Script Formatting

Worries about screenplay formatting leave some screenwriters in a panic, terrified that one slip-up could see their precious script chucked in the bin. While most good readers are far more interested in the content of your story than your presentation, getting the basics right helps to make your script a more engaging read.

script format 3

The basic screenplay format has evolved to help you make your vision clear to the reader and in turn allow a production team to capture that vision on screen. Some rules are pretty hard and fast, while others have a degree of variation and flexibility.

Here are my tips on making script formatting work for you.

Let’s start at the beginning.

1) Front Page / Cover Page
This should contain the project title and your name centred, and your contact details, and/or your agent’s details, in the bottom left corner.


Desk Wars


Hayley McKenzie



Hayley McKenzie
Script Angel Towers
London NW1


Don’t add photos or images. Keep it simple.

Some screenwriting software has templates; if you’re using these be sure to delete unnecessary elements eg ‘based on, if any’.

Don’t add your WGA registration number, even if you’ve chosen to register it, unless it’s specifically asked for.

For tv scripts, I’d recommend the following layout:

Desk Wars

Episode One

By Hayley McKenzie

 2) Page Numbers
Essential. Top right is the most common position but bottom right is also sometimes used.

3) Scene Headers (aka Sluglines)
This tells us where the scene takes place.

These are always ALL CAPS. Underlining and/or bolding are ok but not necessary – again, the rule of thumb is keep it clean and simple.

It should contain the following information only:

a) Interior or Exterior
Written as INT. or EXT.

b) Location type
Stated as simply as possible.
You don’t need to preface with adjectives, like ‘Pretty Cottage’ or ‘Small Cottage’. You can use the action lines to give more detail if necessary, for example, that it’s pristine or dilapidated.

c) Time of day
You only need to define as either DAY or NIGHT.
Some screenwriting software templates allow for multiple variations eg Dusk or Dawn or Late Afternoon but I wouldn’t recommend unless it’s absolutely essential for the reader’s understanding of the story.

The elements within a scene header are typically separated by a dot:

Or you can separate the DAY/NIGHT element with a dash ‘-‘

Areas within a location
Dealing with areas within a location, for example rooms within a house, can be done by defining the larger location first, followed by the area within it:


I’ve also seen it done the other way around:


Alternatively, you can merge the two elements to shorten it to:


Whichever version you choose you must stick to that format and make sure every scene header is formatted the same way. Consistency is the key.

Later and Continuous
Indicating how this scene relates to the previous scene can be done by adding Later or Continuous to the end of the scene header:


Mary runs to the front door. Fumbles for her key.


Shaking, Mary slams the front door behind her and slumps to the floor.

Most readers don’t object to it, but to be honest it’s rarely necessary as we can guess that the action is continuous from the juxtaposition of the scenes and their content.

When your scene is set inside a moving car
I’ve seen professional writers, directors and script editors disagree about how best to convey this. Technically the car is not a location but a prop, so the scene header should just read:


Mary grips the steering wheel of her car as she hurtles down the lane.

Although this is technically correct I find it harder to digest as a reader, because the scene header creates a visual image of a country road but then when I read the action lines after it I have to adjust the image I’ve just created by creating an image of your character in a car.

As a reader I find the clearest and most efficient way for me to visualise the scene is something like this:


This way I can easily create a visual image of your characters in a car and the car travelling in an exterior location.

4) Action Lines
These describe the action taking place.

Don’t forget to put your character’s name in ALL CAPS the first time we meet them and always indicate their age.

Avoid indicating camera angles or shot directions, e.g. CLOSE-UP.

For more information, check out my article on Writing Great Action Lines.

5) Dialogue
What a character says (their dialogue) is indicated under their character name:

You didn’t?!

The dialogue should be indented, not centred. I’ve struggled to replicate it here but just read any produced screenplay and you’ll see the correct position for the dialogue.

To indicate that we can hear a character speak but can’t see them you use V.O (Voice-Only / Voice-Over) or O.S (Out of Shot):

You didn’t?!

To indicate a character’s action or attitude as they speak you can add a direction in parentheticals, though they should be used sparingly:

You didn’t?!

Characters speaking another language
There are no hard and fast rules for this but in my experience the following gives the clearest indication of your intention in the most efficient way possible.

Assuming that your screenplay is written in English, always write dialogue in English, even if it is to be spoken in another language.

If it’s just an occasional line then it’s best to indicate the language to be spoken in the parenthetical.

(in French)
You didn’t?!

If one or more characters speak in another language throughout a scene then you can continue to use the above method for every piece of dialogue, although this does start to feel quite cumbersome to read. Alternatively, I think it’s ok to simply indicate the language one or more character will be speaking in at the start of the scene in a note in the action lines: N.B Paul and Mary speak in French throughout the scene.

Phone calls – 1 sided and intercutting
To indicate that the character we’re watching is speaking into the phone simply add this as a direction within the parenthetical.

(into phone)
You didn’t?!

To cut between two sides of a phone conversation you need to indicate that we’re going to INTERCUT. I find that the clearest way to do this is to establish both locations and then indicate that you want to cut between the two:


Mary picks up the phone and dials.



Joanne jumps at the ringing phone. She picks up.


You ready?

6) Scene Transitions
This indicates how the scenes are edited together, for example CUT TO: or FADE TO: and they are placed on the right hand side of the page.

They are not needed in a spec script. If you decide that you really want to include them then you must include them after every scene – beware that it will add massively to your page count!

7) More and Cont’d
You can use More and Cont’d to indicate that a character’s dialogue continues on the next page.

Most screenwriting software does this automatically but don’t worry if yours doesn’t – it’s helpful but not a necessity.

8) Scene Numbers
These should not be included when writing on spec, although they are incredibly useful when in active development with a script editor and essential for production.

9) Flashbacks
As with many elements there are a few ways you can indicate flashbacks. My preference is the following:


Scene contents here, then at the end of the scene….


10) On-Screen Captions
To identify an on-screen caption use the following:
SUPER: London, 1852
The ‘Super’ is an abbreviation of ‘super-imposed’. I’ve also seen the following which is fine:
CAPTION: London, 1852

11) File Format & Naming
Don’t forget that you are naming your file so that is makes sense for the recipient. When working in development on multiple drafts with a writer I always date each draft. However, when you are sending your script out to someone for the first time it’s better not to include a date or draft number:
Desk Wars by Hayley McKenzie – Episode 1 Script.pdf

Whatever software you’ve used to create your script you should always convert to PDF for sending it out.

12) Screenwriting Software
There is no denying that Final Draft is the industry-standard software for film and television, in both the UK and US. Script Angel offers a discount on Final Draft software here.

There are other screenwriting software providers, some of which are free; Movie Magic, Celtx, Writer Duet, Fade In, Scrivener, Adobe Story, Amazon Story Writer, to name just a few. And, given that you’ll be converting your script to PDF anyway, you just need to find a software that feels right for you.

In all script formatting, clarity and consistency are key so that the formatting doesn’t draw our attention away from the story.

Screenwriter Interview – Jed Mercurio (Part Two)

In Part One of our interview with screenwriter Jed Mercurio, we talked about the process of developing his phenomenally successful drama series Line of Duty.

Here, Jed discusses with Script Angel’s Hayley McKenzie how he deals with notes, his process for developing new ideas and the challenges of writing science-fiction.

Hayley: As well as being the screenwriter, you’re also an Executive Producer on many of the shows you write and create, so you could presumably push stuff through. How do you get fresh eyes on the work?

Jed: Occasionally we’ll have a difference of opinion but we tend to just talk it through. If people are really opposed to something, it’s normally not a black and white thing, it’s normally a sense that something isn’t working or it could be better, and we just keep talking it through. So the editorial process is that at the start I have a meeting with Simon Heath and our script editor Priscilla Parish, and just say roughly what the series is going to be in terms of the launching off point. Then when I deliver the script they come back to me with their thoughts and we get into the practicalities of it.

H: How much time do you spend developing your characters once you’ve settled on your precinct?

J: I don’t develop characters separately from the story, they go hand in hand. I think about the kind of character who will fit the story.

H: Can you talk a bit about your writing day. Do you do set hours?

J: No, I tend not to beat myself up about that. As long as I’m on schedule for the week, that’s ok.

H: When you’re intensively focused on one project if you’ve got a greenlight, how much time are you able to invest in other ideas?

J: Right now I’m totally focused on writing the fourth series of Line of Duty, but when I finished my writing commitments on the third series I was writing other things. Even though at that point I already knew we’d be doing series four, I wanted to get some other things into development so I worked on some pilots of scripts for new series that I then delivered. None of them have yet been greenlit, but none of them have been killed yet either. So once I’ve finished writing the fourth series of Line of Duty I’ll go back and do more work on those based on the feedback from the broadcasters. And maybe if I’m lucky one of those might be greenlit.

H: When you knew that you had a little bit of time to develop other ideas, where had those ideas come from? Do you have an ideas notebook?

J: No, they’re more things and areas that I’m interested in. I will kind of note down any ideas but usually what happens is that they’ll stay with me. I’ll be thinking about them and potentially reach a kind of threshold point where I think, that’s going to work and I want to do it – I want to make that programme. Then it’s a case of having to find someone interested in working with me on it; a production company or a broadcaster. And not always do they respond positively. Sometimes I have ideas and no one is interested, so I have to drop them and come up with something else.

H: What kinds of shows did you love watching growing up?

J: My favourite show in my early childhood would have been Star Trek, then I started watching things like Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere.

H: You’ve written science-fiction yourself, with Invasion: Earth, would you like to do more science-fiction?

J: I would, but I think that it’s a very difficult sell in the UK. I would tread very carefully. If there was a science-fiction idea that I really wanted to do and I believed there was a way of doing it that didn’t fall foul of the tv landscape, then maybe I’d do it.

H: Do you think that there are more opportunities for science-fiction shows on channels like Netflix and Amazon?

J: I’m not sure that there are more opportunities there but I think that they’re probably a safer environment. I think that the terrestrial channels feel that they need to have a very broad appeal. Doctor Who has kind of reached the point, where it’s no longer a sensitive test for audience interest in science-fiction. Like in the 1980s where Margaret Thatcher had been prime minister for so long that asking who the prime minster is, was no longer a sensitive test medically for dementia. While it’s great that Doctor Who remains a successful and admired show, I don’t think that it helps us in our understanding of how you can make science-fiction, get it on air, and make sure it’s supported by the broadcasters. I think that’s an area where to be honest I don’t have a good answer.

H: Your *first show was Cardiac Arrest, and at that stage you were a working doctor and hadn’t been screenwriting at all. Did you learn the craft of screenwriting by writing that show?

J: Yes, I was lucky that I was kind of given an apprenticeship by people who were really invested in it. The fact that they were coming back to me with notes on the script and they wanted to make them good so that the thing got made, meant that people who do that for a living were really focused on that shared goal. It’s different from writing in isolation and sending scripts off and getting rejection letters or maybe getting some encouragement, which is nowhere near as intense or focused or detailed, so that meant that it was a really steep learning curve for me. We were in development for a couple of years on that show so there was plenty of time for me to understand the identity of the series and how to write the scripts. Then when it went out, because it was fortunately successful I was able to keep progressing on the second series. I become more serious about storytelling and I read books about it and went on courses. I didn’t slavishly follow those things. There were some things I agreed with and some things that I didn’t find helpful, but they did give me better analytical tools in terms of storytelling and judging my own work, in the way that when I first started the people who were involved had better analytical tools than me to be better able to say why something wasn’t working.

H: Cardiac Arrest, which had a lot of comedy in it, was followed by The Grimleys which was a very warm comedy piece. Since then your work (Bodies, Line of Duty, Critical) has been tonally more serious. Which is the real Jed?!

J: I suppose as a writer I’m probably more comfortable writing the kind of social realist precinct dramas that I have been writing since The Grimleys. I think that’s probably what I’m going to carry on doing. But I do love comedy and when I was writing Cardiac Arrest I tried to get a lot of humour in but I found that a lot of it got cut. We shot it, and it worked, but then it would get cut; to make the running time of the episode work the humour came out, so I just felt a little bit frustrated, and that made me want to write comedy, and get all that out of my system, which I kind of did with The Grimleys. I certainly watch a lot of comedy and I’m probably not as troubled as you might imagine from what I write in my drama.

H: Could you be tempted back into comedy writing?

J: I’d do it if it was the right thing, but I think that it would be a tough sell for anyone to commission me to write a comedy.

H: Have you created a screenwriting identity?

J: I think that people would have more confidence in commissioning me to write a thriller or a precinct drama rather than to write something that was different from what I’ve been writing in the last ten years.

H: Finally, what advice would you give to new writers?

J: Watch a lot of tv and write a lot. Don’t keep just going with the one idea and polishing it endlessly. Write an idea, then get it out there. And if people love it, then great, and if they don’t then be prepared to move on and come up with the next idea that’s better. Keep writing and keep moving forward.

Thanks Jed!

*From Doctor to Screenwriter. – Jed talks about how he came to screenwriting and how his breakout show Cardiac Arrest came about in this short interview with BBC Writersroom.

Screenwriter Interview – Jed Mercurio (Part One)

If you love your television drama you’re probably one of the nearly 5 million people who have recently been watching the third series of BBC2’s smash-hit drama Line of Duty. line of duty series 1-3

Script Angel’s Hayley McKenzie was lucky enough to sit down with the show’s creator, the brilliant  Jed Mercurio, to talk about the show, his screenwriting process and career.

SPOILER ALERT! Just a word of warning, they do discuss story from all three series of Line of Duty so if you want to avoid spoilers, best watch the box-set now!

Hayley: Congratulations on the third series of Line of Duty, it’s been a huge success. You must be delighted.

Jed: Yes I’m very happy with how it’s gone down. When something’s in the can and ready to go out you never have any idea how it’s going to be scheduled or promoted, and whether enough of an audience comes to that first episode and then likes what they see enough to keep coming back.

H: Can I take you back to the beginning of Line of Duty when you were first developing the idea and can you talk us through that process, when you first decided on doing something in this precinct.

J: It was probably in gestation for a good number of years; the idea of doing a cop show and then finding what felt like a distinctive angle on it which was police corruption. Although that had been done before there was nothing in recent times that focused on police corruption. In fact a lot of cop shows portrayed a very conventional positive image of the police. And although we’re not trying to portray a negative image of the police we are acknowledging that police misconduct occurs and that’s the focus of the drama. But also we decided that it was important for the drama that we weren’t having corrupt officers who were out-and-out villains, that we were having shades of grey so that the audience would be divided and that was always part of the concept. The other part of the concept was to make it a returnable series. Although the first series was viewed as being a serial we’d always said to the BBC that if it was successful the investigators could come back and they would have a new character to investigate.

H: So how early in that gestation period are you going to a production company and pitching that idea?

J: Very early. It kind of arose out of conversations I was having at World Productions, which initially were with Tony Garnett who I’d known since I’d done Cardiac Arrest. He and the company had a real track record of doing really good and interesting cop shows, so it felt like a very good match in terms of my creative ambition and the company’s experience. But the main creative relationship has been with Simon Heath at World and we saw the series the same way, we had the same ambition for it and that’s not always the case and I’m very fortunate that we’ve seen eye to eye throughout the development of the show.

H: And how much work on paper are you having to produce in order for Simon to then pitch it to the BBC? Are you writing a full treatment?

J: No, with the original pitching process, once we had a pretty solid idea of what the concept was, which would be something I would be able to write up in a couple of pages, then we went and spoke to a commissioner at the BBC and explained the idea to him. He was excited about the idea sufficiently to commission a script. But prior to that, I needed to deliver something on paper, so I delivered something about five pages long that was a summary of what the concept of the show was, the main characters and how the episodes would work. And also just the overall format of the show, which was that it was serialised, that it would have a closed ending story for the cop under investigation but an open ended story for the investigators, and if successful we would do a second series in the same format. So a lot of it was just practical and technical which allowed a broadcaster, from a business point of view, to see what they’re commissioning.

H: Once you’ve got that interest, what’s the next stage for you in terms of mapping out those episodes?

J: With the first series there was a very early document, which was I think was a page, about how the story would develop after the first episode. But that was before the first episode had actually been written. Then I outlined and wrote the first episode script and by then the series arc was already out of date. So we tend to work episode by episode, although there’s an overall understanding of where we’re heading which was very important in series one because we were more under the microscope as a new series. So within the production company and within the broadcaster there was a certain level of surveillance about what we were doing. As the series have gone on people have asked fewer questions about where the series was going.

H: And presumably they’ve needed to see less on paper in order to be confident about where the story is going?

J: That’s right. Recommissions tend not to be based on a pitch for the next series. It’s more the fact that the series has been successful for them and they want more. And it’s much more about when can you deliver the next series. Once there’s a commitment to that next series, that’s when they ask, what will the next series be? And so again, we can say, we’ll follow the same format and with series two it was a short while after we’d been recommissioned that I pitched the idea of the ambush and the officer that was under investigation.

H: Many writers are still discovering their process, especially in television where you’re managing multiple hours of story. How do you practically go about juggling that much story? Are you using index cards, are you white-boarding?

J: I write it down as an outline. An outline for an episode of Line of Duty is typically between five and ten pages. And what I write down in the outline is a description of what happens in every scene, and sometimes I even write down particular lines of dialogue that might encapsulate what someone is saying. I might summarise the conversation or I might summarise the action, but it just allows someone reading it to follow the flow of the story. And that for me is also a break-down of how much story I need and whether the episode reaches a satisfying conclusion, by which I mean that it propels the audience into wanting to watch the next one. So what I tend to do is break it down into ten minute segments because it’s not a commercial hour with ad breaks there’s no real act structure. Obviously if I’m writing a commercial hour then I do think in terms of the four acts in a British commercial television hour. For an American script often it’s a six act structure. You do have to have some idea of what each chunk of story will achieve. Because that doesn’t exist on the BBC hour I tend to write in ten-minute chunks, just so I’ve got some idea of where I’m going with the story.

H: And when you go to script on these episodes that you’ve outlined, how much is changing?

J: It varies. If the outline is working, then great. But if it’s manifestly not working then I’m not going to carry on flogging a dead horse, so then I may take a step back and rethink that episode outline. I may even go back to delivering a new outline and starting the process again, or I might figure it out as I go along – so I might just keep writing scenes that seem to work and when I reach a scene that isn’t working, I’ll throw that away and do something different.

H: Line of Duty was a change of precinct for you, having done medical with Cardiac Arrest and Bodies, how much research did you have to do to feel confident writing about a precinct you didn’t have personal experience of?

J: I didn’t feel I needed to do a huge amount. I felt that a lot of the ways in which an institution, a professional corps, behaves was transferrable from medicine to the police. In respect of the details of the law and procedure, I didn’t want to do my research before I wrote it.

H: So, story first?

J: Yes. I read a few things that were in the area I was interested in, which was about the target culture in the police, and the bureaucracy, so I specifically sought those things out. And then in terms of writing the procedure, we had advisors who gave notes on the script in terms of points of law and points of process.

H: And those long interview scenes, which the show has become famous for, was it hard to convince people you could sustain the tension over that length of scene?

J: We did it for the first time in the third episode of series one. That was a scene that ended up being about ten pages long. It went through a process. When I first wrote it, it was about five pages long. And I felt that it was an opportunity to put Tony Gates (Lennie James’s character) on the spot, and it felt like, maybe we should just keep going at him, see how far we get. And also I was kind of aware that we weren’t doing the kind of police interview that was contingent on one small fact that someone pretends not to know or lies about, and that comes out then everything collapses like a house of cards. We don’t do that. So, it was an organic process. When we filmed it and cut it together, everyone was happy with it, then when it went out, everyone was happy with it. So when we came back for series two, it felt like something other shows weren’t doing, that we’d kind of piloted, so we were going to push it a bit further.

H: How do you as the writer make sure that you’re sustaining that narrative tension right through a scene lasting five to ten pages?

J: A lot of it I could take for granted because a situation in which someone is very clearly hiding something, being confronted by a bunch of people trying to find out what that is, can be interesting in itself, and we know that from the fact that people have responded the way they have to those interview scenes. Because that’s taken for granted, I feel I’ve got a platform to write the scene. I don’t feel that I need to be doing something more in the writing to sell the scene. So when I come to those interview scenes, I never think, this is going to be a certain length, I just write the scene based on the information that the characters have at that point in the story and I explore it pretty organically. I know certain things that are important to the story and always each interview scene has a single, fundamental story point. At the end of it someone’s standing within that group has shifted, and a piece of information has come out that propels the story forward. And that’s all that’s really required.

H: How are you directing that on the page? So for example in the last episode of the third series, those interviews with Steve and Dot, we know that something has changed because Kate reacts to something they’ve just said. How are you conveying that on the page?

J: I’ll write ‘she writes a note’ and I’ll write what that note is. So I’ll be as explicit as possible. And that’s what we shoot, but that’s not necessarily what ends up in the final cut. So then in the edit we’re watching the scene cut together, and we’re not sitting there ticking off each of those moments that were in the script, instead we’re asking whether as a whole we need all of those moments. I certainly take the philosophy that if I’ve written five of those moments of Kate making a note, and we only end up with two or three, that’s ok as long as we’ve got the point across. I do feel though that if I’ve only written two of those and then we’re in the cut and they’ve not worked, then we’ve got nowhere to go because we can’t create more at the stage. So I’m often over-writing things in the knowledge that they can be cut back.

H: How much of future series’ stories are you planning and seeding ahead?

J: The Caddy and Tommy Hunter feature in series one but it wasn’t until we were commissioned for series two that I went back. We’d established an embedded corrupt officer and we felt that it would be great to use that more. The same process applied to series three, I felt a need to reinvest in that story and the same applies to Lindsey Denton’s story. When we made and delivered series two we all felt that it had a closed ending – Lindsey Denton’s going to prison for life. Just as in series one, Tony Gates’s story had a closed ending because he’s dead. Opinion was divided about whether Lindsey was really guilty or not, in a moral sense, which was intentional.

H: So when you were writing series two and we’re investigating the ambush on Tommy Hunter, did you know at that stage what lay behind his story, which you’d then use in series three?

J: No, again, it was about exploiting the resources we already had. We could have invented a different protected witness and a different cover-up for series three, but actually the fact that we had existing characters who could fulfil that role, felt neater, simpler and leaner and more satisfying in storytelling terms.


More from Jed in Part Two of our interview, in which we talk about dealing with notes, developing new ideas and advice to new writers.

A huge thank you to Jed for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk to us.


8 Tips To Writing Great Action Lines

A screenplay needs to be a compelling read before it can become a great film or tv show. Well written action lines are vital to the success of your screenplay; it’s where the action takes place and it’s your chance to tell the reader everything (bar dialogue) that they will see or hear on screen.


Action lines are sometimes referred to as scene description but this is a rather unhelpful term and it tends to make us think our job is to describe a static scene or tableau.

What do your action lines do?
1) Describe the actions happening in the scene
2) Describe the location of the scene
3) Describe characters when we first meet them

The second and third of these lack the action element that gives the read its pace and fluidity, so one of your jobs is to make these descriptions as active as possible. More on this later.

1) Brevity

Many scripts suffer from having huge swathes of over-written action lines, making the reading experience frustratingly slow and laborious.

A good rule of thumb is to aim for the reading experience to closely match the viewing experience, so the length of time it takes to read your description should match the length of time that action will last on screen.

A novelist may spend a whole page describing a room but a screenwriter cannot take this long, unless you want the viewer to spend a whole minute looking at a static shot of your room with nothing happening at all!

The aim is to give the reader the experience that the viewer will have. This is why some screenwriters use ALL CAPS to draw the reader’s attention to an action that, on screen, would have a strong impact, like the BANG of a gunshot. As long as it’s used sparingly this can be a very effective tool, particularly when writing in genres like Horror where visual/audio shocks are a significant part of the dramatic viewing experience.

Screenwriting is distilled writing; using the fewest number of words to create the greatest possible impact. In the first draft you may spend a paragraph describing your location but while rewriting you are trying to find the exact word to match the situation.

If you do find yourself with a lot of action lines and no dialogue to break it up, try to make the script an easier read by breaking the action up into smaller discrete chunks. A good rule of thumb is no more than 4 lines in a paragraph of action lines. Easy cuts are ‘and’ and ‘but’.

2) Make it evocative

Some scripts suffer from being under-written, making it hard for the reader to clearly visualise the scene playing out. Brevity alone is not enough if the few words you use are too bland and generic. You’re searching for evocative verbs.

For example, ‘walk’ is too generic so it’s time to search for the perfect synonym; saunters, strides, struts, strolls, marches, bounces, tiptoes.

Your thesaurus will likely be well-used!

3) Make it immediate

Screenplays always take place in the present tense; ‘Sarah is running down the street’. The action is happening now, not in the past. The most visceral action lines use the absolute present tense ‘Sarah runs down the street’.

4) Set the scene

Your slugline is the first element that creates a visual image of our location, and sometimes it’s enough.


That simple scene header implies lots of details that I’m already picturing; a bed, wardrobe, etc.

But that’s probably too generic and you’ll want to create a more vivid picture of this particular bedroom. You can do that by adding a detail that implies lots of other details; “Clothes litter the floor”, or by describing the character of the room; “Uptight and immaculate.”

The best way to describe a location is through action. We want people and objects moving, not a still life picture – describe not things but things happening. Why waste a sentence describing a static scene when we could sneak a description into our action? “Joanne rushes in and frantically searches through the scattered clothes”.

5) Create atmosphere

Action lines are also where the tone, pace, visual and visceral experiences of your screenplay are established. They can be used to create atmosphere, for example, through location or the use of natural elements.

For this we want to describe not how something looks but how it should make us feel. An old house could be described in many ways; rickety, run-down, fragile, dilapidated. But if you want your screenplay to evoke a sense of menace, you might describe the house as ‘sinister’.

Your job is the convey the impression or feeling the location evokes. It’s up to the Production Designer to find the details that will create your intended impression.

6) Direct the camera

The extraordinary access we now have to the scripts of our favourite films is greatly enhancing people’s ability to study the craft of screenwriting. However, many of the scripts you read will be the final shooting script, which almost always means that it’s been through a rewrite by the Director, who may have added into the action lines their intended camera angles and shots.

Screenwriters (unless you’re directing the film as well) should never put explicit camera directions in their script, not even a sneaky little ‘close up on the knife’.

But you may have a really clear picture in your head of how the scene would be cut together and the good news is that you can imply camera directions by using action. For example “the knife glints in the moonlight” draws our attention to this object, thereby suggesting a close-up of the knife.

7) Convey character

Here again we’re after brevity, action and evocation of feeling. The first time we meet a character you’ll want to describe them (after you’ve put their name in ALL CAPS of course) to give the reader a visual impression of them. Way too many spec scripts give a detailed description of how their characters look but, as with location, what we need is just an impression – the Costume Designer will do the rest. Think of it as an essence statement about your character – can you sum up their personality/attitude in a few words? What impression do they give when they walk in a room? Uptight, relaxed, confident, nervous?

Better still, as we did with location, can you sneak that description into action? “Joanna strides into the room, ignoring the turning heads and making a bee-line for the bar”. Try to give your characters an active first-meet which shows us their personality.

8) Direct performances

There is a tricky balance to be struck here, as with all action-line elements; too much detail slows the story down while not enough detail leaves us without any idea of what characters are thinking and feeling.

The first thing to remember is that you cannot write in an action line what we cannot see or hear – a director cannot capture “Joanne gazes out the window, thinking about last night’s fight with Alex”. Again, your job is to imply meaning through action. You can show “Joanne gazes out the window” and we can guess that she is thinking about her fight last night if you showed us that fight in a previous scene.

The trick is to learn how to externalise internal thoughts and feelings through people’s actions; she angrily wipes away a tear, he paces the room, her eyes dart around the room full of strangers.

Be wary also of over-directing the performance. You could choreograph every tiny movement and gesture of every character through every scene, but again you’re in danger of slowing the story down. The trick is to give us one key gesture or action that implies others and leave the actors and directors to do the rest.

Like all aspects of the craft of screenwriting, great action-line writing is something that can be practised. The more you do it, the better at it you’ll get and the more instinctive it will be become. Screenwriting is a very specialised form of writing, but it’s still writing and words are your greatest tool, so use them wisely!


Book Review: The Art of Script Editing by Karol Griffiths

This insight into the art of script editing is a must-read not just for aspiring script readers and script editors, but also for emerging screenwriters as they master the skills of rewriting and working with notes. In her hugely informative book, experienced script editor Karol Griffiths guides you through the world of script analysis and script editing.

the art of script editing

The book is that perfect blend of truth-telling and encouragement, walking you through the practical analytical skills you’ll need to determine what is and isn’t working in a script, whilst always keeping one eye on the writer who might be in receipt of your analysis.

There is a lot of information out there about script analysis and identifying weaknesses in the various script elements, from genre and story structure to theme and dialogue. While Karol’s book covers all of these, what makes it unique is her emphasis on diplomacy and delivery – essential skills for the script editor who must work with a writer to help them produce the strongest possible script.

While many people claim to know how to give script notes, too many have only ever had to write a written report and then walk away from the project and/or writer. What sets script editors (like Karol and myself) apart is having the skills and experience of delivering notes in a way that allows the writer to feel positive about the rewrite and turn in a much improved next draft. Her sections on how to prioritise notes and take a first meeting with a writer are hugely informative and give an insight into the real development process which is mostly hidden from emerging writers.

There are also fantastically helpful sections that are a valuable resource for the new script editor, including how to prepare a script for production, the reality of script editing on a fast-turnaround television show and what to do when your producer and writer don’t agree.

Whether you’re an emerging screenwriter curious about the professional script development process, or an aspiring script reader/analyst or script editor, this book is a valuable resource.

Karol Griffiths is a film and television script editor, providing script development support through her own script consultancy and at Script Angel, where she offers both a 3-Month Script Development Service and a 6-Month Screenwriter Mentoring Service.


Time To Write

We all lead busy lives and feel the pressure to cram every waking moment with useful activity. But sometimes, to really think deeply about our writing, what we most need is time without distractions.

We’ve all become adept at multi-tasking, but when we cram every hour with multiple tasks we can tick off our ‘to-do’ list, we’re not multi-tasking at all, we’re simply snatching tiny bits of time for each task.

nature - blue sky with cloud

Fitting your writing around a day-job is a challenge faced by almost all screenwriters in their early days. And while having a routine and writing a little bit every day is crucial if you want to get two spec scripts completed every year, sometimes you need more than that. You need time away.

You might be able to use your annual holiday to focus on your writing, although family and friends might have other ideas! Or you might decide to really get away from it all and go on a screenwriting retreat.

Escaping from work, chores, family and friends will help you to reconnect with your writing, whether you’re exploring new ideas, struggling with a knotty story problem or trying to find your characters. Sometimes you need to give yourself the time and space to nurture yourself and your writing.


Developing Your Ideas

We know that if our script is a confusing mess of half-formed ideas it’s not going to impress anyone. The most compelling scripts are focused. They have their theme, characters and story all working together, and deliver sufficient intrigue and drive to keep the reader reading and ultimately the viewer watching. That might be the goal but great stories don’t (or at least rarely) arrive fully-formed.

script angel - developing ideas - chaos

You might be lucky enough to have come up with a brilliant ‘what if’ premise. Or you might have a few half-ideas that together you think could be the start of something really interesting. So what to do next?

For some writers the temptation is to rush off down the first story-path that they see. While that might get you from a to b pretty swiftly, there is a danger that such a linear, focused approach so early in the development process actually shuts down other possibilities that could have led to somewhere more interesting. Your first idea is rarely the most original. Rather, originality and creativity come from making connections between seemingly unrelated ideas.

If you’re the type of writer who is desperate to get to the end product as fast as possible, try creative writing exercises that force you to play, to be more chaotic and more experimental in your thought processes. For every first idea, try coming up with five alternatives. What if she said no, or said yes but was lying? What if it wasn’t set in contemporary urban London but in the wilds of Scotland in 1850? Does that lead you somewhere more interesting? Get comfortable feeling uncomfortable, not knowing the ‘right’ answer yet. Learn to embrace the chaos.

Other writers love to be in that experimental phase when everything is possible and nothing has to be ruled in or out. Early drafts of the story are full of many interesting half-formed ideas but there is no clarity and any articulation of it (logline, treatment, script) leaves the reader bewildered rather than intrigued.

If you’re the type of writer who loves to play with ideas, you might find it hard even to get to a first draft of your script, let alone a polished version, because narrowing down the myriad of options, having to choose what to focus on and what to leave out, is daunting. Having so many possible paths in front of you can be overwhelming and leave you feeling paralysed with fear that you’ll chose the wrong path. If that’s you, try giving yourself deadlines. Commit to a path, even if to begin with it’s only with regard to one element, for example, your protagonist’s character flaw. You can always turn back later if the path you chose turned out to be a dead-end.

This is the tight-rope we walk; spend too long meandering down every possible path and you’ll get lost and give up, rush too soon to push forward with your first idea and you’ll end up with something that’s been done before.  When one or two of the elements (theme, story, characters, story world) feel not only ‘right’ but exciting, then it’s time to commit and start to form the other elements around them.

Making stories is a messy process, but if you can embrace that and move forward to create a powerful form and structure to express your idea, then you’ll have nailed it – this time around at least!