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How To Format A Screenplay

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Writing Your First Screenplay

Also known as how to write a scene

Everyone wants to write the great American novel but in addition to that a writer can write the great American screenplay and become just as widely known. Just look at Diablo Cody, the writer of Juno, once she became a known screenwriter her career took off like a rocket. 

But how do you get started? Well, for starters, a screenplay isn't that much different from a novel, that is to say with a novel you are describing what's in your head while with a screenplay you are writing what is actually happening within the story. If a novel is the brain then the screenplay would be the eyes, or to put it another way, a screenplay is a bit more in the moment with a quicker pace. And usually shorter too. 

There are several words or lingo you need to familiarize with, first and foremost is the slugline. A slugline, or slug, is the line that sets up the scene. For example, if a man is standing outside in the rain in front of a movie theater on a Thursday afternoon you would write:

EXT. MOVIE THEATER - DAY

Next comes your scene description, which goes right under the slugline and that describes the slugline. You pretty much can describe it how ever you like, just be descriptive. Right under that is your dialogue, which is where the real fun begins because you can take that in any direction you want to go just as long as the scene revolves around starting outside a movie theater. He can go in, he can even keep on going down the street, just make the dialogue have a sense of clarity to it. Under the dialogue is the scene ending description, that leads in to the next scene, which speaks for itself.

Now, a screenplay covers roughly 30 to 40 scenes with each being about 3 pages a piece. So basically all you have to do is write scenes until you get to the end. "But how will I know when I reach the end?", you ask. Simple, you'll feel it,  you'll just know when the ending is coming soon. However, if you feel you need to plan ahead just write down 30 sluglines with description under each of them if you want to outline  your script. 

The Slugline

Before you start writing your slugline in the upper left hand of the first page you'll want to write Fade In: 

This simply lets the reader know the script is beginning but it's also a sign to the director on where to start filming. Now on to the slugline: The slugline is describing where and when a scene is taking place. For example if I wrote Ext. Cafe - Night what would you think?

Well, when writing a slugline Ext. or Int. simply means exterior or interior, or more simply inside or outside. Now this is very important because you have changes in times between scenes and more often than not you'll experience every other scene being day or night. 

The next element in the slugline is the location in Ext. Cafe - Night. Where are we located? The cafe, obviously, but more specifically we are outside the cafe, not inside it. Next comes the time of day and that is important because it gives you the setting, depending on the tone of your scene it could be day or night. For example, if you are writing L.A Confidential the scene Ext. Formosa Restaurant could very easily be day time but since the writer was going for a darker tone they made it at night.

But what would you do if you had to deal with a following scene that doesn't change time of day? Easy, if the previous slugline was Ext. Cafe - Night you could continue on with Ext. Cafe - Continuous. Continuous just means that the time of day goes on until you reach the opposite time of day in the next or upcoming scenes. You could even go with four or five continuous scenes before you come to a new slugline that changes the time of day.

Writing description

Description is what happens under the slugline, you are basically setting up the scene or describing what the scene is all about. An example of this would be:

EXT. CAFE - DAY

LEONARD, 25, waited impatiently at one of the outside tables that had red and white checkered tablecloths on them as the sky looked as if it could rain any second now. Finally, after drumming his fingers on the table for a few moments, he takes out his cell phone and makes the call.

Now what do we learn from this description. First of all, we get the name Leonard, but his name is in all caps, why? You always put in all caps a persons name if you are first introducing them, after wards it is up to you whether or not you want to keep capitalizing that person's name. Some people decide to keep the names in all caps and some people just go back to regular capitalization once the character's identity has been verified, it's all up to the writer. Then we learn he's twenty-five, something you will want to do with all your character's since it will make it easier for the casting director to cast for the film. 

The next you'll see is he's sitting at a checkered table, but not only that it's quite dreary outside, so not only is it a day but it's a dark and, most probably, rainy day. The final sentence tells us that he's nervous when he's drumming his fingers on the table, and then finally he gives up and takes out his cell phone. So he's a young, somewhat nervous twenty-five year old waiting impatiently for someone. Now, you can take it further by describing what he looks like. Maybe he wears glasses, maybe he's blonde, or maybe he's even wearing a suit. Or it can be all three.

LEONARD, 25, a blonde man in glasses and in a suit, waits impatiently at one of the outside tables that had red and white checkered tablecloths on them as the sky looked as if it could rain any second now.

Feel free to be as descriptive as possible, if you want to describe what kind of wood the table is made from then tell us. This is one of the most fun aspects of writing a screenplay, setting up the scene. Now, you can take Leonard's situation even further by adding more description, in this instance adding his date's point of view. So it could go on further with something like this:

SYLVIA, 28, opened the umbrella over her head as it started raining and immediately raced to the cafe with her brown pony tail shaking from left to right and back again as she tried desperately not to miss her date. Finally, Leonard perked up as he locks eyes with the blue eyed yet petite beauty clad in a red mini skirt. 

Now, we know Sylvia is twenty-eight, we know she is a brunette by the fact that her ponytail is shaking as she runs to the cafe. We know this date means all the world to her because she's trying desperately to get there on time. We also know she's a petite woman in a red mini skirt who just happens to have blue eyes. Again, be as descriptive as possible when you're describing a scene because you aren't just describing things in the scene but you're describing the people within them as well. You can make the description several paragraphs long if you want to but try  not to go over three paragraphs or it will look too narrative. The point of description in a scene is to describe the slugline as quickly as possible, so you can get to the dialogue, but make it as descriptive as you can. 

Dialogue

So now you've written your slugline, followed by your scene description, and now you have to write the dialogue. The first thing you want to keep in mind is to remain in the spirit of the scene description. If you have two people on a date, seated outside a cafe, you don't have them talking about going on a certain amusement park ride. Remember where they are, what they are doing, and how you want the scene to go. 

The second thing you'll want to remember is to always center the character's name before you write the actual dialogue. If you want your character to say something always do this first and don't forget to center format your dialogue as well. Another thing you don't want to forget is when writing dialogue you always, always, keep the character names in all caps. An example of this would be:

                                                                             LEONARD

So, where are you from?

SYLVIA

Phoenix, you?

Now, sometimes you'll find yourself in the middle of a situation where you need to write description in the middle of the dialogue because something happens that furthers the story along. Now, with dialogue description, which doesn't describe the dialogue, you'll have to left align space. Remember, just because you're writing in the dialogue section doesn't necessarily mean you have to center the description. An example would be:

LEONARD

So, where are you from?

SYLVIA

Phoenix, you?

LEONARD

Here in New York.

SYLVIA

Cheers then.

LEONARD

Cheers.

They clink their glasses together. 

The next thing that happens is you'll have a scene ending description which comes right after you've finished your dialogue for the scene. Now, how do you end a scene after all has been said for the scene? Simple, you think about the scene and then you think ahead to what you want the next scene to be about. Think of each scene as a movie and the scene ending description as like a cliff hanger. Go and watch any soap opera episode and you will see what their cliff hangers are like, and then go and watch the next episode the following day, you'll see how the end description sets up the next scene. So:

Leonard and Sylvia get up and climb into a cab and speed away as the rain falls. 

Now, they left together so this could set up the next scene easily. Perhaps they spend the night together, or maybe he just drops her off and kisses her goodnight, or you can even have the next scene occur the following day as Leonard describes to a friend how he met this beautiful, intriguing woman. It's all up to you. 

One more thing, some people like to end a scene with a camera direction, you can do this but it's not required. Example:

Leonard and Sylvia get up and climb into a cab and speed away as the rain falls.

CUT TO:

You use cut to, or fade out, or dissolve to, or the many other ways to end a scene but what many people use these days is they simply describe the end of the scene and then go on to the next slugline. 

A Few Tips

When you're writing dialogue you'll sometimes notice that something is going on with a person as they are talking and it needs to be known to the reader. These are what screenwriters call parentheticals and what that is is there are parentheses under the character name but before the dialogue. An example:

LEONARD

(BEAT)

I was just wondering when you'd might call.

As you can see here something is happening, but what is a beat? A beat is simply a sigh or the character gaining a moment to compose themselves. Other parentheticals you might want to familiarize yourself with are:

Filtered: This is when something is over the phone and can't be necessarily heard normally.

Voice Over or (V.O): A voice over is like narration in which the character isn't so much speaking in the scene but rather speaking about the scene.

Off Screen or (O.S): This would in instances where a secondary, or even your main character, is in another room and they aren't seen. 

Now there are going to be times, which is usually in description, where you need to show the future, the past, or even the present in a scene. This is when super's come into play. Now a super, also known as superimposition, is when you are putting on the screen some piece of information that can't be easily shown otherwise. An example:

EXT. NEW YORK CITY SKYLINE - NIGHT

SUPER: 2183

Another thing you'll want to consider is the use if -ing words, and as. The point of writing description is to keep the action in the present. Most screenplays, whether they are action movies or not, have action all throughout the story. Here is an example of how not to write a sentence:

JOHNNY was sitting on the bar as he began reading his newspaper. Suddenly, a huge asteroid started hitting the ground causing debris to fly everywhere. 

Now here is how to write it better:

JOHNNY sits on the bar and reads  his newspaper. Suddenly, a huge asteroid hits the ground which causes debris to fly everywhere. 

The second one is better because:

A. It's not written in the past tense.

B. The lack of -ing words.

C. No begins or starts words. 

The last thing you'll want to remember is when you've finally written that last scene ending description of the last scene of your script it is to always put FADE OUT in the right hand bottom side of your script. That's how you'll know you're done with your script. 

You've learned the basics of how to write a series of scenes over and over again until you have a finished screenplay, and now that you armed with the perfect formula for writing a screenplay feel free to move forward and actually write the thing. If you feel like you should outline your screenplay before you start then by all means do it, just do whatever it takes to get that first draft down. You can even get it done in twelve days if you figure to write ten pages for ten minutes a day. Most screenplays are between ninety and one hundred and twenty pages so it can be done. So do it!

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