How to Format a Screenplay

At first glance, screenplays may look intimidating. They follow a detailed, rigorous format that you may not be privy to if you're just starting out. If you're a well-seasoned writer, this would be familiar terrain.

Writing a screenplay or a script that would act as the blueprint to your story is the first step you take towards taking your story from page, and materializing it on screen. Be it a short film, a feature-film, a stage play, or a television program, a screenplay serves as the ultimate referral for the writer, readers, and media professionals.

What makes up Screenplay formatting?

Screenplay formatting refers to the styling and content elements that you see on the pages of a script. All screenplays follow standard, and detailed formatting guidelines that is are recognized by the media industry, be it television, commercial or film.

Industry

Screenplay formatting and the attention paid to it's details are important because of the fact that it is a recognized, industry-wide standard that professionals look toward. This format allows for the writer or storyteller to coherently and clearly communicate what they envision for people to hear and see on screen or on stage. This standard formatting also allows for all of a project's collaborators; directors, producers, actors, stylists, make-up artistes, art managers, stage managers etc. to easily understand the happenings in a scene and be able to prepare and execute the necessary with regards to their department.

Screenwriters

Following standard formatting ensures that screen and script writers make a professional and adept impression from the get-go. It reflects that the writer has spent time and effort into crafting his story as well as into delivering and presenting his work in a near and well-organized manner, suggesting as sense of earnestness.

Readers

Standard screenplay formatting allows readers to keep focus and be undistracted while reading a story. Nothing shifts their focus because of the standardization and organization on the pages and they can fully immerse themselves in the content and story writing.

Formatting Elements of a Screenplay

The standard industry-standard screenplay format includes the following :

  1. Courier typeface in font size 12, double-spaced lines. - This standard screenplay font allows for a page to screen ratio of 1:1. This size and typeface also been adhered to because of readability and clarity. It also allows for an estimation of the length of the film, drama, or performance. One page of a screenplay is assumed to play out in 1 minute of real or screen time.
  2. 1.5-inch margin on the left side of the page. - This allows for space for binding or holes to be punched.
  3. 1-inch margin on the right side of the page.
  4. 1-inch margins on the of the top and bottom of the page.
  5. Character names to be in uppercase letters. - Character names are almost always reflected in uppercase letters, and are positioned both 3.7 inches from left side of page and 2.2 inches from the margin.
  6. Page numbers, always followed by a period, are positioned in the top right corner of the page, with a 0.5 inch margin from the top of the page (first page need not be numbered).
  7. Approximately 55 lines per page. - Producers and directors are able to estimate the screen-time of a screenplay based on the number of lines there are per page. This way, they are able to estimate and plan for scene durations easily.
  8. Dialogues are placed 2.5 inches from the left side of the page and 1.5 inches from the margin.

In terms of content elements, most screenplays include :

1. Scene headings

Scene headings or slug lines give readers an idea of how the scene will play out. Scene headings include the following :

  • Interior or Exterior - This is used to denote the general location or surroundings of the scene with either "INT" or "EXT"
  • A brief description of the scene setting or location - This is used to denote where exactly the scene happens, and where the camera is positioned in relation to the actors.
  • Time of Day - The time of the day is included to help everyone following the screenplay to follow and track the timeline of the story and to better set up the scene or set. "DAY", "NIGHT", "AFTERNOON", "EVENING", and "LATER" are some common time stamps that are used.

2. Action Lines

Action lines are written in present tense, from a third person's perspective, and should be as visually descriptive as possible.

Action lines should make readers feel as though your events are materializing in an unpredictable and exciting fashion. This compels them to want to know the details of your description and read further on. Action lines, although kept within a crisp 4 lines, should reflect what the audience would see, hear and feal during a scene. The emphasis of bigger, more prominent sounds or audio cues, and key objects or props in a scene can be brought to attention using uppercase letters in your screenplay.

3. Characters and Introduction

In screenplays, character names are capitalized, entered in the middle of the page, and are followed by their dialogue in the next line. When introducing a new character, their name is followed by other details such as their age, qualities that would help readers visualize what they look or sound like, or quirks and personality traits that characterize them.

4. Dialogues

Writing dialogues has straightforward formatting rules, but is arguably a more difficult part of screenwriting. Dialogues are set right after the capitalized and centered character name, also as centered and justified text. Dialogues are written double-spaced, in the standard capitalization and with appropriate punctuation. If characters are meant to emphasize a line or word, it can be underlined.

Extensions, such as "O.S" for off-screen and "V.O" for voice-over can be added to the end of a block of dialogue for a character. This is to denote that a character would be saying something off-screen or in a voice-over instead of within the time and place of the scene instead. The occasional "CONT'D" can also be included after a character's name to show that the lines that follow are a continuation of them speaking after being interrupted by an action or description.

5. Parenthetical

Parentheticals can be mistaken for extensions. But while extensions are more technical directions or instructions, parentheticals are guidelines for actors and suggest how a dialogue should be executed or performed.

Parenthetical are placed beneath the character's name or in between dialogues to give your readers and actors more insight into how lines can be delivered in terms of tone, attitude, or volume, to reflect small actions, or even a switch in mood without the need of another action line.

They also serve multiple people; for directors to better guide their actors, to feed actors ideas, and to denote nuance such as subtext or sarcasm in the screenplay. But use these sparingly, as actors who prefer improvising or who require space to explore their dialogues might feel restricted.

6. Transitions

Transitions are stated in a screenplay to reflect the way in which the story flows from one scene to the next, and are indicators for how the editor should cut or switch between two scenes. Transitions are capitalized, justified to the right of the page and stated between two scenes.

Common transitions include "FADE OUT", "CUT TO", "SMASH TO", "DISSOLVE TO", "INTERCUT" and "FADE OUT'.

However, it is recommended that transitions are used sparingly as this seemingly minor choice can affect a script’s readability and flow. A new scene heading can be used instead to show a change in scene.

7. Shots

Shots specify the camera angles and movements in which the scene should be captured in. While not many screenwriters include shots in their screenplay, leaving it the director’s decision, they are specified if it is critical to the scene.

Some examples include "CLOSE UP ON”, “PAN DOWN TO", or "POV".


The technicality of formatting a screenplay can come across overwhelming if you are new to screenplay writing, and maybe a little dreary even if you're a seasoned writer. But these formatting guidelines in place to make the work that comes after completing your screenplay much easier; bringing your story from script to screen. Find out how you can make this writing process even easier in Fountain.