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The Ultimate Screenplay Format Reference

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Foreign Languages

A major fact to remember in writing scripts is: Audience = Reader.

With that in mind itís clear - if you confuse the reader the script stands little chance to become a movie. Thus, whenever possible write in the language of the eventual reader.

In case that itís important that the characters speak in a foreign language, there are a number of options:

Option 1: Parenthetical
Use a wryly (parenthetical) to clarify that the actor will speak in another language:
 


                     LEE
               (in Chinese)
         How are you?
 

 

Option 2: Make a statement in the narrative
If characters speak in a foreign language throughout an entire scene, make an intitial remark at the beginning of that scene which language the actors will use and then write the dialog in English - or more correctly: the language of the eventual reader.
 


INT. CHINESE HEALTH FOOD STORE - DAY

(NOTE: THE CHARACTERS SPEAK CHINESE THROUGHOUT THE SCENE.)

Steven looks at the shelves, takes a package of green tea.

Chang enters from a back room, happy to see him.

                     CHANG
         Long time no see.

                     STEVEN
         I was busy.

                     CHANG
         How can I help you today?

                     STEVEN
         I need two Mk 48 and plenty of ammo.

Chang disappears into the backroom and returns with the guns. He takes ammo from a metal cabinet and puts it on the counter.

                     CHANG
         Cash or charge?

                     STEVEN
         Cash as usual.

Steven puts the tea on the counter.

                     CHANG
         The tea is on the house.

                     STEVEN
         I really appreciate that.

Steven puts a bundle of cash on the counter.
 


The main issue still is: How will the movie audience understand whatís being said?

If you think what happens on the screen will speak for itself, then go for

Option 3: Use the original language

Thatís only a good idea if the dialog is short. Here an example from Trottier:
 


Tarzan shouts at the charging elephant.

                     TARZAN
         On-gow-ah!

The elephant turns and stampedes in the opposite direction.
 


A derivative of this approach - sometimes seen in movies, but not mentioned by Trottier - is that characters start talking in a foreign language and after a few sentences switch to English, or whatever the audienceís language is.

That gets also the point across nicely:
 


INT. CHINESE HEALTH FOOD STORE - DAY

Steven looks at the shelves, takes a package of green tea.

Chang enters from a back room, happy to see him.

                     CHANG
         Hao jiao bu jian.

                     STEVEN
         Wo hen mang.

                     CHANG
         What do you need this time?

                     STEVEN
         Two Mk 48 and plenty of ammo.

Chang disappears into the backroom and returns with the guns. He takes ammo from a metal cabinet and puts it on the counter.

                     CHANG
         Cash or charge?

                     STEVEN
         Cash as usual.

Steven puts the tea on the counter.

                     CHANG
         The tea is on the house.

                     STEVEN
         I really appreciate that.

Steven drops a bundle of cash on the counter.
 

 

Option 4: Subtitles

If characters speak a foreign language throughout the scene and you want the dialog to be subtitled, itís best to mention that in the note at the start of the scene. Then go on and write the dialog in English.
 


INT. CHINESE HEALTH FOOD STORE - DAY

(NOTE: THE DIALOG IN THIS SCENE IS SPOKEN IN CHINESE AND IS
SUBTITLED IN ENGLISH.)

Steven looks at the shelves, takes a package of green tea.

Chang enters from a back room, happy to see him.

                     CHANG
         Long time no see.

etc.
                    
etc.

etc.

Steven drops a bundle of cash on the counter.

END OF SUBTITLES
 


Itís wise to end the scene with the remark END OF SUBTITLES. Readers tend to forget.

 

Option 4: Parenthetical again

Useful if only a few sentences are spoken in a foreign language, rather than an entire scene:
 


                   PAK
         I will rip your heart out alive,
         fry it and eat it.
 

Option 5: Parallel dialog

If the sound of the foreign words is important you can use a format that is reminiscent of that for simultaneously spoken dialog:
 


               CHEN                      SUBTITLE
         Obo-obo ada-ada.         You are out of your                                        mind.
 

 


Telepathic Dialog

The main question here is: How is the audience going to know the contents of telepathic dialog?

The script has to describe what can be seen on screen. There are two ways to handle it.

If the audience hears something but nobody speaks - no lips are moving - then thatís a voice over (V.O.)- either of a narrator or of the character whose thoughts are being communicated.

Another way is to just have the recipient - the one who reads/hears/senses the thoughts - speak them out loud. Thatís ordinary dialog.