Contrary to what most people believe, learning proper screenplay format is not the first step in becoming a screenwriter. Story and structure always come first, so before you proceed further, make sure you understand basic storytelling concepts such as three-act structure, character arc, and the often-overlooked theme.
The standard format for the American film industry is the Master Scene, which “breaks” the script with each new scene, designated by a new header. Although screenplay formatting may look strange, this is a convention of the trade and, as such, it must be followed.
Font is always Courier, always size 12. The reason for this particular typeface is that Courier characters have the same size, so an estimation of how long the finished movie will be is more accurate, as each page should equal a minute of screen time.
|Note: This is one of the few pages in our website written with Courier font. The purpose is to showcase its look as well as emphasize that all screenplays are written with it. If it's not your favorite font, get over it. You will be writing and reading a lot of it.|
If you’re writing a spec script, intending to sell it to a production company, then you should start it with FADE IN, which is the type of transition in which a black screen dissolves to picture. This is common practice. If the director chooses to start with a wipe or with a cut from black, that is his prerogative. FADE IN is the only transition notation that goes on the left-hand side of the page.
Quick Reference Guide:
- font: 12 point Courier
- spacing between dialogue and action (two lines)
- left margin 1.5''
- right margin 1.5''
- tab for left dialogue margin 2.5''
- tab for right dialogue margin 2.5''
CAPITALIZE THESE ELEMENTS:
- all camera instructions (use sparingly)
- all sounds, including music
- all character names the first they appear in a description/action line
- every word in the header
- the speaker's name, above each line of dialogue
Sample Script from Pulp Fiction (1994)
Some rules of script formatting may look arbitrary and pointless, but they are standards. Overlooking these standards is self-defeating, a sign of amateurism that might discourage potential buyers from even reading your script. Don’t ruin your chances over something so small. Know the rules.
After FADE IN, you must introduce the scene location and time with a Header, also called a Slug Line. Write it all in caps. Examples:
INT. BELLAGIO – NIGHT
EXT. CENTRAL PARK – DAY
INT. DAVE'S KITCHEN - DAWN
EXT. PIER - DUSK
EXT. and INT. stand for “Exterior” and “Interior” respectively, meaning whether the scene is set outdoors or indoors. It’s that simple.
If you have a scene that involves a mix of both types of location, use the one where you think the camera would shoot the scene from. For instance, if you have a scene of a father in his living room observing his children playing in the yard, you should use INT. LIVING ROOM because the active character is doing the action inside his living room.
Just write the movie visually without any technical jargon. Pretend you're telling the story to a friend.
The action "Charlie cries" already implies a close-up. The description "Rain pours over the south side of Chicago" suggests a long shot.
For the time of the day, you only need DAY, NIGHT, DUSK, or DAWN. All of those are acceptable because they are visually different and significant. There’s no need to be specific with the actual hour. 10:00 AM doesn’t look much different than 3:00 PM, especially when indoors, so just write DAY. Instead of “Noon” or “Midnight,” right DAY and NIGHT. If you need, for some reason, to specify the hour, then write it in the description lines. Don’t forget to make obvious how this fact is known. Is it said by one of the characters? Is there a clock on the wall? Maybe someone’s watch?
Following the Header we have the Action and Description line, where you describe the scenery, characters, and their actions. Unlike what you see in novels and short stories, in screenplays the action is always in present tense. So instead of writing “John pulled out his revolver and fired” write “John pulls out his revolver and fires.”
Descriptions should be kept to a minimum. Something like “A dark, cluttered bedroom.” is better than “The bed is a mess. Books clutter the floor. The closed window lets no light in. It’s dark.”
Lengthy descriptive passages with too much detail are frowned upon. From the example above, you could use the second description if the bed, the books, and the window were relevant to the story. Also, this longer passage would, perhaps, be welcomed if you’re introducing a location visited often throughout the script. If it is a one-time-only location for, say, a detective to find a clue, there’s no need to go overboard with detail. Use restrain and common sense. Write as if you were reading someone else’s script, and you only want what is relevant.
Film Professor’s Insight
Relevance is key when writing a screenplay. Be judicious when determining what is essential and what is superfluous.
For instance, when describing a character, oftentimes there’s no compelling reason to describe color of the eyes.
If a seductress has “mesmerizing blue eyes,” and she’s gonna use them to entice someone, then go ahead and mention the eyes.
This is subjective and varies with each script, so use common sense. Too much detail is a turn off as it hinders one's reading.
When a character speaks, write his or her name in the center of the page, using upper case letters. Minor characters are often named after their profession or a trait or both, like Tall Professor or Geeky Tech. The dialogue follows under it in a central column under the name.
Film Professor's Insight
Occasionally, parentheses are used between the name and the dialogue to give extra information on how a character feels or the way he delivers his or her lines. Parentheses should be employed sparingly only when the information is not obvious.
For instance, consider the following dialogue:
The information in the parenthesis is not needed because the dialogue itself gives enough information on how the line should be delivered. Keep your script clean. Avoid redundancy.
In scriptwriting, the term “transition” refers to how one scene shifts to the next, thus they either precede the Header or finish the script. The most used transitional notations are cut to, fade in, fade out, dissolve to, cut to black, and cut from black. However, this information is superfluous and unnecessary in a spec script.
As a screenwriter, you have no idea what the director's plans for the scene will be. Even though you think your suggestion is worthy, unfortunately it isn't, nor is it appreciated. Avoid specifying transitions. Let the director figure it out.
If you are the screenwriter working alongside the director and responsible for the shooting script, then this is a different game. You should convene with the director and reach a consensus about which transitional device best fits each scene.
Sample Script from Independence Day (1996)
Wait! Don't stop!
Learning screenplay format is easy and simple. With all due respect, anyone can do it. It's all about capitalizing, spacing, margins, placing the header here and dialogue there.
What is really hard is writing compellingly, understanding structure and tempo. Take the time to read more screenplays and see how, for instance, a chase is narrated or a location is described.
Professionals writers are able to entrance us with powerful wording. This cannot be taught in a brief how-to guide. It involves a certain level of craftsmanship that takes years for one to perfect.