Script Template: Understanding the Elements of a Screenplay
What exactly is a script template? Well, just like a novel, poem or newspaper article, a screenplay tells a story.
What exactly is a script template? Well, just like a novel, poem or newspaper article, a screenplay tells a story. But unlike those other forms of communication and expression, a screenplay is meant to serve as a blueprint for another medium: film. It’s because of this unique relationship that a script template is necessary to convey the different elements of the story.
It’s important to note that Screenwriters have a special advantage when it comes to writing a screenplay: a variety of screenwriting software programs that act instinctively to prompt the script element required next. However, even with this help, it’s still vital that the Screenwriter understands how each element works and how best to tell their story through each one.1
The following breakdown of script template elements can provide some guidance as to why each one is necessary and some tips on using them:
- Scene headings (aka sluglines)
- Action Lines
Scene Headings (aka Sluglines)
A common refrain before telling a story is, “Let me set the scene.” And for good reason! It’s called context. Before an audience can follow along with a story, they need to know where in the world—real or imaginary—it takes place and when it takes place, as subtleties such as day and night can dramatically change how a person processes what they are reading or being told.
Hence, scene headings. Also commonly referred to as sluglines, this script template element, written in capital letters, informs the reader to the where and when of the screenplay. An example of what a slugline might look like is: “AMITY ISLAND BEACH – DAY.” In a succinct manner, we now know exactly where the following scene is taking place and when.
This is also the perfect time to point out that the Screenwriter must create a new scene heading each time the story moves to a different location…
Which brings us to subheaders. Before we go any further, though, it should be mentioned that just as the story of a screenplay is subject to the writer’s stylistic choices, so too are some allowances made for how they use different script template elements. Case in point—the decision to use a subheader versus a new scene heading.
Let’s say that an entire screenplay takes place in one location, such as a house. It could become tedious, as well as unnecessary, to have a new scene heading each time a character moves from one room to another. In this case, it would be entirely appropriate to use subheaders such as “BEDROOM” or “KITCHEN” instead. However, if a screenplay takes place in multiple locations, the character’s home being only one of them, it would make more sense to use a new scene heading for each distinct setting.
Typically what immediately follows a scene heading is the action line. As its name indicates, this script template element is used to describe what is happening within the scene. Continuing with the scene heading example above, an action line might read something like this: “Police Chief Brody scans the water for danger as the beachgoers enjoy themselves in it.”
What should be kept in mind when writing action lines is to keep them as concise as possible. Remember, a screenplay is not meant to be read like a novel. Long paragraphs can not only slow down a reader but also discourage them from finishing the script. The decision to give up on a script for this exact reason is common for Managers, Agents and executives who have little time to determine if they like a script, as they have dozens more waiting for them.
If a particular scene demands more than an average description, like a car chase or war battle, conventional advice recommends that the Writer break up the action lines as much as possible to keep it reader-friendly. When it comes to what readers typically like to see in a script, some common words of advice include “keep a lot of white on the page” and “make sure they’re reading vertically, not horizontally.” Both point to keeping action lines short.
Says Screenwriter Nadia Madden, “Less is more. Each chunk—this can even be only one line or word—of scene direction is like a camera angle. No more than four lines of action at a time, but even that can be a lot. Each word needs to be economical and important or it shouldn’t be there.”
Dialogue sounds pretty straightforward, right? Well, what if character names were suddenly no longer allowed? Would dialogue still seem like such an easy task? While this is a hypothetical that likely would never be asked for, Writers should look to this question as a bar for whether they’re making each character’s dialogue distinct.2 Because that’s really what the question is asking… Can the dialogue alone clue in the reader to who is saying what?
While each Writer should have a unique voice that comes through in their work, so too should each character in their screenplay have a unique voice that differentiates them from every other character. If that’s not happening, it might be time to revisit the script.
A script template element that might be seen alongside a character’s name is an extension. Extensions are used to indicate that what we’re reading as dialogue is more than just words being spoken by that character on-screen.
For instance, if there’s a “V.O.” in parentheses next to a name, it’s notifying the reader that the dialogue is, in fact, a voiceover. A voiceover may or may not be a character’s way of breaking the fourth wall and directly communicating with the audience. Sometimes a voiceover is merely an internal voicing of a character’s thoughts. But in either case, a voiceover is heard and not seen.
Another common extension is “O.S.” If placed in parentheses next to a character’s name, it means that the character is voicing their dialogue, but it’s off-screen. This type of extension in many ways serves as an implicit camera direction to the filmmakers of the script, as it’s indicating that while the character is saying those words in the scene, they shouldn’t be shown on-screen in that particular moment.
Parentheticals are another script template element that can be used in conjunction with dialogue. Essentially, parentheticals help to explain to the reader—and eventual Actor voicing the dialogue—how it should be read.
But here’s the thing. In the vast majority of cases, the dialogue itself should be strong enough to indicate how it should be read. Therefore, parentheticals should never be used as a crutch as an added explanation of the dialogue.3 Screenwriter Owen Croak notes, “I err towards the economical, trying not to overuse them and also using them in places where they convey information more efficiently than action lines or breaking up dialogue into smaller fragments.”
Another note to keep in mind regarding parentheticals: while it’s the Writer’s prerogative to have a preference for how a line should be said, ultimately it’s the Director and Actor who will be making the call. Too many parentheticals in a script can be stifling to the creativity of these individuals, or worse, it might turn off a Director or Actor entirely to being part of the project.
The use of transitions in a script template can be yet another hot-button topic. But first, what are they? Well, they’re somewhat self-explanatory. Transitions are elements that can help a Writer move from one scene to the next. Probably the most common transition is “CUT TO.” Other transitions include “INTERCUT,” “SMASH TO” and “DISSOLVE TO.”
But as they indicate, transitions largely point towards a type of edit.4 And much like parentheticals, they can easily be overused and/or impose on the authority and creativity of the Editor. For his work, Screenwriter Dustin Fleischmann states, “I tend to avoid typing out transitions to let the Editors come up with natural transitions in the cutting room. Plus, it’s a space saver: It’s implied that you’re cutting to another shot when a new scene heading that takes places in an entirely new location immediately follows the end of the previous scene.”
There was a time when transitions were used more commonly. But now much can be read between the lines in screenplays. As Fleischmann mentions, as a script moves from one scene heading to the next, the assumption is that a simple cut will enable that action. Therefore, “CUT TO” is not necessary.
While many screenwriting experts would advise using caution with transitions, the only two of these elements that are still used with little reservation are “FADE IN” and “FADE OUT.” Whether just an industry-wide tradition or not, these elements that indicate the beginning and end of a script are still widely the norm in script formatting.
Much like learning French or Mandarin, the script template has a language all its own. And to become a successful Screenwriter, it’s important to become a master of that language. As Fleischmann notes, “Know the rules before you break them… If you don’t know the rules and you try to break them, it’s noticeable—and makes you look like an amateur.”
Screenplay software has made it easier than ever to write a script, and while the elements explained above constitute those most commonly used, every Screenwriter should become familiar with the greater intricacies of script template formatting through their preferred software. But in the end, it always comes back to the Screenwriter being able to discern how best to implement those elements. As with that knowledge comes the confidence and agility to craft a script that will garner the attention of those in a position to make it.
- 1. "Formatting a Screenplay: How to Put Your Story Into Screenplay Format". Studiobinder. published: 5 August 2019. retrieved on: 16 September 2019
- 2Bloom, Alex. "The #1 Way To Give Your Characters A ‘Voice' ". The Script Lab. published: 19 February 2018. retrieved on: 16 September 2019
- 3Mayes, Trevor. "10 Rules For Using Parentheticals In Your Screenplay". Movie Outline. published: . retrieved on: 6 September 2019
- 4. "Ask the Expert: How to Use Transitions". Script Magazine. published: 28 April 2012. retrieved on: 16 September 2019