Screenwriting

Formatting and writing scripts

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Here's what we'll go through in this lesson:

  1. Script elements
  2. Using the present tense
  3. Script shorthand
  4. Writing scenes

Script elements

Formatting is how words are arranged and laid out on the page. Try using scriptwriting software such as Celtx or Writers Duet as they have shortcut keys that make formatting it easy.

A script is broken into elements which are formatted according to a set of rules. Screenwriters are also expected to use the Courier New font. Here are the different elements you see in a script:

Scene heading

A scene heading, or 'slug line' is where you set the scene. In a scene heading we need to know:

If it is taking place indoors or outdoors (interior or exterior?)

Where it is (in a living room? A city street?)

Time of day (day or night?)

Here's a simple example, with EXT. short for exterior.

EXT. OLD HOUSE - DAY

Action

You describe where the characters are, what is happening, and what you want the audience to see. For example:

Alex and her mum stand in front of a rambling old house. A 'SOLD' sign hangs out the front.

Character and dialogue

When you first introduce a character in action, you write their name in capitals so it stands out. Every time after this you write it normally.

Once you have set up the scene, the action and your main character, you can introduce your character’s dialogue. You start by writing their name.

The dialogue is fitted neatly under the character's name, so it’s easy for the actors to know when they have to say something, as opposed to doing something. Notice too that when characters have dialogue, their name is in bold and centred on the page. For example:

EXT. OLD HOUSE - DAY

ALEX and her Mum ROSIE stand in front of a rambling old house. A 'SOLD' sign hands out the front.

MUM
Home sweet home!

ALEX
I want to go back to our old house

Watch: Before you write a script read an example. You can also watch videos like this script-to-screen comparison of Up

Activity 

Here is a short scene that needs to be ready for the screen. See if you can put this scene into the correct script formatting using scriptwriting software.

Ext. Old house. Day. Alex and her mum stand in front of a

rambling old house in front of them. A ‘sold’ sign hangs out

the front.

Mum: Home sweet home!

Alex: I want to go back to our old house.

Mum

Just give it some time and it will feel like home.

Alex

Whatever.

She storms off.

Watch the video below on script formatting.

Using the present tense

The tense is really important in formatting your script. When writing a script, we use present tense. This makes the story immediate and active. It’s happening as we read it.

To keep the story exciting, it’s important to keep the action clear and short. This makes it easy for the reader to follow. If there is too much description, the reader will lose interest.

Activity

Re-write and format the following script. Make sure it is in the correct tense, the action is brief and clear, and that unnecessary description is removed.

INT. CLASSROOM – DAY

It was a sunny day outside and inside the classroom was cold, with pink and blue walls. One wall was covered with recent projects made by students in the class, one on the human digestive system, another on the human brain, and one on how lungs work. There were ten tables in the classroom, each seating two to three students. The tables were quite new, as were the chairs.

The school bell rang, and soon after, Ms Holly came into the classroom and wiped the previous day’s class instructions from the whiteboard. Soon students began trickling in and took their seats.

Ms Holly: OK guys, it’s that time again.

Jake: Oh no, not again!

Ms Holly: Sorry Jake, but this must be done every week.

Shorthand

Now you have the baiscs and tense sorted, you might like to add some shorthand techniques to your script.

Parenthetical

Parentheses are used when a character needs to make a small action during their dialogue, or if the writer wants to indicate how the line is being spoken. Use parentheses sparingly, and keep it short. For example:

MEGAN
(waving shyly)
Hey I’m Megan, are you going into year eight?

 

Voice over (V.O)

This is a voice that is heard but not seen. It may be the inner voice of a character or someone on a phone call.

ALEX (V.O)
If this works, then…

 

Off-screen (O.S)

With off-screen the character is still in the scene, just not on camera at that exact moment. So if one character was talking to another who was in another room, you could use (O.S) for the character that's in the other room. Or maybe with a phone conversation, the character on the other end of the line could be heard but not seen.

SARAH
Peter, come out of there, you outfit looks fine!

PETER (O.S)
No! I look hideous!

Activity

Write a very short scene that includes a parenthetical, a line of dialogue that is V.O, and a character who speaks O.S.

If you’re struggling to think of an idea, you can use the following setup for a scene:

Christine has to make a phone call she is dreading. A narrator describes to the audience her fear. Eventually she makes the phone call, but she is extremely nervous throughout the conversation.

Writing scenes

Writing a scene goes beyond just having a scene header, including action, characters and dialogue; each scene needs to drive the story forward and tell us about the characters. So something important should happen or be shown in each scene. This moment can be significant to the plot, the world of your story, the characters, or all three.

Activity

So here is a scene we've added for The Time Machine. At the moment, this scene just shows Alex going about her morning routine just before she finds the time machine device. We've also used another screenwriting term with the scene heading called 'continuous'. This just means the action is continuous even though Alex changes location from bedroom to bathroom. You can use this where the action is unbroken so you don't have to write a new scene heading every time. Read the scene:

INT. ALEX'S BEDROOM – MORNING, CONTINUOUS

Alex wakes up and gets out of bed.

In the bathroom she brushes her teeth.

Back in her bedroom and she is in her school uniform.

She moves a box on her floor and notices quite a large hold in the floorboard. She pulls at the floorboard and it comes loose, revealing a small compartment underneath. She peers inside.

There are a couple of things wrong with it. Although it's getting us to the point where she finds the time machine, it doesn't tell us much about her situation, the fact she has just moved house, or how she feels about it.

We'd like you to re-write it so that what happens tells us more about Alex's situation and her feelings.

When you write your own scenes always ask yourself whether the scene is a) driving the story forward through something significant happening b) telling us about the world the character is in c) telling us about the character themselves, their thoughts and feelings. If your scene isn't doing at least one of these things then you might need to rethink it.

OK that activity moves us nicely to the next module on characterisation. If you want to know more about script formatting check out Screen Australia's Suggested Script Layout. Studio Binder also have notes on finer points of screenwriting such as sub-headings and writing montages here.

1.3 Writing characters

More info

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