Screenwriting Basics: Everything You Need to Know About CAPS

By June 17, 2019Blog, Featured

What are the screenwriting basics when it comes to how screenwriters should — or shouldn’t — use CAPS within their screenplays?

Some screenwriters don’t know how to use CAPS, some don’t take advantage of them, and others just use them too much. Here we offer simple explanations and examples of how you should and shouldn’t be using that CAPS button in your scripts.

Scene Headings

Scene headings are the general location headings that detail where we are in the script — outside or inside (EXT. or INT.) and at which LOCATION — and whether or not the reader is to envision daylight or darkness (DAY or NIGHT). Within screenwriting format, these elements are always in CAPS.

EXT. FOREST – DAY

Screenwriting software will do this work for you.

Read ScreenCraft’s Screenwriting Basics: The Keys to Writing Correct Scene Headings!

Character Names

When you first introduce a character that has lines of dialogue assigned to them — or is a featured character with no lines but plays a prominent role within the screenplay — you need to put their assigned character name in CAPS the very first time we are introduced to them.

MARTIN BRODY (40s) stands rigid, lifting himself from the bed. (Jaws)

A six-year-old girl sits watching the show intently. This is OLIVE. She is big for her age and slightly plump. (Little Miss Sunshine)

A narrow trail across the green face of the canyon. A group of men makes their way along it. At the head of the party is an American, INDIANA JONES. He wears a short leather jacket, a flapped holster, and a brimmed felt hat. (Raiders of the Lost Ark)

She is tense, sweaty, wide-eyed with concentration. This is CLARICE STARLING, mid-20’s, trim, very pretty. (Silence of the Lambs)

The technical purpose of capitalizing names of characters that have lines or, at the very least, are characters featured within the screenplay, is for pre-production and production purposes.

Casting directors need to know who the featured characters are that they need to cast.

Directors and script supervisors need to know when each character first shows up.

Anyone first reading the script needs to know which characters are main or supporting roles within the script, differentiating them from characters that aren’t specifically partial to the story.

But these character names should only be capitalized once. As soon as they have been introduced, their name should be in lower case with the proper first letter of their name capitalized under normal grammar standards and practices with names within the scene description. Script format calls for all character names attributed to dialogue to be in FULL CAPS.

Note: It is okay only to use a first or last name of the character name moving forward after they’ve been introduced — Indiana, Clarice, Brody.  

Sluglines

Contrary to popular belief, slug lines are not the same as scene headings. These two terms have been intertwined over the years, so it’s common to hear people refer to scene headings or location headings as sluglines.

Sluglines are instances within the scene description where you use CAPS to identify information that you want to call attention to.

THERE IS MOVEMENT FROM THE DENSE TREELINE.

Within scene description, you can also use sluglines in the form of CAPS to feature a particular location within the featured place that the scene heading sets up.

EXT. FOREST – DAY

A light rainfall falls from above. 

TENT

Somewhat hidden within the surrounding grass, bushes, and trees.

KEN, 43, unzips the tent from within, stands, stretches, and lifts his face to the falling rain.  

Sluglines should always have their own dedicated line within the scene description.

Actions

It’s very common for novice screenwriters to put every action within scene descriptions in CAPS.

Ken MOVES towards the dense treeline, HOLDING a survival knife. He HEARS something within the woods. He quickly KNEELS DOWN and LISTENS. 

This practice can actually have a negative effect on the read of your screenplay. When CAPS is used to feature an action or important object (see below), you’re telling the reader that this is a vital part of the story that needs to be highlighted. Reader’s eyes are trained to recognize essential elements within the scene description.

But when every action or object is featured in CAPS, it creates a distraction that makes it difficult for the reader to process the overall scene description.

You should only feature the most critical actions using CAPS. In the above example, Ken moving towards the dense treeline, holding the survival knife, kneeling down and listening aren’t the most important elements within that line of scene description. HEARS is arguably the key action that you’d want to feature because that means something unexpected is out there.

Ken MOVES towards the dense treeline, HOLDING a survival knife. He HEARS something within the woods. He quickly KNEELS DOWN and LISTENS. 

Ken moves towards the dense treeline, holding a survival knife. He HEARS something within the woods. He quickly kneels down and listens.

By not putting every little action in CAPS, you can also extenuate the action that you do feature a little more.

Ken moves towards the dense treeline, holding a survival knife. He SUDDENLY HEARS SOMETHING WITHIN THE WOODS. He quickly kneels down and listens.

Regardless, using CAPS to feature actions should be only used when those actions are significant enough that they change or add to the story, scene, or moment. When they are overused, they lead to nothing more than distractions as the reader’s brain skips otherwise important scene description and focuses on the words in CAPS that stand out the most.

Learn the best way to structure your screenplay with this free guide.

Objects

The same goes for any featured objects of interest that are partial to your story.

If the survival knife that Ken is carrying is partial to the story, you can undoubtedly feature it in CAPS.

Ken moves towards the dense treeline, holding a SURVIVAL KNIFE.

If it is an object that doesn’t later play into the story, it’s not worth featuring. If that were the case and you still put that object in CAPS, you’re telling the reader that the survival knife is important and may be playing a key role in the scenes to come. If he only uses the knife for basic purposes, you’re misleading the reader and wasting their time by featuring it in CAPS — another distraction.

You can also feature objects on their own slugline to call attention to them, which is basically telling the reader to envision a close-up.

If Ken had a revolver instead of a survival knife, you can utilize a capitalized slugline as such:

Ken moves towards the dense treeline, holding a REVOLVER. He SUDDENLY HEARS SOMETHING WITHIN THE WOODS. He quickly kneels down and listens.

ON THE REVOLVER

Ken slowly pulls the hammer back with his thumb. 

This shows us that Ken is ready to take action. He feels threatened enough that he’s ready and willing to shoot whatever threat approaches from within the woods.

Yes, screenwriters can overuse this practice, but it’s also very useful in creating a cinematic experience without outright directing the script using camera angles and closeups — something you should never do.

This featured object slugline is being used to build tension and inform the reader of an important element to the scene.

Special Effects/Sound Effects

Screenwriters have read many production drafts of screenplays. Production drafts have many screenplay elements that should not be featured in a spec script — camera angles, transition, scene numbers, etc.

One particular — and often capitalized — element is SPECIAL EFFECTS, VISUAL F/X, or variations thereof. This communicates a visual that will be created with the need for either practical special effects (non-digital) or rendered computer graphics (CG). That’s not your job to dictate that as a screenwriter. Just tell us what we’re supposed to be seeing.

AN ALIEN CREATURE suddenly darts out of the woods, breaking branches in the process, and LEAPS TOWARDS KEN. 

Screenwriters don’t need to dictate what type of filmmaking will go into the design and rendering of that alien creature.

On the other hand, particular sound effects can be featured in scene description using CAPS.

ON THE REVOLVER

Ken slowly pulls the hammer back with his thumb. CLICK. 

Despite his efforts, the sound echoes through the forest. 

The reason this sound could be featured is that it continues to build the tension. Ken has just heard a noise from the woods that has alarmed him. He’s now kneeling down and trying to be quiet as he listens for more signs of an approaching threat. But he has to get his weapon ready.

When he does, the sound of the revolver’s hammer engaging creates a loud enough noise to echo through the woods, which means that whatever or whoever is out there likely heard it as well.

But much like the mistake of putting almost every action in CAPS, you want to avoid making the same mistake of putting every sound effect in CAPS as well.

Use the practice only as a tool to support the story and feature only the most important elements of any scene.

Transitions

Screenplay transitions are part of a long, ongoing debate between pundits, screenwriters, and industry insiders. Pundits and gurus often declare that screenwriters should avoid transitions — or any camera directions — in their screenplays, with no exceptions.

However, the truth is that there is a middle ground. Screenwriters writing on spec should be writing cinematic screenplays that offer readers a cinematic experience.

Read ScreenCraft’s Why Screenwriters Should Think Like Film Editors!

At the same time, screenwriters shouldn’t bog down their screenplays with too much technical jargon and over-saturated format.

So the middle ground directive is to use transitions sparingly.

While WIPE TOs, IRIS INs, IRIS OUTs, and FADE TOs are dated transitions rarely used in today’s screenplays, there are justifiable transitions like SMASH CUTs, DISSOLVE TOs, and MATCH CUTs that screenwriters can use now and then — as long as the moments within the script that they are attached to are integral to the story.

Pundits and gurus will argue that the eventual director won’t appreciate them and would likely utilize their own technical and artistic choices anyway. They’re missing the point.

Writing cinematically is very important for the spec scriptwriter. Most readers are just looking for a great read — plain and simple.

Using a few transitions that have an artistic, cinematic, and narrative purpose can often enhance the read of your screenplay by offering a visual that heightens the implied moment.

So in short, you can use them, but be sure to use them wisely —  and sparingly.

Read ScreenCraft’s Everything Screenwriters Need to Know About Transitions!

Note: Transitions like FADE IN and FADE TO BLACK are only used at the beginning and end of a screenplay.


When you put all of these lessons on the usage of CAPS together, you can craft a cinematic screenplay that effectively tells a cinematic story using CAPS for various script elements to heighten the experience and put focus on what needs to be highlighted, seen, or heard.

FADE IN:

EXT. FOREST – DAY

A light rainfall falls from above. 

TENT

Somewhat hidden within the surrounding grass, bushes, and trees.

KEN, 43, unzips the tent from within, stands, stretches, and lifts his face to the falling rain. He moves towards the dense treeline, holding a REVOLVER.

He SUDDENLY HEARS SOMETHING WITHIN THE WOODS. He quickly kneels down and listens.

ON THE REVOLVER

Ken slowly pulls the hammer back with his thumb. CLICK. 

Despite his efforts, the sound echoes through the forest.

AN ALIEN CREATURE suddenly darts out of the woods, breaking branches in the process, and LEAPS TOWARDS KEN. 

Ken RAISES THE REVOLVER in a panic and fires! BANG!

SMASH CUT TO:

Darkness. Nothing but the sound of breathing.

DISSOLVE TO:

Ken and the alien creature lay on the ground, motionless until Ken finally moves. He stands up and looks down on the alien creature taking its last breath. 

Ken lets out a breath of his own and raises his face to the falling rain. But it’s sunlight that reaches his face instead. The clouds open revealing… 

A SKY WITH TWO SUNS AND A DISTANT MOON.

This isn’t Earth. It’s someplace else. 

While this example offers what many could consider an extensive use of CAPS, it’s a perfect example of how you can do it right if you want to utilize this screenwriting tool.


Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.

He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies


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