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Saturday, 2 October 2010

Screenplay Format Basics In Five Minutes - The Absolute Basics To Get You Writing!

You have two options with your scene. Inside, or outside. INT. is for interior, EXT. is for exterior.

Next up, we need to know where the scene is taking place. Is it in a cafe? In a football field? In a spaceship? It's best to keep this simple. Go with CAFE, or BEDROOM. Of course, there might be various bedrooms in the film -- so you need to separate one bedroom from the other, so you might say BOB'S BEDROOM or SMALL BEDROOM or CHILDREN'S ROOM.

Is it day, or night? You decide and choose either DAY or NIGHT. Some of my favorite screenplays from the past say things like 'LATER' or 'THAT EVENING' or 'TWENTY MINUTES LATER.' If you feel these are essential, then use them; but, generally screenwriting wisdom is that you just go with day, or night.

So far; your script looks like this:

INT. SMALL BEDROOM - DAY

Or:

EXT. BUCKINGHAM PALACE - NIGHT

Or:

INT. JUNO'S BEDROOM - MACGUFF HOUSE - DAY

All of the above must be in CAPITALS!
Now you need to set the scene for us. Where is it? Who is there? What information do we need to know?

Try to keep in concise. Some writers write a big long paragraph. The best ones don't. Say for example you need to tell us that Barry walks into the room and turns on a light switch. Some writers might write:

Barry walks into the room. He takes a look around, ponders over what to do-- before stepping further inside. He walks over to the light switch and hits it with his fingers.

But do you need to write all of that? You could just write.

Barry enters. He hesitates - then hits the switch.

If this is the first time we see Barry on screen, you need to capitalize him. BARRY enters. In fact; it's good to have a bit of information about him. You can write a sentence explaining him -- or you can be short and succinct. BARRY, 19, a computer-whizz. Obese. -OR- BARRY, 52, grumpy-and-balding.

Do whatever you need to do to make him interesting. It should be information that is relevant and important. There's no point saying that Barry is a chess fanatic if he spends every scene from that moment onwards surfing.

So far your script looks like this.


INT. BEDROOM - NIGHT

BARRY, 79; a frail ex-cop with an attitude, steps awkwardly towards the light switch.

Now we need some dialogue. The person speaking always has their name in the center. Like this:

BARRY

If Barry speaks in voice over, it's like this:

BARRY (V.O)

If we hear dialogue, but the character is out of shot, we see this:

BARRY (O.S)

V.O meaning voice over, O.S meaning out of shot.

What you'll see in a lot of scripts is information under the dialogue, like:

BARRY
(screaming)
I am screaming really loud!
Or

BARRY
(confused)
I look like a woman.

BUT; I recommend you DON'T do this. I used to do it all the time. And if Aaron Sorkin wants to do it, no-one will stop him. And in fact, if you're absolutely desperate to do it, the world won't end. But it's best not to. If your dialogue is good, the reader/actor/dude on the internet will grasp your intent without them; and it allows for the actor and director to do their job, without you forcing something on them.

Dialogue between two people is very simple. It's as easy as this.

BARRY
I'm speaking dialogue.

GEOFF
No shit.

BARRY
Do you read that great
film blog?

GEOFF
Every day.

If something happens in the middle of the scene. Just write it in - from the left hand side. Like this.

BARRY
I'm speaking dialogue.

GEOFF
No shit.

Barry picks up a pen.

BARRY
Do you read that great
film blog?

GEOFF
Every day.

OR

BARRY
I'm speaking dialogue.

Barry's face suddenly ERUPTS into flame. Geoff ignores it.

GEOFF
No shit.

BARRY
Do you read that great
film blog?

GEOFF
Every day.

So now you can write a standard scene.

INSIDE OR OUTSIDE/WHERE/DAY OR NIGHT?
What's going on? What do we need to know?

WHO'S TALKING?
What are they saying?


The picture below shoes part of a scene from the 'Sunshine Cleaning' screenplay. I'm showing you this because it is a bit more accurate than my blog, formatting wise. As you can see, the dialogue isn't quite centered, it's actually to the left of the character name. For some reason, the blog editor isn't allow me to demonstrate that properly; so here is what it should look like.

Don't talk about camera angles. Writing CLOSE-UP or CAMERA TILTS LEFT is not your job! Your job is to tell a story.

The basic things I have told you are enough to get you started. I didn't want to say anything about content-- this is for people who've been daunted about simple formatting. And I hope this demystifies the basics!

Care to share?

9 comments:

  1. And now I know. And knowing is half the battle! GI JOOOOEEE!

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  2. Excellent post but just one thing (it may be a formatting thing in the blog editor) but the actual dialogue is not centre justified in screenplays. I'm not trying to be clever... just thought I'd point it out for accuracy to what is a very good post.

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  3. Hey Mark - blogger was driving me insane last night, for HOURS! Wouldn't let me get it right at all.

    I've now edited the post, to have a screenplay example at the bottom, which explains all.

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  4. Cool, I thought it was because of Blogger formatting... it drives me crazy too.

    Keep the great Blog up.

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  5. Yes, I do read that great film blog :)

    Super post! Really.

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  6. I know these basics but thanks anyway. Your post is very easy to understand. It will help many people who need to start with the script thing.

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  7. Hi! Thanks so much for your comment on my blog, it's so refreshing to have someone to be honest and offer their actual opinions. I would have picked up my camera and started the 365 today if it wasn't for a few other things that are currently on my mind, including (i'll be honest with you) an anxiety condition that's recently flared up at the moment (not something I tend to share on my blog).
    Any who, I hope when I start the 365 again when I'm feeling a little more sane of mind then you'll follow me and feel free to offer constructive criticism! :)

    And it's a lovely written little walk through type thing, if only I had the patience to write a screenplay :p

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  8. I don't get the whole "don't direct the camera" thing! I mean we're writing for a primarily VISUAL medium, sometimes that means you want the audience to SEE the story in a particular way otherwise the impact of the scene is lost and perhaps the information or emotion of the scene and what the characters are doing/saying doesn't make as much sense. Just look at some great screenplays and lo and behold there is camera direction.

    This reminds me of that scene from 'Adaptation' where McKee rants about NEVER use voice overs! lol

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