Lights, Camera, Structure: The Basic Formatting Of Screenplays

Lights, Camera, Structure: The Basic Formatting Of Screenplays

Understanding Screenplays 101

The differences between a novelist and a screenwriter are monumental; they write for completely different mediums, each equipped with their own unique challenges. Although both are worried about many of the same things (characterization, plot, dialogue), there is a distinctly different execution in formatting between the two. Like many others, I've always been interested in film culture and the workings behind the scenes; particularly the craft of screenwriting.

Today, I'd like to introduce you to the very basic structure of a screenplay scene. Please note, what I'm going to show you is the most simple version of the material, and therefore is not representative of all screenplays, and is the format for movies; it's also to be noted that I am not a professional screenwriter, and am still learning the craft, so a true professional may find flaws in what I'm about to share.

Getting Started:

When beginning a scene, the first thing written is the "slug line" - and a slug line typically includes the following three elements:

  1. EXT. or INT. (Exterior or Interior)
    • Does the scene take place outside (EXT.) or inside (INT.)?
    • Can also use EXT. / INT. or INT. / EXT. if you're transitioning between the two
  2. EXT. + Physical Location
  3. EXT. + Physical Location + Time Mark
    • Day or night
    • CONT. (if following directly after another scene)
    • Moments later, minutes later, next day, etc.

After the slug line comes the scene descriptions, or the action beats, and the dialogue.

  • Action Beats
    • Always use present tense
    • Can use CAPS to emphasize important beats or objects or events
    • Example: The Silver Loop bus SPINS on the black ice into the memorial mall as students flee.
  • Dialogue - indent from slug line and action beats

*You should observe that as a screenwriter, it is not your job to describe the camera action; that's for the director to figure out.

Now that we've got all the pieces to the puzzle, let's put them together:


The Silver Loop bus SPINS on the black ice into the memorial mall as students flee.


Brace yourselves, everyone, I'm losing control!

*If you want the dialogue to come before any action, you can include "fade in", "cold open", or "over black" at the beginning of your page.

How to Practice:

If you want to try improving your screenwriting format skills, the first step is to get yourself a screenwriting program; Trelby and Final Draft are a few examples. Then get yourself a copy of one of your favorite screenplays - watch a scene from that movie, try to recreate the screenplay, and then compare your version to the actual copy. It would also be a good idea to read intructional books or DVDs on the art form.

Cover Image Credit: Wikimedia

Popular Right Now

11 Things Psychology Majors Hear That Drive Them Crazy

No pun intended.

We've all been there. You're talking to a new acquaintance, or a friend of your parents, or whoever. And then, you get the dreaded question.

"So what are you studying in school?"

Cue the instant regret of picking Psychology as your major, solely for the fact that you are 99.9% likely to receive one of the slightly comical, slightly cliche, slightly annoying phrases listed below. Don't worry though, I've included some responses for you to use next time this comes up in conversation. Because it will.

Quick side note, these are all real-life remarks that I've gotten when I told people I was a psych major.

Here we go.

1. So are you, like, analyzing me right now?

Well, I wasn't. But yeah. Now I am.

2. Ugh so jealous! You picked the easy major.

"Lol" is all I have to say to this one. I'm gonna go write my 15-page paper on cognitive impairment. You have fun with your five college algebra problems, though!

3. So can you tell me what you think is wrong with me? *Shares entire life story*

Don't get me wrong; I love listening and helping people get through hard times. But we can save the story about how one time that one friend said that one slightly rude comment to you for later.

4. Well, s**t, I have to be careful what I say around you.

Relax, pal. I couldn't diagnose and/or institutionalize you even if I wanted to.

5. OMG! I have the perfect first client for you! *Proceeds to vent about ex-boyfriend or girlfriend*

Possible good response: simply nod your head the entire time, while actually secretly thinking about the Ben and Jerry's carton you're going to go home and demolish after this conversation ends.

6. So you must kind of be like, secretly insane or something to be into Psychology.

Option one: try and hide that you're offended. Option two: just go with it, throw a full-blown tantrum, and scare off this individual, thereby ending this painful conversation.

7. Oh. So you want to be a shrink?

First off, please. Stop. Calling. Therapists. Shrinks. Second, that's not a psych major's one and only job option.

8. You know you have to go to grad school if you ever want a job in Psychology.

Not completely true, for the record. But I am fully aware that I may have to spend up to seven more years of my life in school. Thanks for the friendly reminder.

9. So you... want to work with like... psychopaths?

Let's get serious and completely not-sarcastic for a second. First off, I take personal offense to this one. Having a mental illness does not classify you as a psycho, or not normal, or not deserving of being treated just like anyone else on the planet. Please stop using a handful of umbrella terms to label millions of wonderful individuals. It's not cool and not appreciated.

10. So can you, like, read my mind?

It actually might be fun to say yes to this one. Try it out and see what happens. Get back to me.

11. You must be a really emotional person to want to work in Psychology.

Psychology is more than about feeling happy, or sad, or angry. Psychology is about understanding the most complex thing to ever happen to us: our brain. How it works the way it does, why it works the way it does, and how we can better understand and communicate with this incredibly mysterious, incredibly vast organ in our tiny little skull. That's what psychology is.

So keep your head up, psychology majors, and don't let anyone discourage you about choosing, what is in my opinion, the coolest career field out there. The world needs more people like us.

Cover Image Credit: Pexels

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Short Stories On Odyssey: Roses

What's worth more than red roses?


Five years old and a bouquet of roses rested in her hands. The audience-- clapped away her performance, giving her a standing ovation. She's smiling then because everything made sense, her happiness as bright as the roses she held in her hands.

Fifteen now, and a pile of papers rested on her desk. The teachers all smiled when she walked down the aisle and gave them her presentation. She was content then but oh so stressed, but her parents happy she had an A as a grade, not red on her chest.

Eighteen now and a trail of tears followed her to the door. Partying, and doing some wild things, she just didn't know who she was. She's crying now, doesn't know anymore, slamming her fists into walls, pricking her fingers on roses' thorns.

Twenty-one and a bundle of bills were grasped in her hands. All the men-- clapped and roared as she sold her soul, to the pole, for a dance. She's frowning now because everything went wrong, but she has to stay strong, for rich green money, is worth more than red roses.

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