For screenplay format, dialogue is made of 3 parts:
- name of the person speaking
- dialogue (words that are being said)
Name of the speaker
This is the name of the character that is about to speak, you’ll have to write it before the dialogue so that the person who’s reading the screenplay can identify the speaker. The name goes in the center of the page and has to be written in all caps.
A very important screenplay format rule to keep in mind is that in the context of screenplay format the name is like an ID that identifies that specific character. To sum it up: you can’t change it unless you have a reason to do so.
For example: if you have a character named MICHAEL, you’ll have to keep using that as his character name. You can’t change it to MIKE or MIKEY because if you do the reader will be confused.
This brings up the question: what if a character doesn’t have a name?
When you’re writing a scene and an unimportant character has to say a line you don’t have to bother to come up with a name for them. So instead you can use their profession, their appearance, or their role in the story as their speaker’s name.
If there are multiple characters with the same characteristics, you can number them by writing #1 #2 #3… in their character name.
One exception to the “never change the name” rule is an “unnamed” character that reveals his identity later on.
Another exception involves different identities: let’s say that you’re writing a story where the protagonist has multiple identities, like a superhero, then you’ll have to use the name of the identity who’s talking.
Voice over and off-screen
Sometimes the character that is speaking is not physically present in the scene. What to do? That’s usually categorized as “voice over”, if they are not there but the voices can be heard by the audience.
In that case, you’ll have to write the letters “V.O.” next to the name of the speaker.
The classic example is a narrator, they are not physically present in the story but the audience still needs to hear the information they are providing.
Another example can be a character that is “thinking out loud”, the audience is supposed to hear their thoughts but the rest of the characters in the scene are not.
But what if the character is physically in the scene but can’t be seen for some reason? That’s when off-screen comes in, with the letters “O.S” next to the speaker’s name.
Now let’s talk about the things that the character is actually saying. For appropriate screenplay format the words that the character is speaking are placed below the speaker’s name and below the parentheticals, in the center of the page.
However, this part isn’t as simple as it appears. First of all, it doesn’t simply consist of writing down words you come up with. Each character is different: different voice, different accent, different vocabulary, maybe even different language. And all those things have to be represented in the script.
In the spoken words section, grammar isn’t really important. Just like people in real life, your characters are allowed to make grammatical mistakes while speaking.
It’s also possible to express cartoonishly or exaggerated ways of speaking by bending the rules.
Whereas if the character is speaking in a different language, it can either be written in that language or the language of the character can be indicated in the parentheticals and then written in the writer’s language.
When it comes to screenplay format, this weird little word has to be put next to the speaker’s name when a character’s dialogue is interrupted by the direction.
CONT’D has to placed next to the character’s name only after they have been interrupted.
Parentheticals are words or sentences enclosed in parenthesis and placed below the speaker’s name but above the dialogue. They are used to describe how a character is delivering a line or what he is doing while delivering it.
The general rule of thumb in parentheticals is to use them only if it’s absolutely necessary.
For example, if a character is in a life or death situation and he needs to express his fear, you won’t need to write “frightened” in the parentheticals. But if the character is pretending to be brave and you need the audience to know that he’s just faking it, you’ll need to use the parentheticals, or else the scene won’t make much sense.
Parentheticals are supposed to be short and only give directions to one character (the one who’s speaking), if other characters are doing something else, that “something else” will have to be written in the “action” section.
If you want to know more about screenplay format, you can check out the book The Hollywood standard right here: