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Screenplay Formatting: Tips Archive > Format > How To Format Dialogue

How To Format Dialogue In Different Situations     Start a Free Blog!

Elaine Radford

Sometimes dialogue in a screenplay doesn't involve one character speaking to another character face to face. Instead, there might be off-screen dialogue, telephone dialogue, or voice-over narration.

Off-Screen Dialogue

When the audience doesn't see a character who is speaking, the
dialogue in the screenplay must be formatted so that it's clear which character is speaking and where that character is located. For example, a scene can be set in a room where a woman calls a child who is upstairs in his bedroom. The audience sees the woman but not the child. However, the audience hears the child answering.


The WOMAN wipes her hands on her apron and looks up at the staircase.

                                        (calling loudly)
                           Andrew, come down here right now or
                           you'll miss the school bus!

                                             ANDREW (O.S.)
                           Be right there.

In the example above, O.S. appears in parentheses and is used to indicate that Andrew is OFF SCREEN. We don't see Andrew, but we hear his reply. The abbreviation, O.S., is used to format OFF SCREEN dialogue. A character's voice may be heard from another room, from outside the house, over a loudspeaker, or any place OFF SCREEN.


Telephone Dialogue

Often, a character in a script is required to speak on the telephone. The audience won't see who the character is speaking to, but will hear the character's voice over the telephone. This use of
dialogue formatting is known as a VOICE OVER, which is abbreviated and placed in parentheses next to the character's name.


                                        (on the phone; frantic)
                          Where's my daughter? If you hurt
                          her, I'll kill you!

                                              KIDNAPPER (V.O.)
                                        (voice disguised)
                           Nothing will happen to her if you do
                           exactly what I say.


Some screenplays use a narrator who we hear but don't see. When the audience hears his voice but doesn't see him in the scene, his dialogue is referred to as a VOICE OVER and is abbreviated to read, (V.O.). The narrator gives the audience background information needed to move the story forward quickly.

An excellent example of the effective use of narration is the screenplay for
The Shawshank Redemption. After the protagonist, Andy Dufresne, is sentenced to serve time at Shawshank Prison, the character, Red, is introduced as another prisoner at Shawshank. He's a major character who befriends Andy and is part of the plot. But Red is also a narrator. When he acts as a narrator, his voice supplies information and provides commentary on the action.

Example from The Shawshank Redemption:

                                              RED (V.O.)
                           I must admit I didn't think much of Andy first
                           time I laid eyes on himů
(Darabont, Frank. The Shawshank Redemption: The Shooting Script. New York. Newmarket Press. 1966.)

Forrest Gump is an example of another screenplay that uses narration to give the audience information they wouldn't get from the action. Forrest, the protagonist, participates in the action of the story and sometimes acts as a narrator who gives us information in a VOICE OVER.


Forrest gets down and looks around.

                                              FORREST (V.O.)
                           It wasn't always fun. Lt. Dan always
                           gettin' these funny feelings about a rock or
                           a trail, or the road, so he'd tell you to get
                           down, shut up!

                                              LT. DAN
                           Get down! Shut up!

                                              FORREST (V.O.)
                           So we did.

(Roth, Eric. Forrest Gump. Based on the novel, Forrest Gump, by Winston Groom. Washington Square Press.)

Keep in mind that action is the most important element in a screenplay. The characters' actions define them and move the story toward a climax. But narration cannot take the place of action. Instead, narration enhances the action and provides information the audience needs.

Reading screenplays that use O.S. dialogue and V.O. dialogue can help aspiring screenwriters gain a better understanding of how and when to use these formatting techniques.

Coming Next:
How To Format Flashbacks In A Screenplay


The Last Victim
A Novel by
Elaine Bossik

Elaine Bossik writes screenwriting articles for under the pen name, Elaine Radford. Elaine's new novel, "The Last Victim," has been published and is now available in paperback.
Read more....

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