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Movie Script Format Tips: The Myth Of Script Formatting

 

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by Script Reader Pro in How To Write A Screenplay
July 30, 2015 9 comments
script formatting

There is a great screenwriting myth that script formatting somehow exists as a codified law written in stone somewhere. We prefer to talk about movie script format in terms of choices, rather than rules, and this post is about some choices you should avoid. 

As we said in our post “A Simple Script Formatting Guide For Confused Writers” formatting is something many newbie screenwriters obsess over when they needn’t.

Although there are very few hard and fast “rules” on how to format a screenplay, some script formatting choices WILL make you look more amateurish than others.

Of course, a few bad movie script format choices are never going to be a deal breaker in whether your script gets picked up or not.

BUT consistent and obvious bad choices AND errors flag your script up as the work of an amateur writer right off the bat.

It’s extremely rare that a script riddled with formatting mistakes turns out to be a masterpiece.

It’s all about making your script as easy to read and as professional as possible. Why deduct points from it before they’ve even read the story?

Below are Top 4 script writing formatting choices to be avoided. The great thing about them, though, is that they are easily remedied once you’re aware of them. Unlike, two-dimensional characters or on-the-nose dialogue!

Choice #1. Putting Your Inside Leg Measurement And Name Of Your Cat On The Title Page

Let’s start with that deceptively simple title page. Most professional script readers at agencies, managers offices and production companies can more or less tell whether a script’s going to be any good purely by the title page. Before they’ve even read a word.

It’s THE first impression your script gives to a new reader and so it’s pretty important to make it a good one.

The confusing nature of movie script format becomes immediately clear, though, if you consider that in David Trottier’s Screenwriter’s Bible, it tells you to place contact info in the bottom right hand corner.

But in The Hollywood Standard by Christopher Riley, it tells you to place it in the left hand corner.

What side you place you address and email isn’t important. What is important is that you leave off everything else apart from the title of the script and who wrote it.

You don’t need WGA numbers, draft numbers, dates, quotes, the name of your cat or anything else on the title page.

It just looks amateurish and so keep it sparse with just your contact info in the bottom right (or left) hand corner, and you’ll be off to a winning first impression.

Choice #2. Writing Long And/Or Confusing Sluglines

Length

Keep them short people. Instead of writing:

INT. APARTMENT BLOCK – APARTMENT 123 – BEDROOM – DAY

Just write:

INT. JULIE’S BEDROOM – DAY

Note how it’s also a good idea to write a character’s name into the slugline. This way you don’t end up with five INT. KITCHEN – DAY sluglines and we have no idea whose kitchen we’re in.

Specific to General

Instead of writing:

EXT. NEW YORK – GREENWICH VILLAGE – THE BLUE ANGEL BAR – NIGHT

Write:

EXT. THE BLUE ANGEL BAR – NEW YORK – NIGHT

Always start from the specific location to the general. But in this example, that’s ONLY if we don’t already know we’re in New York. If we do, you can leave it out.

CONTINUOUS and SAME

These should only be used at the end of the slugline when we follow a character from one location to another. For example, literally through a door. Not from morning to night, or sitting on a plane to jumping in a cab.

So instead of:

INT. STARBUCKS – DAY

Kelly gives Jim a refill and a smile.

INT. JIM’S APARTMENT – CONTINUOUS

Jim and Kelly burst in kissing passionately.

Write:

INT. STARBUCKS – DAY

Kelly gives Jim a refill and a smile.

INT. JIM’S APARTMENT – DAY

Jim and Kelly burst in kissing passionately.

The same holds true for SAME. We only note it’s the same time or continuous action if we’re moving straight from one location to another.

Often, though, we tell writers to leave both these terms out completely and just stick with DAY and NIGHT for clarity.

LATER

Technically, every scene in a screenplay is “later”  and we think it’s better to only employ it as a mini slug on its own, or at the end of a slugline to show a passage of time in the same location.

So, instead of writing:

INT. BANK OF AMERICA – DAY

Marsha looks about nervously – too afraid to approach a teller.

INT. MARSHA’S APARTMENT – LATER

Marsha sits at the table staring at Kevin lying drunk on the couch.

Write:

INT. BANK OF AMERICA – DAY

Marsha looks about nervously – too afraid to approach a teller.

INT. MARSHA’S APARTMENT – DAY

Marsha sits at the table staring at Kevin lying drunk on the couch.

Some professional writers, however, liberally use the first version and it’s okay if you want to too as it’s not as grating on the read as overuse of CONTINUOUS or overlong sluglines.  the examples above.

We’d advise against it, though, purely for ease of read and keeping things as simple as possible.

Choice #3: Using Parentheticals Like They’re Going Out Of Fashion

Keep them to a minimum. Many writers seem to want to direct every action and emotion a character makes while speaking, but most can be left to the actor.

The general rule is to only use parentheticals sparingly – i.e. when what a character is saying contradicts in some way their intention.

For example, instead of writing:

CATHERINE
(angrily)
Get out of my way you idiot!!

Write:

CATHERINE
(angrily)
I’d love to go away with you, Gary!

And even in the second example, parentheticals are often not needed if the scene has already set up the fact that Catherine’s angry.

If we already know a character is angry in a scene, then we don’t need a parenthetical telling us that she’s talking in an angry way.

Similarly, if we already know a character’s personality well enough to know that she’s always angry, we don’t need parenthetical’s all the time telling us that her delivery is “angry,” “frustrated,” “grumpy” etc. throughout the screenplay.

#4. Incorrect Movie Script Format Of Telephone Conversations

Like with most “rules” about screenplay format, there are no rules on how to format a telephone conversation. All we need is to clearly  know that two characters are having a phone call.

It’s really up to you how you want to format it, but here are some suggestions that get the point across perfectly well:

Option 1: We See Both Characters

Under one slugline, simply have a character pull a phone out of their pocket and say something. Then, under a new slug, have a different character reply.

Then put INTERCUT  TELEPHONE CONVERSATION or just INTERCUT, and then go back and forth between the two without any further sluglines.

EXT. MALIBU BEACH – DAY

Ryan kicks sand as he walks down the beach talking on his cellphone.

RYAN
I know, but every time I think about
you I want to throw up.

INT. DANIELLE’S OFFICE – DAY

Danielle dreamily swivels round in her chair to face us, with her cellphone pressed to her ear.

DANIELLE
That’s okay, you make me want
to hurl too.

INTERCUT TELEPHONE CONVERSATION

RYAN
Oh. Okay. Well, I’m glad we’re on the
same page.

DANIELLE
Cool! See you at seven?

Option 2: We See Only One Character

In this version you write one character talking in the scene but we don’t see the other character on the other end of the line, so you just write their dialogue out with (V.O.) indicating Voice Over after their name.

INT. STRIP BAR – NIGHT

Suzy is talking on her cellphone while gliding down the pole using her thighs.

SUZY
Okay but how much do you miss me?

KATIE (V.O.)
So much I can’t breathe.

SUZY
Are you okay?!

KATIE (V.O.)
It’s an expression, mom.

You could also add “Katie is on the other end of the line” to the version above before she starts speaking. It’s up to you how much or how little info you want to give, just as long as it’s clear what’s happening.

Option 2: We Don’t See Either Character

Maybe you have a scene in which we just hear voices on the phone but we don’t see who’s speaking?

Maybe we know who’s speaking, maybe we don’t, but again we suggest keeping this simple by just having everyone’s name have (V.O.) after it and some indication at the top of the exchange that we’re hearing a phone call, not regular dialogue.

EXT. DOWNTOWN – DAY

As the street parade winds its way down the street we hear Tony and Steve’s phone call.

TONY (V.O.)
What do you mean you’re not coming?
It’s already started!

STEVE (V.O.)
I just don’t feel comfortable in a leotard
anymore.

TONY (V.O.)
You’d better be back-flipping down this
street in ten minutes flat or the deal’s off!

###

We hope this helps clear up some of the confusion surrounding movie script format. Always remember — there are no rules, just choices, and it’s always best to go for the clearest one. Thanks for reading and here’s the link to our Simple Screenplay Format Guide For Confused Writers in case you missed it.

9 Comments
  1. Spaceman Dan says:

    V.O. vs O.C. Wouldn’t O.C. be better for a telephone conversation where V.O. seems more like narration?

    1. Hey Dan. With phone calls V.O. makes more sense to production when a script gets made. O.C. means “off camera” so technically the character on the other end of the phone would be in the same scene, but out of sight. V.O. means the character’s not present anywhere in the scene, but we can hear their voice.

  2. Ryan says:

    Wow. This really opened my eyes. Format rules seems to have evolved over the last 10 to 20 years or so. Though I could be wrong. Thank you, Script Reader Pro.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Glad you enjoyed the read, Ryan.

  3. David says:

    Good information script. Would love to get more tips like this!

  4. Johnny says:

    Good post, thanks. How do I get a job with you guys as a reader?

  5. Smithy says:

    Thanks for takin the myth out of it 🙂

  6. Billie Urabazo says:

    Great info, as always! You listed all of my recent AMATEUR-HOUR mistakes! Thanks, Alex, and all!
    Billie

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You’re welcome Billie!

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