This article was originally posted here.
When reading about screenwriting you’ll notice a lot is made of the importance of formatting. How your screenplay looks on the page can make or break its chances of being read at all. With the rise of the internet and reams of readily available screenplays available online, the screenplay format has become standardised internationally. This post will run you through what you need to know about screenplay formatting.
As a preface, it is important to note why it is so important to format your screenplay properly. Think of it this way: everything you write is geared towards an audience. The audience for your screenplay is primarily script readers and producers, perhaps even directors and actors later down the road. These people read a lot of screenplays. But the final product is a film or a television episode, not the screenplay itself. The most important thing therefore is to make it as easy as possible to understand what is happening on the screen by making it absolutely clear to the reader what is action, what is dialogue, where a scene is taking place and which characters are present. Ultimately it is your story and your characters that will determine whether your screenplay succeeds or fails, but in order to effectively communicate those things you have to have a firm grasp on the screenplay format.
Use Courier 12pt, single-spaced, no excuses. The reason for this, aside from plain readability, is that one page of a screenplay written in Courier 12pt single-spaced roughly translates to one minute of screen time. This is useful for everyone involved, including you of course, to approximate the length of a screenplay.
The left margin should be 1.5″ and the other sides should be 1″. This is primarily to leave space for binding and notes.
The first page shouldn’t be numbered but all subsequent pages should be to ensure that scenes don’t get shuffled around accidentally.
The title page for your screenplay should bear the name of your screenplay, “by” or “written by” and your name, on three seperate lines in the centre of the page. In the bottom left hand corner you should put your contact information, including an address. If you have an agent, you should put your agent’s information there instead. The bottom right hand corner can be used for any copyright information but it is not required. Everything should be in Courier 12pt, like the body of your script.
Your screenplay should start with the phrase “FADE IN:” on the left hand side, flush to the margin and in all-caps. This lets the reader know that this is the beginning of your script.
This is a short description of the scene. All it should contain is “INT.” or “EXT.” depending on whether the scene is an internal or external location, where the scene takes place and “DAY” or “NIGHT” depending on when the scene takes place. For example, if the scene takes place in a coffee shop during the day your scene heading should read “INT. COFFEE SHOP – DAY”. Note that it should be in all-caps, flush to the left margin and can go all the way to the right margin (although you are probably putting in too much information if it is).
Action, or scene description, reaches from margin to margin and describes what is happening in the scene. Use the present tense, preferring the active voice. It should be in mixed case, like prose, but unlike prose it need not be in full sentences. Try to keep it simple and concise, describing only what can be seen and heard on the screen. When introducing a character in a scene, type their name in all-caps. Subsequent mentions of that character in description can be mixed case.
When a character speaks, type their name in all-caps. You should indent it 2″ from the left margin and can stretch to the right margin if needed. A minor character may not need a name and can just be referenced by their profession or identifying trait, like “DOCTOR” or “NERVOUS MAN”. One important thing to note is that the character names must be consistent throughout the screenplay to avoid confusion.
This goes after the character name, on the same line, and is placed in parentheses. Extensions are used to indicate how the dialogue is heard. For example, if a character is doing a voiceover, you would put (V.O) as the extension. If they are off-screen, but still physically present, you would put (O.S). If instead they are heard over the phone or an intercom or radio it is better to use a parenthetical.
Parentheticals go after the character name, on the next line. They should be indented 1.5″ from the left margin and 2″ from the right margin, placed in parentheses and lower-case. They are typically used to denote the way in which a line is delivered, or the medium through which it is heard. For instance, if we hear the dialogue through a phone it can be denoted in a parenthetical, whereas if the dialogue is clear as though the character were just out of frame it would be denoted as off-screen and go in the extension. Parentheticals denoting the way a line should be delivered may be used sparingly, though it is best to consider if the dialogue needs to be rewritten in order to make it clearer.
Character dialogue includes anything that the audience hears that a character is saying, whether they are on or off screen. It appears on the next line after a character name (or a parenthetical) and should be indented 1″ from the left margin and 1.5 ” from the right margin. Dialogue is written in mixed case.
Transitions and Shots
Typically you should avoid putting in transitions and shots unless they are absolutely crucial for the scene to make sense. These are added to shooting scripts to streamline the production process and are none of a screenwriter’s concern in the vast majority of situations. On the very rare occasions that you do need to use them, transitions are indented 4″ from the left margin, go all the way to the right margin and are appended with a colon, and shots are flush to the left margin and followed by two hyphens or a long dash. Both should be in all caps.
And that is just about everything you need to know in order to properly format your screenplay. You may like to bookmark this page for a quick reference on the different screenplay elements, how they should be laid out on the page and what purpose they serve. Of course it is unlikely you’ll need to remember the specifics as most screenwriting software handles formatting for you, but it is useful to refresh yourself on the basics occasionally so that you aren’t entirely reliant on that software in order to write.
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Most of all, keep writing.