One of the most crucial elements of film and television, a screenplay is a written document that guides everything happening on screen. Also known as a script, it serves as a medium that illuminates the narrative — from the action to stage setting and location. Writing a screenplay is a crucial step in transforming an artistic vision into a blueprint that can be presented on screen.
Of course, to write and format a screenplay is a herculean undertaking in itself. There are various elements like the correct format, technical information, scene headings, action lines and dialogues. It is crucial for each of these to be in their place; the screenplay does not just tell the story, but it is also a guide for each and every individual involved in the artistic process of making a film or television show.
Let’s take a look at the different elements involved in formatting a screenplay, one by one.
Why Is Screenplay Formatting Important?
As we have already noted, it is crucial for the various elements of a screenplay to be in their right place. It is not enough to merely write a story; it must be presented in a way that facilitates easy readability and comprehension. Keep in mind that a screenplay is often one of the first forms in which interested parties such as studio executives and producers are introduced to a film idea. A well-formatted, concise screenplay could be the key to converting a pitch into a greenlit film/ show. Hence, it is a good idea to follow the standard industry standard when it comes to formatting.
What Is The Standard Screenplay Format?
As a general rule of thumb, screenplays stick to the “one page per minute of screen time” rule. As a result, most scenes range from three to five pages, and screenplays are generally ninety to one hundred and twenty pages long, with few exceptions.
Here are the basics of screenplay formatting:
- The 12-point Courier font is most commonly used as a screenplay font. It is a monospaced font, which means, all the characters and spaces are exactly the same width.
- Each page should contain no more than fifty-five lines, not including the page number and the spacing.
- The top and bottom margins should be one inch long, while a 1.5-inch left margin, and a 1-inch right margin (ragged) is preferred.
- Page numbers are denoted in the top right corner, flush with the right margin and half an inch from the top of the page. The first page is not numbered, along with the title page.
- The beginning of the screenplay should start in one of two ways – either with FADE IN, or OVER BLACK.
- The scene heading FADE IN is used to denote the start of the story. It is used in conjunction with a colon to convey continuity with the ensuing scene or scene description.
- If the script begins with a black screen or a narration before the audience sees anything, an alternate opening heading of OVER BLACK. The character narrating the voice-over is written as CHARACTER NAME (V.O.), after which you can write the sound effect or the action line. When the visual begins after the voiceover, use the FADE-IN heading as we move into the scene.
- Similarly, FADE OUT is used at the end of the last scene, denoting that the screenplay is finished.
- Character names, transition directions and scene headings are always in capitals. We will be breaking them down in detail later on below.
The 6 Elements Of A Screenplay Format
In order to denote action and technical directions, certain terminology is used in a particular way in the screenplay. Let’s take a look at them individually below.
1. Scene Heading
The primary function of the screen heading is to tell us where we are at the beginning of a scene. It is always capitalised and broken down in a few sections to let us know the details about the location.
For example, EXT. refers to the exterior and INT. refers to the interior. This locates the surroundings of the scene. As we move ahead, specifications such as a particular place where the character is in, and the time of the day are added. The different parts of a scene heading are separated with periods and hyphens, as illustrated below.
INT. BEDROOM – NIGHT
EXT. EMPTY ROAD – NOON
A scene heading is also referred to as a slug line, and smaller subheaders are also used to denote a small change in location, such as a different room within the house, like below:
INT. X’s KITCHEN- EVENING
X grabs a water bottle, walks into the–
–lies down dejectedly.
The purpose of scene headings is to keep track of where the action is taking place.
2. Action Lines
When we are introduced to a scene or a character, the screenplay often provides a few lines of information about what is going to happen. These are called action lines.
They may include the characters’ physical descriptions, a short reference to their traits, or even an impression about their personality. Action lines are also crucial in letting us know the texture and feel of a scene by describing the atmosphere. They can also provide guidelines for character or object actions.
Let’s have a look at the examples below:
X enters the bathroom, placing their hands on the sink and looking at themselves in the mirror.
X’s phone rings. They make no move to answer it.
Action lines are always written in the present tense.
3. Character Name
Before any new character is brought in, they are introduced with a little information before their first line of dialogue. Their names are always capitalised, followed by an action line or a description to help the audience visualise their presence.
The description of any character is always kept in parentḥesis, while their action line is not. Non-speaking characters are also introduced, unless they are a part of the general setting.
Let’s take a look at a screenplay example:
Y (16, black hair, a crooked smile)
Y runs across the hall into the classroom, removing her mask and flashing a crooked smile. ANGRY TEACHER looks on disapprovingly.
The dialogue is the spoken part of the action. Anytime a character speaks — be it active speech to other characters or as a voiceover — their lines should be included as dialogue. If a particular word or phrase in the dialogue needs to be emphasised, it can be helpful to underline it. When the character has dialogue, their name is written in all capitals in the centre of the page, with the dialogue directly underneath, as such:
Why would you do that to me?
Qualifiers can also be added next to the character’s name, to specify how the audience is supposed to hear the dialogue. Some useful qualifiers are:
(O.C.)- Off Camera
(O.S)- Off Screen
If the dialogue runs in continuation from one place to another, the continuation can be denoted by using CONT’D.
It sometimes happens that additional directions may be needed to specify the tone and sentiment of a particular dialogue. Parentheticals are usually short directions placed between the character’s name and their dialogue to elucidate the nature and performance of the line. They are also used to signify when the character is doing something else while speaking the line.
Let’s take a look at two examples:
I had nothing to do with the accident.
(frowns, takes a sip of water)
Or so you keep telling me.
It is helpful to understand transitions in a screenplay as cuts that indicate the end of any given scene. It hints that a change in scene is due and takes the audience to a new location or setting.
The most crucial transitions are the ones I mentioned at the beginning: FADE IN and FADE OUT, as they bookend the beginning and the end of the screenplay, respectively. Other commonly used transitions include:
CUT TO: indicating a new scene and location.
BACK TO: indicating a return to a previous location after cutting to a new one. This is also called a cutaway.
Things To Avoid In A Screenplay
While it may be tempting to include lots of directions and action in the screenplay, it can often harm the final draft by making it crowded and jumbled. Writers should aim to create a document that is clear, concise and communicates articulately. Here are a few things to avoid that will make your draft better:
- Too many directions in the form of parentheticals and action lines will leave no room for improvisation and creative collaboration. It may feel exciting to have complete creative control of the screenplay, but crowding it with too many specifications will make it stagnant. After all, a screenplay should not be the final word on the project, but rather an effective guide that allows room for experimentation and intuitive acting.
- Too many technical instructions, such as camera angles and transitions, can often make script writing a cumbersome activity. These are best left to members like the director and editor to figure out, and can be quite unnecessary in a screenplay.
- Since your screenplay is a record of what can be shown on screen and how, it’s best to cut out overly flowery language that adds nothing of value. The rule of “show, not tell” is of paramount importance here. If a character feels lonely, do not say that A felt lonely. Rather, come up with a scene that communicates the emotion to the reader and the viewer. The same goes for dialogue — if it doesn’t serve to further the story, discard it.
- Overwriting is another cardinal sin to avoid at all costs. Long paragraphs of action lines and directions don’t add value to the scene, and break the flow of the narrative. Unless it is in one’s interest to write a monologue or a long speech, it is best to avoid falling into the trap of excess verbosity.
Useful Tips To Format Your Screenplay
Of course, it’s a no-brainer that practice makes perfect. The more one writes, edits and studies screenplays, the more they will get the hang of how to format screenplays without a hitch. In the meantime, here are some tips that we hope will help:
As it is extremely important for one’s ideas to look professional on paper, formatting the screenplay correctly is absolutely indispensable. However, memorising the standard industry format for screenplays can be rather tiresome, which is why it is a good idea to use trusted web applications and programs to access screenplay format pdfs or edit them accordingly. Some popular apps are WriterDuet, Movie Magic Screenwriter, Fade In and Final Draft. Using such screenplay format software will not only make the process much easier, it will also ensure that the final product is always up to industry standards.
White space is very important. It is advisable to break up long paragraphs of spoken dialogue in a manner that maintains the pace of the narrative and allows the reader to easily understand the action. Along with the usage of minimal parentheticals and brief descriptions, it is possible to write an engaging scene without overloading it without details.
Lastly, aspiring screenwriters should try to inculcate a habit of reading screenplays. It is a wonderful practice that will allow them to see firsthand what works and what doesn’t, and help them learn from films across styles and genres. Studying screenplays will also help them get familiar with the terminology and formatting conventions, minimising the margin for error in the future.
When it comes to writing a good screenplay that is likely to be converted into a film or television show, it is not enough to put pen to paper and create an engrossing narrative. Proper formatting helps the screenplay reach the right avenues — be it screenplay competitions, studios or agents. It shows that the writer has experience, along with a sense of professionalism and artistic control. Through a rigorous process of editing and formatting, one can polish and fine-tune their screenplay. As unnecessary bits of exposition and useless directions are removed, only the best parts of the story remain, allowing the screenplay to become the finest it can be.
An avid reader and a life-long lover of blue skies, I like to spend my time with obscure poetry and dissecting films. Currently besotted with Maupassant, art history and all things Nolan, you can find me spacing out to Queen while I look for new things to obsess with.