In Part One we understood the basics of the screenplay format, the page layout and the title page. In this part we’ll look at the elements that form a screenplay, and how you can ensure the smoothest writing experience with Microsoft Word.

The elements

The elements of a screenplay are as follows:

  • Slugs or scene headings
  • Main descriptions or actions
  • Character names before dialogues
  • Parenthetical actions
  • Dialogues
  • Transitions
  • Page breaks
  • Titles

Exclusive Bonus: Download my free cheatsheet (with examples) of tried and tested ways to cover a scene or action that will save your skin when your mind goes blank (PDF file optimized for mobiles and tablets).

Slugs or scene headings

Every scene starts with a slug or a scene heading. They are always in upper case in the following format:

[INT/EXT].[SPECIFIC LOCATION].[TIME OF DAY]

E.g., if the scene takes place in an elevator at night, you could write it as INT. HOTEL ELEVATOR. NIGHT. Some like to use a hyphen instead of a dot, it doesn’t matter.

My take: I keep my scene headings as small and compact as possible for better readability. There is no point in getting overly specific because the production might have other plans. If you want to mention a specific time, like SUNSET or SUNRISE, or DAWN or DUSK, that’s fine too. Usually it’s either NIGHT or DAY, because that’s how lighting setups are estimated.

Main description or action

A main description is either:

  • the action that happens in a scene, or
  • a description of some human, object or location in the scene.

It is in normal case. There are no rules here, except maybe: The first mention of a character is always in upper case.

My take: I keep my action paragraphs to a minimum, and always less than three lines (I only go to three if I have a strong reason for it). I use caps for sound effects and special props or devices.

Character names

Character names are always in upper case. There are three ways in which a character can speak:

  • Direct
  • Voice Over – you put a (V.O.) next to the name
  • Outside Shot – you put a (O.S.) next to the name

A voice over is always used for a narrater, and nobody else. If it’s a character in the story, and they are not in the scene (maybe they’re on a phone or whatever) they get O.S. E.g. –

SAREESH SUDHAKARAN
Wolfcrow delivers the best workflows for filmmakers.

YOU (O.S.)
What a load of bull crap.

MORGAN FREEMAN (V.O.)
(Reading from a script inside a studio)
I have nothing to say, except describe the scene and fill in
stuff the writer was too lazy to put into actionable scenes.

The formatting is either 4.2″ from the left or centered.

My take: Centered looks better for online reading but the 4.2″ system is better for MS Word formatting.

Parenthetical actions

Parenthetical actions follow the character name above (and sometimes in between) the dialogues.

The formatting is 0.5″ to the left from where the character name starts (which is either 4.2″ or centered). And they should be not more than 1.5″ wide.

My take: I keep these at a bare minimum. No point writing in an action for a fictional character when the ‘real’ actor will play it as he or she sees fit anyway.

Dialogues

No rules here. The formatting is as follows:

  • Left: 3″
  • Right: roughly 2.5″

My take: I try to avoid spelling mistakes or accents or colloquial speech. No matter what you write in, the actor is the final author of that dialogue!

Transitions

Transitions between scenes are:

  • CUT TO:
  • DISSOLVE TO:
  • FADE IN:
  • FADE OUT:
  • INTERCUT WITH:

You don’t have to put them in, but sometimes it makes reading easier. The formatting for transitions is aligned to the right on its own line.

My take: I avoid CUT TO because it adds lines and I feel cuts are supposed to be ‘invisible’ anyway. Why draw attention to them?

Page breaks

Page breaks happen when you’re in the middle of a long dialogue and you need to carry on to the next page.  You add a ‘MORE’ at the end of a page and a ‘CONT’D’ at the beginning of the new page:

CHARACTER NAME
blah blah.
MORE

Next page:

CHARACTER NAME (CONT’D)
More blah blah –
(pausing for effect)
blah.

Formatting is the same as that of character names.

Titles

When you want to superimpose a title, you write ‘TITLE OVER:’ and then the ‘words’ centered on the next line:

TITLE OVER:

Centered on paper, I could appear anywhere on screen.

Note: There is no need for a double line spacing, it’s up to you. The formatting for TITLE OVER: is similar to the main action, and the actual words are similar to dialogues.

How to get elements into Microsoft Word

Word has a crazy system of adding spacing to the margin, so you need to get rid of that first. Type these to the script template:

Slug
Description or actions
Character name
Parenthetical action
Dialogue
Transition
Page break
Title

Select them and right click. Select Paragraph…. Make sure the Alignment is ‘Left’ and Indentation is ‘0 cm or inches’. Hit OK.

Character name

Place the curser at the beginning of ‘Character name’. Right click and select Paragraph…. You have two choices:

  • Change the left indentation to 6.86 cm (2.7″). Use this if you’re using the 4.2″ formatting.
  • Change the alignment to ‘Centered’. Use this if you’re just centering the character name.

Parenthetical action

Place the cursor on Parenthetical action. Repeat the steps above to get to the Paragraph popup. Because the paranthetical action position is related to the character name, you have two choices:

  • If you have opted for the 4.2″ system, set the left indentation at 5.59 cm (2.2″).
  • If you have opted for the centered system, set the alignment to ‘Centered’. Then set the left indentation at -1.27 cm (0.5″).

Dialogue

Place the cursor on Dialogue. Repeat the steps above to get to the Paragraph popup. Because the position of the dialogue is relative to the character name, you have two choices:

  • If you have opted for the 4.2″ system, set the left indentation at 3.84 cm (1.5″). Set the right indentation at 2.54 cm (1″).
  • If you have opted for the centered system, set the alignment to ‘Centered’. Then set the left indentation at -3.81 cm (1.5″). Set the right indentation at -4.44 cm (1.75″). This will center the text and give you a width of 3″.

Now you know why I said the ‘centering system’ is harder to implement in Word.

Transition

Same steps. Align to the Right.

Page break

Same as Character name.

For Slug, Title and Description, don’t make any changes yet. If you’ve done everything okay, this is what your template should look like:

Changing the fonts and line spacing

The next step is to make sure the fonts that are always in upper case be assigned that style.

Fonts

Choose Slug, Character name, Page break, Transitions and Title one by one, right click and select Font…. Check ‘All caps’. This is what it will look like:

Finally, we manipulate the line spacing so each element behaves the way it is supposed to.

Line Spacing

This part could have been done alongside indentation and alignment, but this way it is more foolproof for first timers. First, let’s understand how line spacing works in a screenplay:

Double spacing follows these elements, always:

  • Slug
  • Each paragraph of a description or action.
  • Diagloue.
  • Transition.

Why not add them in automatically? We can do that.

Select each of these elements one by one, right click and select Paragraph…. Change the Spacing, After to 12 pt. This is what it will look like:

There shouldn’t be a double spacing before the Page break. However, this only applies rarely to a screenplay, so you can just hit backspace when you need it. There are some writers who like to have two spaces prior to every slug. You can use the same method to change things up.

With this system, you don’t have to worry about line spaces before any element because it will follow automatically after another element.

Actions

What are actions? Simply put, there are some rules that always hold true in a screenplay format:

  • A slug or scene heading is always followed by action/description.
  • The end of a transition is always a slug or scene heading.
  • Dialogue is assumed after each character’s name, unless a parenthetical action is necessary. After every parenthetical there is always a dialogue.
  • More likely than not a dialogue will be followed by another character’s name.

Software like Final Draft makes it easy to write because as soon as you finish one line of the above and hit ENTER the next line assumes the next logical step – saving you many keystrokes. To get the same benefits in Microsoft Word, you must try to create actions (term borrowed from Photoshop) that make it as easy as possible.

Let’s go in this order:

Description or action

Select/Highlight Description or actions in your template. Go to Format > Style > New…:

Name the style as ‘Action’. Click OK. Word will automatically assign the ‘Style for following paragraph’ to ‘Action’. To create a shortcut, click on the ‘Format’ drop down on the lower left:

Select Shortcut key…. You’ll get this box:

Alt is assigned to the menu and Shift is assigned to upper case letters. I recommend using CTRL+SHIFT+Number. E.g., for Action you could have CTRL+SHIFT+2. Click on Assign and then OK.

Slug

Highlight ‘Slug’ and repeat the above steps. In the New Style popup, name it ‘Slug’ and assign the ‘Style for following paragraph’ to ‘Action’. Click OK.

Set the shortcut as CTRL+SHIFT+1.

Transition

Same as above. In the New Style popup, name it ‘Transition’ and assign the ‘Style for following paragraph’ to ‘Slug’. Click OK.

Set the shortcut as CTRL+SHIFT+6.

Character name

Same as above. In the New Style popup, name it ‘CharacterName’. Click OK.

Set the shortcut as CTRL+SHIFT+3.

Dialogue

Same as above. In the New Style popup, name it ‘Dialogue’ and assign the ‘Style for following paragraph’ to ‘CharacterName’. Click OK.

Go back to the CharacterName style and assign the ‘Style for following paragraph’ to ‘Dialogue’. Click OK.

Set the shortcut as CTRL+SHIFT+5.

Parenthetical action

Same as above. In the New Style popup, name it ‘Paranthetical’ and assign the ‘Style for following paragraph’ to ‘Dialogue’. Click OK.

Set the shortcut as CTRL+SHIFT+4.

Title

Same as above. In the New Style popup, name it ‘TitleOver’ and assign the ‘Style for following paragraph’ to ‘Dialogue’. Click OK.

Set the shortcut as CTRL+SHIFT+7.

Now we have our styles. Page break has the exact same style as CharacterName so you can use that instead. Try playing around with the styles. It works!

Don’t forget to save your template.

If you’re having trouble with my shortcuts, feel free to choose your own. Keep it simple and repeatable so you only have to learn one set of movements and you’ll be doing it fast in no time. Word tells you whether your preferred shortcut is already in use for an important function or not. You can also save your shortcuts and styles to apply to all documents created in Word (but that isn’t a good idea if you’re using Word for other stuff as well).

There you have it, the basics of a screenplay format and how to set up Microsoft Word to write a script. Happy writing!

Exclusive Bonus: Download my free cheatsheet (with examples) of tried and tested ways to cover a scene or action that will save your skin when your mind goes blank (PDF file optimized for mobiles and tablets).

5 replies on “Understanding the Screenplay Format and How to use MS Word to write Scripts (Part Two)”

  1. This was really helpful; i failed on my first screenplay script competition because i just didn’t have this essential info. now that i do, i will explore…thank you so, so much

  2. Hi. Thanks for this great article. I always use Final Draft but was hired to write a script for a Chinese studio and they can’t write Mandarin or Simplified Chinese in FD, so I had to pour everything into Word. Your article was the best one on script formatting for Word. Thank you!

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