Text Messages in a Script | Screenplay Formatting

by John Finnegan |

If you've ever watched an episode of House of Cards, you'll recall how they used text messages (arguably more-so than other shows at that time) to communicate information to their audience. These text messages would appear on the screen as motion graphic images, sliding in from the side. Text messaging wasn't a popular method of character communication prior to this because it didn't work well on screen. Characters were spending their time staring at their phones and audiences were left squinting to quickly read the text on the small screens before waiting for the next message.


Thanks to HOC and other shows, which now comfortably make use of text messages, instant messaging and email in their shows and movies, it's now become more commonplace in screenwriting as well.


However, the way in which this information is presented in the screenplay is often haphazard and inconsistent because, as with most things in screenwriting, there's little to no guidance or rules on the subject.


In this article, we'll show you how to put those text messages in your script.


Industry Examples


As always, let's see what the pros are doing in their screenplays:


Figure 1

Figure 1 is an excerpt from Paul Haggis' screenplay for Casino Royale. If you know this film, you'll recall that the first act relies heavily on Bond's deciphering of an enigmatic text message on a phone; 'Ellipsis'.


Haggis formats the content of the text message by giving the word its own line and centring it, as though it was dialogue.


This is an effective way of presenting on-screen content when it's as brief as the word 'Ellipsis'. It makes clear to the reader that this is highly significant information and it's impossible for someone to miss it when they are skimming through the script (as busy producers and agents sometimes do).



Figure 2

The next example is from William Monahan's The Departed. Similar to Figure 1, Monahan formats the content of the message as dialogue and even labels the phone as a character (of sorts). Given the importance of text messaging in the film, there's an argument for formatting your messages as lines of dialogue.


However, if we look at the next example from that same screenplay...


Figure 3

...we can see that Monahan also formats a text message in another scene by placing it solely in the scene direction/action section of the screenplay.


The words 'text message' are placed in upper case to draw attention to it and the content of the message itself is placed in quotations next to it.


It's interesting that Monahan seems to incorporate different styles of formatting when writing text messages in his script. More on that in a bit.


Figure 4

As a bonus example, I've included an excerpt from Sorkin's The Social Network. This one isn't a text message but instead, text from a computer screen.


Sorkin keeps this quite simple. He explains that the information has arrived on screen and then, on the next line, writes the text in italics.


The italics indicate that the text isn't action or direction and giving it its own line helps it to stand out from the rest of the information.


Lessons Learned


One of the most common approaches I see from screenwriters starting out is that they put text messages in the dialogue section of the script, like Haggis and Monahan. As we can see, this can work well.


The only thing to keep in mind is that, if you are going to go down this road, don't use the character's name in the character section. This can cause confusion and suggest that the character is actually speaking the information. Even with a note in parentheticals, it can still look odd.


In Haggis' case, he didn't give any character information, he just centred the text information and moved on.


In Monahan's example, we can see that he uses two different systems interchangeably in the script. This is not recommended. Far be it from me to criticise an Academy award-winning screenwriter, but you should always keep your formatting consistent. I'm a big believer that you can take many liberties with screenwriting formatting, but consistency across the script is key.


Finally, the example from Sorkin's The Social Network shows an even simpler method. Place the pertinent information a new line, italicise if needed and move on.


Conclusion


Almost every contemporary screenplay moving forward will no doubt have some reference to an email, a Facebook message, a WhatsApp text and so on. I'm sure in the near future there'll be a more commonly accepted approached to this in screenplays, but for now, these examples should give you enough food for thought to help you decide what works best in your own writing.


Hopefully, this was useful. Don't forget, we have new posts daily to help you in your screenwriting journey so don't forget to subscribe for notifications here.


Happy writing!

John Finnegan is an Executive Producer at The Script Department and a Senior Lecturer in screenwriting at Falmouth University. Find him @johnfinnegan247