Screenplays are written and read in what is basically a technical format with many prescribed features. A new writer is often guilty of the misconception that a good story expressed in dialogue is everything in screenwriting. Actually, a screenplay includes other things as well and a format makes sure you do not forget to include them.
What a Screenwriting Format Ensures
A screenplay contains not only dialogue and descriptions; it must also contain a blend of visuals and actions. The screenplay is where a writer is able to communicate what each character does in specific moments as the action proceeds. It is where he or she has the authority to make a bereaved heroine bawl at the kitchen sink or stare blankly into space. This is where the format performs its greatest function: it provides the specific space where you write down exactly what happens; where, when and how it happens and who says what.’
By utilizing tabs, margins and capitalization of letters, the format is also able to lay out the entire screenplay in an orderly fashion that makes production flow logically. Format places action in precisely the instance it should occur and identifies what is needed for the action to take place. For example, if instead of verbally objecting to something the heroine spills a glass of water on the table, this action is described and the text would be found in a prescribed place so no oversight is possible.
The format used for screenwriting includes all the elements that a writer must supply in his or her screenplay. These elements have their own place in the written page and in some of them a certain style is prescribed. However, the four most important elements are the Scene Headings which are also called Sluglines, Action, Character Names, and Dialogue. Actually, once an author has mastered these four he can use the format with relative ease.
Scene headings, as the name implies, are found at the beginning of scenes. These are typed on one line with all words capitalized and some words abbreviated. A scene heading is required each time the setting of the action changes. There is a specific order to the scene heading; the abbreviation EXT or INT comes first then the location followed by the time of day. EXT and INT refer to exterior and interior to indicate whether the scene is taking place indoors or outdoors. The time of day is separated from the location by a dash. The next line after this would be a description of the scene written from the left to the right margin.
The names of characters are capitalized the first time they are used in a dialogue heading. Names of characters without dialogue are not capitalized. Background sounds such as thunder or a gunshot are capitalized but sounds made by the characters are not.
Dialogue is centered under the character’s name which is the dialogue heading. This name is capitalized. If there is an action occurring with the dialogue, this action is placed under the dialogue head. The description of the action is enclosed in parenthesis and is not capitalized. When dialogue is interrupted by action but the character will continue speaking, the abbreviation of the word continued is in capital letters after the character’s name.
Among the other features of the screenwriting format are the parentheticals which are used to describe action or identify who the character is speaking to; the V.O. which stands for Voice Over and O.S. which stands for off screen and page numbers. The margins for the different elements are specific: scene headings and action have a 1.5 inch left margin; character names have a 3.7 inch left margin; dialogue gets a 2.5 inch left margin and parentheticals get a 3.1 left margin. Scripts are written on letter-sized paper and the page margins are 1.5 inches on the left and one inch on the other sides. The usual font used is Courier 12.
Although the format sounds complicated and takes getting used to, once mastered it can be a very useful tool. Once a writer becomes comfortable with it, it becomes an organizer that allows easy reading and ultimately gives the script a better chance of being sold.