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How to Format Dialogue in a Screenplay: Top 8 Dialogue Format "Errors"

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by Script Reader Pro in Screenplay Format
May 7, 2019 81 comments
dialogue format

How to Format Dialogue in a Screenplay: Top 8 Dialogue Format “Errors”

Peppering a spec script with dialogue format errors may not completely derail the reader’s experience, but they definitely don’t help.

This is because they tell the reader one of two things:

1. You’re not a very experienced writer and are unaware of how dialogue should be formatted.

2. Or that you are aware but don’t care enough about the script (or the craft of screenwriting) to change it.

Mistakes Are Obvious

While it’s true there are no definitive rules on how to format dialogue, dialogue format mistakes are guaranteed to stand out. Which is not a good thing when you want them to be completely immersed in your story and characters.

In this post, we’ve collected together the top eight dialogue format mistakes we see writers make. These are the top eight that should be avoided if you don’t want to give the reader a bad first impression.

So, let’s dive right on in.

Click to tweet post. 

Dialogue Format Quirk #1: Interchanging Character Names

You’d be surprised how often we see writers jump back and forth between character names.

It may sound obvious but the most important thing to remember when it comes to character names is to keep them consistent throughout the script.

If you introduce a character as ELIZABETH she should appear throughout the script as ELIZABETH. Rather than switch to LIZ or LIZZY. Or worse yet, alternate between all three.

Likewise, if you introduce a character as CAPTAIN LYNCH he should stay as CAPTAIN LYNCH. Rather than alternate between CAPTAIN JAMES LYNCH, CAPT. LYNCH or just LYNCH.

All of the above names are acceptable, but the key is consistency.

Numbered Minor Characters  

Similarly, make sure all minor characters with numbers instead of names stick to the same format. Try to avoid the following: 

dialogue format
Mixing and matching minor characters’ names like this is also very common, but also very distracting for the reader. Stick to COP #1 and COP #2 throughout.

Some valid dialogue format alternatives for numbers are:

♦  

COP 1 / COP 2 etc.
♦  

COP ONE / COP TWO etc.
♦  

FIRST COP / SECOND COP etc.

It doesn’t matter which film dialogue format method you choose as long as you stick to it throughout the screenplay.

Switching Numbers With Descriptions

If minor characters have more than a couple of lines, a good way to avoid them sounding so generic is to give them names that hint at their personalities.

Such as GROUCHY COP, JOKEY COP, FRAZZLED COP, etc. Actors will have to audition for these roles after all, so give them something to go on.

Dialogue Format Quirk #2: Embedding Dialogue in Action Lines

When characters speak, their words should always go in dialogue. They should not be paraphrased within action lines. Here’s an example of an embedded dialogue format that’s to be avoided:

dialogue format

If you ever find yourself writing a character’s dialogue in the action lines, chances are it should go in description. Like this:

dialogue format

Dialogue Format Quirk #3: Misusing (V.O.) and (O.S.)

Sometimes cues are added next to a character’s name in order to indicate we can hear them speaking but they’re not actually in the scene.

VOICEOVER gets abbreviated to (V.O.) and is used whenever we hear a character’s voice, but they’re not physically present anywhere in the scene’s location. They’re somewhere else entirely.

Some examples would be:

♦  Characters on the other end of phone lines

♦  Characters on TV or computer screens

♦  Characters on radios or loudspeakers

♦  Characters on answering machines or tape recordings

♦  Characters talking during memories and hallucinations

♦  Characters narrating events we see on-screen

♦  Characters’ voices overlapping from previous scenes

OFF-SCREEN gets abbreviated to (O.S.) and is used when a character is just that—off-screen, but not in a completely different location. They’re in the vicinity of the scene, but out of view. A few examples would be characters who are:

♦  Behind a secret bookcase

♦  In another room

♦  Talking before entering a scene

The following scene is an example of how to properly implement (V.O.) and (O.S.) within film dialogue format:

dialogue format

Neither the narrator or Zach are anywhere in the vicinity of the scene and so their dialogue is indicated as (V.O.) Helen is on the other side of the door and so she’s in the scene, just not visible. Therefore her dialogue gets labeled as (O.S.)

Bear in mind also that screenwriting instructors and books do sometimes have different opinions when it comes to using (V.O.) and (O.S.). But we recommend keeping things simple by using the dialogue format method described above.

Dialogue Format Quirk #4: Using Too Many Actor Directions


Actor directions are also known as parentheticals, parentheses, personal directions and wrylies. They should only really be used in the following two circumstances: 

♦  When an actor’s words need clarifying or shaping

♦  When an actor performs a small action

However, many budding writers tend to rely too heavily on both types.

Phrases like “beat” (a short pause), “re:” (“regarding”) and “sotto” (softly spoken) are particular culprits. But all actor directions should be used sparingly in film dialogue format. Unlike in this example:

screenplay example

Rather, give the actors a chance to express themselves and play a scene as they see fit. Keeping this in mind will result in a scene that looks more like this:

screenplay example

The only actor direction that’s needed here is Lana throwing the popcorn as it’s not something that can be inferred purely from the characters’ words. Or from the tone of the scene.

Dialogue Format Quirk #5: Employing Quirky Formatting for Actor Directions

We see all kinds of dialogue format variations when it comes to actor directions. In general, however, they should always be in lowercase and should not:

♦  Have caps on the first letter

♦  Have a period after the last word

♦  Be placed next to the character name

♦  Contain articles such as “a,” “the,” “he,” and “she”

♦  Describe actions made by another character

♦  Describe sound effects, camera angles

♦  Contain dashes, em dashes or ellipses

♦  Hang alone underneath dialogue

♦  Refer to one character interrupting another

♦  Refer to the fact a character’s on the phone if it’s obvious

♦  Refer to a character listening while on a phone call

Another common mistake is to add actor directions that are too lengthy. Here’s an example of a cumbersome actor direction:

screenplay example

Keep actor directions to a minimum and edit them until they fit on one line, like this:

screenplay example

Another option is to remove the action from the actor direction entirely and place it within the description, like so:

screenplay example

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Dialogue Format Quirk #6: Using Unusual Formatting for Subtitles

The most common mistake when it comes to film dialogue format regarding subtitles is indicating them every time someone speaks. Here’s an example:

screenplay example

If more than a few lines are spoken in a foreign language—say, a whole scene is in Danish—dispense with the actor directions.

Simply indicate at the top of the scene what language the characters are speaking in. Then, when they stop speaking in a foreign language, add END SUBTITLES in an action line, like this:

screenplay example

It doesn’t really matter how you indicate a scene’s dialogue is all in a foreign language as long as it’s clear. And don’t forget to write END SUBTITLES when a foreign language ends, just to make it clear we’re back to English.

If a character is only saying a line or two in a foreign language, then just add it to the actor direction:
screenplay example

Then resume with the normal conversation in English.

Dialogue Format Quirk #7: Emphasizing Too Many Words  

In dialogue format, it’s fine to emphasize the occasional word or line for dramatic effect. Underline, bold or put in italics too many words, however, and it distracts rather than enhances.

Here’s a scene that sums up the perils of overusing emphasis within dialogue format:

screenplay example

Constantly adding inflections like these to characters’ dialogue not only looks cluttered on the page, it’s also guaranteed to annoy the actors. They want to feel free to interpret the lines as they sit fit, not micromanaged on how to deliver them.

Click to tweet post. 

Dialogue Format Quirk #8: Incorrectly Formatting Songs

Here’s how not to format a character singing in a screenplay:

screenplay example

All singing should be formatted as dialogue, but slightly modified to let the reader know the words are being sung rather than spoken.

The easiest way to do this is to add “singing” as an actor direction, and then format the dialogue as usual, wrapping it in quotation marks if you like.

Here’s the scene again, this time reformatted:

screenplay example

As with email, text and instant messages, some writers prefer to put song lyrics in italics, like this:

screenplay example

Yet another alternative is to end each line with a slash:

screenplay example

Note: if you’re writing an actual musical there’s a whole different set of rules you need to follow in the dialogue format. Such as the fact lyrics get justified left and in uppercase. Most professional screenwriting software has built-in templates for this.

Dialogue Format: Conclusion

Studio readers, managers and producers are deluged with typo-ridden, poorly formatted screenplays. Don’t be one of these writers.

Purchase one of the five best screenwriting software on the market and maybe a book on how to format a script. Keep things simple and consistent and focus more on what really matters: your story.

Now, maybe your script’s a masterpiece—guaranteed to start a bidding war between studios. In this case, a few dialogue format errors probably aren’t going to derail its chances.

But… very few spec screenplays are masterpieces. Most can’t afford to give the reader an excuse to stop reading. And multiple dialogue format mistakes jeopardize your chances of the reader taking the script seriously and getting a second read.

screenplay format book

###

We hope this post has helped you learn a little on how to format dialogue. Have we helped you take note of some errors you were making? Or maybe you think we missed a glaring format error that should be included? Let us know in the comments section below.

Liked This Post? Read More on How to Format Dialogue and Your Spec Script…

Why You Should Stop Thinking of Movie Script Format in Terms of Rules

How to Format a Script If You Want to Break Into the Spec Market

How to Write a Phone Conversation In a Screenplay: The Definitive Guide

[© Photo credits: PixabayUnsplash]

81 Comments
  1. Greg Lyon says:

    I found the article interesting and accurate. I read a lot of scripts and I find a big problem is that the writer wants to direct the scene. Then why hire a director? Example, “Close up on John” or “pan the crowd”. Those are director choices, not the writer. By the time the script gets to filming, all that may change. Writers should write the story. Much like a book. Give the producer a story script. Down the road, the script can be turned into a shooting script.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Greg. There’s nothing wrong with using camera angles occasionally but they definitely shouldn’t be overused. That’s when things can get distracting for the reader – when there’s a PAN ACROSS, CUT TO, TILT UP on every other line.

  2. Bob Canning says:

    Hi — 2 questions.
    I was a bit confused by the formatting to showed for song lyrics. Having written STAGE MUSICALS, the format is to CAP all the lyrics. I have been told that this would also work in SCREENPLAYS. Have I committed a format crime?

    Also, having used Final Draft since the very beginning, I wondered what you had to say about (O.S.) as opposed to (O.C.), the latter which you didn’t mention. Could you please clarify that?

    Thank you.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      There are no crimes when it comes to dialogue format 🙂 We’re just saying what’s general practice, but no one’s going to throw your script out the window if you use ALL CAPS. Likewise with (O.C.) You can use this instead of (O.S.) but it’s more common in TV than features.

  3. Reg says:

    The best instructions you’ve emailed so far, Thanks a million

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Glad you liked it, Reg!

  4. aisha says:

    Dialogue format is my weak point , hate formatting phone calls, tvs , offscreen voiceover but this really help .

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Glad it helped.

  5. Michael Moseman says:

    Very informative. I have written several scripts. I use Movie Magic Screenwriter. I found the (V.O.) and (O.S.) can clearly be misunderstood. You clearly told and showed the differences. Thanks for the post.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks a lot, Michael!

  6. Pete Borreggine says:

    Wonderful!

    Dan Curry, 7-Time Emmy winner for Star Trek, and my good friend, has BEAT MY HEAD TO THE TABLE many times with writing my script for project abaddon (my feature film). I’ve now hired Steve Longi with Longitude Entertainment and he’s helping me hon the story and script in prep for pitching to Steve Spira at Warner Bros. They called me back in January.

    I now have a real shot…

    Check out my trailer at the website (I built) and here’s the logline:

    Actually, here are two versions

    LOGLINE
    PROJECT ABADDON is a Sci-Fi action adventure about a futuristic VR/game designer, who rarely ever leaves his house, sets out on a journey to solve the mysterious death of his father. He discovers he’s alive, but unwittingly triggers an ‘alarm’, installed by an alien race, that threatens to annihilate humanity in order to “save the Earth”.

    Or…

    Haunted by loss, a struggling futuristic VR/game designer stumbles upon clues surrounding the supposed death of his father in the sci-fi action adventure Project Abaddon. Aided by a mysterious warrior and a motley crew of interstellar life forms, he ventures into the far reaches of outer space to find the answers, but in doing so, accidentally triggers an alarm installed by a hostile alien race that threatens the existence of mankind on planet Earth.

    Great article.

    Thank you,

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Pete – sounds good, best of luck with the script.

    2. David Devine says:

      I found this article to be very helpful in going forward as a screenwriter. Being a lyrical poet I just wrote my first screenplay. I have used rhyme and meter as a lifeline for continuity and shaping the concepts. I found using the traditional way of writing easier to see the shapes of the verses in between the addition of Character names and added background for the reader/director. I’m going to practice writing from the center of the page.
      Thanks again for your advice,
      David

      1. Script Reader Pro says:

        Thanks, David!

  7. Nick says:

    How do I format dialogue of someone talking as a ghost? So we can’t see them but their in the scene?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Technically this would be (V.O.) seeing as the actor won’t physically be in the scene, but you could just write the dialogue as normal and establish in the description that the character’s invisible.

  8. Amanda Ross says:

    Wonderful. Many screenwriting pages confuse this things so much but you lay it all out so clearly.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Amanda!

  9. Arash says:

    good info thanks but you dont mention how to format dialogue on tv or radio? Please advise

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      If someone is talking on a TV screen or radio they’re not in the location of the scene, therefore their dialogue is (V.O.)

  10. janellel p says:

    Great info jus what I was looking for. Thank u.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Janelle.

  11. David Devine says:

    I found this article to be very helpful in going forward as a screenwriter. Being a lyrical poet I just wrote my first screenplay. I have used rhyme and meter as a lifeline for continuity and shaping the concepts. I found using the traditional way of writing easier to see the shapes of the verses in between the addition of Character names and added background for the reader/director. I’m going to practice writing from the center of the page.
    Thanks again for your advice,
    David

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, David!

  12. Trey says:

    People spend way too much time fussing about formatting. It;s your story that counts

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Yes, many writers get hung up on it. That’s why we always say you should often do what feels right and stick to it, rather than try to follow set “rules.”

  13. Bea W. says:

    Love to you all. This has been sooooooo helpful!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks so much, Bea!

  14. Sheila Goodridge says:

    Do I use dialogue format for SMS?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You can do if you like. Just pop “text message” or “SMS message” in a parenthetical or brackets next to the character name.

  15. Billy J says:

    I totally agree with your thoughts.
    However, if we’re going to be fair, there’s also lots of say about WHO writes the dialogue format.
    Tarantino doesn’t write the same as Mamet.

  16. aimee talbot says:

    I need someone to help me with my completed script. I have been praying to find an honest person to read it and who knows maybe we both can change a few things in the script. I wrote this after an operation.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Here’s our script coverage services page, Aimee. Cheers.

  17. Federico Bianchi says:

    How do I format dialogue in a animation movie?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Exactly the same way as in a feature script.

  18. Marcus says:

    Random examples of script dialogue being formatted “correctly” whateber that means. Thanks for just wasting 10 minutes of my time.

  19. Juan Martinez says:

    Is it easier to do dialogue format in screenwriting software?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      A resounding YES.

  20. William Whiteford says:

    Another difficult area mastered due to your excellent advice.
    I use Writer Duet but perform solo.
    Thank you.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks a lot, William!

  21. Dorothy N. says:

    How do I format dialogue when its in sign language?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Treat the same way you would subtitles. If the character is just saying a line in sign language, this can be noted in a parenthetical. If they’re talking in sign language for a whole scene or more, state it at the top of the scene (or first time we meet them.)

  22. Eduardo Diaz says:

    Some people take formatting waaaaaay too seriously. Like c’mon theres more to a script than formatting.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      True 🙂

  23. Adrian Demopoulos says:

    I am a professional filmmaker and screenwriter from Greece. Just recently I came up with an exciting idea and a script for a feature film that I believe you may be interested in discussing. Can I email you my pitch and script?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      We’re not a production company.

  24. Cory Gates says:

    Thank you so much or such an AWESOME tutorial!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You’re welcome, thanks, Cory!

  25. Florian says:

    When sending a synopsis to an agent do you send it as an attachment, or copy and paste it in the email?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      It’s best to ask for their submissions policy first. Good luck, Florian.

  26. J. M. says:

    Very helpful! Thank you!
    I’ll save this post for future consultations, but I’m sure I have to hire a script doctor anyway 😀

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, J.M. we look forward to it!

  27. Farhad Abadi says:

    Very nice i am beginner writer from tehran and found your sight. Thank you for helping us.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Welcome aboard, Farhad!

  28. Kristof Simmons says:

    I have a scene in which a character is making lots of actioins as he talks, like rapid fire with his hands, taking things, throwing things. So my question is how do I format this? With wrylies describing every action as he speaks? But you say not to use to many wrylies .

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      An alternative would be to state at the top of the scene something like “Jack speaks rapidly, taking things off the shelves and throwing them as he talks.” And then write out his dialogue without any parentheticals.

  29. Pieter says:

    All very basic don’t most writers know this? ?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      These are the kind of dialogue format questions we get all the time – that’s why we turned it into a blog post.

  30. Amir says:

    Can you please check my dialogue format? How much will that cost thank u.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      We’d need some more info so please email us directly. Thanks.

  31. Vicki Wright says:

    I dont think anyone uses slashs anymore in their dialogue format for singing

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      It’s all completely up to you. It’s just one of the options 🙂

  32. Timothy C says:

    Good work srp .

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Timothy.

  33. emmanuel jeunet says:

    where can i find an agent?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Have you seen this post on how to get a screenwriting agent?

  34. Lynda says:

    Thank you for putting this together it will help me dialogue format alot.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You’re welcome, Lynda!

  35. Alec says:

    I’ve wanted to know how to format dialogue forever. I feel like you guys are only skimming the surface here and holding back. GIVE US MORE!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      More coming soon 🙂

  36. Nô Brito says:

    Congratulations!

    I have not found yet how it refers to “FLASHBACK” and “SOME TIME BEFORE/AFTER”
    Best regards

  37. Brian Church says:

    I’m a reader at a top agency and I mostly agree with all these. #1 is a killer, so confusing.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Brian!

  38. Brock Hoffpauir says:

    I have a question. Normally it is said to not have a character speak too many lines at once. Three is the recommended norm. However, I find this a bit vexing for the writer. Does not Tarantino use dialogue liberally, as well as Scorsese? The truth is some of my characters are chatty, others use words sparingly. Should the writer feel limited by this rule? I realize this is more style and less a format question.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      The “three lines of dialogue or less” is just a general rule, but nothing’s set in stone.

  39. Brock Hoffpauifr says:

    I noticed a lot of scripts on blacklist have much longer description passages with less dialogue, or there will be a few lines dialogue and then a passage of description. Is there a hard and fast rule for applying this. I notice in Tarantino’s scripts he’ll have passages with quite a bit of dialogue, then he’ll break away with a line or two of description. I want to tell the story the way it needs to be told, and I don’t necessarily want to follow a trend, if that means more dialgue with specfic description placed throughout so be it or less dialogue, so forth. Is there a rule a clear cut rule between passages of dialogue and passages of description?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      There are no fixed rules – we would just recommend you keep your description clear and concise.

      1. Brock Hoffpauifr says:

        Thanks. Much appreciated.

        1. Script Reader Pro says:

          Thanks, Brock!

  40. Kevin W says:

    This has really helpful, thank you it will help me understand how to format dialogue in a screenplay.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Glad to hear it, Kevin!

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