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October 5, 2021

How to Correctly Format Your Screenplay: Using Capitals, Italics & Underlines

The majority of words in your screenplay are going to be regular ol' typeface, almost always in Courier New or some variation thereof. But there are times when you want a little extra emphasis, and this is where a bevy of typeface options can help. While there are more than just these four, I'd like to focus on the following: bolds, underlines, italics, and caps.

Leveraging any one of these can elevate your writing, so let's look at them in practice.

Caps

The use of all caps for certain words and phrases is likely the most used of these options, as it's arguably the most versatile. While the following list isn't exhaustive, capitalization is common for showcasing certain nouns that are highly visual, writing sound effects, emphasizing verbs, tracking characters, and simply highlighting the peak of a dramatic moment.

It's standard to capitalize new characters when they first appear, but some writers always capitalize their characters' names in action, such as this excerpt from Robert & Max Eggers' The Lighthouse.

Even though the characters YOUNG and OLD had been introduced many, many pages earlier, they're still fully capitalized. To my eyes, the effect of this is continually reminding me that this is a character-driven screenplay, as I feel myself picturing the characters and their reactions more than anything.

Sometimes, this is simply a production choice, as it makes it easy to track characters in scenes.

Another common use of caps is to make certain visual nouns stick out. To me, this has the effect of orienting the reader to specific visuals, such as in this excerpt from Bryan Woods & Scott Beck and John Krasinski's A Quiet Place.

The words REARVIEW MIRROR, TOWERING SILO, DARK FIGURE, MARCUS, VINTAGE CHEVY PICKUP DESCENDING DRIVEWAY, and BARN are all capitalized.

Not only do they tell the reader exactly what images to focus on within all of this, but look at what happens if you read only the capitalized nouns. Don't they convey a good sense of setting, and even tone?

If you've read a lot of screenplays, you've read a lot of sound effects, and almost always they're in caps. Here's an example in John August's Frankenweenie.

(This would also work if you were using onomatopoeia, like WOOF.)

The versatility of capitalization lies in the multitude of its standardized uses (characters, slug lines, sounds, etc) and it's lack of standardization with other uses, such as emphasized nouns and verbs.

If you want something to stand out, for any reason, caps might be the first tool you reach for. Visually it's the least aggressive so it "hides" on the page a bit more than the other options, and therefore won't call too much attention to itself until the reader reaches it.

Italics

Like all of these options, italics are used for emphasis, and in my experience of reading and writing, I've found italics are best suited to emphasize writing that is more focused on elements of writing that are specifically non-visual, such as what a character is thinking or the way a character is moving in an otherwise straightforward visual picture.

Here are two examples from Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton.

The first example characterizes Michael's inner thoughts, and the second example highlights a specific about the direction of his action for dramatic purpose, rather than visual clarity.

It might be a bit less common than caps but still used widely.

Italics in Dialogue

One area of screenwriting in that italics has become common is within the dialogue to clarify certain things. Some scripts that have multiple languages will use italics to indicate that a specific dialogue is in a foreign language but subtitled in the common language of the screenplay. When this occurs, it is usually accompanied with a note upon the first instance such as All dialogue in italics will be spoken in Tagalog and subtitled in English.

This also works well for dialogue that is sung lyrics, though if you're writing a musical there are additional standards for that.

Bolds

Bolding is visually the most aggressive of these options. When you scan a page with bold words on it, it's easy to pick those out. Easier than underlines and caps, and certainly italics.

Here's an example from A Quiet Place.

Notice how at a glance "wrapped in foam" stands out, even beyond the caps WE TILT DOWN and BARN.

Much like the way it's used in A Quiet Place, I find bold is best used when highlighting a simple visual for dramatic effect.

Bolding Sluglines

Many writers bold their sluglines and it's become a common practice. Arc Studio has a formatting option to automatically bold them if you'd like, so you don't have to do it manually. It's a formatting standard that sluglines are in all caps, but the choice to bold is left up to the writer.

Underlines

The use of the underline is, from what I've read, the least used of the common typeface alterations, largely because most of the cases in which you'd use it seem served best by either caps or bold.

Generally speaking, underlining words seems the most helpful when needing to provide additional emphasis within writing that already has a fair amount of emphasis. In short, it's best employed within others. Here's an example from The Lighthouse.

This script doesn't utilize bold at all, and so when caps are already plentiful underlining is a great way to highlight this specific line in the montage, emphasizing that information a bit more than the rest.

Combining for Maximum Effect

You don't want to overuse these tools, but when you have a good handle on them, you can use them to build moments within moments. The goal of screenplay writing is to create a read that has a matching rhythm and feel to what would be experienced if viewing. Utilizing these typeface variations can help achieve that. Take a look at another example from Michael Clayton.

A few things worth pointing out here:

- THE HORSES and MICHAEL capitalized to visually highlight what/who we're looking at.

- Combination of caps and underlining for THE MERCEDES EXPLODES!, but no underlining for THE GAS TANK EXPLODES! (While both seem like big moments, the Mercedes exploding is arguably the bigger dramatic moment.)

- Italics used to highlight Michael's reaction (What just happened?)

- Toward is used twice. Once it is underlined, and once it is italicized.

To see more of these tools in action, here's the entirety of page seven from A Quiet Place, which is the last page before the title.


Look at how many different techniques are combined here for different purposes. And, with the combination of spacing, punctuation, and even font size manipulation, it makes for a great page of writing!

None of the examples and usages I've provided are the only way to use these. Like any tool, it's about how you employ it.

What are your favorite ways to use caps, italics, underlines, and bolds?

How to Correctly Format Your Screenplay: Using Capitals, Italics & Underlines
David Wappel

David Wappel is a feature writer. Recent work includes the screenplay for Long Gone By, now available on HBO. He was named a Top 25 Screenwriter to Watch in 2020 by the ISA and is the 2019 Stowe Story Labs Fellowship winner. He is an avid Shakespeare and Tolkien fan.

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