Screenplay Formatting: 9 Tips & Tricks for Screenwriters

a typewriter with the word screenplay on it

Key Takeaways:

  1. Font: Use 12-point Courier font, single-spaced.
  2. Margins: Use specific margins for different elements (see below).
  3. Page Structure: About 55 lines per page, with top-right page numbers.
  4. Scene Headings: Indicate location and time, e.g., “INT. OFFICE – DAY”.
  5. Action Lines: Describe on-screen events in the present tense.
  6. Character & Dialogue: Character names in caps, dialogue underneath.
  7. Parentheticals: Briefly describe character actions/emotions during dialogue.
  8. Transitions: Minimal use, e.g., “CUT TO:” or “FADE OUT.”
  9. Page Numbering: Start numbering from the second page of the screenplay.

So you want to write a screenplay… but you’re not sure exactly how to make it look professional?

You’re not alone! This was one of the most frustrating things I had to learn when I first started screenwriting. All I wanted to do was get into the story, but I quickly found that I needed to write for the big screen in a certain way.

When you start writing your first screenplay, being familiar with the rules of the game is a must. And what is the first (if most boring!) screenwriting rule? Formatting.

So, let’s get down into the weeds of screenplay formating together, so that you can learn what you need to know and move on to the fun part of storytelling!

This post may contain affiliate links, which means I’ll receive a commission if you purchase through my links, at no extra cost to you. Please read full disclosure for more information.

What is Screenplay Formatting?

Before knowing what proper screenplay formatting is, it is important to understand what a screenplay is.

A screenplay is a story that is specifically written or adapted to be developed into a film. At times, the term is used for television scripts as well. A framework for filmmakers to build upon, screenplays include details such as character names, dialogue, action, and settings.

The scenario, characters, narrative description, and dialogue that will be shown on screen are developed within screenplays.

screenplay, film maker, filmmaking

To ensure that the screenplay is consistent with the project’s overall concept, screenwriters collaborate closely with producers, directors, and other key members of the production crew.

Screenplay formatting organizes and presents a screenplay according to the industry’s standards and conventions.

It includes many elements such as margin, typeface, spacing, scene titles, action, character names, dialogue, transitions, and page numbers.

Key Screenplay Formatting Elements

Here are some basic rules for a proper screenplay format:

formatting in a screenplay infographic

Font

  • Use the Courier font at size 12-point, single-spaced. This includes dialogue, action, and scene headings.
  • Courier font is typically used in screenplays since each font character occupies the same amount of space on the page due to its set width.

Margins

  • Set all of your margins as follows (for a standard 8-1/2 inch by 11-inch page):
    • Left margin: 1.5 inches.
    • Right margin: 1 inch (ragged).
    • Top and bottom margins: 1 inch.
    • Character name: 3.5 inches from the left.
    • Parentheticals: 3 inches from the left.
    • Dialogue: 2.5 inches from the left.
    • Transitions: 5.5 inches from the left.
    • All other elements (action lines, scene headings, etc.): 1 inch from the left.

Page Structure

  • There should be roughly 55 lines of text on each page. This does not include any spaces or the page number.
  • Pages are numbered in the top right-hand corner, flush to the right margin (1 inch from the right), and a half-inch from the top of the page.
  • Numbers are always followed by a period.
  • Scene headings (or slug lines) tell us where and when the action takes place for each new scene. They are capitalized and are typically presented in the following order:
    • INT. or EXT. for interior or exterior location.
    • Location name.
    • DAY or NIGHT.
    • For example, “INT. OFFICE – DAY”.
  • Action lines come directly under scene headings. They are written in the present tense and describe what we see and hear on screen.

Character and Dialogue Formatting

  • When a character first appears, capitalize their name in the action lines.
  • Whenever a character speaks, write the character’s name in all caps above the dialogue.
  • Dialogue is character-specific and only for what the character says out loud, or in the case of voice-over, what the audience hears but the characters do not.
  • To describe a character’s actions or emotions while speaking, you can use parentheticals. They are written in small-case and are placed in parentheses directly beneath the character’s name and above the character dialogue. They should be used sparingly.
  • Keep scene transitions such as “CUT TO:” or “FADE OUT.” to a minimum and use only when necessary. They are instructions for the editor and are typically used by a writer/director as guidance or suggestions.

A properly formatted feature film script is a necessary aspect of the filmmaking process since it offers a transparent and simple blueprint for the entire production.

Why Use Script Formatting?

infographic describing why to format a script

It’s crucial to format your screenplay properly to present it in a way that satisfies industry standards, is organized and professional, and is simple to read and understand.

Formatting ensures that a screenplay is presented in a polished and uniform way.

As a result, there is a greater likelihood that the screenplay will be optioned or produced because it will be simpler for producers, directors, and other industry experts to read, comprehend, and ultimately break down the film script for each of the key creative departments.

A screenplay’s prospects of being optioned or produced may suffer if it is improperly formatted since it may come out as amateurish or difficult to understand.

To Make The Script Legible

Ensuring the draft is easily legible and understandable by everyone involved in the production process is one of the key reasons to be familiar with script formatting.

You can make sure that your screenplay is presented concisely and clearly by adhering to the basic formatting requirements, making it simpler for readers to follow the story and visualize the scenes in their minds.

Also, proper formatting helps prevent misunderstandings and ensures everyone working on the project is on the same page.

Use the right margins, fonts, conventions, and spacing to make the script readable. This will make it simpler to read and follow the script.

Readers may find it easier to picture the scenes if there are clear scene headings and action lines. They can also better grasp which characters speak and what they say by using the appropriate dialogue format.

To Follow Industry Standards

Another reason to know script formatting is to ensure that your draft complies with professional industry standards.

By using the standard formatting guidelines, you demonstrate that you are familiar with the expectations and norms of the industry, giving your script a more polished appeal.

This can boost your chances of catching the attention of producers, directors, actors, and other professionals in the industry, as they will take your script seriously if it’s presented in a professional and standardized manner.

screenplay, film maker, filmmaking

To Ensure Organization

You may convey your ideas in an orderly manner with the help of proper formatting. The use of distinct headings, scene descriptions, character descriptions, and dialogue formatting are examples of this.

This makes it simpler for the reader to follow the plot and comprehend the characters’ actions and motivations. You may stand out and leave a positive first impression on industry experts with a script that is well-structured.

How to Format a Screenplay

Formatting your screenplay is essential to its success.

Your script can be polished, well-organized, and simple to read by following these principles and tactics. Using these suggestions will make your script more appealing to producers and agents in the business.

1: Use the Correct Font

Choosing the right font is vital for screenplays since it can change how readable and aesthetically pleasing your script is.

The industry standard is a 12-point Courier, a monospaced font that makes it simple to compare lines one to another and guarantees consistency in your layout.

For industry experts, other fonts like Times New Roman or Arial may be more challenging, either because of legibility or because different letters have different widths, which may affect line length and page count.

2: Use Correct Line Spacing

Line spacing is a crucial factor in proper screenplay formatting. While double spacing might be tempting due to its wide use in prose or novel writing, single spacing is the proper standard for screenplays and film production.

3: Brevity is Key

A script is a document to be turned into a movie, not read on its own, so keep it as brief as possible. No flowery language or big words, when small ones will do. Be deliberate and precise.

Try to find the balance between letting a director direct the scene (rather than you doing it for them) and giving the other departments (such as props, wardrobe, set decoration, etc.) enough information to get exactly what you want.

4: Incorporate Parentheticals

Parentheticals are used to clarify how a character speaks in the actual film. They may also offer details about their behavior.

They should be used sparingly and appropriately in a professional screenplay to avoid cluttering the page and diverting attention from the dialogue.

For example:

5: Use White Space Effectively

White space is the term for the parts of the page not covered by text. The more white space, the more streamlined the script, and the more visually pleasing.

Use white space to break up dense blocks of text. If you have a lot of information to convey or scenes without much dialogue, the best way to ensure white space is to limit yourself to 2-3 lines per paragraph. The last thing you want is for your action lines to look like a novel excerpt!

6: Specific Scene Headings

Scene headings are significant because they identify the locations of the action in a screenplay, as well as the required lighting conditions for the scene.

They are crucial for the various departments, such as set design, wardrobe, props, lighting, sound, the camera department, and especially the scheduler.

Each department needs to know where each scene takes place, if it’s inside or outside, daytime or nighttime, and all the special instructions or conditions that go along with them (such as parking, food areas, wardrobe requirements for cast and crew, and so on).

Much of this can be gleaned from just the scene heading. So be specific and accurate.

7: Avoid Camera Directions

Unless you are directing the movie, avoid inserting camera angles, such as “medium shot” or “close up”, into your spec script. Those are choices the director will make with his cinematographer and DOP, so the last thing you want to do is tell them their job.

Instead, visualize it inside of the descriptions. For example, if you write, “A large pimple sprouts on the end of Sam’s nose,” it implies that a close-up will be needed to zoom in on the pimple in question. But you don’t tell the director to zoom in explicitly.

screenplay, film maker, filmmaking

8: Dialogue Formatting

A screenplay’s dialogue is a key component, so it must be formatted properly. The dialogue for each character should be indented, and their name should be in capital letters above the dialogue.

Also, it’s important to make it clear when a character is speaking in voiceover or off-screen, as this will affect how the actors in the scene react (or not) to the dialogue the audience hears.

9: Page Numbering and Page Count

Though a script has numbered pages, not every page should have a number. The title page is neither numbered nor does it count as page one of the total page count.

The actual page one is also not numbered, so the first page to have a number is the second page of the screenplay (which, if you have a title page, is the third sheet of paper), and is numbered as “2.”

And remember, one page of a spec script equals approximately one minute of screen time, so your feature screenplay should rarely exceed 120 pages.

Special Script Formatting Circumstances

In screenwriting, unique circumstances call for a different structure than standard practices.

These circumstances include title pages, montages, flashbacks, voice-over narration, and multi-location scenes. You must understand these specific formatting criteria to guarantee that your script is well-written and compliant with industry standards.

Screenplay Title Page

A screenplay’s title page, which is the first page, should include the title, the name of the writer, and their contact details.

Keeping the sections of your title page single-spaced and using the standard 12-point Courier font, write the title of your script in all CAPS, horizontally centered on the page.

Starting roughly 20 to 22 line spaces (or 1/4 to 1/3 of the way down the page) below the top margin of one inch, the script title should appear, and your by-line should be positioned roughly two line spaces below your title line, inscribed with the words “by” or “written by.”

The bottom left or right corner of the page should contain the contact details. This should include the name, address, and phone number.

Montage in a Script

infographic defining a montage in a screenplay

A montage is a collection of images or sequences that are frequently set to music and used to show the progression of a character or story over time. Follow these rules to format a montage in a screenplay correctly:

  1. Start the montage by writing in all-caps “MONTAGE” or “BEGIN MONTAGE” as if it were a Subheader.
  2. Describe each sequence in the present tense, just like you would any other action in the script, after introducing the montage. Focus on the most important information that has to be communicated, and keep your descriptions short.
  3. Scene headings for each sequence are optional. If the montage takes place in multiple locations, I’d recommend scene headings for each visual of the montage, as each location will require a different setup and different production concerns. If the montage is contained in one location, then a series of descriptive action lines should be enough.
  4. Once the montage is over, write “END MONTAGE” as a Subheader underneath it.

Flashbacks and Dream Sequences

infographic defining flashbacks in movies

Screenplays frequently include flashbacks and dream sequences to give backstory or insight into a character’s state of mind. The following are some formatting guidelines for dream and flashback sequences:

  1. Use a slugline to indicate the sequence is a flashback or dream sequence. The word “FLASHBACK” or “DREAM SEQUENCE” should be included in the slugline.
  2.  Likewise, when the flashback or dream sequence is over, add another slugline to signal the conclusion of the sequence as “END FLASHBACK/DREAM SEQUENCE” or “BACK TO PRESENT”.
  3. Some writers opt to format the text in italics to further separate the flashback or dream segment from the main narrative. This is purely optional.

Voice-over Narration

Voice Over (V.O.) is when a character’s dialogue is presented over the action but isn’t heard by the other characters in the scene. Usually presented as narration, it can also be a character’s internal monologue.

Off Screen (O.S.) is when a character’s dialogue is heard by other characters, but the character can’t be seen by the audience or other characters.

Off Camera (O.C.) is similar to Off Screen, but it is when the speaking character is present in the same physical space as the other characters, but not seen by the audience.

Some writers use (Into Device) for when the character talks into a device such as a phone or two-way radio, rather than to each other in person. Other writers will use Parentheticals for this same purpose.

And finally, there’s Pre-Lap, which is dialogue from the next scene that is heard before the current scene has ended. It’s essentially a Voice Over in the current scene that becomes regular dialogue in the next scene.

In a script, the character’s name is immediately followed by the correct extension (“V.O.”, “O.S.”, “Into Device”, etc.) to indicate that the dialogue below it is a special case. For the reader’s benefit, it’s crucial to consistently apply these extensions throughout the screenplay.

Multi-Location Scenes

Multi-location scenarios might seem difficult to format, but the following rules can be helpful:

  1.  Introduce the location at the start of each new scene. For instance, “EXT. CITY STREET – DAY” or “INT. APARTMENT – LIVING ROOM.”
  2. If the script bounces back and forth between two or more different scenes, such as in a phone conversation where we see both parties, then use INTERCUT without having to list all the related scene headings over and over. For example, “INTERCUT – EXT. PHONE BOOTH – DAY / INT. LIVING ROOM – DAY”.
  3. Add a scene description and dialogue for each location as required.

Screenplay Formatting Software

Screenwriters may easily work with the aid of professional screenwriting software.

It offers features like automated formatting, character and story organization, outline tools, and collaboration features that save time, ensure industry standards, boost accessibility, and encourage easy cooperation among numerous authors working on a script.

Below are screenwriting software programs that are widely used in the film and television industries. They are regarded as industry standard tools.

what is screenwriting software

Arc Studio Pro

Arc Studio Pro

With a modern and easy-to-use interface, Arc Studio Pro is gradually gaining popularity among screenwriters.

This software works easily online, and its Plot Board feature allows you to establish your narrative through a template that emphasizes the plot points and events first. It gets you started easily with scriptwriting.

It also provides powerful story development tools, built-in note-taking, and real-time collaborations. It is also one of the most affordable and seamless programs available.

It has a free version, but some of its features are only available in paid variants, such as the collaboration tool. It also has no Android application developed to date.

Celtx

Celtx is the best storyboarding software for professional-grade film production

A highly rated cloud-based screenplay software, Celtx has been around for years, being a premium choice for maintaining the industry’s standard. It offers a free trial and allows writers to work collaboratively.

It also provides capabilities like breakdown, project catalogs, and budgeting that enable screenplays to be turned into complete production plans.

Although it has a free version, its premium versions, Writer, Writer Pro, and Teams, are also available for a reasonable fee.

They include useful writing features such as beat index cards, user-friendly character lists, and an automatic save option.

Drawbacks include a lack of export choices and an online requirement for users to save and export work.

Final Draft

Final Draft screenwriting software

Final Draft is perhaps the most commonly used screenplay software in the film industry. It automatically formats a screenplay according to industry standards with its strong writing and collaborative tools.

You can map out your ideas for plot points, characters, and settings to complement your script with its Beat Board tool, and finishing touches allow you to add multiple enhancements to your script, such as audio playback.

With high functionalities comes a high price, but considering its popularity among current writers, many would say it’s justified.

Types of Scripts

infographic describing the seven types of screenplays

There are several types of scripts, each with its unique characteristics and purposes. Here are the seven types of scripts:

Spec Script

An unsolicited script showcasing a writer’s talent (see above for more).

Shooting Script

A detailed script with technical directions for filming (see above for more).

Original Script

An original script is created entirely from scratch without using any pre-existing sources. It is a brand-new work created by a writer or a group of writers.

Adapted Script

An adapted screenplay or script is based on existing intellectual property, such as already published source material, like a book, comic, play, or true incident, as well as other mediums like TV shows, video games, and even previous movies in a series. It can even include existing fictional or historical characters.

All reboots and sequels fall under this category.

Storyboard

A series of pictures or drawings called a storyboard is used to visualize a script or story. Film, television, animation, and other visual media industries often use storyboards to organize the shots and scenes for a production.

Standalone

A standalone script contains the same story elements (characters, world, and tone) of an existing property, such as an episodic TV show, but it is unconnected to the main storyline of the overall series. It is a self-contained piece that may be created and performed independently without additional materials.

Pitch Script

An idea is pitched to producers or investors using a pitch script, which is a condensed version of the script. The point is to build interest in the project and land funding or production deals. It frequently includes a synopsis of the story, significant characters, and plot aspects.

screenplay, film maker, filmmaking

Final Thoughts

To flourish and establish yourself as a professional screenplay writer in the industry, it is vital to have a grip and understanding of the basic conventions and norms, along with talent.

It is important to stay updated on the latest trends and changes, including how to properly format your work, as it aids successful writers in organizing their vision, and the right guidance can only increase your chances of climbing the ladder of success.

Common Questions (FAQs)

Is there a screenplay format in Word?

Yes! The screenplay template has been available in Microsoft Word for several years. If you’re using a recent version of Word, such as Word 365, you should be able to find the screenplay template by following the steps.
1. Open Microsoft Word on your computer.
2. Click on “File” in the top left corner of the screen.
3. Click on “New” to open the “New Document” window.
4. In the search bar at the top of the window, type “screenplay” and press Enter.
5. A list of templates will appear, including “Screenplay” or “Screenplay (US Letter).” Select the template you want to use.
6. Click “Create” to open the template.
You can begin creating your script once the screenplay template has been opened. Your work will be automatically formatted using the template’s recommended margins, spacing, and font size according to the conventional script format. The font, margins, and other parameters can all be changed to suit your preferences.

How long is a 90-minute screenplay?

A typical script page has between 90 and 120 words, and it is generally accepted that one page of a script corresponds to one minute of screen time. A 90-minute screenplay would, therefore, be between 80 and 100 pages long, depending on the text’s density and formatting rules. A screenplay’s length might also change based on the genre, tempo, and particular demands of the plot.

What are the right screenplay margins?

A screenplay’s top and bottom margins should all be set to one inch (1 in. ), with the left margin being set to one and a half inches (1.5 in.). The margins for the right side can be between half an inch or one and a quarter inch. The right side margin can be adjusted in the defined range but should stay uniform throughout; hence, it is advisable to set it at 1 inch.

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