How To Format A Script [Part 2]

We’re all going to do it. That’s why you’re here isn’t it? But amongst all the ‘do this’, and ‘do that’ scriptwriting books… How and what exactly do each of the parts of a script come together properly? From scene headings, to scenes with both interior and exterior shots, to telephone conversations, and flashbacks – we’ll have you covered!

So this is part two of the three part post. The first focused on formatting, fonts, title pages, and all the technical details. The second post -this one- will focus on the sections in a script, and how clever scriptwriting can alter the whole storyline.

Worthy Tip
There are many scriptwriting programmes out there in the world of the internet to download! Some are free, others cost a hefty price. Review our previous post to find out the ranking of each software programme and their worth to their price!
Jump to scriptwriting programmes →

Scene Headings

So for each script you write, you’re going to have to identify when a new scene begins – and ends. This is done through the use of a ‘scene heading’ which consists of three parts: Atmosphere, Place, and Time. The atmosphere is an easy section, and only requires an INT. for interior, or EXT. for exterior. Most locations will generally decide for you if it’s an inside or outside shot but sometimes it may become difficult.

What happens if you are planning on having a sequence of shots of a car ride? How many scenes would you need for this type of sector? On most basic accounts, you will need three. One for the travelling, one for the stopping, and the final for the exiting of the vehicle. On this basis it would read along these lines:

1. INT. TAXI, MAIN STREET (TRAVELLING) - DAY					1

2. INT. TAXI, MAIN STREET - DAY							2
   For when the car stops, reaching its destination.

3. EXT. TAXI, MAIN STREET - DAY							3
   For when the characters get out.

So what does this show us? That when the characters are driving they’re going to need a scene, as well as when the finish and stop in the final destination. Then they need one as they get out (assuming you want a shot of them exiting).

The next section on the scene heading is the place! This is wherever you want it to be… So go wild, but be realistic. Know if you can haul the extra cash if you’re setting it in exotic place, or somewhere that would need to be shut down if it’s always busy. Be clever! Set it so the characters act with location. Focus on an area of the location, so when it is made there can be substitute sets – producers won’t like to read a script that will cost them millions of dollars for a single location, when they’ll have another 100+ scripts that have a cheaper alternative.

The last section is the time. This is where the script lines between TV vs. Film become blurred. Please wait for the final posts regarding this section!

Scene heading keynotes:

  • Make sure you know where the shot is going to be. Inside the car or out side the car.
  • If a character is walking from room to room, each room is a new scene – unless an adjoining room like apartments.
  • Be descriptive in the scene location, but not too descriptive. Bedroom is not good enough. Tell us whose bedroom (BRANDON’S BEDROOM)
  • A scene heading is used in helping with shooting schedules. Grouping all the locations, then times, and atmospheres.
  • Never join scenes together. Some advance (people who are well recognised) are able to use the I/E. atmosphere, but that’s because they know they have a long list of successful films to back them up for production.

Action Lines

This is where all the movement goes – to tell the director, and actors where they are going. This is very tricky because some scriptwriters like to write every last detail:

SANDY walks 10 steps to the window, breathes five times, then drops in four seconds.

As much as it is what you want to see on screen, and it doesn’t have a direct effect to the character’s role, these actions should solely rely on the actor or actress to decide upon. Sometimes they won’t do it how you imagined, and if the chance arises to tell them how you envisioned it tell them – nicely!

The action lines or “Big Print” is always in present tense, only what can be seen on screen. There is no point stating it is daylight savings time, yet feeling earlier in the day when the audience would not even know unless told directly. It is pretty easy to get lost in your story once you start and add these unnecessary lines – but this is why you send your script off for revision and people will (quite harshly) edit your script. It seems mean, yes, but it’s like all work – you need to conform to the standards.

The last main section of action lines is the use of rhetorical questions. Some of the best script use a rhetorical question to set the context of the scene, and when used correctly is quite beneficial to the actor or actress. The rule though is to use them sparingly, one ever 15 pages of a feature is good. A recent script I read had a section that went similar to this:

MIRANDA and SUE get up, empty their food trays and began walking to class. Walking a part SUE begins to speed up past MIRANDA. Is this bitch trying to race? MIRANDA increases her pace to catch up to SUE, focusing on her target.

As in this example, you can tell the expression and the following dialogue’s tone of that scene. It’s a more clearer (and subtle) way of telling your cast of how to act out the scene.

The last point of action lines is the extremely long chunks of text! Keep these lines to a 3-4 maximum and then just make it a new action line. This helps in two areas: breaking up the action, and makes it easier on the eyes.

When you have to read something and see the biggest slab of text in the world you read it but realistically are just thinking “What the hell? How long is this?” The same goes for scripts, if a producer sees a large section of text they’ll probably skim it or skip it. This is not ideal if it is the most important section of your movie!

Action/Big print keynotes:

  • Split up large chunks of text.
  • Rhetorical questions can be used to emphasise the context of the action.
  • Write in present tense, and don’t include things that aren’t explicitly evident.

Dialogue

This is the section of the script where the characters talk. There is an extreme blurred line of grammar here as you write how the character would talk. There are a few points which are necessary to know when writing dialogue lines.

The use of ellipses (…) for pauses or cut offs are not actually what is used. The correct use would be two, and only two hyphens (–).

					FRAN
				But -- I -- I didn't do it!

It’s a simple thing and can distinguish easily the difference between people who know how to format and those who don’t! The next issue is emphasis on words. When a character begins shouting and we all run to the caps-lock button and an exclamation mark – STOP! The correct way is to underline your text.

					FRAN
				Bill. Bill? Bill!

The final point is parenthetical lines. These are the ones that are in bracket under the character’s name. They serve the purpose of emotions, or identifying if a line is delivered while doing something.

					FRAN'S DAD
				Time to get up!
        
					FRAN
			             (cheerful)
				I hate you.

As in this example, Fran is shown not to really hate her dad, but deliver the line sarcastically. There are many uses for parenthetical lines, but use them sparingly – as all things – and try to keep it to one line or else people will skip right over them!

Dreams, Flashes, etc.

They are awesome to do, but people always come to this section and go:

1. INT. BILL'S HOUSE - DAY							1
Bill is sitting on his couch. He leans forward and picks up a photo frame of 
KELLY [for this purpose Kelly is his ex-girlfriend]. He thinks back to when they were happy in Scene 3 at the park.

STOP! Please… Just stop! When you’re making the film, and you get to that scene, you’re going to be “what happened in scene 3?” Films get shot out of order, over long periods of time. Each scene must be its own. The correct way would be:

1. INT. BILL'S HOUSE - DAY							1
Bill is sitting on his couch. He leans forward and picks up a photo frame 
of KELLY.
   
2. EXT. PARK - DAY (FLASHBACK)							2
Bill and KELLY are holding hands. They are continuously laughing at each 
other, and madly in love.

3. INT. BILL'S HOUSE - DAY							3
Bill starts to cry.

As this shows, it becomes its own scene. Even if you have to copy and paste, at least when people read it they’re not going to be flicking through asking who or where they are. This goes the same for dream sequences, flash forwards, and anything that is non-realistic (animation, etc.).

Telephone Conversations

There are three types of telephone conversations: one sided in one location, two sided in one location, or two sided in two locations.

So one sided in one location is pretty simple, and great for really short conversations or a montage of phone calls.

1. INT. BILL'S HOUSE - DAY							1
Bill is sitting on the couch watching TV. His mobile phone rings. He answers it.

					BILL
				Hello? -- Yes this is. -- Oh
				sorry I'm not interested. --
				No sorry, not now.

As you can see this is easy and really only needs one character to play the part. However, sometimes you’re going to want more than one character to talk or be in more than one location. The following two are representations of both respectively.

Two sided in one location:

1. INT. BILL'S HOUSE - DAY							1
Bill is sitting on the couch watching TV. His mobile phone rings. He answers it.

					BILL
				Hello?

					TELEMARKETER (V.O.)
				Hello is this Mr. Smith?

					BILL
				Yes this is.

					TELEMARKETER (V.O.)
				Sir I have an offer for you --

					BILL
				Oh sorry I'm not interested.

					TELEMARKETER (V.O.)
				Yes sir, but this of--

					BILL
				No sorry, not now.

Two sided in two locations:

1. INT. BILL'S HOUSE - DAY							1
Bill is sitting on the couch watching TV. His mobile phone rings. He answers it.

					BILL
				Hello?

2. INT. FBI HEADQUARTERS - DAY							2
A group of guys are standing around a computer screen with a map on it. A fake telemarketer is on the phone with BILL.

					TELEMARKETER
				Hello is this Mr. Smith?

3. INT. BILL'S HOUSE - DAY							3

					BILL
				Yes this is.

4. INT. FBI HEADQUARTERS - DAY							4
The computer screen begins to locate the whereabouts of BILL.

					TELEMARKETER
Sir I have an offer for you --

5. INT. BILL'S HOUSE - DAY							5
BILL rolls his eyes out of annoyance.
   
					BILL
				Oh sorry I'm not interested.

6. INT. FBI HEADQUARTERS - DAY							6
The other agents around computer and phone begin to mouth 'keep him on' repetitively.

					TELEMARKETER
				Yes sir, but this of--

7. INT. BILL'S HOUSE - DAY							7

					BILL
				No sorry, not now.

As this shows, three different ways of the same phone call brings in a whole new taste of the script and brings into account the story angle.


We hope these descriptions were helpful and hope you learnt something from them. Remember that if you missed the first post about formatting, title pages, and other important script items be sure to check it out!