The screenplay format is as old as the movies.
The distinctive formatting rules screenwriters follow when they write a movie are the same now as when Gone with the Wind was in theaters. A film script is the starting point for the shooting script, which the director, actors, and the rest of the crew all need to do their jobs, so it has to adhere to a consistent format.
Tools of the trade.
“There are many different tools out there to write a screenplay,” says award-winning screenwriter Caitlin McCarthy. “There’s paid software and free software, but Final Draft is the industry standard.”
Screen-writing software or a script-writing template will automatically adjust the left margin of your page to 1.5 inches and the right margin to one inch for action descriptions, 3.7 inches from the left for dialogue speaker names, and 2.5 inches from the left for dialogue. It also will set your font to 12-point Courier, the de facto font for screenplays.
From the first page, you want to project confidence and professionalism. “Don’t get fancy with the font,” McCarthy recommends. “No Comic Sans. No Papyrus. Producers like size 12-point Courier, so leave it alone.”
How to set the scene.
Each scene in a screenplay begins with a scene heading, or slugline, written in all capital letters. This includes key details about the location and time of day that can help the director and lighting designer plan and storyboard the shoot.
A scene heading starts by identifying whether this is an interior scene, abbreviated as INT., or an exterior scene, abbreviated as EXT. Next up is the scene’s location, such as JOHN’S HOUSE. If there are other scenes taking place in different parts of John’s house, you can get more specific by adding a hyphen followed by more detail, like JOHN’S HOUSE - KITCHEN. Finish your slugline by noting the time of day.
When you’re finished, the slugline for a scene set in John’s kitchen during the day will look like:
INT. JOHN’S HOUSE - KITCHEN - DAY
After the scene heading, use the following tools to fill out the rest of your scene:
Action lines, written in the present tense, describe what your characters are doing. Action lines are also used to introduce characters, whose names are written in all caps and followed by a brief parenthetical description when they appear in the script for the first time, such as:
JOHN (30s, tall, wearing an old bathrobe) walks into the kitchen and yawns.
When one of your characters speaks, their name appears on a line in all caps, with their dialogue in the lines below. If the character speaking isn’t on screen, you can note that by putting O.S. (for off-screen) in parenthesis next to their name. If the off-screen character is narrating the events on-screen, add V.O. (for voiceover) in parenthesis instead.
Sometimes it’s necessary to give a contextual note about how a character says their line. Maybe you want to indicate that a character is saying something sarcastically, or that they’re speaking in another language with subtitled dialogue. You can add these details with a parenthetical note beneath the character’s name but above their dialogue.
When you’re finished with a scene, you can just write the slugline for the next scene and continue from there. But if you’re envisioning a particularly dramatic transition, like the ones an editor can create in Adobe Premiere Pro, you can indicate it beneath the last line of the scene, aligned to the far right side of the page.
To signal a specific type of cut, like a match cut, connecting a visual element of one scene to a different element in the next, write MATCH CUT TO. If you’re trying to suggest that a lot of time has passed between one scene and another, you can write FADE OUT beneath the last line of the scene, and FADE IN above the slugline of the new scene.
One page at a time.
When correctly formatted, each page of a screenplay is equivalent to roughly one minute of screen time. Since page space is at a premium, it’s important for screenwriters to choose each word carefully.
“You usually have room for maybe 55 lines per page when you’re writing action and dialogue,” McCarthy says. “Less is more. You have a limited amount of space, because typically a screenplay is between 90 and 120 pages, and anything over 120 pages for a feature script is way too long.”
To keep your page count under control, remember that you’re writing for a visual medium. Whenever possible, show things to the audience through action rather than having a character explain them, which always takes up more space on the page.
“Every word of your dialogue should be fighting to be on the page,” McCarthy says. “You shouldn’t have moments that don’t belong there.”
What not to write.
Script formatting is as much about what you don’t include in your script as what you do. Although you may want to write down every detail of the movie in your imagination, it’s best to just stick to the basics of what the characters in each scene are doing and saying.
“A lot of people who are starting out with screenwriting think they have to direct the camera,” McCarthy says. “It’s not your responsibility as the writer to think of camera shots, or to describe how actors should say every line. That drives the director and the actors crazy.”
It’s also a good idea not to rely too heavily on devices like voiceover narration or flashbacks, which can break up the flow of your script and make it harder for readers to follow your story.