Occasionally, you will need a (V.O.) to the right of the character's name to indicate that the speech is a voice-over, i.e., not spoken within the scene. (O.S.)
indicates that the character is speaking off-screen, i.e., spoken within the scene but not within the frame.
4. The parenthetical indicates tone or inflection, but should be used sparingly. Don't give actors line readings. If the line is well-written, the tone should be clear, but there are exceptions:
BOB (hostile) Of course I love you.
And the dialogue is the speech that Bob says. Or Jonathan in "Killer Kite":
JONATHAN It's moving in this direction, Professor LaRue. In five minutes, we'll be in the center of the storm.
It's important to note that dialogue forms a column that is roughly 3.5 inches wide. It does not go all the way to the right-hand margin of the page.
If you have to break dialogue at the end of a page, always end after the last complete sentence, then center (more) beneath the dialogue block. When resuming the speech at the top of the next page, reslug the character's name and add (CONT'D) beside it. When you're breaking a character's speech to describe action, you don't need (CONT'D). Just reslug the name and continue the speech.
5. Transitions appear sparingly in screenplays to help move the story from one scene to the next. FADE IN: and FADE OUT (usually followed by a period at the end of the screenplay) appear flush left on the page. CUT TO: and DISSOLVE TO: appear on the right-hand side of the page (Tab 5.9). You do not need a CUT TO: between every scene; the cut is implied with each new slug line. DISSOLVE TO: means one image is slowly replacing another, usually to show the passage of time. Both are a bit out of fashion, at least for the moment.
Once you understand the basics, the five easy pieces of screenplay format—the slug line, the action, the name of character speaking, the parenthetical and dialogue, and the transition—and why they're used in a screenplay, you're ready to use screenplay format.
As you do, remember your goal—to make the film unfold on paper. "The whole film to me should be on paper from beginning to end," Hitchcock said.
So the reader can see it unfolding. You want to create a seamless read—"a vivid and continuous dream," as John Gardner once said—for the reader. The last thing you want to do is interrupt your own film-on-paper with bad grammar or spelling or boring descriptions or confusing actions. Keep it simple, visual, vivid, and clear. Your goal is to make the film happen in your reader's head. That's connection.
And don't forget how flexible screenplay format can be. It's constantly evolving. You have more freedom than you may realize. The more screenplays you read, the more you'll understand what I mean. Read long and short screenplays, preferably in manuscript form, to see how other screenwriters use format. Screenplays in manuscript are available from script-arama.com or Script City (1-800-672-2522 or on the Web at www.scriptcity.net), among other places, but these, too, can be pricey. Books sometimes are cheaper, but only a few like Pulp Fiction are actually printed in manuscript form. Scenario: The Magazine of Screenwriting Art (212-463-0600) publishes four issues a year with four (or more) screenplays in each—in the version the screenwriter wishes—and offers deeply discounted student subscriptions. If you're enrolled at a film school, of course, you can check screenplays out of your film library. The point is to read all you can.
Ultimately, the best way to learn to write screenplays is to write them yourself. The conventional wisdom for features says you have to write five before you sell one. I think, with short screenplays, once you've written (and rewritten) the five screenplays here, you'll be well on your way to understanding the craft.
That's what this book is really about.
1. William Gibson, Shakespeare's Game, New York, Atheneum, 1978, p. 7.
3. Ernest Lindgren, The Art of the Film, New York, Collier Books, 1970, p. 26.
4. City Lights is available from amazon.com (see availability information in the Films Referenced section at the end of the book).
5. Jerome Stern, Making Shapely Fiction, New York, Norton, 1991, p. 255.
6. Eric Sherman, Directing the Film, Acrobat Books, Los Angeles, 1976, pp. 331, 332.
Was this article helpful?
Devoted as I am to popularizing amateur boxing and to improving the caliber of this particularly desirable competitive sport, I am highly enthusiastic over John Walsh's boxing instruction book. No one in the United States today can equal John's record as an amateur boxer and a coach. He is highly regarded as a sportsman. Before turning to coaching and the practice of law John was one of the most successful college and Golden Gloves boxers the sport has ever known.