SCREENPLAY FORMAT: The Most Common Formatting Mistake

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: The Most Common Formatting Mistake by Dave Trottier | Script Magazine #screenwriting #scriptchat

QUESTION

What is the most common screenplay format error that you see?

ANSWER

Oh, that’s easy—scene headings, sometimes called slug lines. As a script consultant, I often find myself, while reading a script, saying “Where am I?” For example:

INT. CHRISTMAS DAY — DAY

“Christmas Day” is not a location. Where am I? Here’s another goof:

EXT. SWAMP — DAY

Larry trudges out of the swamp.

BATHROOM

Larry washes his face at the sink.

How can a bathroom be part of a swamp, and how did we get from an exterior camera placement to an interior camera placement?

Begin a scene with a master scene heading, which names the master (or primary) location; for example, EXT. SMITH HOUSE — DAY. Other locations (such as BEDROOM or HALLWAY) that are part of the master location are called secondary locations; the resulting heading is called a secondary heading. In addition, it’s okay to add a secondary location to a master (primary) location in a master scene heading. I’ll illustrate all of these points below.

First, we’ll begin with the master scene heading that includes a secondary location and then move to other secondary locations.

INT. SMITH HOUSE — LIVING ROOM — DAY

John slams the front door and races down the

HALLWAY

and into his

BEDROOM

where he dives on top of his bed and sobs.

The above is correct, but it could have just as easily been written like this, which is also correct:

EXT. SMITH HOUSE — DAY

LIVING ROOM

John slams the front door and races out.

HALLWAY

He runs past pictures of his family.

BEDROOM

He stumbles in and falls on his bed sobbing.

As you can see, any number of secondary headings can follow as long as the locations are part of the master (primary) location. Once we change the camera placement to an exterior location or to a location that is not part of the master location, we must create a new master scene heading.

If I may, I’ll mention one other common formatting fumble—including description in the scene heading. To wit:

EXT. A WINDY NIGHT WITH A PALE MOON SHINING THROUGH TREES IN THE WOODS

That should actually be written as follows:

EXT. WOODS — NIGHT

A pale moon shines through trees buffeted by a stiff wind. Save the description for the description (action) sections of your script.

****

QUESTION

I heard at a seminar that you no longer have to include DAY or NIGHT at the end of a scene heading. Is that so?

ANSWER

No. The reader really needs to know if it’s night or day. I suspect that the seminar leader was referring to instances where the time is already clearly understood. For example, the following would be perfectly okay:

EXT. HOTEL — DAY

Lilith slithers into the hotel.

INT. HOTEL LOBBY

She glides up to the elevator.

Good luck and keep writing!

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