Screenplay Format Handouts

Excerpts from “How to Format a Screenplay” by Elaine Radford
Keep in mind that a screenplay is visual and your characters' actions move the story forward from scene to scene. Actions show the audience what it needs to know. Your characters' dialogue supports the actions. Seeing a character do something is far more powerful than having him or her talk about it.
Think of a scene as a unit of action. In each scene, define who (character or characters), what (situation), when (time of day), where (place of action), and why (purpose of the action).
Scene Headings:

·          Each time your characters move to a different setting, a new scene heading is required.
·          Scene headings are typed on one line with some words abbreviated and all words capitalized.
·          Specifically, the location of a scene is listed before the time of day when the scene takes place.
·          Example: A scene set inside a hospital emergency room at night would have the following heading:
·         Interior is always abbreviated INT. and exterior is abbreviated EXT.
·         Hyphen separates the location of the scene from the time of day. 
·          Leave a two-line space following the scene heading before writing your scene description.
·         Scene descriptions are typed across the page from left margin to right margin.
Characters and Dialogue
·         Names of characters are displayed in all capital letters the first time they are used in a description, and these names always use all capital letters in a dialogue heading.
·         Example:
CATHY sits at the end of the first row of plastic chairs. Her head is bent over, and she stares intently at the floor.
·         The names of characters who have no dialogue are not capitalized when mentioned in scene descriptions.
·         Example:
A man moans softly as he presses a bloody gauze pad against his forehead. A woman cradles a listless infant in her arms.
·         Sounds the audience will hear are capitalized (eg, ROAR or WHISTLE).
·         Dialogue is centered on the page under the character's name, which is always in all capital letters when used as a dialogue heading.
·         Example:
                                            I'm sorry…

·         If you describe the way a character looks or speaks before the dialogue begins or as it begins, this is typed below the character's name in parentheses.
·         Example:
                                            We did everything possible.

Here is an example of a complete scene in the screenplay format:
A crowded hospital emergency waiting room. Clean but cheerless. 
Sick and injured people sit in plastic chairs lined up in rows. A TV    mounted near the ceiling BLARES a sitcom. No one is watching.
A man moans softly as he presses a bloody gauze pad against his   forehead. A woman cradles a listless infant in her arms.
CATHY sits at the end of the first row of plastic chairs. Her head is bent over, and she stares intently at the floor.
She raises her head slowly, brushes her long, silky hair away from her face.
We see fear in her eyes as they focus on a clock that hangs above the front desk. She twists a tissue between her fingers and is unaware that bits of it are falling on the floor.
The door to the emergency treatment room opens, and a middle-aged    DOCTOR dressed in hospital green walks through the door toward Cathy, who bolts out of the chair and hurries toward him.
                                            We did everything possible.

                                            What are you saying?

                                            I'm sorry…


All eyes in the waiting room are riveted on Cathy and the Doctor. Cathy lunges at the Doctor, beating her fists against his chest.
                                                                   CATHY  (CONT'D)
                                            You killed him! 

Example (a scene from Donnie Darko):

Ms. Farmer stands next to the television where Jim Cunningham
narrates the Lifeline tutorial.
                     JIM CUNNINGHAM
            And so, let us begin Lifeline Exercise
            No. 1.
"PLEASE PRESS STOP NOW" appears on the screen.
Ms. Farmer stops the tape and moves to the blackboard. On it, she
has drawn a horizontal line book-ended by the words "Love" and
                     MS. FARMER
            As you can see, the Lifeline is controlled
            by two polar extremes: "Fear" and "Love".
            Fear is in the negative energy spectrum.
            Love is in the positive energy spectrum.
                   (to Donnie)
            No duh.
                     MS. FARMER
            Excuse me?
            "No duh" is a product of fear.
She stares them down for a moment... shaking her head.
                     MS. FARMER (cont'd)
                   (handing out cards)
            Now, on each card is a CHARACTER DILEMMA
            which applies to the Lifeline. Please read
            each character dilemma aloud... and place
            an X on the Lifeline in the appropriate
The students read their cards.
                     KITTY FARMER (cont'd)
            We'll start in the front.
Cherita Chen stands up and walks over to the blackboard. Ms.
Farmer pulls up large white cards that have black-and-white
animated cartoons on them.
            Juanita has an important maths test
            today. She has known about the test for
            several weeks, but has not studied. In
            order to keep from failing her class,
            Juanita decides that she will cheat on
            the maths test.
Cherita places an X near the "Fear" end of the lifeline.
                     MS. FARMER
            Good. Next.
Donnie watches as several more students interpret their
respective human dilemmas.
Finally... it is his turn.
            Ling Ling finds a wallet on the ground
            filled with money. She takes the wallet
            to the address on the driver's license
            but keeps the money inside the wallet.
Donnie looks at the blackboard.
                     DONNIE (cont'd)
            I'm sorry, Ms. Farmer, I just don't
            get this.
                     MS. FARMER
            Just place an X in the appropriate place
            on the Lifeline.
            I just don't get this. Everything can't be
            lumped into two categories. That's too
                     MS. FARMER
            The Lifeline is divided that way.
            Well, life isn't that simple. So what if
            Ling Ling kept the cash and returned the
            wallet? That has nothing to do with either
            fear or love.
                     MS. FARMER
            Fear and love are the deepest of human
            Well, yeah... OK, but you're not listening
            to me. There are other things that need
            to be taken into account here. Like the
            whole spectrum of human emotion. You're
            just lumping everything into these two
            categories... and, like, denying
            everything else.
Ms. Farmer stares at Donnie vehemently. She can't believe what
she's hearing.
                     DONNIE (cont'd)
            People aren't that simple.
                     MS. FARMER
                  (not knowing how to argue
                  with him)
            If you don't complete the assignment,
            you'll get a zero for the day.
Donnie thinks for a moment... and then raises his hand.
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