Writing Tips: The Elements of a Screenplay
A ‘screenplay’ is typically a script for a film or television show. And if you see a screenplay on paper, you’ll notice it has a specific ‘look’. This is partly due to the formatting, but it is also because all scripts contain certain things. The key elements of a screenplay include:
- Scene headings
- Descriptions of the action
- Character names
- Parentheticals and extensions
- Transitions and shots
We’ll now look at each of these screenplay elements in more detail.
1. Scene Headings in a Screenplay
Each scene in your script should begin with a scene heading written in all caps. Usually, these provide information on whether the scene takes place inside (INT.) or outside (EXT.), the specific location, and what time of day or night it is. This is also known as a ‘slug line’. For example:
INT. BEDROOM – NIGHT.
EXT. HOUSES OF PARLIAMENT – SUNSET.
The first scene heading above tells us that the scene takes place inside a bedroom at night. The second, meanwhile, is for a scene that takes place outside the Houses of Parliament at sunset.
The ‘action’ in a script is where you describe the setting and what happens in each scene. As such, this will cover most of the text of your script other than the dialogue. However, action descriptions should only mention things that can be seen or heard (not what characters are thinking or feeling).
A good rule of thumb here is to use the present tense and active voice whenever possible. This will ensure the action feels urgent on the page. You should also keep the descriptions of action brief (ideally, no more than 3-5 lines per paragraph) so that your screenplay does not become too long.
The first time you name a character in the action of your screenplay, you will need to write their name in all caps to show that a new character has appeared. This might be an actual name (e.g. SHIRLEY or MAJID) or a role description (e.g. PRISON GUARD or ANGRY DRIVER).
We also use character names to show who is speaking in the dialogue. In this case, the name is usually written in all caps and indented roughly 2” (or 5cm) from the left margin on the page. The dialogue itself is then given on the next line, continuing until the character stops speaking.
Finally, you may see some scripts with a list of characters at the beginning. This is especially common in stage plays, but not generally something you will want to include in a screenplay.
The dialogue in a script is what the characters will say on screen, but it also includes voiceovers or voices coming from off screen (see the bit on ‘extensions’ below for how this works). Typically, you should indent each line of dialogue 1” (2.5 cm) from the left margin and end 1.5” (3.75cm) from the right margin. This will ensure it appears in roughly the centre of the page.
5. Parenthetical and Extensions
Parentheticals and extensions provide extra information about what is happening in a screenplay:
- A ‘parenthetical’ shows us how a character says something or what they are doing while they speak. These appear on the line between the character name and the dialogue itself.
- An ‘extension’ is a note given after the character’s name in brackets about how the audience will hear something. The most common are O.S. (‘offscreen’) and V.O. (‘voiceover’). These are usually given immediately after the character’s name when introducing dialogue.
You should therefore add these to your screenplay as and when required.
6. Transitions and Shots
Finally, we have transitions and shots. These notes provide extra information, much like parentheticals and extensions. However, transition and shot notes are specific to shooting and editing.
A typical ‘transition’ note, for example, might say CUT TO: or FADE TO: to show how two scenes should be edited together in the final version. A ‘shot’ note, meanwhile, would tell us what kind of shot to use when filming a scene (e.g. CLOSE UP or REVERSE ANGLE). Generally, though, these are only included in shooting scripts (i.e. a script that is already being produced). So you can leave these notes out if you are writing a spec script.