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Movie Script Format Tips For The Spec Screenwriter

Two Common Errors We See Writers Make When Formatting Text Conversations & Interior/Exterior Locations

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by Script Reader Pro in How To Write A Screenplay
July 30, 2015 18 comments
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When it comes to movie script format, there are very few hard and fast “rules.” However, some script formatting choices will make you look more amateurish than others.

(This post is partly taken from our book “Master Screenplay Formatting: A Clear Guide On How To Format A Screenplay For The Spec Market.”)

Rather than discussing rules and regulations like most formatting books, we prefer to talk about how to format a script in terms of choices. 

Below are two movie script format choices that you’re better off avoiding.

Movie Script Format Example #1: How To Format Email/Text Message Conversations

Short messages can be handled with an action line, wrapping the message in quotation marks. However, problems arise with your movie script format when whole conversations are written out using this method, like in the following example:

movie script formatWhile this method is fine for one message, it doesn’t look so great for whole conversations. Again, there are no formal rules to follow here.

Feel free to come up with your own movie script format, but we think email, text and instant message conversations are best handled as normal dialogue—albeit with a couple of minor alterations indicating the fact we’re reading messages.

Here’s an example of a better screenplay format:

movie script formatYou could also switch out the character cues for actor directions and quotation marks for italics, like so:

movie script formatAs we said, it doesn’t really matter how you do it as none of this stuff is codified anywhere when it comes to movie script format. Just go with the method that feels right to you and that doesn’t confuse the reader.

Movie Script Format

Movie Script Format Example #2: Misusing INT. instead of EXT. and vice versa.  

Sometimes a location may feel like it’s an interior when really it’s an exterior, and vice versa. Here are some examples of mistakes we see in this regard:
movie script formatHere’s how these scenes should be handled:

movie script formatAs a general rule of thumb, if a character can look up and see the sky, it’s an exterior. If not, it’s an interior.

But what if they’re underwater? Good question. In this case, it depends how we arrive underwater.

Let’s say you have a character on a beach who then decides to go swimming. That could be handled with a mini slugline, like this:

movie script formatBut let’s say we’re not following a character underwater, but just jumping into a scene that’s already set underwater. In that case, we recommend something like this:

movie script formatOr here’s another alternative:

movie script formatIt’s not that important which particular words you use—i.e. UNDERWATER, or UNDERWATER SHOT, or UNDERWATER SEQUENCE—as long as it’s clear what’s happening.

Scenes set in outer space can also cause confusion but stick to the general rules for underwater scenes above—avoiding INT. or EXT. before either of them—and you should be fine.

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screenplay formatIn our book, “Master Screenplay Formatting: A Clear Guide On How To Format A Screenplay For The Spec Market” we show you how a few bad movie script format choices are never going to be a deal breaker as to whether your script gets picked up or not. But consistent and obvious bad choices can make a reader think the writer doesn’t know what they’re doing story-wise either. Whether that’s true or not.

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?

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, most easily understood screenwriting format you can.

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18 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!

  7. Roberta Griffin says:

    Great post. I’ve always tried to avoid writing phone conversations because I was never really clear on the proper formatting. Thank you for the help.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks Roberta – glad it helped.

  8. Seshu says:

    Good thing……………….Thank you…. I will try my best

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Seshu.

  9. Seshu says:

    Good thing…………

  10. Christina says:

    Wouldn’t it still be V.O. But intertwined scenes of both characters are on screen speaking?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      If you’re referring to the scene with Miranda and Uneek, no because one character is visible in the scene and the other character is only “talking” via text. We’re not hearing her voice so it’s not Voice Over.

  11. Lisa says:

    But a character who`s voice is talking via voiceover can also be in the scene right? Like when he`s thinking

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Yes that’s right. Voice Over is for all thoughts in characters’ heads too.

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