September 24, 2017

Learn Script Formatting (& Why Screenplay Format Matters)

script formatting
Script formatting matters. Most filmmakers know scripts follow a very particular screenplay format, but do they know why?

Thanks to all of the low-cost/free screenwriting software available, writers don't have to think too hard about formatting when penning scripts... However, understanding what all of the different formatting components are, like slug lines and action, as well as why they're formatted the way they are is important for making sure that your story is not only organized and clear but that it adheres to industry standards. 

Why?

Because without writing to industry standards, no one will take your screenplay seriously.

Today we'll go over the things you need to know about screenplay format so your work doesn't get overlooked due to simple, and avoidable, issues. 

Mastering Script Formatting

The truth is, you can achieve everything in Microsoft Word and other programs, but formatting a screenplay can be a real pain. 

Screenwriting software like Final Draft, Celtx, and WriterDuet make it easy to not concern yourself with script format too much, but it's still important to learn. You may not have to worry about margins, typeface, or indentations, but you'll still need to know how to write action, dialogue, as well as what a slug line is and why the information included in it is so important.

That's why we wanted to give you some simple resources to help you understand the basics of screenplay formatting and take you through how to format a script. 

Because even if you understand everything that's going on in your screenplay when it comes to formatting, there will (hopefully) be other people looking at it that may not.

Remember, if your script gets selected to be turned into an actual film, it will need to be turned into a script breakdown sheet. So, if you don't take care of being clear and concise with your slug lines, action, and dialogue then the director, DP, and 1st AD will have a hard time doing their job. Not to mention the script readers!

Luckily, screenplay formatting isn't rocket science. It just takes a little effort to wrap your head around several key concepts and elements...and once you do, you're off to the races.

Just take a look at this infographic from The Writer's Store

Credit: Writer's Store

That graph should be all you need when you sit down to write, besides your story idea. The Writer's Store also provides a helpful guide to the graph to break down everything you see inside. 

The Basic Screenplay Formatting Elements

Below is a list of items (with definitions) that make up the screenplay format, along with indenting information. Again, screenplay software will automatically format all these elements, but a screenwriter must have a working knowledge of the definitions to know when to use each one.

Scene Heading
Indent: Left: 0.0" Right: 0.0" Width: 6.0"

A scene heading is a one-line description of the location and time of day of a scene, also known as a "slug line." It should always be in CAPS.

Example: EXT. WRITERS STORE - DAY reveals that the action takes place outside The Writers Store during the daytime.

Subheader
Indent: Left: 0.0" Right: 0.0" Width: 6.0"

When a new scene heading is not necessary, but some distinction needs to be made in the action, you can use a subheader. But be sure to use these sparingly, as a script full of subheaders is generally frowned upon. A good example is when there are a series of quick cuts between two locations, you would use the term INTERCUT and the scene locations.

Action
Indent: Left: 0.0" Right: 0.0" Width: 6.0"

The narrative description of the events of a scene, written in the present tense. Also less commonly known as direction, visual exposition, blackstuff, description or scene direction.

Remember - only things that can be seen and heard should be included in the action.

Character
Indent: Left: 2.0" Right: 0.0" Width: 4.0"

When a character is introduced, his name should be capitalized within the action. For example: The door opens and in walks LIAM, a thirty-something hipster with attitude to spare.

A character's name is CAPPED and always listed above his lines of dialogue. Minor characters may be listed without names, for example "TAXI DRIVER" or "CUSTOMER."

Dialogue
Indent: Left: 1.0" Right: 1.5" Width: 3.5"

Lines of speech for each character. Dialogue format is used anytime a character is heard speaking, even for off-screen and voice-overs.

Parenthetical
Indent: Left: 1.5" Right: 2.0" Width: 2.5"

A parenthetical is direction for the character, that is either attitude or action-oriented. With roots in the playwriting genre, today, parentheticals are used very rarely, and only if absolutely necessary. Why? Two reasons. First, if you need to use a parenthetical to convey what's going on with your dialogue, then it probably just needs a good re-write. Second, it's the director's job to instruct an actor on how to deliver a line, and everyone knows not to encroach on the director's turf!

Extension
Placed after the character's name, in parentheses

An abbreviated technical note placed after the character's name to indicate how the voice will be heard onscreen, for example, if the character is speaking as a voice-over, it would appear as LIAM (V.O.).

Transition
Indent: Left: 4.0" Right: 0.0" Width: 2.0"

Transitions are film editing instructions, and generally, only appear in a shooting script. Transition verbiage includes:

  • CUT TO:
  • DISSOLVE TO:
  • SMASH CUT:
  • QUICK CUT:
  • FADE TO:

As a spec script writer, you should avoid using a transition unless there is no other way to indicate a story element. For example, you might need to use DISSOLVE TO: to indicate that a large amount of time has passed.

Shot
Indent: Left: 0.0" Right: 0.0" Width: 6.0"

A shot tells the reader the focal point within a scene has changed. Like a transition, there's rarely a time when a spec screenwriter should insert shot directions. Once again, that's the director's job. 

Examples of Shots:

  • ANGLE ON --
  • EXTREME CLOSE UP --
  • PAN TO --
  • LIAM'S POV --

What's Next? Follow your Story Map

Are you lost in your screenplay? Get a map! We all know writing a screenplay is incredibly hard. While it gets easier as you go, every story is a new battle. When I sit down to write, I chase treatments, beat sheets, and outlines before I open my screenwriting software to tackle the story. One thing that's always helped me is thinking about the writing process like a search for buried treasure. Mostly because I love a good treasure hunt movie. 

So get started on your screenwriting journey! 

I can't wait to see what you write next.      

Your Comment

3 Comments

Thanks. Interesting video. Formatting help https://exclusive-paper.net/

September 27, 2017 at 10:26AM, Edited September 27, 10:26AM

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Lora
Essay Writer
81

Thanks

September 27, 2017 at 10:28AM

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Lora
Essay Writer
81

Super helpful article.
This is a must-read for every screenplay enthusiasts as it covers every important technical point needed to write a great screenplay.

August 10, 2019 at 11:27AM

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avatar
Shitiz Srivastava
Film Director/ Screenplay Writer
188