Variations in Screenplay Format

Screenplay FormatScreenplay format is at times straightforward, at times confusing. Yet beginning screenwriters often assume that rules of format are set in stone, which is not true. Script format evolves, mutates, and varies from writer to writer. Learning when and how you can alter format to your needs will make your scripts distinctive, and will also allow you to break out of standard format in order to develop a real storytelling style.

Sluglines

A slugline is your scene heading. The basic slugline typically contains:

  • A heading designating whether the shot takes place inside (“interior,” shown as INT.) or outside (“exterior,” shown as EXT.)
  • The location. This is the main area in which the scene takes place, such as DAVE’S OFFICE, or KITCHEN, or LAUNDROMAT.
  • Time of day. There are generally only three standard designations allowed in this position; DAY, NIGHT, or GOLDEN HOUR (which refers to sunset — sometimes called MAGIC HOUR).

The result looks like this:

INT. BOB'S APARTMENT - DAY

Yet there are several important variations that are possible for your sluglines. For example, you can get more specific about a sub-location within a location.

INT. BOB'S APARTMENT - KITCHEN - DAY

Or, you can move the action from one place to another:

INT. BOB'S APARTMENT - LIVING ROOM - DAY

Bob walks through the living room, reading his mail. He enters the KITCHEN.

KITCHEN

He tosses the mail on the counter, and opens his refrigerator to grab a beer.

Notice that when entering the KITCHEN, that another full slugline wasn’t necessary, because the rest of the scene has already been set. By using a slugline fragment, you also keep it clear that you are still in the same location. Another INT. designation might confuse the reader, because it could be interpreted that either you have introduced another location (instead of a sub-location) and might also suggest that a certain amount of time has passed, which is not the case.

Of course, there are exceptions. The opening sluglines of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home read:

FADE IN:

SPACE - A STARFIELD

To set a story in space violates traditional ideas of interior or exterior, because it’s an effects shot. In addition, scenes set in space no longer require DAY or NIGHT information. An interesting variation is demonstrated in the script of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan:

EXT. SPACE - PURPLE - SERIES OF SHOTS

PURPLE is not your usual description for a location; it refers in this¬†script to the interior of a nebula cloud. Who’s to say that it’s incorrect format? And regarding SPACE as having an EXT. designation, or none at all, which is correct? Both, either — it’s up to you. Effects shots often require creativity on the part of the writer, because often you are describing something unusual, which therefore often requires an unusual slugline.

Here’s a slugline from Pleasantville:

FULL SHOT.  TV SET.  "PLEASANTVILLE"  (BLACK AND WHITE)

Part of the “gimmick” in this film is that part of the story is in color, part in black and white, and its slugline informs the reader of this fact.

This next slugline, from Beavis and Butthead Do America, shows an unusual stylistic variation, in that it uses slashes instead of hyphens (or periods like Pleasantville) to break up the line.

INT. CAPITOL/PARKING GARAGE/MUDDY'S CAR - DAY

The point in showing these differences is that sluglines, often thought of as having a rigid format, are actually completely flexible depending upon your needs. Don’t be afraid to play with them, but don’t get carried away. Remember, your aim is communication of your ideas without interrupting the flow.

Action

Action lines can also be sculpted to your particular needs and style. Some screenwriters like to clearly delineate shots by breaking them down line by line. Yet outright shot description can border on too much description.

In the screenplay for Beavis and Butthead Do America, the shots are often clearly listed:

ANDERSON'S CAMPER.

ANGLE ON BEAVIS. He takes the picture of Dallas out of his pocket.

TIGHT ON the picture of Dallas.

TIGHT ON Anderson's camper.

TIGHT ON Beavis.

		BEAVIS/CORNHOLIO (CONT.)
      Aaaahh, heh heh...

Animation scripts are often this shot specific. Yet for a standard film script, it is usually best to suggest shots by simply describing a location, person or item, without the extensive use of such terms as ANGLE ON and TIGHT ON.

A more accepted approach is to use capitalized headings to break up a scene, such as Robert Towne uses in the screenplay for Chinatown, in this scene in which detective Jake Gittes follows Hollis Mulwray:

DOWN ON THE BEACH

Gittes looks to his right -- where the bay is a long, clear crescent. He looks to his left -- there's a  promontory of sorts. It's apparent Mulwray has gone that way. Gittes hesitates, then moves in that direction -- but climbs along the promontory in order to be above Mulwray.

The DOWN ON THE BEACH heading is like a sub-slugline that immediately designates a master shot, whereas the other sentences of the paragraph suggest other possible sub-shots; “he looks to his right,” for example, hints to the director that he could perhaps use either a straight cut to show the “clear crescent” of the bay, or perhaps even cut to a shot of Gittes’ POV, and pan first right to see the bay, then left to see the promontory.

Modern screenwriting style typically breaks down thick paragraphs like the one above into single sentence lines. These single sentences alone also suggest individual shots.

A particularly violent scene from The Usual Suspects perfectly illustrates how to write an action sequence that suggest separate shots. This scene is done without capitalized sub-slugline headings (except for sound effects), although screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie does capitalize the beginnings on sentences for emphasis. His capitalization is purely a stylistic choice, and is in no way required.

INT. VAN
          
Hockney laughs and jumps in, suddenly oblivious to the sound of gunfire.  He opens one of the crates and looks inside.

IT IS FILLED WITH MONEY.  Cash and negotiable bonds of all kinds.

He smiles.

BOOM

BLOOD sprays all over the money.
  
Hockney looks at it, puzzled.

He turns and sees one of the men in suits holding a shotgun.

Hockney looks down at his own open belly, blood and innards flowing freely.

BOOM

Another shot takes off the top of his head.

McQuarrie’s description is effective, simple, and easy to read — everything a good script should be. It is always a good idea to break up big blocks of text in this manner.

It is important to remember that the basic function of script format is the same as for all writing — to clearly convey information. Occam’s Razor is a principle of logic that states that the simplest solution is usually correct. If you keep this in mind when formatting scripts, you’ll succeed in conveying the necessary information in a way that makes sense and will not call attention to itself. Soon, you’ll be able to invent formatting that derives from the basic rules but still looks correct, which will allow you greater creative freedom as a writer.

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