The phrase “script elements” might give you flashbacks to high school chemistry, but it’s all pretty straightforward. Script elements are all the different types of information in a script. They tell you what’s happening, when and where it’s happening, what the characters are saying, and how we’re going to be seeing it on screen. That’s it!
The elements included with Arc Studio are the Scene Headings, the Action lines, the Character names, their Dialogue, the Parentheticals describing the Dialogue, specific camera Shots, Transitions between scenes, the Start of Act, and the End of Act.
Here is how all those elements might look in a script:
You can also add new custom elements in the settings menu.
- The scene heading element tells the reader what they need to know as they start to read the scene. At the most basic level that's whether it’s inside or outside (INTERIOR or EXTERIOR), where the scene is set (LOCATION), and whether the scene takes place during the DAY or NIGHT (TIME OF DAY). Here are some examples:
- INT. OFFICE - NIGHT
- EXT. PARK - DAY
- INT. HOUSE - BEDROOM - MORNING
- But it also has a multitude of other uses. It can tell you how much time has passed between this scene and the previous scene (eg, “CONTINUOUS,” “SAME TIME,” “MOMENTS LATER,” or “THE NEXT DAY"); if the scene is a flashback; if it’s part of a montage; or if it’s taking place in another era or even on another planet. All this information can quickly be overwhelming, so keep things simple. Only write what’s absolutely necessary to make things clear.
- Scene Headings have a dual function. The first role is to make the story clearer for the producer or exec who might buy your script. If your script gets made, the second role is to tell the director, cast, and crew what they need to know to film it. For instance, if the scene is at night you’re gonna need a lot of lights! At this point, think more about the producer, exec, or agent that might read your script. You want to captivate them and make your script easy to read. To that end, keep them simple. You don’t need to paint a picture.
Interiors and Exteriors
- We abbreviate INTERIOR as “INT." and EXTERIOR as “EXT." You can also have scenes that take place both inside and outside, and we denote that with "I/E." You’ll often see I/E. used in driving scenes where you’re cutting between the inside of the car and the exterior world. (That would look something like this: I/E. BILL’S CAR/FREEWAY - DAY)
- The LOCATION part of the scene heading tells us where the scene is taking place. It can be one word or phrase like “HOUSE” or “DOWNTOWN STREETS” or it can be two phrases separated by a dash, where the first part is the general location and the second part is the more specific location. This is helpful when you want to differentiate different rooms.
- Here are some examples:
- INT. JENNY’S HOUSE - BEDROOM - MORNING
- INT. TOM’S HOUSE - KITCHEN - DAY
- INT. THE WHITE HOUSE - OVAL OFFICE - NIGHT
Time of Day
- CONTINUOUS is used when the action is carrying over directly from one scene to another. It’s generally used when a character is moving from to a different location, like walking into a building or entering a new room. It looks like this: INT. HOUSE - CONTINUOUS
- SAME TIME is used when the action in the scene is happening simultaneously with the action in the previous scene. So it’s usually different characters in a different location doing something at the… same time! It looks like this: EXT. BACKYARD - SAME TIME
- LATER and MOMENTS LATER are used when the scene is taking place at the same time of day (generally DAY or NIGHT) but… later or just a few moments later than the preceding scene. So if someone parks their car in the driveway, and then we see them entering the front door, but we don’t see them walk up to the door, the first scene heading would be EXT. DRIVEWAY - DAY and the next scene heading would be INT. HOUSE - MOMENTS LATER. (If we saw them walking up to the house and followed them in, we’d use INT. HOUSE - CONTINUOUS.)
What about “sluglines”?
- The term “Scene Heading” is often used interchangeably with “slugline,” but technically a scene heading is an example of a slugline. A slugline is a line written in all caps to draw the reader’s attention. They’re often used within a scene to show what’s happening in different areas. See the example below:
- The industry calls them “Action" elements, but they’d probably be more accurately described as “Action and Description” elements. This is where you describe what is happening in the scene, but also what the environment is like. Since you’re writing what’s happening, they’re written in the present tense.
- It’s the part of a screenplay that’s most like the non-dialogue text of a novel. However, it’s generally much more concise than a novel. Only write what the reader needs to know about the scene. Make sure you say who is there, and what they’re doing. You want the reader to be able to visualize the scene without getting bogged down.
- If it’s the first time we’ve been to this location in your script, describe it succinctly. If we’ve been here before, is anything different now?
- The first time you mention a character in your script, write their name in ALL CAPS. You also want to give a brief description of them. Don’t give their whole biography. You just want to help the reader visualize them and get a sense of their vibe. Make sure to call out anything that’s important about their appearance. There are a lot of different ways to do that. Here are some examples:
- JOE HOLLAND (30s, bookish) takes a seat at the back of the theater.
- Three women in their mid-twenties drive with the windows down. MARIA, lanky and serious looking, is behind the wheel.
- A friendly purple alien the size and shape of a soda can with four legs crawls onto the desk. This is GOOPER.
- Action lines are also important for establishing the tone of your script. If you’re writing a horror script, they should be scary and amplify the tension. If it’s a comedy, they should be funny. If it’s an action film, they should be propulsive. (In general, a comedy will have less action and more dialogue, and action and horror films would be the opposite. Of course this is not always the case, a slapstick comedy like a Charlie Chaplin film would be all action lines! Plus a lot of films mix genres.)
- Often action is written in 3-4 line blocks, but that’s a guideline not a rule.
- This one’s easy. Character elements tell you who is saying the dialogue.
- Keep it short and simple. Often times it’s just the first name of the character, unless that feels weird. For instance, if the character is “President Barack Obama” calling him “BARACK” is weird. You’d use “PRESIDENT OBAMA” or just “OBAMA.”
- The more we know this character, the more familiar you can be with the Character name you use. If it’s a surgeon we’re only seeing a few times, call them “DR. SUAREZ” A good rule of thumb is to think of how your main character think of this person. Are they “JENNY” to her or are they “PROFESSOR HASTINGS”? This brings us to the point about Obama above. If your script is about Michelle Obama falling in love with Barack Obama, maybe you would use “BARACK” since that is who he is to her.
- A minor character could be “DAD” or “FRANK’S MOM” or “NOSY NEIGHBOR," but if this is a person with a role to play in your script, use their own name.
- Use common sense if you have characters with the same or similar names. The most important thing is that the reader automatically knows who is talking. Clarity is key.
- Sometimes your character is speaking but not physically in the scene. This could be narration or perhaps they’re talking about something that happened a long time ago that we’re witnessing in a flashback. We call that “voiceover.” We denote that by adding (V.O.) after their name like this: MARK (V.O.)
- If the character is present but you can’t see them while they’re speaking we add (O.S.) after their name for “off screen” like this: JULIA (O.S.)
- (O.C.) means “off camera” and is basically the same thing as (O.S.). Most screenwriters don’t know the difference, and you shouldn’t worry about it.
- Dialogue elements are the simplest to understand. They’re just the words your characters are saying! But they also might be the most difficult to execute. Great dialogue is difficult to quantify, but here are a couple pointers:
- Your characters should sound different (unless them sounding the same is intentional). A helpful exercise is to cover up the character’s name. If you can’t tell who is speaking just by the dialogue itself, consider rewriting the dialogue to be more specific to that character’s voice. The more specific the dialogue is, the more your script will shine.
- Beware of exposition dumps! Dialogue isn’t just there to convey information. It shapes the tone of your script and reveals who your characters are by what they say, how they say it, and by what they don’t say.
- The amount of dialogue in a script can vary greatly. For instance, comedies are generally dialogue-heavy, and action films generally have less dialogue. Of course, things get more complicated when you mix genres. An action-comedy might have a ton of dialogue!
- These are probably the most abused elements. Parentheticals — also known as ‘wrylies’ — are primarily used to describe how a character says their dialogue.
- They can also indicate the character's intention in saying the words or small actions they’re doing as they speak, like rubbing their nose or clearing their throat. (Larger actions should be in a separate action line.)
- They’re called parentheticals because they’re in parentheses, and they’re located between the Character name and the Dialogue. They can also be between two sections of Dialogue in a longer monologue.
- Parentheticals are best used sparingly. You don’t want to over-interpret the dialogue for the actor or the director, and their abuse is seen as the mark of an amateur. If you’re using parentheticals a lot, it might be the case that your dialogue needs some work. The tone of the dialogue should be apparent by the context and what the character is saying.
- Shot elements are used when you want to specify how the camera is filming the scene, like "CLOSE ON” or “PAN TO."
- These are best used sparingly or not at all when you’re starting out, unless there is a specific story reason. This advice goes for all script elements, but reading other screenplays is a great way to learn how to use Shots appropriately.
- Transition elements are used to describe how we’re getting from one scene to another. The most basic of them is the “CUT TO,” but you don’t have to (and shouldn’t) say CUT TO every time you cut to another scene. The best way to learn how to use them is to read a bunch of great scripts.
Start and End of Act
- Start of Act and End of Act elements are generally used in TV scripts that use a specific act structure. As you might guess, they tell you when an act begins and and when it ends (called the ‘act break.’)
- Traditionally act breaks were inserted so the TV networks knew where to put the commercials, but they also affected the writing. Acts often ended with a question or moment of tension. If the audience wanted to know how it was resolved, they’d have to keep watching! This was to keep audiences from changing the channel during the commercials. Of course, with the rise of premium cable and then streaming there often are no commercials. Nowadays many TV shows don’t use act breaks.
- Keeping act structure in mind in your TV pilot can still be helpful even if you don’t write the act breaks into your script. Tensions should rise and fall throughout the script as you’re building up to your climax. A character won’t just get progressively happier or angrier. There are hills and valleys.
- If you want to use Start of Act and End of Act in your script, make sure you’ve selected the “Television screenplay” elements template in Arc Studio. (All Settings > Page Layout > Elements template.)