If you read the first instalment of Formatting 101, you’ll know how important formatting scripts is within the industry, especially if you want to progress professionally as a screenwriter.
Haven’t checked out the first article yet? Take a look here.
This is the second instalment of a 101 for hints and tips – a do’s and don’t’s of script formatting – to ensure that your story is seen and appreciated as it should be.
In the last article, I addressed how to format Action, Character, Dialogue, Voice-Over, and provided some helpful tips and tricks about scriptwriting software and industry trends. Below, we’re going to delve into formatting Scene Headings, Flashbacks, and Transitions within a draft script.
How to write a scene heading…
Also known as a Slugline, a Scene Heading is one of the most crucial parts of your script’s formatting, as it identifies several key features of your scene:
1. Scene Numbers
Often, script readers prefer Scene Headings to include a scene number preceding it, especially if it is a particularly lengthy script such as a TV Pilot or Feature Film.
Including scene numbers in your script means that readers can refer back to specific scenes in feedback rather than referencing a page, making their job easier and their feedback arrive with you more promptly and more directly.
At a point, scene numbers were intended only to be found on shooting scripts, as scenes in a production tend to be shot out of sequence for budgetary, set-based, and cast-restricting reasons, but this trend of including numbers on draft scripts for easy reference is becoming more common.
However, it’s important to note that scene numbering isn’t mandatory, and many screenwriters prefer clean and simplistic page formatting. So it’s your preference!
2. Whether the scene is set ‘INT.’ or ‘EXT.’
A scene can be set either INT., which means Interior/Inside, or EXT., which means Exterior/Outside.
For readers, it’s the first indication of where the scene is taking place. In production terms, this is an indication to a production team whether a scene is taking place in-studio, on set or on location.
3. The scene’s location, and, if necessary, its sub-location
Where is the scene primarily set? Is it outside a pub or inside a house? Where is the action taking place and where are the characters interacting?
The sub-location would be the specific room within the place – i.e. INT. HOUSE – BEDROOM.
The order in which you input the primary location and sub-location isn’t important, as long as you keep it consistent and the locations clear.
4. The time in which the scene is set
When does this action take place? The most basic time indicators are DAY and NIGHT, but alternatively, you can use terms such as MORNING, MID-DAY, AFTERNOON, EVENING, and so on – again, keep these consistent throughout and make sure if your narrative is linear, you conform to these in the correct order!
If you’re indicating a time change within a scene, take a new Scene Heading and for the time, include the indicator (LATER).
FLASHBACKS AND DREAM SEQUENCES
How to write flashbacks and dream sequences…
This information is supplementary to a Scene Heading and not always required. Often, writers are steered away from using Flashbacks and Sequences entirely, with modern productions often preferring to use linear storytelling.
However, using Flashbacks can be beneficial if you have a burning point to make that you can’t in your current timeline, either as exposition, backstory, or to reveal something a character or the audience has missed or have forgotten about.
Common types of Flashback include characters recapping, going into memories, and narrating epic tales.
Flashbacks should be used sparingly, but a good rule of thumb is that you shouldn’t define your present narrative by your past Flashback if it has no place, serves no purpose, or has no payoff.
If you want to use our in-depth Flashback Diagnostic Tool, you can do so here.
If your script does require a Flashback, you should insert a (FLASHBACK) indicator at the end of your Scene Heading. At the end of your Flashback action, input an ‘END FLASHBACK’ to indicate that we’re returning to the present.
Similar to the Flashback is the Dream Sequence, Nightmare Sequence, or Vision – used to divert from the present narrative to present an alternative or false version of events.
Inserting these Sequences into scripts works the same way as above, albeit entering ‘DREAM SEQUENCE’ and ‘END DREAM SEQUENCE’, and their alternatives, in place of ‘FLASHBACK’ in your Scene Heading.
You can read more about Flashbacks here.
How to format script transitions…
Transitions such as CUT TO and FADE TO are interesting to note, as again, usually, they are seen to be unnecessary in draft scripts and just take up page space.
CUT TO is the default transition between scenes, meaning that it would be expected and not necessary to input, and FADE TO would tend to arise if transitioning into a Dream Sequence, a memory, or a Flashback.
There are other transitions such as MATCH CUT TO, JUMP CUT TO and DISSOLVE TO, but these are technical and usually would be decided by a member of production or an editor based on the shooting script.
Most script producers, readers, or agents would advise removing them and instead tell you to focus on telling your story without explaining how it should be made.
IMPROVING AT FORMATTING SCRIPTS
Read, read, read!
An excellent and well-recommended tip for improving your script formatting and making your script look more professional is to read industry screenplays.
There are plenty of excellent websites you can find them on, including the BBC Writers Room Script Library, featuring TV and Film.
Alternatively, stay tuned on the Screenwriters Network website as our Script Library is on its way!
Any script suggestions welcome: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read an industry-formatted script daily if you can, even if it’s just on your local commute, analyse it, take notes, and keep writing. With practice, and by following these examples, you’ll be able to present your script in its best form.
Keep an eye out for more Formatting 101 Blogs, and make sure to read our first instalment here, as well as our Blog on Formatting Voice-Over.
Eden Luke McIntyre is a Scottish writer, editor, and script consultant. His qualifications include a Master’s Degree in TV Fiction Writing and Bachelor of Arts with Honours Degrees in Film & Media Studies and English Studies, specialising in Scriptwriting, Creative Writing, and Researching the Media. Besides consulting on scripts, Eden writes content for radio, stage, and online, and was appointed as a BBC Writers Room Scottish Voice in early 2020.