If you found yourself ending up here, chances are you know how important it is to learn about professional screenplay formatting. But just so we’re absolutely clear on the subject, let me briefly mention why it’s important.
You don’t get too many chances at making a good first impression. For readers, agents and producers, the first thing they’ll see when your script lands on their laps isn’t the content. It’s the FORMATTING. And if it doesn’t look like it was written by someone who knows his formatting, it’s considered a waste of their time and automatically gets thrown into the trash bin. Harsh, but it’s true. These guys read dozens of screenplays daily and they can’t afford to have their time wasted by someone who doesn’t even know how to properly format a screenplay. You’re basically competing with hundreds of other screenplays for their attention.
If your script finds its way to their reading list, consider yourself lucky. Don’t waste it by submitting a work that doesn’t look like it was written by someone who is serious about the craft.
Now, there are lots of screenwriting software out there that can do the formatting for you. But it also helps to know formatting basics by yourself. At least you’re informed on how not to format on occasions when you feel you can be a little liberal with your formatting.
Alright, let’s dive right in.
FONT, MARGINS AND PAGE NUMBERS
First things first. Courier, 12 points is the font of the industry. Nothing else. If your script uses anything but, regardless if you got the margins down, expect it to be skipped.
Top and bottom margins should be 1 inch. Your right margin can be anywhere from .5 to 1 inch. And your left margin should be 1.5 inches to provide space for the binding.
Page numbers should appear at the top of every page, except for the title page. They should be set flush right, and followed by a period.
This is where you tell the reader where and when the scene takes place. This is typed in all caps.
All scene headings start with either INT. or EXT., for interior and exterior respectively. After that comes the actual setting.
Consider the following example:
In writing locations, be specific to avoid confusing your readers. If you have scenes that take place in different houses throughout your movie, tell the reader whose house is it. If a certain restaurant has a name and is among other restaurants to be used in the movie, don’t just put RESTAURANT. Write its location by its name. (e.g. HANSEN’S BAR & GRILL)
The last part of the scene heading denotes what time of the day does the scene take place. Only DAY and NIGHT are acceptable for this part, unless a more specific time setting is necessary (e.g. SUNSET, DUSK, etc.)
If the next scene happens in the same locations as the previous one, put (LATER) at the end of its scene heading.
You can use a SLASH to denote a more specific location within a general setting. Example. INT. HOUSE/BATHROOM – DAY
If the scene happens in a moving car, bus, train or any other mobile location, put TRAVELING preceded by a hyphen at the end of the scene heading. Example: INT. VAN – DAY – TRAVELING
As their name implies, action lines denote the “action”, or what happens in a scene. As a rule, remember to write only what the audience can see or hear. Many new screenwriters make the mistake of depicting characters’ thoughts or feelings on the script. That may work for novels or short stories, but not for screenplays. Unless there’s a way that the characters can portray those thoughts or feelings into actions.
Another thing to avoid writing, or even thinking about, is how the camera should move or shoot the scene. Let the director and cinematographer worry about that. All they would need from you is to know what happens in that scene.
Consider the example below:
The action lines are clear and straight to the point. The reader knows exactly what is happening in the scene and who’s doing what.
While we’re at it, let’s quickly go over when to use capitalizations in action lines.
The most common instance when you should capitalize is when you’re introducing a character for the first time. For example:
In this instance, the reader has been introduced to Danny. But Sidney is a new character whose existence the reader has not yet been informed of until this point. After this scene, “Sidney” should be written in action lines like the other characters: in Title Case.
Aside from introducing a character for the first time, you can also use capitalizations to denote sound effects. (e.g. BANG, THUD, SCREECHES, etc.)
In a screenplay, dialogue is always formatted to the center of the document. Above the dialogue lines itself, the name of the character speaking is written in all caps.
A simple back-and-forth can be written as the above example.
But of course, sometimes dialogue isn’t a simple back-and-forth. Sometimes characters speak without being seen. Sometimes they talk on phones, radios or over the computer. And sometimes, it’s important to note when someone is so upset when they’re talking. So how do you do that?
Through extensions and parentheticals.
Let’s go over a few of them.
These are used to denote how lines should be delivered. Is there a certain emotional charge or action that should accompany the delivery of the line?
Parentheticals are placed directly under the character’s name, above the dialogue. You can see in this example how parentheticals make a difference in how the scene is performed.
Whereas parentheticals tell the reader how a character says their lines, extensions tell the reader WHERE they are in the scene as they deliver their lines.
Extensions are put beside the character’s name, enclosed in parentheses and written in all caps.
There are two common extensions used for dialogue:
- (V.O.) – for voiceover. Use this if you’re using a narrator as a storytelling device, or whenever you use dialogue that the people in the ongoing scene or sequence can’t hear. You can also use this for characters’ internal dialogue. Or if God or any unseen force is talking to your characters.
- (O.S.) – for off-screen. You can also use (O.C.) for off-camera. Either way, this is for lines where the speaker cannot be seen onscreen, but are still in the same general location and can be heard by the characters. For example, if we can only see a wife in the kitchen talking to her husband who’s in the nearby living room, every time the husband replies, put (O.S.) beside his character cue.
PHONE CALLS (OR RADIO CONVERSATIONS, INTERCOM EXCHANGES, ETC.)
For instances where characters talk over a phone or other similar devices, you can do this in two ways. You can either cut back and forth to the two characters talking through their devices, or you can show just one of them while letting the other be heard over the phone only.
In the first case, what you’ll do is write separate scene headings every time you cut between them. Then apply the parenthetical rule to denote that they’re speaking into a device every time they deliver their lines. So below their character names, you can use (into phone), (into radio), (into microphone), or whatever they may be using.
In the second case, use the “into” parenthetical for the character who we can see onscreen. As for the character on the other side of the exchange, put a (V.O.) beside their name, and use the parenthetical (over *device*, filtered) before they say their line.
Most movies today rely on standard cuts to switch to the next scene. But sometimes, when you’re feeling extra creative, you can play around with your transitions between scenes. Some movies use other transitions aside from the standard cut. Just look at how every Star Wars movie uses the wipe.
Transitions are written at the end of a scene, right before the scene heading of the next one. They are typed in all caps followed by a colon, and are justified right.
Oh, and quick tip: if you’re going to use a standard cut, don’t worry about putting CUT TO: before the next scene. That was an old practice. Nowadays, it’s generally understood that no transition means standard cut.
These are the basics when it comes to professional screenplay formatting. Remember these like the back of your hand before you start the actual writing. This way, you can avoid thinking too much about the technicalities of the craft and focus more on how you can tell your story through visuals, action and dialogue.