SCREENPLAY FORMAT: Action and Dialogue

Dave Trottier is a produced screenwriter, award-winning teacher, acclaimed script consultant, author of The Screenwriter’s Bible , and friendly host of keepwriting.com. Follow Dave on Twitter: @DRTrottier.

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SCREENPLAY FORMAT: Action and Dialogue

LOOK WHO’S TALKING

QUESTION
What is the proper format to use for an animal that makes animal sounds but who also talks?
For example: A dog barks. Then in a human voice says, “Hey, cut that out!”

ANSWER
Animal sounds should be written as narrative description. That’s because only words are considered to be dialogue. Thus, you would write your example as follows.

Sparky barks, then speaks in English.

SPARKY
Hey, cut that out!


I SCREAM, YOU SCREAM

QUESTION
How does one write non-conversational vocal sounds, like screams? Are they written as action [narrative description]? Or are they placed under a character’s name [as in the example below]?

LORI
(screams)

ANSWER
Write screams and human sounds (other than speech) as narrative description. The following is correct.

Lori screams.

Notice that I did not write the sound (screams) in CAPS. You may CAP important sounds if you wish, but it is no longer necessary in spec writing.

PARENTHETICAL ACTION

QUESTION
I have been told that I cannot end a dialogue block with an action as shown below. Is that true?

GERTIE
I’m going to make you hurt.
(smiling with devilish delight)


ANSWER

You have been told correctly. You cannot end a dialogue block with an action. You can handle this situation in one of two ways.

GERTIE
(smiling with devilish delight)
I’m going to make you hurt.

Or —

GERTIE
I’m going to make you hurt.


She smiles with devilish delight.

DIALOGUE IS DIALOGUE

QUESTION
I have a scene where a character discovers a journal and reads an entry from it. Since it’s not really up to me whether the character reads the entry aloud or if the actual entry is displayed on screen, how should I format this in the script?

ANSWER
Before I answer the question, let me make two points. First, don’t be ambiguous in a screenplay. Write what we see and hear. Either the character reads the journal out loud or the audience reads it silently—you decide in the screenplay. Yes, the director may change what you wrote later, but at least give him or her a vision of what you see.

Second, only dialogue is dialogue. You can only write in dialogue words that are spoken.

Now, in answer to your question, I see two ways to approach this formatting problem.

If the journal entry is very short, you might consider allowing the audience to write it. Use the INSERT for this.

INSERT – NATASHA’S JOURNAL, which reads:

“I love Boris, but I plan to leave him for Fearless Leader.”

If the journal entry is longer, then perhaps your character can read it to the audience.

Boris tiptoes into Natasha’s room, spots her journal, and turns to the last page. His eyes soften.

NATASHA (V.O.)
I love Boris, but I plan to leave
him for Fearless Leader. Why?
His silly mustache tickles me.

As you can see, all of this post’s questions have to do with writing dialogue and writing action that is connected with dialogue. I hope your dialogue brings you a lot of action.

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