Before moving through the guide below, it’s important to take a minute and say that these days, most professional screenwriters (if not all) don’t spend much time thinking about screenplay format. This is not because it doesn’t matter—it does. A lot. A WHOLE lot. It’s because if you’re getting serious about screenwriting, most writers take the jump into screenwriting software pretty quickly.
Final Draft is the gold standard, but occasionally you'll meet a writer still knocking ‘em out on ScriptBuddy, Celtx, or one of the myriad other Final Draft competitors. Formatting isn’t altogether tough, but getting it correct is imperative to getting your scripts read. I can honestly tell you that if a producer, agent, lit manager or other decision-maker in the industry picks up a script and finds any format error of any kind in the first couple of pages, that is as far they’re going to read. Writing software makes screenwriting an easier, faster process—but it’s also insurance against an unnecessary error that might doom your script to the scrap heap.
That said—there used to be this thing with buttons and ink ribbons and return levers called a ‘typewriter.’ I hear they were popular. Turns out, for sixty years or so, screenwriters did a pretty decent job at formatting their own scripts using little more than their memories and a ruler. So—for those of you just starting out, who may not have access to screenwriting software, or who simply want to do things the old-fashioned way, below is ScriptFaze’s official screenplay format guide:
THE SCRIPTFAZE SCREENPLAY FORMAT GUIDE
Okay—first things first. The rule of thumb when writing screenplays is that ONE PAGE EQUALS ONE MINUTE, so a two-hour film is approximately 120 pages, an hour-and-half film is approximately 90 pages, etc. It will be difficult to understand screenplay formatting if you have not already studied some actual script-pages, so for those of you in that category, please take a minute to read over the following PAGE ONE EXAMPLE:
This is an actual page from an actual script. There are many different genres of film, but every film script uses the exact same FORMAT.
Okay, ready to try this for yourself? When it comes time to start laying word to page, here’s what you’re gonna want to do:
ALL of the text in your screenplay must be typed in 12-point Courier (or Courier Final Draft) font. It is the industry standard, and experimenting with other fonts only shows readers that you don’t know what you’re doing—and that’s a bad thing! Hollywood is a nostalgic industry, and we like our scripts to look like they came out of an Underwood.
2) THE FOUR PARTS OF A SCENE
The basic building block of any script is a SCENE. A new scene will begin anytime YOU CHANGE LOCATION or SKIP FORWARD OR BACKWARD IN TIME, and each of your scenes will be made up of four basic elements:
b. ACTION BLOCKS
c. CHARACTER NAMES
In the PAGE ONE example above, the first SCENE began with this slugline:
INT. CLASSROOM – DAY
Sluglines starts at a margin set 1.5-inches from the left side of each page, and setup a scene by describing WHEN and WHERE that scene takes place. Every scene you write MUST start with a slugline, and each slugline is made of three parts:
INT. or EXT. to demarcate whether the scene takes place inside (INTERIOR) or outside (EXTERIOR). If it’s both, such as when a bird shatters through a window into a kitchen, you can write INT./EXT.
LOCATION. Where the scene takes place. These should be short, and avoid emotive description. It’s not INT. PIMPING 1970s LOVE VAN, just INT. VAN. Don’t worry—they’ll be room for the fun stuff later!
TIME. Usually just DAY or NIGHT, but can also be a specific time, like 3:00 PM, if it’s an important detail to the plot. Avoid overusing demarcations like DUSK, MORNING, MIDNIGHT, or LATER.
Slug lines are always in ALL-CAPS. There is usually one spaces between INT.or EXT. and LOCATION, then space, hyphen, space between LOCATION and TIME.
Occasionally, you’ll need a SUBLOCATION to clarify the location. These look like:
INT. JANITOR’S OFFICE/HIGH SCHOOL – DAY
Remember: A new slug line is needed every time you start a new scene--so you will be writing a lot of these!
b. ACTION BLOCKS
Next comes the ACTION BLOCK. This is where you can fill in details for your location, and explain what your characters are doing RIGHT NOW. Action is always written in the present tense, and in most cases follows standard rules of capitalization and punctuation. It’s always justified left, and looks like this:
In the FIRST PAGE example above, Teacher’s description is quite simple: Scrawny. When introducing a character for the first time, however, it’s often useful to offer one to two lines of description to help give readers a fuller sense of their personality or appearance, such as:
Your character descriptions can be as detailed as you’d like, but avoid making them so long that they interrupt the momentum of your script.
c. CHARACTER NAMES
When you’re ready for a character to start speaking, move two spaces down from your last action block, and indent 2.2 inches from the left margin to type the characters name in ALL-CAPS, like this:
SISTER MARY CATHERINE
For minor characters that may only have a line or two, it’s also acceptable to name them by DESCRIPTION or by PROFESSION, such as:
And if you have more than one of the same type of minor-character, just add a number to the right of their names so readers can tell them apart, like so:
POLICE OFFICER #2
The last thing you need to know about formatting character names is how to handle a VOICE OVER, or a situation in which a character can’t be seen on camera but is heard speaking OFF SCREEN. This is easy. Simply add the initials (V.O.) or (O.S.) directly to the right of a character’s name, as in:
Now that you’re all set up, it’s time to give your character a voice! Dialogue is introduced one line below the character’s name who is speaking it, and is sandwiched in a window one-inch from the left margin to two-inches before the right margin. It looks like this:
Dialogue should be written in all lower-case, and should never be underlined or italicized. That’s what TV dramas are for! If you want dialogue to be spoken with a special emphasis, you may indent by an additional .6 inches (or one tab) on the line directly beneath a character’s name, and add your direction in PARENTHETICAL:
A parenthetical can also be used to clarify who a person is talking to, or who they are talking about. For example:
If the description within a parenthetical runs longer than a few words, try to move it out of the parenthetical and into the action block preceding the dialogue.
When one character is done talking, drop down two spaces to add a new action block at the margin--or add a new character name followed by his or her dialogue. When your scene is all done, skips ahead to STEP 3.
3) SCENE TRANSITIONS
You’ve just learned the four basic parts of a SCREENPLAY SCENE. So you’re all ready to write your script, right?
There’s just a couple more things you’ll need to know before you’re off and running. If you scroll back up to the PAGE ONE EXAMPLE above, you’ll notice two words printed on the TOP-LEFT of that page, before the first SLUGLINE:
This is a VISUAL TRANSITION, and while you don’t HAVE to start your screenplay with a visual transition, most screenwriters do. Some of the more common ones (along with a description of what they mean) are:
FADE IN -- the first image slowly arises from blackness
HARD CUT TO -- the first image instantly appears on the screen
FROM BLACK -- the exact same as above
At the end of scene, the norm is to skip down THREE SPACES and simply type a NEW SLUGLINE to begin your NEXT SCENE. Most screenwriters do not use visual transitions BETWEEN SCENES, but in that special case where you do want to dictate a special transition, transitions at the END OF A SCENE are justified to the RIGHT, while transitions at the START OF A SCENE are justified to the LEFT, like in this example:
4) CAPITALIZED WORDS IN ACTION BLOCKS
Notice that in the action blocks of the PAGE ONE EXAMPLE above, the words ROWDY TEENAGERS, SCREECH, TEACHER, CHALK DUST, LAUGH, HENDERSON, HESITATES, GLOCK 9, CEILING, BLAM, PRINCIPAL SCHMIDT and GUN SHOT have all been capitalized. This isn’t a part of some top-secret Hollywood code—instead, it’s another important part of screenplay format.
Until the last few years, the norm for screenplay writing was to never capitalize words within action blocks, with the exception of CHARACTER NAMES the first time they are introduced into a script. Perhaps influenced by TV writers, this has changed somewhat, and today it has become increasing common for writers to capitalize other types of words as well. But there are still rules! You don’t just get to capitalize whatever word you’d like!
So here’s how it breaks down:
a. CHARACTER INTRODUCTIONS
Anytime a CHARACTER is introduced in your script for the first time, the character’s name must be in ALL-CAPS, and generally, the character’s AGE or AGE RANGE should be placed in parenthesis to the right of it. For example:
TEACHER (30s) or CARL DEWEY (21)
Any subsequent mention of that character should be typed in lower-case, except for the first letter of course, ie: Mother, Janitor, Henry, Hank, etc…
b. PEOPLE and SOUNDS
Any word that describes one or more people, such CROWD, PEOPLE, TEENAGERS, KIDS or ZOMBIES should always be placed in caps, as should any key props, and any words that describe sounds, such as GUN SHOT, CHALK DUST, BOING, ZING, or WHOOSH.
c. IMPORTANT ACTIONS
At certain times, it is also appropriate to capitalize ACTIONS for special emphasis, such as:
His entire truck VANISHES.
The panda bear RACES around the corner.
5) THE END
You made it! You’re all done!
Or, at least you will be one day—and when you get there, you’ll need to know how to wrap things up.
Screenplay formatting is a fairly simply affair as long as you stick to the guidelines above. Unlike in television scripts, you’ll never demarcate act breaks or say things like “END SCENE 3” in a film screenplay. Scenes simply start with a LOGLINE and finish when you write the following scene’s LOGLINE. You’ll go on this way, one scene after another, until your script is finished.
But wait! Haven’t you seen writers in movies type “THE END” on the last page of their scripts? Don’t you get any dang closure?!
Yes, you do! The words THE END are treated like a scene transition since technically you are transitioning from a SCENE into END CREDITS. For this reason, at the end of your very last scene, you should drop down TWO SPACES and justify RIGHT to type the words “THE END.” Sometimes, it is also appropriate to couple your sign-off with a visual transition, like so:
And that’s it… Slap a title page on that baby, and you're ready to share your baby with the world!
6) FORMATTING PECULIARITIES
There may be situations you find yourself in as a screenwriter in which the formatting rules above either do not seem to apply, or must be bent to meet a unique creative problem. While the parameters above cover 96% of everything you’ll ever need to know about screenplay formatting, there are definitely situations in which additional formatting knowledge may be required.
If you run into one of these situations, either post a question in the comments section of this article and we will do our best to address your query quickly, or you can check a commonly used reference book such as David Trottier’s The Screenwriter’s Bible. There may also be times when you notice that certain writers or writing instructors suggest slightly different formatting guides. Fear not. As long as you choose one of them, and are consistent throughout your script, no one will ultimately care whether you go with one small style peculiarity or another.
So--now that you know all the tricks of the trade, the final step is to WRITE! There may be a correct format, but there’s no correct creative process for pulling off your first screenplay. Read our Script-Tastic Screenwriting Method and structure guides, get your hands on as many published screenplays as possible, then—go for it! Keep your butt in your chair, and you’ll be amazed how quickly those pages start to fill up...