Screenwriting tips 2

Spring semester is starting, my screenwriting class in January is over — and things are still settling into place. But let’s talk about how to format scenes in a screenplay.

My professor for my screenwriting class had us download a free trial copy of Final Draft, which is a screenwriting program that will format your screenplay correctly for you. (You can learn more about this at finaldraft.com.)

However, there are still important basics to know.

Scene headings. Scenes always start with an indication of interior or exterior — shown by INT. or EXT., to tell the reader if the scene is indoors or outdoors. Then, the actual location is given, along with the time of day. For example, let’s take me in my dorm. It would look like this:

Time of day is always day or night, regardless of when exactly during the day or when exactly during the night the scene is taking place. If you need to specify dawn or dusk, you can write DAY (DAWN) or NIGHT (DUSK), though technically you should only write day or night as the time.

Action block. The action block is the next bit of text that always, always follows a scene heading. It informs the reader which characters are in the scene, and if it’s the first time you’re meeting the character, a brief description of what they look like and approximate age. The action block also tells the reader what actions the character is performing. Action blocks are always written in present tense. For example, using our previous scene heading:

Action blocks should be no more than four lines — and they only describe what the audience can see. There is no internal dialogue or thoughts shown in a screenplay — in this medium, we’re restricted to only what we can see and hear.

Dialogue. In Final Draft, dialogue blocks are created by hitting “tab” on your keyboard. It’ll automatically format the dialogue correctly. So, for example, let’s say in our previous scene, someone knocks on my door.

Dialogue is always centered, and the character’s name is always capitalized. If the character is off screen when they speak, then it would look like “VAL (O. S.)”.

If there’s a pause between lines your character speaks, it’d look something like this:

The beat there is called a parenthetical. Parentheticals can also be used to notate small actions. A parenthetical beat is never put immediately after the character’s name, and is never put at the end of a dialogue block. It’s always placed between lines spoken by the same character.

If there’s a pause between two (or more) characters speaking, then the beat goes between the dialogue blocks as an action line. For example:

The phrase “a couple of beats” can also be used, depending on the length of the pause. However, most of that is left up to the actors, so it’s not necessary to write in every little pause and detail. The actors and director get to make a lot of the decisions — your job as a screenwriter is merely to write the script they’re working off of.

That’s all the important basics to know (or at least, all that I’ve learned). Have a lovely Valentine’s Day and happy writing!

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