How to Format a Screenplay

These days we have it so good.

Writing a script today is as simple as typing out the action and dialogue into your handy dandy screenwriting software and it does the rest. Gone are the frustrating days of having to manually set out the proper margins and indentations into your word processor. Now, I’ve never technically lived in those days, and I’m thankful for that.

Luckily we have a myriad of screenwriting software programs available at our disposal that take all the formatting legwork out of writing a script. With just a few quick keystrokes, they will format your story into proper format which is so hugely important.

The truth is even if you’ve written the next Citizen Kane nobody will give it the time of day if the formatting is off.

Nobody.

If you can’t even write in proper format then people will think there is no way you’ll understand proper story structure. they won’t even red past your first page in most cases. So make sure you have your script formatting down cold. There really is no excuse with all the software out there these days. Which one you use is up to you, but I suggest and use Final Draft 9. It’s easy to use, which means you can focus all your energy into your story where it needs to be, and can export scripts into PDF formats which is how scripts are shared and sent. Final Draft 9 wouldn’t have become the industry standard in tinsel town if it wasn’t the best at what it does.

That said, you must remember a screenwriting program is just a tool. It’s no different than a paintbrush. It won’t make you into a writer anymore than a paintbrush will turn you into Norman Rockwell. You still need to understand the basics of screenwriting in the same ways an artist understands color and composition. Again, Final Draft will do most of this for you, but you need to understand when and where to use proper screenplay formatting.

Screenplay Basics

12 point Courier font is the proper typeface. The key to remember is that a single page of a screenplay is roughly equal to 60 seconds of screentime when using the margins above. Therefore a 100 page screenplay would be estimated to end up as an hour and 40 minutes on film.. This is why these constricting margins exist, to cram your story into convenient 1 minute sections for the sake of measuring length. They consist of the following parts.

 

1. Page number – Page numbers are always 1/2 inch from the top and 1/2 inch from the right of the page.

2. Character name – 4 inches from left side of the page. Every time a character speaks you need to have a name above their dialogue Even if it’s just a voice or an unknown person you must give identity to the speaker by giving them a character name.

3. Dialogue – Goes under the character name. It begins at 2 /12 inches and ends 6 1/2 inches from the left side of the page.

4. Parenthetical – 3 1/2 inches from the left side, underneath the character name. Small directions on how a line is delivered or said. Examples of delivery could be (angry), (surprised) or (softly – after a moment), while acting directions could be meant to address a direct conversation between characters in a group. (to Jamiee), It’s best not to overdo these. In a well written screenplay your story should be good enough to convey the right emotions by itself.

5. Action – This is where your movie happens starting at the beginning of the left margin.  Everything from character and scene descriptions to describing a shootout or that first look of love at first site between two characters. As a general rule of thumb they should be no longer than 5 lines in length so it’s best to keep things brief and to the point.

6. Slugline (scene headings) – Sluglines begin at the left margin. Everytime you switch to a new location in your script you’ll need a new slugline as it’s purpose is to indicate where the action that follows takes place. They always begin with an EXT. for an exterior shot or INT. for an interior one. After that is the name of the location, be it a CITY STREET, GENERAL STORE, or JEFF’S LIVING ROOM. At the end the time is put simply as NIGHT or DAY with a dash inbetween. Even if the characters spend the whole movie in a windowless bathroom you’ll still need to indicate if the scenes take place at day or night. There is a big difference between being up at 1pm and 1am afterall. Also be as specific as you can be in your location descriptions without going overboard. Instead a CITY ALLEY have it be a SLEAZY CITY ALLEY for example. It helps paint a visual picture from the start for the reader. But don’t go overboard naming every specific city street either. Also, everything here is written in CAPS. Do not number sluglines.

Screenplay Nuts and Bolts

Of course there is more to writing a screenplay than simple page layout. Think of everything that happens in your favorite movie, There may be title cards, flashbacks, montages, voice overs, point of view shots, fade outs to black, out of focus shots, etc. Every one of these must be written into the script for it to appear on screen. These are your screenwriting tools let’s call them. The equivalent of our paint and brushes as they help convey our story onto our writer’s canvas. It’s important to note that a writing program won’t do these for you so it’s important to understand their function and format.

Fade In

 

Most scripts begin with a simple FADE IN: at the top of the page, all in CAPS followed by a semi colon. With a FADE IN, the title and credits have finished and the camera opens up to our movie. If you chose to forgo the FADE IN then the film begins with a hard cut directly into a scene.

Fade Out

Fade outs appear at the end of scripts or are often used to signify a significant transition in your story. A long passing of time or a major shift in focus. They appear on the far right side  where a slugline would be, all in CAPS, followed by a period.

fadeout

If used within the movie FADE OUTs are usually followed by a FADE IN.

Capitalized Character Introductions

Whenever you introduce a new character, major or minor, always have their name first appear in CAPS followed by their general age in parenthesis. For example.

This lets the reader know this is the first time that character appears onscreen. Afterwards you can write their name as normal. If the character has a last name use it here in full and afterwards only when it appears naturally. The age helps visualize the character right away. Without an age the reader won’t know right away if this person is supposed to be a teenager in high school, or a retiring senior. The last thing you want is to have them asking questions like that. Also, unless it is specific to your story, like a birthday, it’s a good idea to have most ages be general. (40s) (late 40s) or even (45) for mid 40s will work.

Minor nameless characters like a SOLDIER, or BANK TELLER usually won’t need ages so don’t bother.

Capitalized Sound Effects and Special Effects

Sound and special effects are also capitalized to stand out from the action.

 

Capitalization of objects and actions

You also capitalize objects of importance to help them stand out and let the reader know they are important to the story. There is a difference between a man walking down a street with a BRIEFCASE, as opposed to a briefcase.

 

Also important or exciting actions can be written in all CAPS to add excitement This would be the equivalent of shouting in an email or text by typing in CAPS. Be careful as an overuse of this can turn off some readers.

 

Ok, maybe that example was a little overboard but you get the idea.

Dual Dialogue

When two characters talk over each other you’d use dual dialogue to show this. It’s just two dialogue boxes side by side. Most screenwriting programs have this built in as a feature. Just highlight the dialogue you want together and click on the appropriate button to make it dual.

 

Off Screen Dialogue (O.S.)

Sometimes you’ll want to hear somebody speak without being seen. This means the speaker is in the vicinity but is not on camera. This is shown with a (O.S.) after the character name.

 

Voice Over Dialogue (V.O.)

 

When we hear a character speak but they are nowhere near the scene voice over is used. This most often happens during narration of exposition, a letter being read by the writer, or before or after scene transitions.

 

Superimpose (SUPER)

Often used to indicate a date or location, any time text is superimposed on the screen it is called a SUPER. It goes into the action either as a part of or separate from it. The text displayed on screen is put into quotations.

 

Beats

Whenever there is a pause in the the movie screenwriters use a (beat) to show the small gap in time.

A beat can be used in action, dialogue, or parentheticals. This small gap can also be written as what’s known as an ellipse, “…” What’s important is you pick one or the other an be consistent with it.

This is not to be confused with a storytelling beat. A beat in a story identifies a small element that moves the plot forward. It could be an argument between two lovers, the admitting of an affair, or something as simple as answering, or missing, an important phone call.

Flashback

When your story needs to go back into the past you use a flashback. This is a useful tool to setup a character’s back-story or to give necessary exposition. Flashbacks are often viewed as weak storytelling but I don’t see it that way. Screenwriting is visual storytelling. Instead of listening to somebody explain past events in a boring monologue why not just show those events as they happen in a flashback? Don’t go overboard with them, but remember a well written flashback can add far more to a story than what it takes away.

There are also many ways to write one.

Specific Sluglines

If a scene calls for a more specific location you can include it in your slugline by inserting a hyphen between the two places.

 

Abbreviated Scene Heading

Sometimes when you change scenes in the same location you can use an abbreviated scene heading instead of a full slugline. It still eats up a line of page either way so you’re not saving space, but it is easier on the reader’s eyes. For example if a large part of your movie took place in an office you may jump between the copy room, the bath room, and the lunch room before moving on. Since all scenes take place inside the office during the day an abbreviated scene heading would work here.

office

Point of View (POV)

When the action takes place from the character’s own eyes you use point of view to indicate that we see what they see. This technique is used often in horror movies to put the audience in the attacker’s shoes and build tension. The ALIEN movies come directly to mind.

 

Interruptions

During a character’s dialogue when happens to cause an interruption end the dialogue with a double dash (–). Then write the interruption in-between the dialogue. If you have characters interrupt each other in conversation the same rules apply.

 

Any ellipse at the end of dialogue usually indicates a thought trailing off, though the double dash and ellipse can be interchanged.

THE END

When you’re finally done (yay!) you’ll need to put THE END at the end of your script. This usually goes in the middle where character dialogue belongs and is underlined. Often you can just type this in as a character. Nobody will know.

 

Camera Angles

You can, if you need, also write specific camera angles into your screenplay. However I advise against this as do most other writers. The simple reason is that when you get into camera angles you no longer sitting behind the writer’s keyboard, but sitting in the director’s chair. It’s not your job to plan out every shot while writing. That comes much later in the process and to be frank, no director is going to follow your blueprint of camera shots anyways. You wouldn’t like somebody telling you how to do your job so don’t tell them how to do theirs. Also, a tell tale sign of a new writer is one who includes camera direction in every scene. It’s reader kryptonite so don’t do it! They are unnecessary and slow down the read.

The only time they are acceptable to be used is in a shooting or production script. This is a form of the script used when actually filming a movie. It has directions for the actors and crew in the form of camera shots, Sometimes new writers will find copies of these scripts online and read them mistakenly thinking them to be screenplays.

However. If you chose to go down this path here are the correct ways to format such shots in case they turn out to be absolutely necessary.

Cut To

Rarely used anymore, but the biggest offender when it comes to camera directions, a cut signifies a quick jump between scenes. Like a FADE OUT, it appears at the bottom right of an action line.

 

Note this scene works just as well without the CUT TO: Too many cuts like this in a script is often the sign of an amateur writer.

Intercut

An intercut is when two  or more scenes are happening at the same time. On screen these shots would jump back and forth almost haphazardly. This is usually done to show things that parallel or indicate busyness.

 

Split screen

Similar to an intercut but instead of jumping back and forth the scenes both play out onscreen at the same time.

 

Insert

If you want to show a close up of an object or detail you would use an insert. An example could be a close up or a written letter or blueprint for an enemy base.

 

Montage

Of all the camera angle’s listed this is the one you can get away with the most. A montage is a quick series of ordered shots often used to show a process or events during a passage of time. Monatges have an unfair bad rap among within the industry. They are useful when used in the right situations but can be a crutch if used too often or an embarrassment if done poorly. They are easy to wrote though. Just create a list of quick and concise shots in A B C order. If the shots are written out in long depth then perhaps putting in a montage isn’t the best idea.

Best when accompanied by kick ass rock music.

 

Angle on

If you want to show something viewed from a different angle you would indicate this in the script by writing ANGLE ON before the description. Perhaps to see what is hidden behind somebody’s back or to see something again but with a more dramatic fashion or focus. Like a lot of these camera directions you can imply.

 

Like a lot of these camera directions you can still imply the same thing without their use. The line above reads just as well with the ANGLE ON.

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