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Movie Script Format and the Myth of Industry Rules


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by Script Reader Pro in Screenplay Format
July 30, 2015 27 comments

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

(This post is an extract 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.

This is because, 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.

In this post, we’re going to discuss why and how you should start to reframe your mind to think about movie script format in terms of choices rather than cast iron rules and give a couple of examples along the way.

The Two Types of Movie Script Format Choices

When it comes to thinking of your movie script format in terms of choices, there are good ones and bad ones.

Bad Movie Screenplay Format Choices

The bad ones tend to do three things:

1.  Confuse the reader. They have to struggle to figure out what’s going on in the scene because it’s not clear due to the formatting.

2.  Be inconsistent. Elements change throughout the script. (V.O.) becomes (v.o.) becomes (VOICEOVER.)

3.  Irritate the reader by going against “the norm.” These things aren’t necessarily “wrong” but they’re not usually seen in a script. For example, writing action lines in all caps.

Better Movie Screenplay Format Choices

Good screenplay format choices tend to do the following:

1.  Make it easy to understand what’s happening. The reader shouldn’t have to struggle to figure out what’s going on, such as if a character’s indoors or outdoors, as it distracts hugely from the read.

2.  Remain consistent. Every single element, character name, slugline etc. stays the same throughout the whole screenplay.

3.  Largely stick to “the norm.” While you’re trying to get noticed with a spec script, it’s best not to do things your own way just for the sake of it. You’re running the risk of irritating the reader if you do.

Let’s start our exploration on how you should aim to make better movie script format choices rather than look for definitive rules, by taking a look at how to format an email and/or text message in a script.

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

In this case, instead of worrying about if you’re following “the rules” and formatting the conversation “correctly” it’s better to think in terms of choices.

Rookie Format Choice

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.

Better Format Choice

Feel free to tweak this or come up with your own, 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 of the same scene:

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. Go with the method that feels right to you and that doesn’t confuse the reader.

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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.

Rookie Format Choice

Here are some examples of mistakes we see in this regard:
movie script format

Better Format Choice

And here’s how these scenes could be better 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? In this case, it depends on 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.


screenplay format bookIn 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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[© Photo credits: Pexels]

  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!

    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. Tony says:

    I’ve been looking for a book on movie script format like this for some time. Good work guys!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Tony!

  9. Seshu says:

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

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Seshu.

  10. Seshu says:

    Good thing…………

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. Nitin Ankush Pardhi says:

    Script writing my help please

  14. Mercy says:

    Thank you for this. It was helpful.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Glad to hear it, Mercy!

  15. Danny says:

    What i did not realize is that formatting was such a b*tch! Might not have started writing in the first place lol.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Grab yourself some professional software and it’s really not that hard at all 🙂

  16. Prandip says:

    This post is very good, will help my movie script format all lot. Thank you.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      That’s great, thanks for reaching out.

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