The Purpose of Screenplay Format Elements

The three main elements of a screenplay are the:

  • Scene heading
  • Action
  • Dialogue

The scene heading defines three elements: where the scene takes place inside or outside, the location of the scene, and the time. Typically a scene heading looks like this:




Every scene takes place either in the interior (INT.) or exterior (EXT.).

The location of a scene should be more descriptive. In the above example, COFFEE SHOP and BALLPARK simply identifies where the scene takes place. Unless it’s important, you don’t need to specify an exact location. If your scene must take place inside Yankee stadium for some reason, then don’t use the generic term of “ballpark” but specify “Yankee stadium” instead.

The time of your scene is either days or night, although you can also specify morning, evening, dawn, sunset, or any other more descriptive time but only if that’s crucial. If a scene must take place in the morning, then specify morning. If the scene just needs to take place sometime during the day, then specify DAY.

Action is a brief description of what happens in that scene. Here’s where you need to be creative, sparse, yet descriptive. Any action you describe must be important. Specifying that a character nods, stares, or thinks is probably not crucial, so cut it. You don’t want to be too specific unless it’s important.

For example, don’t bother describing a character’s clothes unless it’s absolutely necessary to know he or she is wearing sandals instead of shoes. The basic rule is to keep descriptions general enough to describe the scene but not specific enough unless it’s important.

Action paragraphs typically span four lines or less. An Action paragraph crammed with multiple lines of text simply looks dense and difficult to read in a screenplay. Keep it short, descriptive, and informative. Imagine taking out your Action paragraph. Would that hurt the visual image you\’re describing? If not, then keep the Action paragraph out or rewrite it.

Dialogue is another tricky part of writing a screenplay. The most common problem is that all characters sound alike (often sounding like the screenwriter who wrote it). Try to give each character a unique way of talking such as saying a certain phrase. Yoda in “The Return of the Jedi” speaks in awkward wording but it’s unique to his character. Educated (or pompous) characters use longer words than less educated characters. After writing dialogue, cover up the names and see if you or anyone else can tell who’s speaking. If the dialogue sounds like every character, then you need to fix that dialogue.

Initially, don’t worry about the details of your screenplay. Only after it’s completed should you go over it to make sure your scene headings, action paragraphs, and character dialogue is unique and interesting. Don’t accept even one weak word in your screenplay. By making your screenplay as tight, lean, and interesting as possible, you increase the chances that your entire screenplay will be appealing and interesting, and that will improve your chances of making a sale and seeing your screenplay get produced.

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