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Structure of a Script

It is important to understand the structure of a script and what items to pay particular attention to.  At the heart, this website has a Scheduling & Budgeting focus, however, if you don't understand all the pieces of the puzzle, how can you expect to be able to put it all together?  With this concept in mind, I have included here a brief overview of a script.

Reading through a script and working on your breakdown for the schedule, you will be looking for elements to be pulled out of the story.  Eventually, you will associate costs with everything in the story in the budget.  At this moment, however, in the most basic of ways: Let's understand the script.

 

"UNFRIENDLY" PRODUCTION SCRIPTS

Many scripts that you will receive will be written for the producer/reader and they will not be "Production Friendly".  In this I mean, they are written well, however, they are written to get a producer, studio or financier excited about the story.  That's fine.  However, in doing so, there is oftentimes lack of clean sluglines, or a scene rambles on when it should be two scenes, and similar other cases.  As I discuss the structure elements of a script, I will point out pitfalls you will want to be aware of.

 

ELEMENTS

The following elements make up a script.

  • Slugline
  • Action
  • Character(s)
  • Dialog with or without Parentheticals

Scripts have a natural flow from slugline, to action, to a character who speaks dialog - however, a single scene may have multiple dialogs and action descriptions.  Aside from these elements, there are two other main items you may see in the body of the script.

  • Transition
  • Shot

Transitions cue the reader to a cut, dissolve or fade which would be seen on screen.  Although most editing is made of mostly cuts, the inclusion of a Transition marker in a script for CUT usually indicates the writer is looking for a hard slam into the next sequence.  Sometimes you see scripts which call for a CUT between every scene.  This is over-zealous.  A script need not have these markers all the time.  It's not hurting anything having them there, except making the entire script a page or three longer.  Dissolves indicate a passage of time.  Montage sequences feature this a lot ot show people doing something, then dissolve into another shot of them doing some more work.  Finally, the Fade.  Typically, the first line of a script is a transition: FADE IN.  Fades are usually in or out of black.  They signal an end to a sequence.

A Shot simply indicates the writer calling for a specific type of shot.  This is where we start getting a fuzzy line between the script and what the director and DP will actually do.  Commonly though, shots may be indicated as Wide, Steadicam, Moving or so on.

Let's get back to the main parts and discuss them in more detail.

  

THE SLUGLINE

This is the first line of a new scene.  It displays the location and time of the scene.

For example:

INT. OFFICE - DAY

We now know immediately that we are inside an office during the day.  Simple.  As you work through the script, you should be checking to ensure that the sluglines are properly written, formatted correctly and denoted as a Slugline for numbering.  That's important.  Sometimes a writer accidentally capitalized a line.  It looks like a slugline, but it's marked as an action.  Make sure it's marked as the correct element, otherwise, your numbering will be off.

Please be sure these are the only pieces of information in a slugline.  Often, writers will put a few things there which don't really belong.

 

Time of Day

There are four options (six depending on how technical you want your breakdown: Day, Night, Morning, Evening (also Dawn & Dusk / Sunrise & Sunset).  These should be your only options.  You may see the time of day descriptions such as...

There are four options (six depending on how technical you want your breakdown: Day, Night, Morning, Evening (also Dawn & Dusk / Sunrise & Sunset).  These should be your only options.  You may see the time of day descriptions such as...

  • Later that Afternoon
  • Just After Breakfast
  • Magic Hour
  • Continuous

I've seen these and you will too.  In order, a production friendly version would change to:

  • Later that Afternoon = DAY
  • Just After Breakfast = MORNING
  • Magic Hour = most usually associated with DUSK or DAWN, but generally, means to denote that time of day which DP's love and gives a cool amber/blue light.
  • Continuous = Is a touchy one because the entire script is, in essence, continuous.  It is important for you to start to think of the script compartmentalized as pieces of the story.  When you breakdown the script, you will see each scene as it's own part.  If you only have 'continuous' as the time of day - then you'll have no clue when this takes place, because you won't necessarily have the scene before it to refer to.  Don't even get me started on a script I read once that had EVERY slugline as 'Continuous' after the first one that said 'Morning'.  True story.

Lastly, let me not move on without talking about the word "Flashback".  Sometimes you will see this in the slugline.  Remove it, because it does not belong there.  It belongs in the first line of the action text, in all caps:  FLASHBACK.

When do you use a new slugline?

It's a new scene (which means a new slugline) whenever there is a change in action location, time of day (or time of the story if we flash forward or back in the same location, same time of day).

 

If you find you need to add a new scene based on the rule-of-thumb above or combine two scenes which should not be two scenes, then feel free to do it.  This is your chance to get everything in order.  Make the script Production Friendly.

 

ACTION

The next area which should be in the script is a block of text describing what's going on.  This is the "Action" of the scene and is usually very straigtforward.  There should be little to anything you'll need to do it, unless...

Some writers seem to get carried away when writing and forget the simple rule - a new slugline if we change action location or time of day.  Sometimes, the action will ramble like in this scripted action text:

Greg sits on the couch and flips mindlessly through the TV channels.  Suddenly, the phone rings and he dashes into his bedroom to get his cell phone.  He takes the call, sitting on his bed.

Yes, this was in a script I got once and you'll find things like this too.  So, what you will need to do is "re-slug", that is - insert a slugline to denote that we are now in the bedroom.  This will allow you to schedule those two scenes separate from each other.  It may come to pass that those two scene will be shot in the same physical location, but perhaps they won't.

 

CHARACTER

This one is pretty simple - it's the person speaking.  Make sure that if it is the first time someone speaks, that the Action text above it describes the person.  Traditionally, the first time a character appears, their name is in all caps and their age is indicated.  Such as STEPHEN (43).  Now we know some more info for casting too.  There may be some other descriptive information in the action paragraph such as what they look like, or some mannerisms.  Again, this helps form a basis for casting, but also allows the reader to visualize the character.

On the Character line of a script, you may have more than one person saying lines at the same time.  Final Draft allows you to mark two characters speaking at once in a function called 'Duel Dialog'.

 

DIALOG

If during a scene - a character speaks, you'll see speaking lines.  We call that, "Dialog".  Simple enough.  Sometimes, there is a description of how the line is said just above the spoken line.  Such as (in a low voice) or (sarcastically).  These are italicized and indicate how the line is said.

The only word of caution I'd like to highlight is to remember that you are now making this production friendly, so sometimes writers will use the character name of "VOICE" for a person they plan to reveal later.  This is a good device for keeping the producer or studio executive on the edge of their seat - but if you want to ensure you have the right person on the set to say the line, you'll want to change this to the actual character's name.

 

FORMATTING

Nope, you're not quite done yet.  Lastly, let's take a quick moment to speak about text and pagination formatting.  It's important that scripts conform to a standard font and margins.  The standards are as follows:

  • Left Margin:  1"
  • Right Margin: .5"
  • Top Margin: .5"
  • Bottom Margin: .5"
  • Font: Courier (Final Draft has one specifically called Courier Final Draft)
  • Font Size: 12pt

Why?  There are many reasons and they all harken back to tradition.  The way you count page eighths, the timing of a script (rule of thumb: one minute per page) and simply the look are all reasons to make your script look like scripts from the 1920's.  It's true.  If you get a script that's written in Word with Myriad Pro in 12pt font - be aware.  It will need to be redone into a real script program.

 

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