The Basics of Screenplay Formatting
The basics of screenplay formatting are easy to learn and that's why executives expect you to be able to get this far and won't consider you if you can't. After all - if you can't get the basics right, what does that say about the rest of your screenplay!
Some aspects of formatting are rules and others are guidelines. Stick to the first and remain within the latter and you've got a winning combination.
Know the difference between a submission and a shooting script. Many of the scripts that you will read from produced movies are shooting scripts and have camera directions, scene numbers etc. Your submission script should not have these. A shooting script has been through the director's hands etc, yours hasn't and you shouldn't presume to tell him/her how to do their job. More on this later.
This is the page that identifies your script and contains your contact information (if you have an agent, their contact information will take the place of yours). That's all you need, nothing else.
Here is an example of what your TITLE PAGE should look like (the title page is in Adobe Acrobat format. To download the free viewer, click here).
- The Title of Your Script: All caps
- Your Name
- Your Address
- Your Telephone Number
- WGA registration Number or equivalent
FADE IN/FADE OUT
The use of FADE IN is used to signify the beginning of your script and FADE OUT the end, however they are rapidly fading from use. Realistically, both terms have always been redundant as the beginning and end should be obvious.
Every word should be written in 12 Point Courier.
SPACING AND MARGINS
There is no one rule, but rather guidelines to remain within:
The left side of your script should have a 1 1/2" margin.
The right side of the script should have 1/2" to 1" of margin.
The top and bottom margins of your script should be 1".
Sluglines or Scene Headings are spaced 1 1/2" from the left side of the page.
Dialogue should be spaced 2 1/2" from the left margin. That's 1" from the Slugline or Scene Heading margin.
Character's name should be 3.7" from the left margin.
Parentheticals or Dialogue Directions should be 3.1" from the left margin.
SLUGLINE / SCENE HEADING
This tells us where the scene is set and is usually divided into three sections: interior/exterior, location and time.
INT. DAWN'S BEDROOM - NIGHTThe scene heading is placed on the left hand side of the page and is in all caps.
If the action shifts within the location, simply repeat the main heading. It is not necessary to direct the reader with any further detail.
This is literally what the audience will see on the screen. Keep it short with just enough description to set the scene.
Dawn's bedroom is small and cluttered and looks like a flashback to the 1960's.CAPITALIZATION
Sluglines / scene headings are always capitalized.
INT. DAWN'S BEDROOM - NIGHTCharacter names should be fully capitalized when they first appear.
DAWN MITCHELL, a 50 yr old past her prime who still clings to her short skirts and over-dyed hair.From then on, the character name no longer needs to be capitalized, except as the heading above their own dialogue of course.
Sounds are often capitalized throughout descriptive or action lines to bring emphasis to these sounds. This element can be distracting if used too much.
Michael turns as a bullet PINGS past his head and THUDS into the bedpost.VOICE OVER ETC
If there is explanatory voice-over narration, then the dialogue is indicated as Voice Over (V.O.). If we don't know who is talking, use the word NARRATOR as the character's name.
Dawn had no idea that today was to be
the last day of her life.
If a character's voice is heard, but they are not seen, then the dialogue is indicated as Off Camera (O.C.).
Hang on, I'll be there in a minute.
If a telephone conversation is taking place between one character seen and another unseen, then the unseen character's dialogue is indicated as (Filtered).
You will also use (Filtered) for any voice heard over a radio, walkie-talkie, tv or intercom etc.
The ideal length for dialogue is no more than 5-6 lines, however, if you have to go longer than this, just break it up with a little bit of visual exposition - this is really just a visual trick on the page, but it works.
DIALOGUE DIRECTIONS or PARENTHESES
Do not use parentheticals. If you don't know what these are, they are the descriptive words placed directly below a character's name (before the dialogue), indicating the character's emotion.
How many times do I have to tell you I haven't seen him.
If it is necessary to indicate the character's mood, then this should be indicated in the visual exposition by something the character does. The basic rule is to leave it out altogether and allow the director and actors to place their own emphasis on the words. By the same token, do not place exclamation points at the end of a sentence or capitalize certain words to show emphasis.
Try not to use these. They are annoying to the reader, they will insult the director and are the mark of an amateur.
A reader wants to focus on the story and become lost in your vision. If you add camera directions such as CLOSE UP or THE CAMERA ZOOMS IN, then the reader is distracted and taken out of the story. A director is responsible for camera directions and will not relish your input.
If you use camera directions because you want this to be your directorial debut, then you've got a long and almost impossible road ahead, so be prepared to have work to back up your directorial ideas because if there's anything harder than a writer selling a spec script, it's a writer/director selling a spec script.
JUMP CUTS, SMASH CUTS, and CUT TO
These terms are unnecessary as a new Slugline or Scene Heading shows the reader that it's a new scene.
CONTINUED and MORE
Once again, these terms are unnecessary. They are often used to show that that the character from the previous page continues to speak on the next page, but as long as you use CHARACTER names before each section of dialogue, it's obvious to the reader that the same person is speaking.
PAUSE or BEAT
Using the term BEAT, placed in parenthesis, indicates a pause in a character's dialogue.
I hadn't thought about it that way.
There is a lot of backlash against the, once taken for granted, Flashback and they are increasingly seen as a sign of an amateurish script. However, used both sparingly and in the right context, they continue to be a valuable screenwriting tool.
There's no set rule when it comes to the Flashback, but it's probably easiest just to insert the time switch into the Slugline or Scene Heading.
EXT. DAWN'S HOUSE - EVENING - FLASHBACK
And when you return to present day:
INT. DAWN'S CAR - NIGHT - PRESENT DAY
Shane Black made this concept famous, but conversely if you try and include it you will be seen as amateurish and come across as trying to hard. Oh by the way, he also commands well over a $million per screenplay, so I guess he can do whatever he likes - in fact he still holds the record at $4 million for A Long Kiss Goodnight.
Shorter is still better and your screenplay shoud be under 120 pages and closer to 100 for a comedy. Executives hate to see pages of pure dialogue, so keep each character's dialogue to a couple of lines wherever possible. Watch out for those descriptive paragraphs that can ramble on and keep them focused.
So there you have the basics of formatting.
It's important to remember that you're writing for the reader/executive. Allow your story to flow and let your story unfold. Many of the best screenplays are surprisingly sparse, owing their depth and drama to the director and his crew. Allow them to be able to do their job and realize that film is a collaborative process.
Check our our other column: How To Make Your Script Look Professional and invest in some good screenwriting software or an explanatory book such as The Screenwriter's Bible by Dave Trottier.
Relax - knowledge really is power!