Screenplay Format Demystified: How to Format a Screenplay

So you have written a story that you know is really good, but you are having trouble understanding what a proper screenplay format looks like. Why is it really necessary to format your screenplay? If you are going to be a working screenwriter you need to know how to format a screenplay properly.

Formatting helps to give credibility. A screenplay format allows the reader to be able to easily follow your story. It allows strips off long, flowery prose that novels usually have and makes the story a fast read. For examples of great scripts, download all of…

…and start reading the masters.

Writing a screenplay is different than writing prose because of all the technical formatting required. No need to freak out – the formatting is fairly straightforward once you’ve been taught! Some writers even prefer the screenplay format since it allows them to focus on the true essence of the story they’re telling without all the flowery details.

My professors in film school, who are all experienced screenwriters, emphasize how vital it is to get the formatting down. Industry insiders and readers are very unlikely to keep reading your screenplay, not skim but read if they notice a ton of formatting mistakes right upfront.

What Constitutes a Screenplay?

Basically, a screenplay consists of a 90- to 120-page document typed in Courier 12pt font and printed out on 8 ½ “ X 11” bright white paper, three-hole-punched. The reason Courier is used has to do with a timing issue. One correctly formatted script page typed in Courier translates to roughly 1 minute of screen time.

This is why the page count should be between 90 and 120 pages since the average film is 90 to 120 minutes in length. Comedies tend to be shorter, so these screenplays are closer to 90 pages, which would equal a 1½-hour film, while Dramas are a bit longer, more like 2 hours so 120 pages would be appropriate.

Screenplays can be completely original, based on an actual event or on a previously written book, newspaper article or stage play. A screenplay acts as the blueprint for the movie it will eventually become.

Everyone on the set, including the director, producer, actors and the set designer all bring the screenwriter’s vision to life using their unique talents. Since creating a film is a collaborative effort, it is vital that the screenwriter know each professional’s role and this should be reflected in the script.

For example, the screenwriter must keep in mind that a movie is a visual medium first and foremost. The screenwriter must paint a picture of what’s going on in the story, rather than simply tell the story.

A brief 2-page inner synopsis may work for a novel, but for a script, it’s the kiss of death. The fundamental nature of screenwriting is visually showing the evolution of a story on the screen, and something as basic as the expression on an actor’s face can convey pivotal moments in the story. Let’s now take a look at the structure of a screenplay.

Too Fade In & Fade Out…or Not

A screenplay always starts with “FADE IN,” and this is aligned on the left. And at the end, you “FADE OUT,” which is also aligned on the left, after which you type “THE END,” which is aligned in the center, underlined and usually with no period.

NOTE: Many screenwriters today don’t type the “FADE IN” at the start of their script, claiming there is no need for it.

However, one successful screenwriter I spoke to said that he’s actually been thanked by a number of studio execs and readers for including the FADE IN, saying that writing his screenplays correctly with the traditional formatting indicates a level of professionalism.

Fading in and out are the conventional bookends to any script with FADE IN acting as the precursor to the story being told. Leaving FADE IN out isn’t a cardinal sin, but like all rules, you need to know why it’s there before you decide to break it.

Scene Headings

Also known as slug lines, scene headings are used to show the camera placement, specific location, and the time. Look at this example:

EXT.WHITE HOUSE – DAY.

This is what a scene heading looks like. The camera placement is usually abbreviated to INT (interior) or EXT (exterior), followed by the location which is separated from the time using a hyphen. You may then press enter once or twice before the next element.

Purpose of a Slugline

A slugline is there to indicate a changing location. There can be more than one slugline in a scene if one or more characters change locations.

INT. and EXT. are used for “Interior” and “Exterior,” indicating whether the scene is inside or outside.

Next comes your LOCATION. Use specificity when describing your location. “DIVE BAR” draws a much better picture than just “BAR” and “HIGH-END EXCLUSIVE HOTEL” says a whole lot more than simply “HOTEL.”

DAY or NIGHT is next. There is no need to elaborate with “DAWN,” “MORNING,” “DUSK,” or “TWILIGHT” because there are plenty of other ways to describe that, like mentioning that the sun is setting in the distance in an action line while continuing the DAY tag. This makes it easier for production, plus it’s not as distracting.

If things are happening in several different rooms, you can portray it like this:

and then cut to INT. CANDY STORE – RESTROOM – DAY to show a worker smuggling a bunch of candy bars through a tiny window above the sink to his cohort waiting on the outside.

Using “CONTINUOUS”

In screenplays, you’ll frequently come across something like this:

Do you see the “CONTINUOUS” following the second logline? This is to indicate the audience is following Jan and Gus running into the kitchen to see for themselves the paranormal activity going on. You write “CONTINUOUS” when your scene is taking place in two different locations at the same time.

Introducing Your Characters

When a scriptwriter is introducing a character, type their full name in caps, their age in parenthesis, and then a brief description of no more than three lines, but if it’s the protagonist you’re introducing, you can use four lines.It is totally up to you whether you want to pinpoint a character’s age (20s vs. 29). If you were writing about the main character, you would probably want to mention their exact age, since 20 is far different than 29.

On the other hand, if it’s a character that flows in and out of just one scene, it’s fine to write the 20s if you’re using more detail in your description like “young trophy wife” instead of simply “wife.”

Basic Format for Writing Dialogue & Parentheticals

The character’s name goes in all caps, followed by their response. Screenwriters can write their first and last name, the first name only, or a nickname. I prefer writing just my characters’ first names, except perhaps when a character goes by something else. Choose what you think best suits your character.

Parentheticals are a one-word description of that character’s intonation. They are usually just one adjective, but adverbs can be used too. In most of the scripts I’ve read, they use just a one-word adjective.

Parentheticals should only be used when you must tell the reader how the character is saying their line. Use sparingly! These are only for clarity. Parentheticals are a form of “telling” and a screenplay is supposed to be “showing” how the character speaks, not telling.

Use (V.O.) to indicate voiceovers. Use (O.S.) when your character is off-screen but they’re still speaking.

Use (CONT’D) when you want to show the same character speaking twice in a row, but their lines are separated by one or two action lines. (CONT’D) shows they don’t stop speaking.

This is very helpful to actors when they’re reading your script during table reads. (CONT’Ds) can also be used when breaking up monologues with one or more active lines.

Action

This is basically a narrative description of the scene. When describing the action, be sure to only include the sights and sound that will be heard or seen by the audience.

A character’s name should be capitalized the first time the character is introduced to the screen. Names of characters who have no dialogue in the scene need not be capitalized. For example:

MARY, American lawyer, middle-aged, and drunk, Staggers in.

The sights and sounds that will be heard by the audience should also be capitalized (eg. ROAR, SCREAM).

Dialogue

This is an essential part of your screenplay because it is where characters are expressed. The dialogue is made up of three parts: The character name, parenthetical, and the speech of the character. The parenthetical conveys the manner in which the character presents their speech. For example:

MARY
(in a slurred voice)
Can I get another drink, honey?

Transitions

A transition tells the editing crew how quickly they should move to the next scene. Transitions are right justified on a script. Examples are CUT TO, SMASH TO, DISSOLVE TO, etc.

Subheaders

Subheaders are used to time jump or move in time within the same location. A subheader is usually after an action line and is capitalized.

Montage

A montage is a series of scenes strung together, often indicating memories of a person or place. To set a montage enter “BEGIN MONTAGE” at the start of the scenes you want to string together and “END MONTAGE” at the finish.

Chyron

These are texts that appear on a screen. To add a chyron, start an action line under a screen heading with the text “CHYRON”. For example:

OVER BLACK
CHYRON: 2:30 PM.

What to Type in All Caps

ALL your sound effects (BANG, CRASH, SCREAM, SMASH, POP).

ALL your characters’ names when you introduce them the first time.

You might capitalize on vital props that might return later (she puts the KNIFE in her purse) so the reader won’t miss it.

You might also want to capitalize on huge, life-altering plot twists to make sure the reader pays close attention and understands the enormity of this event. For example, “he POINTS THE GUN AND FIRES, KILLING YVONNE.”

If you happened to read the “LOST Pilot,” every second action line is in all caps during the plane crash at the start. This is a risk that some would agree with and others would not. My advice is to use all caps if you must, but only in moderation. You can use them to emphasize huge events.

These are the elements you’ll need for a screenplay format. Now that you have understood how to format a screenplay, why not go ahead and finish that script? Good luck and happy writing.

Here are a few more videos to help you with your screenplay format.

How to Workshop Your Screenplay

Have you ever workshopped a screenplay? A question many of us have when we start out. When I created the online course, The Million Dollar Business of Screenwriting with August Rush screenwriter Paul Castro I was blown away by many of the techniques Paul explained. How to workshop your screenplay really caught my ear. This little-done exercise really takes your writing to another level. Workshopping a screenplay is a crucial part of the screenwriting process.

By listening to your words spoken out loud by friends or even better actors, you really get a sense of what works and what doesn’t. Just because it reads well doesn’t mean it’ll work in a film.

Check out Paul Castro discussing his technique of how to workshop your screenplay.

Creating Unforgettable Characters

Legendary script consultant Michael Hauge (writer of Writing Screenplays That Sell)  discusses how to create unforgettable characters. For Hauge, character development is the pull between the strong desire to remain in the identity and the need, brought about by the events of the story, to live in essence.

Michael’s advice on figuring out a character’s inner conflict came down to asking myself these four questions:

What is your hero’s wound?

The hero has a wound or source of pain from his past that he has suppressed but has never really dealt with.

What is your hero’s belief?

Out of the hero’s wound comes a (usually mistaken) belief such as: I’m worthless (Will in Goodwill Hunting), I won’t survive without a rich man to take care of me (Rose in Titanic), if I show people my true self, I will be rejected (Shrek in Shrek) or, if I live as my true self, I will die (Ennis in Brokeback Mountain).

What is your hero’s identity?

The hero’s identity is the false self that they present to the world in order to protect themselves from re-experiencing the wound.

What is your hero’s essence?

The hero’s essence is what’s left if the identity is dropped, the hero’s true self.

In the video below he covers:

  • FEAR: the power of the wound
  • IDENTITY: The Hero’s emotional armor
  • ESSENCE
  • INNER CONFLICT
  • The ARC of transformation

In this video, Michael Hauge goes over the six stages of a character. Covering:

  • Uniting the Two Journeys
  • Structuring the Inner Journey
  • The 6 Stages of Transformation
  • Defining your own Hero’s Journey
  • Living your Essence

These videos are from his best selling online course: Story and Screenwriting Blueprint – The Hero’s Two Journeys.

In more than 4½ hours of lecture, discussion, and Q&A, Michael Hauge, author of Writing Screenplays That Sell and Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds: The Guaranteed Way to Get Your Screenplay or Novel Read; and Christopher Vogler, story analyst and author of The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers, unite to reveal the essential principles of plot structure, character arc, myth, and transformation.

How to Create a Bulletproof Screenplay Structure

Screenplay Structure is something that every agent, editor, publisher, Hollywood executive, public speaker, marketer, and storyteller talks about, to the point that it can seem complicated, intricate, mysterious and hard to master. So legendary script consultant Michael Hauge (writer of Writing Screenplays That Sell) wanted to give you a starting point for properly structuring your novel, screenplay or presentation without overwhelming you with rules and details and jargon.

Why You Need to Understand Structure First

In the video below he covers:

  • Outer Journey vs. Inner Journey
  • Putting the visible story first
  • The biggest mistake in developing the Inner Journey

Key Elements of Story

In the video below he covers:

  • The primary goal of all great stories
  • Conflict: the source of Emotion
  • The Three Key Elements of Any Story
  • The Hero’s Two Journeys
  • The four primary goals for the heroes of most Hollywood movies

How To Write A Scene in a Screenplay

In comparing Casablanca with other great movies, it is clear they aren’t of the same mettle. You’d find yourself mesmerized by the free-flowing and double-layered nature of the dialogue that boredom will not be an option. The interplay of words and actions is often riveting and complementing in such a way that you will believe it is the greatest script ever written.

The sharp dialogues, great characterization, and fantastic music were tools used to great effect in each scene. This is why Casablanca can be regarded as the gold standard in writing a scene.

Using Robert McKee‘s ‘Guidelines for Scene Analysis,’ let’s examine how scenes were written in Casablanca. He provides a succinct template for how a scene should be written.

McKee posits that what makes a great scene is not just the dialogue or visuals but the subtext and underlying structure of the scene. By this, he portends that both the text and subtext go a long way in writing a great scene, but it is the actions and feelings of the characters that make a scene great.

Superimposing these guidelines on the mid-act climax scene, you will see the elements used in writing this scene so perfectly. They serve as a representative for other great scenes in the movie.

In writing a great scene, the conflict and the opening value are central. In the previously mentioned scene of Casablanca, the conflict is reviving or not, the estranged love between Rick and Ilsa while the opening value is love.

Going further, the beats, which are the action and reaction sequence along with the behavior of characters both on the textual and subtextual levels are real tools to writing a great scene. The beats, more importantly on the subtextual level, tend to show the conflicts and often truer intentions and feelings of the characters beyond what the textual dialogue portrays.

A deeper understanding of the motifs and inferences of the embellished words, gestures and actions of the characters also contributes to writing a great scene. Analyzing each of the eleven (11) beats in this scene, it is clear that the screen master used this writing technique to great effect.

Through the witty conversations attached to a perfect depiction of subtextual elements, we see a rapid progression from the opening value to the closing value. It is subsequently used to unravel the first conflict and bring it to resolution.

This goes to show that in writing a great scene, a lot of attention has to be paid to scene structure and the subtext which is sure to produce the kind of master-crafted scenes seen in Casablanca. It’s never just about the dialogues.

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