Screenplay Format: Beyond the Basics
In Part 1 (How to Format a Screenplay), we discussed the four main components: scene headings (also known as slug lines), action (also known as scene description, dialogue, and transitions. In Part 2, we’ll go further. Let’s dive in!
There will be times when you need even more tools in your formatting toolbox. What if you want to include a voice-over, a montage sequence, or what if a character is speaking another language?
Voice-Over (V.O.), Montage Sequences, Dialogue Without Sound (M.O.S.)
The following text from the pilot of the TV show Orange is the New Black illustrates how to write a montage and include voice-over. We see voice-over most commonly when a character is narrating a scene. Below, Piper, the main character, is narrating over images of her life before prison.
If a scene includes dialogue where we cannot hear any words, then, similarly to voice-over, put M.O.S. in parentheses after the character’s name. (The legend is that “M.O.S.” stands for “mit out sound,” as an early film director from Germany might have said it.).
Offscreen Dialogue (O.S.)
While the two are sometimes confused, it’s important to understand the difference between voice-over (V.O.) and offscreen dialogue (O.S.). Both denote that a character is speaking who isn’t currently onscreen. While voice-over is used to denote a character speaking who isn’t present in the scene, offscreen means that a character is physically present in a scene but the camera isn’t focusing on them.
Again, here is an example from Orange is the New Black. As we see the inmates talk, a guard interrupts them. We hear the guard but don’t see him; the focus remains on the inmates.
For an extensive discussion of these various “special circumstances,” I recommend picking up Dave Trottier’s The Screenwriter’s Bible, (listed under “Resources for Further Reading” at the end of this article).
While you certainly don’t have to purchase expensive software to be considered a “real screenwriter,” these days there are a number of screenwriting software programs out there, many more affordable than ever. Here are three standouts.
- Final Draft – Long considered the “industry standard” and the program of choice for writers like Guillermo del Toro, Final Draft is by far the most popular screenwriting program. One of its best features is its built-in templates. If you’re writing a TV spec, you’ll love that it features templates for popular TV shows. It runs on Mac or Windows computers, and there’s even an iPad and iPhone app for writers on the go. These features come at a cost, however. The program costs $249.99 USD. But teachers and students can receive special educational pricing of $129.99 USD.
- WriterDuet – A web-based program originally designed to help writing partners collaborate in real-time, WriterDuet has taken off in the past few years. It’s come to be the software program of choice for Chromebook users, who find themselves using machines incompatible with Final Draft. You can create up to three projects using the free version, but after that you’ll have to pay $11.99 USD per month or $89 USD annually. Educators and students pay half price.
- Highland – John August, co-host of the podcast ScriptNotes, developed this screenwriting application, which is available for Mac. A free download is available, but premium features will cost you $49.99 USD.
Though I would strongly recommend one of the above specialized programs, you can also use good old-fashioned Microsoft Word. Here’s a Screenplay template.
While adhering to screenplay format may seem like a chore, a burden, or overly restrictive, it is a tool that allows you to present your story in the clearest, most professional way possible. So what are you waiting for? Now that you’re armed with this tool, go out there and write that screenplay!
Resources for Further Reading
The Screenwriter’s Bible by Dave Trottier (a.k.a. “Dr. Format”)
The Hollywood Standard by Christopher Rile