How to Format a Screenplay: Helpful Script Writing Instructions

How to Format a Screenplay: Helpful Script Writing Instructions
Table of Contents
  1. How to Format a Screenplay: Helpful Script Writing Instructions
  2. 4 key reasons why you should format a screenplay properly
  3. What are the 8 elements of script formatting?
  4. How to start writing a screenplay
  5. What is the proper format for a screenplay?
  6. What is the difference between script and screenplay?
  7. Spec Script vs. Shooting Script
  8. Script format: The general principles
  9. Screenplay formatting instructions you should follow
  10. More things to keep in mind when formatting a screenplay
  11. Final thoughts

If it can be written, or thought, it can be filmed.

Stanley Kubrick

Do you want your story turn into the finished film? Be prepared to make several steps toward your goal. The first one is to format your scripts the right way. There are certain standard rules all script writers should follow no matter what university or college they are studying at. We have prepared this script formatting guide to make this difficult task easier for you. Keep on reading to learn the distinctive features and peculiarities of screenplay formatting.

4 key reasons why you should format a screenplay properly

It is very important to use the established format of writing the final draft, even if you write the script for the film you are going to direct.

  1. People who can finance your movie often figure out how professional screenplays should look like.
  2. Experienced team members have a clear understanding of how the script should be formatted.
  3. All of the actors definitely know the rules of how a high-quality script should look like.
  4. The properly formatted script will help you when you need to make a plan of filming.

Believe that having the right script format, you will feel self-confident. Fortunately, the software takes most of the effort required to properly format, but you still need to understand what the elements of the script are, and also be aware of the formatting rules.

What are the 8 elements of script formatting? 

Script formatting requires a unique case margin and position attributes. The features mentioned above make the film script text properly organized according to the format and consistency that is expected by every participant. If the writer gets acquainted with them, they will be able to tell the story in the correctly formatted way that a custom industry reader is accustomed to viewing it. The specific elements for a script involve the following:

  1. Scene Headings. The Scene Heading, in other words, Slugline, informs the script reader about the place of the particular scene. If actions are performed indoors, then the writer should use INT. and outdoors EXT. The next required step is the names of the locations (interior, exterior), whether it is a BEDROOM, LIVING ROOM, CAR, HOME, etc. The last step is related to the time of day, whether it is  NIGHT, DAY, DAWN, DUSK, etc. All the options mentioned above help to set the scene in the mind of the script reader.
  2. Action. The ACTION element, also referred to as description, aims to set the scene, describe the setting of the particular scene, and finally allow the script-writer to introduce the characters and establish the stage for the story. It is always written in Present Continuous, in other words, in real time.
  3. Character Name. Every time a particular character should speak, the scriptwriter should put a CHARACTER NAME in order to help the reader know that the dialogue of the particular character will start after this character's name. This element may be whether an actual name (ANGIE) or a short description (PRETTY WOMAN) or an occupation (MANAGER). Most actors like it when a scriptwriter personalizes their parts with a name. 
  4. Dialogue. DIALOGUE element applies when somebody on the screen is speaking. Usually, it is during a conversation between two or more characters. However, there also cases when characters talk to themselves aloud or the character is off-screen, and sounds are just heard so that the viewers should hear their voice. 
  5. Parenthetical. The script text should be left indented at 3.0 inches" and the right margined at "3.5 inches." 
  6. Extensions. An Extension element refers to a technical note that is usually placed directly to the right of the name of the character. Extension denotes how the audience will hear the character’s voice. 
  7. Transition. Nowadays, transitions are only used when it is highly necessary.
  8. Shot. A shot plays the role of a focal point within a particular scene that has changed.

How to start writing a screenplay 

Writing a screenplay is an interesting and rewarding process; however, it is not that easy as it seems to be. To make sure you develop a quality script, there are some useful steps in writing a properly formatted and good quality script:

  1. Craft a brief summary. Here, it is enough to write a sentence or two.  
  2. Write a treatment. 2-3 pages summarising main points of the screenplay, including the title, logline, main characters, and synopsis.
  3. Develop characters. Create several characters contrasting a central question. Character names attached to the dialogue should be in FULL CAPS. 
  4. Prepare plot and outline. Here you should map out all scenes beat by beat. 
  5. Write the first draft. Add the dialogue along with a descriptive action to the scene description.
  6. Take a break. Take your mind off and try to make a focus on something else. 
  7. Rewrite. Reread the first draft and edit the script.  

What is the proper format for a screenplay?

 Screenwriting requires a lot of time, great attention, and proper formatting. Although many people suppose that times have changed and as a result, script formatting became less bound by strict rules compared to what it once was. However, the truth is that industry standards have not changed, and most directors require the old formatting. Among the basic formatting option, there are:

  1. Use a plain cover.
  2. Omit using pictures on the cover page or within the script.
  3. The fly page should involve 
    • the script’s title, 
    • the writer’s name, 
    • contact information
  4. Provide contact information at the left margin of the fly page
  5. Use a monospaced font, Courier typeface
  6. Page numbers should be at the top, aligned with the right margin, followed by a period.
  7. The first line of the content should start on the seventh line counting from the top of the page.
  8. Add two spaces after the punctuation at the end of every sentence.
  9. Use Underscore for accent instead of bold or italics.
  10. Keep the script's length between 100 - 120 pages as statistics shows that it's a perfect length.

What is the difference between script and screenplay? 

The term script remains to be very general as it is not reserved for a single type of media. By contrast, the term screenplay refers to the movie script or a script of some television program. As can be seen, the core difference between both terms is in the document’s function. 

women's hands holding a pen and writing

Spec Script vs. Shooting Script 

A spec script determines a screenplay written on speculation. The script is written without a development contract in hopes of getting it sold. These types of scripts are great examples of how most screenwriters try to break into the film industry. By contrast, a shooting script is a blueprint for filming a real movie. Such scripts are vetted, changed, rewritten, emailed, downloaded before the final version comes into usage, and all author rights are reserved, as it is a part of the scriptwriter’s job. Among the core differences between formatting pec script  and shooting script are:

  1. Title page (Shooting scripts involve more information, for example, multiple writers, studio contact information, revision dates, copyright notices)
  2. Scene numbers (Spec scripts omit scene numbers)
  3. Title sequences (Shooting scripts contain title sequences )
  4. Writing craft ( Shooting script are weaker written than spec script)

Script format: The general principles

You are recommended to have these guidelines in front of you when formatting your script:

  • The text of the spec script should come immediately after the title page. No list of characters, a list of scenes, a brief description, budget, wishes for the film team, table of contents, copyright conditions, autobiography, or illustrations.
  • The script is written only in the present tense. Forget about: "He saw. He said. He experienced a flush of joy”. You need to say: "He sees. He says."
  • Scripts are never written in the first person. You should always use the third person. It is not right to say "I'm standing and looking." It must be like this: "He is standing and looking."
  • The page number should be in the upper right corner 1.25 cm from the top edge.
  • The numbering starts from the first page of the script text, and not from the title page.
  • Do not number the scenes until you go to the preparatory stage of filming.
  • Do not specify any dates or type designations "The first variant", if you send the script to professionals.

Screenplay formatting instructions you should follow

Check what standard formatting rules you need to keep in mind when formatting your own script for shooting.

  • Font: Courier New
  • Font size: 12
  • Alignment: Left
  • Bold, italicized and underlined font are never used (even if it is a remark, even if you want to highlight some important detail)
  • Page margins: Top - 2.5 cm, Bottom - 1.25 cm, Left - 3.75 cm, Right - 2.5 cm. The rest should be left unchanged.
  • Parameter "Paragraph" block "Name of the hero": Left - 6.75 cm, the rest is unchanged.
  • Parameter "Paragraph" block called "Cue of the hero": Left - 3.75 cm, Right - 3.75 cm, the rest is unchanged.
  • Paragraph parameter of the "Remarque" block: On the left - 5.5 cm, on the right - 4.5 cm, the rest is unchanged.
  • Heading page. Back off from the top of the page by about a third and write the name in the middle. ( Use capital letters!) Under it, in the middle, write the Name and the Surname. Bottom right or left (there may be options here) write your contacts (or contacts of your agent). There is nothing more to write.
  • Page numbering is placed on the right at the top of the page at 1.29 cm (1/2 ”) from the top edge of the page and 2.54 cm from the right edge).

It’s not hard to format a screen play in accordance with the listed rules. So, just follow them and you won't be taken for an amateur.

More things to keep in mind when formatting a screenplay

Want to look like a professional Hollywood scriptwriter? Then, check some more important things, which will help you to achieve your goal.

  • Scenes. The script is divided into scenes. As a rule, a scene means a single scene. For example, a corridor. Suppose your characters, walk along the corridor and enter the office talking all the time. Despite the fact that time flows here continuously, a new scene begins from the moment they enter the office. Scenes have a title that is separated from the previous scene by double spacing. Include the transition of the character.
  • The title of the scene. It should be written in capital letters. No indent from the left margin. The title begins with an indication of where the action takes place. (Write “Day” or “Night” specifying when the action takes place.
  • Dialogue. A block of dialogue is written under the name of the character (separated by the usual single interval). It starts with an indent from the left margin of 7.62 cm (2.5 ”). The dialogue is a column of text 30–35 characters wide (approximately 2 ”–2.5” from the left margin of the field). After the dialogue, you should always put a double interval.
  • Remark. It is used extremely rarely! It is written immediately under the name of the character, above the dialogue, in brackets. Try not to describe the emotional state of the character. The remarks start at 7.8 cm from the left margin and end at 6.35 cm from the right margin. At the same time, they should not consist of more than 3 words and take up only one line. In the vast majority of cases, remarks are best replaced by a description of the action.
  • No need to include the directions of the camera.

If you do everything as described above, then each page of your script will correspond to an average of 1 minute of your movie. This is not always the case, but it is often close to the truth and has already become the rule in the film production industry.

It is better to create a film that lasts for 90 - 120 minutes. Know why? A film shorter than 90 minutes makes the viewer feel that the film is not worth the money. More than 120 minutes isn't the best variant because it is difficult to watch it without making a break. Sometimes, there may be exceptions. For example, comedies may last shorter, because people do not tend to laugh for a long time while dramas, on the contrary, can last longer.

Final thoughts

Specialists who have read thousands of scripts, as a rule, immediately reject a script that is not written in the proper format and don’t even read it. Their judgments are as follows: if the author does not even know how to format scripts properly, then most likely he or she is not able to write any interesting story. These beliefs are justified in practice. So, hope that you will follow the above-listed guidelines that will help you to achieve great success. Remember that if you lack the necessary time for formatting, you can always entrust this task to professionals who will help you to present a well-formatted script copy.