F is for Formatting

The Script Frenzy A-Z challenge so far…

One of the first things I learned when doing Script Frenzy was that writing a script was much more structured in a technical sense than a novel or a short story. As I mentioned under Dialog, there are different elements that make up a script, and each are arranged and formatted a different way to make them easily stand out to a reader. A good script writing program, like Celtx or Final Draft, does as much of this for you as possible, letting you pick what element you want easily so that you can concentrate on what you need to write.

There are five elements that are frequently used in screenplays. The first is scene headings, which quickly convey where the scene must be shot and how. These are formatted in all capitals, flush against the left margin, and usually shaded in a gray background or something similar. The scene heading starts with ‘INT – ‘ for interior shot or ‘EXT – ‘ for exterior shot, and finishes with ‘ – DAY’ or ‘ – NIGHT’ – which can affect the lighting, and is also used to help track the chronology in the script. In between, you quickly describe the setting in a short phrase.

Action elements are used to describe what the characters are doing or what is happening in the scene aside from dialog. They’re also used to provide more detail on the setting after a scene heading. They start flush against the left margin and end ragged against the right margin, and are typed in easy to read sentences and paragraphs. Character names and props are CAPITALIZED when we first meet them, and important sound effects are always capitalized when they happen.

Character elements tell you who’s speaking. The character names are capitalized and left-aligned to a tab stop very close to the center of the page, so that most short names will appear more or less centered. You try to avoid using really long names here to make the dialog quicker to read.

Dialog elements are left justified and indented from both margins by several inches, so that you get short lines of dialog in the middle of the page.

Here’s an example from the start of my Frenzy script with all four of the above elements included:

The fifth commonly used formatting element is parentheticals – short descriptions in parentheses alternating with dialog. These are used to indicate stage directions of what tone the line should be said with – or can also be used to quickly mention some gesture that the character is making, without disrupting the flow of the dialog by switching into an action block. (I do that a lot, but I’m not sure if it’s against the rules. Parentheticals are indented from both margins even more than dialog.

There are a few other elements available in Celtx – transitions and shots, and also a catchall ‘Text’ element, but generally I just stick to those five. And it’s easier than you might think to getting used to writing with them.

10 Responses to F is for Formatting

  1. Ruby Young says:

    Hi, It sounds fascinating! I think perhaps I could write one if I put my mind to it. (No conceit here, just an honest observation ha.).
    Thanks for a really neat posting. Ruby


  2. Colin says:

    Interesting. I haven’t ever written, or tried writing, a screenplay–I write novels and short stories–but this is fascinating. It might be cool to try it out sometime, even if just for fun. While screenplay writers and novelists both do sort-of the same thing, that “sort-of” represents a big difference in approach and skill-set. Thanks for the insight. 🙂


  3. Donna B. McNicol [@donnabmcnicol] says:

    I don’t write scripts but am enjoying following your A to Z posts. Won’t comment every day but will be reading!


  4. I like how functional the different elements of screenplay formatting are. It’s all pretty straightforward once you absorb the conventions.

    Hope your Frenzy is not too frenzied, but just frenzied enough!

    A-Z @ Elizabeth Twist


  5. The Golden Eagle says:

    I’d wondered how to format a script, but never came across anything about it before.

    Great post!


  6. Debra S. says:

    Great overview of script formatting. I’m fascinated by scriptwriting. I have tried my hand at it and I really enjoyed it. I have to admit there are days when I would like to simply write – he said it out loud, nice, clean and simple but that would be telling and not showing. hahahaha.


  7. mel says:

    I’m hoping to dabble in screenwriting/plays at some point so your A-Z entries are going to be my “guidebook”. Can’t wait to read more!


  8. sharkbytes says:

    This is very interesting. I hadn’t thought about how computers have changed script writing. I’m trying to visit all the A-Z Challenge Blogs this month.


  9. cricketmuse says:

    Celtx is a great freebie writing tool. I’ve used for both screenplays and stageplays. I’m working on a stage play for this year’s Script Frenzy.
    Happy Pages,


  10. Might be a little late to the party, but I want to point out that parentheticals are to be used sparingly. Action block breaks are better most of the time for two reason: 1.) Actors are trained to immeadately cross them all out. 2.) It keeps your timing better. That 1 page 1 minute ratio is not a direct translation all the times. Action parentheticals can cause ratios more like 1 page 3 min. Though, the example you use is an appropriate use of parentheticals.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: