The Basics of the Seven Screenplay Elements

Formatting experts disagree on exactly how many separate parts make up a screenplay. Christopher Riley, in his book The Hollywood Standard, says that there are 4 essential building blocks: Scene Headings, Direction, Dialogue, and Transitions. In The Screenwriter's Bible David Trottier breaks the screenplay into only three parts (Scene Headings, Direction, and Dialogue), arguing that Transitions are almost completely unnecessary.

For the most part, I agree with both of them. However, I believe that these "building blocks" or "parts" can be further broken down into their essential ELEMENTS.

There are Scene Headings, but there are also Subheadings within scenes. Subheadings look different from Scene Headings and have different functions than do regular Scene Headings.

Most formatting experts lump Character Headings, Parantheticals, and Dialogue all together as Dialogue. Nothing wrong with that. But each of these is formatted differently, indented differently, and each has its own purpose and functionality within Dialogue blocks. Why not pull each out and discuss them individually?

As far as Transitions are concerned, I can try all I want to convince writer's not to use them, but they are still there occasionally. Plus there is that DAMN unobvious MATCH CUT TO:! Might as well talk about them and make sure they are at least formatted and used correctly.

When it comes to the Margins / Indents, if you are more of a visual person, you can see a visual presentation of the margins HERE.

So let's take a look at the SEVEN ELEMENTS of a screenplay page and discuss their function, placement
and basic rules. There are other pages within this website that cover each Element more in depth.

To the right is an example of a single page of a screenplay. The screenplay elements are labeled in RED:

1. Scene Heading:

  • AKA: Shot Heading, Master Scene Heading, Slugline (slang).
  • Margins: Begin at the left margin (1.5" from page edge) and may extend all the way to the right margin (1" from right-side page edge).
  • What They Do: Introduce each new scene and/or location by telling vital information such as whether the locale is Interior or Exterior (INT. or EXT.), where the scene takes place (HOUSE, STREET, CHURCH), the time of day (DAY, NIGHT, MORNING, etc.), and sometimes more.
  • Basic Rules: Triple-space before each new Scene Heading. Type in ALL CAPS. Double-space after each Scene Heading.

For a more detailed discussion of Scene Heading formatting rules and functionality, please go to the Scene Heading section.

2. Direction:

  • AKA: Action, Narrative, Narration, Business, Stage Direction, Scene Description
  • Margins: Left and Right Margins, same as Scene Headings.
  • What They Do: Follow Scene Headings and set up a scene by giving important information as to what is happening in the scene, such as character placement, various action, and room detail. Characters are introduced here, as well as a description of the characters, their traits, and their movement. Sounds are also cued.
  • Basic Rules: Written in present tense. Double-space before and after Direction and between Direction paragraphs. Single-space within a Direction paragraph. Speaking characters are in ALL CAPS the first time they are introduced in a screenplay, but lowercase everytime afterwards. Minor characters with no speaking roles are in lowercase. On screen and off screen sounds are also in ALL CAPS, unless the sound is made by a character on screen (such as a woman screaming or a person knocking on a door). In order to make a page more readable, break long Direction paragraphs into smaller paragraphs. Don't elaborate or be too wordy. Direction should be brief and concise.

For a more detailed discussion of Direction formatting rules and functionality, please go to the Direction section.

3. Subheading:

  • AKA: Scene Heading, Shot Heading, Secondary Scene Heading
  • Margins: Left and Right Margins, same as Scene Headings
  • What They Do: Provide a wide variety of functions within an existing scene when a new Scene Heading isn't necessary. Subheaders are used to call out camera angles, focus audience attention, show what characters are looking at, insert text, show character movement from one room to the next, intercut two scenes, and much more.
  • Basic Rules: Subheadings are optional and should be used sparingly. They are in ALL CAPS, with a double-space before and after each Subheading.

For a more detailed discussion of Subheading formatting rules and functionality, please go to the Subheading section.

4. Character Heading:

  • AKA: Character Cue, Character Caption, Character Slug
  • Margins/Indents: DO NOT CENTER on the page! Left Indent: 4". Right Indent: None

    Opinions as to the left margin vary depending on which expert you ask. Some say 3.5" from left page edge (this is also the Final Draft default). Still others agree on 4" from left page edge, while one expert gets REALLY specific (4.1" in The Hollywood Standard by Christopher Riley). The leading experts in the field tend to put it at 4". I'd go with that. As far as the right margin is concerned, Final Draft defaults it to 7.25" from the left page edge. But most experts don't specify a right margin requirement for Character Headings. Basically, if your character's name is THAT long, you likely need to change it.

  • What They Do: Always precede Dialogue and cue the actor (or a group of actors) as to when he/she needs to deliver a line.
  • Basic Rules: Type in ALL CAPS. Double-space before a Character Heading and single-space after. Abbreviate titles such as DOCTOR (DR. JONES).

Although they seem simple, Character Headings actually have a great bit of functionality. For a more detailed discussion of Character Heading formatting rules and functionality, please go to the Character Heading section.

5. Dialogue:

  • AKA: No alias.
  • Margin/Indents: Left Margin: 2.5" from left page edge. Right Margin: 2.5" from right page edge (or 6" from left).

    Opinions also vary here and fluctuate between experts somewhere between 2.5" and 3" for the Left Margin with the same fluctuation on the right. But pretty much ALL agree that, no matter where you set the Dialogue margins, you need 3.5" between them (roughly 35 characters of type). That is likely the most important standard to maintain when creating Dialogue margins. But if you are using a screenwriting program such as Final Draft, just use its default settings.

  • What They Do: Tell actors what to say, when to say it, and sometimes how to say it (colloquial speech, for example).
  • Basic Rules: Single-space before Dialogue and within Dialogue. Double-space after Dialogue. To add emphasis to speech, use ALL CAPS or underline words to be emphasized. Poor grammar, colloquial speech, and accents are OK. Spell out all words. Don't use abbreviations such as Dr. (Doctor or Drive), Ave. (Avenue), or Col. (Colonel). Don't write long, exhaustive Dialogue or have actors say things that are obvious. Movies are a visual medium, not an audio medium. Don't have actors say things that can be shown instead.

There are lots of formatting rules that cannot be covered here. For a more detailed discussion of Dialogue formatting rules and functionality, please go to the Dialogue section.

6. Parenthetical:

  • AKA: Personal Direction, Character Direction, Actor Instruction, Wryly (slang)
  • Margins/Indents: Left Margin: 3.5" from left page edge. Right Margin: 3" from right page edge (or 5.5" from left edge.)

    Once again, the experts differ. But most indent as I specify. The Final Draft default is 3" from the left page edge, but 5.5" from the same edge, for a 2.5" line length.

  • What They Do: Tell an actor how to deliver a line, what to do while delivering a line, and/or to whom in the scene the line is to be delivered.
  • Basic Rules: Single-space before and after a parenthetical, and always enclose in parentheses. Parentheticals either follow Character Headings and precede Dialogue, or they are imbeded within Dialogue on their own line. They MAY NOT be placed at the END of Dialogue. Write in lowercase, with no ending period. If two or more directions are within the same Parenthetical, separate them with semi-colons, such as (to Thomas; in Spanish). DO NOT OVERUSE PARENTHETICALS!! Limit their usage, and only
    use them in certain situations.

Parentheticals have many uses and many rules for formatting, as well as many NO-NO's. For a more detailed discussion of Parentheticals, please go to the Parenthetical section.

7. Transition:

  • AKA: Scene Ending
  • Margins/Indents: 6" from left page edge.

    Some experts simply place Tranisitions right-justified on the page. But most experts place them at 6" from the left-page edge, leaving only 1.5", or around 15 characters in which to type the Transition. However, if the Transition is too long, simply back off the right margin until it fits on one line.

  • What They Do: Instruct how to move from one scene to the next if the change between the two scenes is not obvious.
  • Basic Rules: Type in ALL CAPS and almost always follow by a colon. DO NOT OVERUSE TRANSITIONS!! Most professional writers can get through an entire script within using a single Transition (other then FADE IN: and FADE OUT.). But if you find situations where Transitions simple MUST be used, limit yourself to 2 to 3 per screenplay. NOTE: In the example above, I provided the Transition only as an example. As a script editor, I'd have marked it out and told the writer it was unnecessary.

There are many flavors to Transitions that are allowed. For a more detailed discussion of Transitions, please go to the Transition section.