I was quite curious as to how one would write a scene with characters singing a song, musical style. Do we just include “singing” as an action within the handy parentheses? Or is there some other formatting we must use? And how much mention are we supposed to give to the music itself?
— Adam Scott
For movies and television, the convention is to put the lyrics in italics. It’s probably helpful to include a “(singing)” parenthetical the first time you do it, because some readers may not catch it otherwise. And yes, dialogue in italics can also be used for foreign languages, so you’ll need to make sure it’s clear in context.
Here’s where the former graphic designer in me resurfaces. Screenplays are written in 12-pt. Courier, which is not the most attractive typeface in the world, but certainly sturdy and readable. There’s an italic form of Courier that’s rounded and a little more like handwriting, which would be quite suitable for lyrics.
However, the “italic” form of Courier you find on most computers is really just normal Courier with a slant effect applied (called “oblique”), and it seriously blows. It’s ugly on screen. It’s ugly printed.
It’s impossible to write beautiful lyrics in such an ugly typeface.
So, having written lyrics in many of my scripts, I’ve come to use a different typeface altogether for the songs. For Big Fish, I used 11 pt. Stone Sans Italic. For Charlie and Corpse Bride, I switched to 11 pt. Verdana Italic, because I needed to send those scripts in as .pdf files, and you can safely count on just about any computer having Verdana installed.
Why 11 pt., when the main text is set at 12 pt.? That’s because Verdana looks much bigger than Courier when set at the same point size. You’re also more likely to get a full lyric line in without a break at that size. (Although I feel no guilt cheating a margin slightly to avoid a break in any event.)
Some scripts I’ve read will include a slash “/” at the end of each sung line. I don’t find that helpful, so I never use it.
In terms of talking about the music, your best bet is to describe the general style and tone, such as “bright, Sousa-like march” or “melancholy dirge.” You can give an example if it’s particularly apt, but I’d avoid a reference that makes the reader stop and think, “Hmm, how does that go?”
Note that the convention for songs in stage musicals is completely different. For those, lyrics are placed in uppercase along the left margin. You can see examples of the format in the templates for Final Draft or Screenwriter.