Creating An Unforgettable Screenplay, Part 4: Formatting Basics
by Christine Autrand Mitchell
I’m running into a lot of basic formatting confusion by mostly beginning writers, so I’d like to address the obvious for a change. You’re not allowed to reinvent script formatting. Yes, it’s evolved from silent to sound, and television, single to multiple camera, but there are rules, people! Within them you can reveal your I’ll be talking about a basic, unrepresented spec script.
Whether you use a script writing software or not, there are some basic things you need to know, like:
Print on a single side of the page
Use 2 brads even though you 3-hole punch
Don’t use fancy covers
The magic number of pages fall between 90 and 120 (though it can go over but that’s another article)
Be succinct (see Action below)
EDIT and PROOF your work - spelling and grammar matter! (A great number of scripts get rejected during the first 10 pages of a read because of spelling and grammar errors, as well as formatting mistakes - I kid you not!)
There are two spaces after a period but only one after an ellipsis…
and below there are more important bits.
Font & Margins
Courier 12 - whether it’s Courier, Courier New, Courier + Software Name, doesn’t matter. It is a fixed-pitch font. Margins vary depending upon which “authority” you are referencing. I could write this entire article on margins - but I won’t. Remember that there are right margins as well as left margins. I suggest you use the default of your software or use a reference like Christopher Riley’s “The Hollywood Standard” among others. Font and margins set your maximum number of lines per page at 57.
Begin with your title in ALL CAPS about 4” down, 4 lines down put “written by” then skip a line for your name & the other guy’s name. Your contact information, as in address, phone and email, (and optional WGA/Copyright number) go bottom left. If you have representation, that person’s information would appear instead of the writer’s.
TITLE OF SCRIPT can go top center and then FADE IN: follows left margin, alone on a line.
Scene Heading (or Shot Heading)
It’s the when and where of each scene, always ALL CAPS. Try to stick to Master Shots and away from specific type of shots because you’re the screenwriter, not the director (unless there is a damn good reason).
INT. (interior) or EXT. (exterior) - where the camera is set up
LOCATION - where is this scene taking place?
(SHOT - i.e. wide, tracking, POV)
(SUBJECT OF SHOT - i.e. car, President)
TIME OF DAY - i.e. Sunrise, Day, Continuous, or specific date
Flashbacks and Dream Sequences can precede INT/EXT but can also be put in as a shot. Denote their end with END FLASHBACK/DREAM as a transition or with a (BACK TO PRESENT) on the next Scene Heading.
Novelists beware: no articles are to be used here!
Action (or Direction)
After Scene Heading, tell us what’s happening. This narrative section allows you to play journalist, providing the what, who, where, when, maybe how, but probably not why. Give us mood and you’ll create lighting and filters,atmosphere and emotion. You don’t need to describe each piece of furniture, but let us get a true feel for the place and for the people being introduced.
Be succinct and give just enough to provide a clear picture. The better you are at waxing poetic here, the more engaged your reader becomes.
Write in present active tense, keep away from adverbs and make your adjectives count - i.e. the paint chipped door CREAKS open
Keep the reader engaged by describing what we see on the screen - never what anyone is feeling or sensing!
The first time a character is introduced, he/she is in ALL CAPS. If he doesn’t ever talk, don’t CAP - unless he is a major character.
In our attention-deficit world, keep action paragraphs to five lines.
Keep CAMERA DIRECTIONS (ALL CAPS) out (or to a minimum), as a rule for selling a spec script. You can allude to things - trust me, it can be done!
SOUND EFFECTS and ON-SCREEN MESSAGES (like texts) are capitalized.
Finally, the dialog! The CHARACTER (CAPS) is always first, so we know who’s talking. (If it’s BLOND GIRL and then she gets a name, her NAME is introduced in the Action paragraph and then always use the CHARACTER NAME.) Caution: Name is not in the center of the page - starts at roughly a 4.1” margin.
If the character is a voice over put (V.O.) next to the name, same goes for off-screen (O.S.), meaning the character is in the scene but we don’t see them on camera, like through a door or from another room. If a page break occurs during the dialog, (MORE) should be at the bottom of the page and CHARACTER (CONT’D) on the top of the next page, followed by dialog.
The (parenthetical) is brief and starts at roughly 3.4” margin, has parenthesis around it, doesn’t start with caps, follows the character name and cannot end the dialog, but can be sandwiched between. It is a description about that character’s line delivery or physical action only. Use it sparingly! It’s a short incomplete sentence; separating actions with semicolons. You can use passive verbs and adverbs - yeay! You cannot, however, describe another character’s actions or lines. Here are some examples: (beat), (sotto voce), (in German).
The actual dialog, the lines the characters speak, start at roughly the 2.7” margin. Important: make this sound like a real person is actually talking - read it out loud, record it, have your actor friends read it for you.
If more than one person is speaking simultaneously, you can put them in separate columns (check your margins). Underline emphasis in dialog, no italics, and be economical with it. If someone gets cut off or stops suddenly, denote it with—
Your last words should be FADE OUT as a transition (about 6” margin), but many do like to put THE END centered 4 lines below the previous line.
Make certain you are backing up your files regularly. As you edit, make sure you’re descriptions are succinct and your dialog is well structured.
Happy writing and edit well! Remember, too, this is a visual medium.
Christine Autrand Mitchell was raised across four countries and splits her time between writing and filmmaking. She writes screenplays, fiction, non-fiction and plays, and is an editor and script analyst. She has credits as a Producer, Director and Casting Director, and heads Entandem Productions.