How to Format a Screenplay
Before you sit down to write your first screenplay, you have to know how a screenplay should look on the page. The best way to familiarize yourself with how to format a screenplay properly (and screenwriting in general) is by reading scripts. Check out websites like The Internet Movie Script Database (don’t let its ‘90s vibe turn you off) and Simply Scripts.
Entire books have been written on screenplay formatting, so it’s impossible to cover all formatting situations. Instead, this guide shall serve as a basic overview of screenplay format.
Why is it Important?
Using proper formatting paints you as a professional, or rather, improper formatting pegs you as an amateur. Your script may be the most brilliant piece of cinematic writing since The Godfather, but if you’ve not taken the time to format a screenplay properly, then you run the risk of losing the attention of the script reader, be they an agent, manager, or contest judge. First impressions count for a lot in the film industry, and a properly formatted script is just another tool to help you make a good impression in a notoriously cutthroat business.
Proper formatting is the “industry standard” – and it helps you, too. Since the script is written in 12 point Courier font (a throwback to the days where scribes wrote on typewriters) each page equals one minute of screen time, allowing the writer and reader to judge the length of the script/potential movie.
Using proper formatting ensures easy readability so a reader will focus on your story – not your formatting errors.
How to Format a Screenplay – Four Components
A screenplay is comprised of four composite parts:
- Scene Headings (also known as Slug Lines)
- Action (also known as Scene Description)
If this sounds a bit overwhelming, don’t panic. We will go over each component in detail, using Winter’s Bone (2009), based on the 2006 novel of the same name by Daniel Woodrell, as our primary example. Directed by Debra Granik, it was written by Debra Granik & Anne Rosselini. It follows Ree, a teenage girl living in poverty in the Missouri Ozarks, as she attempts to track down her father, who cooks meth and has skipped bail, putting the family house up as collateral.
Scene Headings (a.k.a. Slug Lines)
We’ll now examine how scene headings (also known as slug lines) are used in Winter’s Bone (2009).
The scene heading consists of three parts: whether the scene takes place outside (exterior, written EXT.) or inside (interior, written INT.), the location of the scene, and the time of day. All three parts are crucial for planning and budgeting once the script goes to production, since, for example, a daytime scene will cost less than a night shoot. In a spec script (one written on speculation, with no guarantee of a sale), do not number the scenes. Numbering scenes happens only with a shooting script. Don’t bold the slug lines, either.
Both of these scenes takes place outside (one in the woods, one in Teardrop’s yard), during the day, and the slug lines reflect that. Let’s take a look at the beginning of the next scene.
Ree enters the kitchen, coming inside, and the slug line reflects that. Teardrop’s House is the master location, and the kitchen is a sub-location. Granik and Rosselini have written INT. TEARDROP’S HOUSE, KITCHEN – DAY, but this could also be written INT. TEARDROP’S HOUSE – KITCHEN – DAY.
Action (a.k.a. Scene Description)
Unlike in a stage play, action (also known as scene description) is never italicized or put in parentheses. Just write with concision (since you only have 90-120 pages for a feature and screenplays should be economical) and in the present tense (which lends screenplays their sense of immediacy). Let’s examine how Ree’s uncle, Teardrop, is introduced.
Since this is his first appearance, his name is put in ALL CAPS. Each subsequent time he appears, it isn’t in all caps. (Note that this differs from the format of a stage play, in which all character names are always placed in all caps in the stage directions).
He’s described as “worn” and “unshaven.” Remember, in screenwriting, less is more. Those two descriptors say a lot about him. You typically want to leave a fair amount of white space on the page, so your scene descriptions shouldn’t run more than four lines at a time.
Now let’s take a look at how dialogue is formatted. As you can see, the dialogue appears in a column below the name of the character who is speaking. As with scene descriptions, you want to leave a lot of white space; don’t overwhelm the reader with long columns of dialogue. If a character needs to make a soliloquy, it’s best to split it up with some action. Since film is much more of a visual medium than a stage play (which relies mostly on dialogue), it’s important to give your characters plenty to do!
Parentheticals indicate how a certain line should be said (in this case, they are often referred to as “wrylies”), clarify to whom a character is speaking (if there are more than two people in a conversation), or indicate a small action performed by a character.
When Ree shifts her focus from Victoria to Teardrop, a parenthetical is used to make this clear.
A parenthetical is also used to indicate an action that Teardrop is doing; he’s shaking his head. It’s presented this way, rather than in a separate line of scene description, so as not to interrupt the flow of the script.
Every screenplay typically begins with FADE IN: on the left, and then ends with FADE OUT. on the right.
In the past, it was common practice to include such transitions as CUT TO: (on the right side) between every scene, or even SMASH TO: (which is really an artistic choice that will be made by the director and is not the screenwriter’s domain). Nowadays, it’s best to forgo these types of transitions, as it is obvious that each scene will require a cut. One exception might be the use of DISSOLVE TO: (again, on the right side), which indicates that the next scene is a flashback or dream sequence.
We’ve covered the basics, but in Part 2 (Screenplay Format: Beyond the Basics) we’ll go further, exploring special situations you may encounter and discussing formatting software. Stay tuned!