the story. Script breakdowns are made much easier thanks to this little technique:
JOE is riding his bike through the park, when a woman, MARY, gets on his way chasing after her dog, making him lose control and fall off his bike.
Give your characters their lines
Screenplay dialogues are typically centered in standard formatting, headed by the name of the character whose dialogue follows. The name of the character can be in all caps or not, it is usually a matter of style too and you’ll see it written either way in famous movie scripts:
Hey, watch where you’re going!
Why don’t you watch where you’re going?
Add notes in case they’re necessary
For some people, your scene descriptions and dialogue should be enough to communicate the meaning you intended to convey when you wrote it. However, for others, it is a matter of facilitating certain creative directions for later use, in the case of writers who also plan on directing. These annotations can be classified in character parentheticals and dialogue parentheticals. Character parentheticals like (O.S.) for off-screen actions and (V.O.) for voice-over dialogue determine the quality of the actions themselves. Dialogue parentheticals, on the other hand, are markers used to dictate how a character’s lines should be delivered. As such, you can write anything from (angrily) to (jumping from excitement).
Mark your transitions and titles
Last but not least, transitions and titles are common in films, and occasionally, they are specified in the screenplay as well. The most common transition that you will see written down is simply CUT TO. You will see it aligned to the right of the screen and usually to the bottom of the page. For titles, there are really no rules, but you will see that OVER BLACK; and TITLE; are some of the most used, followed by the title itself in their own line, of course.