How to Format a Screenplay the Right WayMake your work stand out by following these standard screenwriting conventions.
“Screenwriting began in the era of typewriters, and it’s always been served raw.”
If you’ve read a few screenplays, then you’ve probably noticed that they look pretty much the same across the board. There are good reasons for such standardization (which we’ll get into), but the big takeaway is that if you want your screenplay to be taken seriously, then it should look like the rest of them.
There’s an old saying I heard plenty while I was in college and doing internships: “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” If you’re an intern, don’t show up looking like a clueless college student. Instead, dress like whoever your superior is. Dress like the person you wish you were. That way, people above you will be able to envision you in the role you wish you had and likely will take you more seriously.
There’s another saying that makes the rounds in the same circles. “Fake it ’til you make it!” This one means that when you are in a new role or wishing that you were in a more advanced role but actually have no idea what you’re doing, as long as you act – on the outside – like you are where you’re supposed to be and are doing what you’re supposed to be doing, then people will assume that that’s true, and you’ll be more likely to succeed.
While both of these idioms have their merits and their… well, points of ridiculousness, I do think about both of them when I think about the novice screenwriter who has never written a screenplay before, sitting down to write his or her first script. You can wear whatever you want while writing, of course. But your script should look the part it wants to be playing – ie., a script that’s taken seriously, which means a script that’s formatted properly. And while the brand new screenwriter may not feel totally comfortable saying, “Yes, hello, I’m a screenwriter,” if he or she has a properly-formatted screenplay to show, then people will have a harder time dismissing it.
In the words of Stéphanie Joalland, “Poor script formatting is the first red flag that they’re reading the work of an amateur, even if they have a good story to tell. Poor formatting is all the reason they need to throw your script into the trashcan.” ??♀️
Let’s keep our scripts out of the trashcan, shall we?
Today, we’ll nail down the particulars of what it means to be “properly formatted”. We’ll also talk about why the format exists in the first place, and we’ll explain how it benefits both the reader of a screenplay and the production team of a film.
What does proper screenplay format look like?
Once upon a time, a screenwriter had to know how many times to tab on the typewriter to align dialogue in accordance with tradition. Thankfully, today, we have screenwriting programs to automatically account for the technicalities of screenplay formatting! WriterDuet and CeltX are two of our favorites here at Lights Film School, and Final Draft has long been an industry standard. Even though the tools do a lot of the heavy lifting, it’s important to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing.
To start to understand the method behind the madness, let’s take a look at an example of a script page we whipped up. We’ll go through it piece-by-piece so that you understand each part:
Starting from the top and working our way down:
The script begins with “Fade In.” Strictly speaking, specifying the scene transition isn’t necessary, but if you want to put “Fade In” here, that’s your prerogative. If you do, then it should be formatted the way it is on this page.
Next we see what’s called a “scene heading”. This is very important. Every scene in your screenplay must have a scene heading – also known as a “slug line” – at the top. A scene heading has three major components:
- INT. or EXT., which translates to “Interior” or “Exterior.” This note tells us whether the scene is taking place indoors or outdoors.
- LOCATION: This tells us where the scene is happening.
- DAY or NIGHT: This tells us whether the scene should be filmed during daylight or after the sun has gone down.
To get a scene heading, you add 1 + 2 + 3. So for example:
…This tells us that the scene takes place outdoors in a park during the day.
Producer Gary A. Lowe says it’s these slug lines that he immediately takes stock of to see if a screenplay is coming from someone who knows their stuff. In an interview with The Backstory, asked what the Number One Thing he looks for to decide whether or not what he’s been handed is worthwhile, Lowe says:
“It’s the scene headings (slug lines). When first handed the script I’ll feel the thickness and know immediately, within 2 or 3, just how many pages it is. Next I’ll flip thru the pages and look at the end of the slug lines, if I see SAME, MOMENTS LATER, MORNING, EVENING etc. I know right away that the writer is an amateur and I may be in for a boring read.
The end of the slug line should be NIGHT or DAY. It’s all about whether it is dark or light outside. The most offensive of these is EVENING. At 6PM in the summer it is light out, in the winter it is dark, so what does EVENING mean? And if the end of the slug line reads SAME (which I see often) then at some point I have to go back (a big no no) and find out if it’s still Day or is it Night. To a new writer it may appear to be overly redundant to have to write NIGHT or DAY at the end of every slug line, but believe me, it is not.”
Action description always should be written in third-person present tense.
Character’s First Appearance
The first time a character shows up in the script, their name should be in all caps. This screenwriting standard helps the reader understand that this is the first time that they’re seeing the character. Usually, their name is followed by a brief physical description. After all, since we’re meeting this person for the first time, we should have some idea of what they’re like!
As with “FADE IN,” you don’t necessarily have to indicate “CUT TO,” “FADE OUT,” or another sort of transition at the end of each scene. If you do decide to include a transition, then the text should be right-justified. This is something that screenwriting software magic will take care of when ordered to.
Note that, generally speaking, transitions should be used sparingly. They typically aren’t necessary to tell the story, so inserting them can be interpreted as “directing from the page,” since it instructs the director and editor as to how the transition should be handled in the end result onscreen.
Character Name Above Dialogue; Dialogue Itself
Speaker names always appear above their dialogue, and the dialogue always should be formatted as it is on our sample page here (another technicality that screenwriting software will handle for you).
A subheader can be used when a full scene heading isn’t strictly necessary. For example, it could make sense to do this if you’re writing a scene that happens in adjacent rooms that you’re cutting between. Something like:
You can see a subheader in context on our sample page, too – the scene unfolds in different rooms but in one general place (the apartment).
This is important. Throughout my years teaching screenwriting, I’ve seen parentheticals make their way into a lot of dialogue.
The first thing to note here is the formatting. A parenthetical should be on its own line beneath the name of the speaker and above the line of dialogue. The second thing to discuss is how to go about using parentheticals.
I see these overused especially by new writers. A parenthetical is intended to be a very brief note about how a line should be delivered. It can be tempting to specify one for every line – as the writer, you have an idea in your head of how the line should be expressed, right? Well, technically, it’s not the writer’s job to direct the actor. That’s the director’s job! So traditionally, parentheticals are used sparingly, only when a line of dialogue needs to be delivered in a very particular way that contributes to the reader’s understanding of what’s happening in the scene. For example, a whisper.
As evidenced by our sample page, there are a few extensions you’re likely to run into:
- O.S. means “Off Screen.”
- O.C. means “Off Camera.”
- V.O. means “Voice Over.”
These all indicate that we aren’t seeing the person who’s talking, but the way in which we’re not seeing them is somewhat different. O.S. and O.C. are very similar. They mean that the person is physically within earshot of whatever we’re seeing, but we aren’t watching them speak.
This is in contrast to voiceover (V.O.), which indicates that someone is speaking but isn’t necessarily in the scene. For example, when a narrator’s involved, or when we “hear” a character’s thoughts while we’re watching him or her do something onscreen.
Mores and Continueds
If dialogue reaches the bottom of the page and there’s going to be more of it on the next page, “MORE” is appropriate at the bottom to let the actor know that they need to keep going. The same goes for “CONTINUED” – if a line of dialogue is broken up by some action after which the actor resumes speaking, “CONTINUED” is a bit of a courtesy to give them a heads up that there’s more talking to do before you move onto the next person.
I’ve seen this matter a lot during live readings of scripts, particularly when the people doing the reading are seeing the script for the first time (this is really common in screenwriting classes, workshops, table reads, and auditions). Thankfully, Mores and Continueds are handled gracefully automatically by most screenwriting programs.
Why do we use this weird screenplay format, anyway?
The screenplay format was standardized in the 1940s when films moved from silent to sound and the film industry began to transition out of the studio system that governed Hollywood’s early days. Producers began to realize that they needed continuity – an industry standard – for planning and production purposes. Explains Jacob N. Stuart:
“In the 40’s, when the ‘Big 6’ lost their power, those outside of the ‘gates’ could now approach the studios, pitching their ideas and seeking funding. But in order to achieve this, the indie producer needed a friendly and readable style of script to convey their story. That’s when the Master Scene Script (Spec) was introduced. It was imperative that scripts were written and formatted in a way that everyone in the film-making process, from Executive Producers to Craft Service, could understand and translate. Once the ‘Master Scene Script’ was ‘greenlit’, it was then given to the director. The director would add in camera movements, stage direction, and editorial cuts. This is where we get the ‘Shooting Script’.
[Also,] the white space on the script allowed producers and actors to write comments next to action and dialogue. This white space also didn’t make the initial reading too overwhelming.”
John August elaborates, explaining that the font of choice – Courier 12-point font – grew out of the technology of the day. Typewriters were the norm, and their look stuck:
“Screenwriting began in the era of typewriters, and it’s always been served raw. What the screenwriter pulls out of the typewriter isn’t a manuscript to be sent to the publisher – it’s the final product.
Over the years, the tools have changed, with the advent of computers and printers and PDFs. But we still expect scripts to look like they came out of a typewriter.
Specifically, we want screenplays to be twelve-point Courier.
The Courier typeface was designed in 1955 by Howard ‘Bud’ Kettler for IBM. It’s classified as a monospaced slab serif, with each character taking up the same space and constructed with even stroke widths. IBM deliberately chose not to seek any copyright, trademark, or design patent protection on Courier, which is why it’s royalty free. It was the standard typeface on IBM’s best-selling Selectric II typewriter, and soon became the default typeface in Hollywood.
By standardizing around one typeface set at a specific size, we can take advantage of some rules-of-thumb.
For example, one page of screenplay (roughly, sometimes) equals one minute of screen time. More importantly, producers can be assured that a 119-page draft really is shorter than a 140-page draft. Unlike college freshmen, screenwriters can’t fiddle with the font to change the page count.”
Basically, the standardized format of a screenplay means that anyone in the industry can pick up a script and see how many pages it is and know its approximate length. One page of screenplay averages out to approximately one minute of screen time. Plus, producers, directors, cinematographers, script supervisors – everyone, really – can extract important, actionable information from the script in a relatively simple and straightforward way.
Today, production software like Studio Binder actually works with the script document to pull key information like locations, characters, props, costumes, etc. Lowe explains:
“With regard to ‘overall collaboration’ it’s helpful for the writer and his formatting to know the process the script goes through once it leaves the writer’s hands and most often the first hurdle is the budget. How much will it cost to produce?
The budget preparer (usually a UPM or LP) first needs to determine the production schedule, since the number of shoot days affects the budget. He/She first breaks down the script scene by scene inputting key elements such as Character, Night or Day, Set, Stunts, FX, Extras, Etc., on to “break down pages”, 1 page per scene using the scheduling software. The software then generates “strips” with information such as Set, N or D, Character, EXT or INT, and scene length (page count). The preparer, on his monitor sees all the strips and can drag and drop them in different places to determine the sequence of filming. The software has a utility that will first group these strips by whatever order the preparer wishes, i.e. alphabetically by name of set, EXT & INT etc. For this reason the writer’s formatting has to be standard. The Scene Headings (slug lines) need to be correct and consistent. E.G. “BILL’S HOUSE” cannot be changed to just “HOUSE” later in the script. The writer should determine the name of the SET with its first scene and keep it that way. This is just one example and there are many more.
If the writer learns standard traditional formatting from the get go then there’ll be no guessing as to what the budget preparer needs. If the writer doesn’t use standard formatting then the budget preparer is stuck with correcting it all. Sometimes this can take hours. Once the schedule is completed then the budget can be done, knowing how many shoot days there are and, how many days each actor is working.”
As someone who has read screenplays in many capacities – as Lights Film School’s screenwriting teacher, as a contest judge, as an assistant in a high-pressure talent management office – I can tell you that it matters a lot to a reader that your screenplay is both formatted correctly and easy-to-read. I want to get completely drawn into what’s on the page. Non-standard and inconsistent screenplay formatting, as well as typos, grammatical errors, and other oversights, work against such immersion.
Remember that adage, “Dress for the job you want?”
A properly-formatted, carefully-proofread screenplay looks sharp. It communicates that you know what you’re doing and that you respect the reader’s time. Do that, and the reader – be they a studio executive, crew member, friend, or someone else – will respect your work in turn!
Hopefully this helps you get a better handle on traditional screenplay formatting! What do you think? Do you like it? Is there something about it that irks you? Share your thoughts in the comments below; we’d love to hear from you!
Lauren McGrail, with
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