Screenplay Format: What Every Beginning Screenwriter Needs to Know

Screenplay Format: What Every Beginning Screenwriter Needs to Know

Everyone has a story to tell. Script formatting — the standard way a script is visually structured on the page — is a key factor in telling those stories successfully. For beginning screenwriters, the rules of script formatting can initially seem confusing. However, they need not be. Those starting out in screenwriting can benefit from learning the formatting standards, pitfalls, and pointers common to the professional screenwriting industry.

First and foremost, good formatting provides an easy and enjoyable reading experience. Furthermore, it demonstrates professionalism. When scripts are readable and clean, it shows readers that writers are serious about their work and increases the likelihood that a script will be sold for production.

Although the rules of formatting are not always concrete, a number of them are considered standard practice.

Screenwriting Format and Properties

Below are some essential tips for formatting your screenplay.

Tips for Formatting Your Screenplay

Page Margins

  • Top margins should be set at 1 inch.
  • Bottom and right margins should be set between a quarter of an inch and an inch.
  • Left margins should be set at 1.5 inches, to accommodate for binding.

Font and Page Numbers

  • Your font should always be set as Courier and at size 12. This makes the script more readable and allows the reader to roughly estimate the running time of your movie. (Scripts with these parameters generally play out as one minute of screen time per page.)
  • Page numbers should appear at the top of the page. They should be set flush right, followed by a period.
  • Include page numbers on every page except for the title page and the first page of your script.

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Scene Headings

Screenplays are divided into units called scenes. The beginning of each scene is demarcated by a heading (also known as a “slug line”). These headings contain three sections.

  • An indication whether the scene is set inside (“interior”) or outside (“exterior”), demonstrated with the abbreviation “EXT” or “INT”.
  • The location of the scene.
  • The time of day portrayed in the scene, which is usually general (“day” or “night”) but can be specified further if needed.

A proper scene heading might look like this:

How to Properly Format Your Scene Heading

Action

Action is the narrative description of events in a scene. It is also known as “direction,” “visual exposition” or “scene direction.”

  • Action should be written in the present tense.
  • Action should only describe what can be seen and heard.
  • When writing action, the text should extend out both margins and be formatted single-spaced.

The Screenplay Format: What Every Beginning Screenwriter Needs to Know

Characters and Dialogue

Dialogue formatting is used whenever a character speaks, even if the speaking occurs off-screen.

  • Format-wise, dialogue is aligned down the center of the page.
  • Format is indented left between an inch and 1.5 inches from the left margin and indented right 1.5 inches.
  • When a character is first introduced, his or her name should be written in all caps within the action.
  • Characters’ names, listed directly above their dialogue, are called “character cues.” They should always be written in all caps. Character cues should be indented an inch more than the dialogue.

There are several special cases where additional dialogue formatting is needed.

  • Parenthetical direction. Parenthetical direction explains how a line should be spoken. It should be used infrequently and only when the type of delivery required is not made clear in other parts of the script.
  • Interruptions. If action interrupts dialogue, the continuing dialogue can be marked next to the character cue with the abbreviation “CONT’D”.
  • Page breaks. If dialogue goes over a page break, it is advisable to add the word “MORE” to the end of the first page and “CONT’D” to the beginning of the next one. “MORE” should be centered below the dialogue. “CONT’D” is placed next to the character cue.
  • Off-screen dialogue. Anything said off-screen (called an “extension”) can be indicated next to the character cue by the abbreviation “OS” or “O.S.”

Title Pages and Binding

Every script should have a title page and be bound appropriately. When doing so, the following rules apply.

  • The title page should always be the first page of your script. It should also be written in Courier 12-point font and should not include any pictures or graphics.
  • To correctly format the title page, write the title in all caps about one-third of the way down the page. Double-spaced below this, write the word “By” in mixed case. Double-spaced below that, write your name, also in mixed case.
  • The bottom left or bottom right corner of the page should contain your contact information. If you are registered with the Writers Guild of America (WGA), you can put that here as well, although this is not a requirement.
  • For script covers, use paper with a similar weight as the standard business card.
  • The script should be three-hole punched and bound by the top and bottom holes with round-head brass fasteners. (Note: Do not fasten the middle hole.)

Other Important Notes

General tips to keep in mind:

  • The first line of any screenplay should always be the words “FADE IN”. This should be aligned with the left margin.
  • Scripts are generally 90-120 pages long. Dramas tend to be longer than comedies.
  • Everything in your script should reflect the fact that film is a visual medium.
  • In general, it is best to leave out technical comments such as those about camera angles, music cues and scene transitions.
  • There are many types of software that can help with proper screenplay formatting, including Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter.
  • Note that scripts are formatted differently based on their intended use. The guidelines in this article refer to “spec” script formatting, meaning the script is written for “speculation,” or with the intent to sell to a buyer. “Shooting” scripts include production and technical notes. (Shooting scripts are generally the versions made available to the public after a movie is made. Screenwriters are not normally required to write these.)

Ultimately, it is fundamental for any screenwriter to understand these basic rules of script formatting. Once mastered, they help beginning screenwriters on their way toward professional success.

Sources: Final Draft, Writers Store, Oscars.org.

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Nothing is more rewarding for storytellers than seeing their words come to life. For those who want to follow their passion, the online B.A. in Writing for the Screen and Media program at Point Park University can help. The program gives students a solid artistic foundation, helping them find their voice and train to succeed in a broad array of media professions.

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