So you want to learn how to properly format a script, hey?
You just felt the lightning bolt of inspiration every aspiring or novice screenwriter has dreamed of, that spark of creative energy that you just know is going to translate into a game-changing short film, television, or feature film idea ripe to earn every award, accolade, streaming deal, and box office bonus on the planet.
Which begs the question . . . now what? How do you take the mountain of ideas piling up in your brain and convert them into, well, an actual story for whatever your visual medium of preference is, be it network TV, web content, feature films, streaming fare, and more?
Put simply, a screenplay is a 90-120 page document, typed in Courier 12pt font on 8.5″ x 11″ white paper with three holes. One page in Courier font roughly equals one minute of screen time. This helps writers gauge the duration and pacing of their story for a better writing and viewing experience.
But no matter what your ultimate outlet or means of formatting your script is (we will talk about two in a moment), the first step is turning your red-hot idea into an industry-standard screenplay.
If you haven’t yet, you should try using a script formatting software like Celtx. This will automatically format your script in Hollywood style format, which is often considered as “industry standard“.
Use a Script Editor – Try out Celtx Screenplay Formatter Here
Scripts are bound by some of the strictest formatting guidelines of any written medium.
Think of them like legal documents – discrepancies can render them inadmissible. Coverage readers (the people who review spec scripts that are submitted to production companies) are likely to toss a script in the garbage if there’s spelling or grammar mistakes on the first page. You can imagine what they’d think of an improperly formatted scene heading.
Screenplay formatting is not arbitrary. Scripts as we read them today a product of decades of development and fine tuning. The objective of screenplay formatting is to ensure that the information that is critical to conceptualizing how the film will be shot is displayed prominently and clearly on the page, as well as making the content of your story easy to parse and isolate for editing.
So if you want to write a properly formatted script, you have two options:
Option 1 – Purchase a sturdy typewriter, multiple ink ribbons, and a large quantity of 20lb bond 8 1/2″ x 11″ white paper, 3 hole punched. Practice manually adjusting your margins so that shot headings are 1.7″ from the left margin, dialogue is 2.7″ from the left margin, and that character names are ALWAYS 4.1″ from the left margin.
Don’t forget to manually add page numbers at the top right corner of each page (7.2″ from the left margin and 0.5″ below the top of the page). Also, you’ll have to load in a new page every 60 lines. With a lot of practice, you will be able to do all this quickly and with only moderate damage to your carpal tunnels.
Option 2 – Celtx’s is fully featured, free, and integrated with a suite of planning tools that make writing, editing, and expanding your script into a production a fast and fluid process.
Celtx’s script editor handles the formatting automatically, and will intuitively guide you to the next logical element position on the page.
However, just because something is done automatically doesn’t mean that it’s not worth understanding. It’s crucial to know what each formatting element means, and understand how they can be manipulated to write more complex scenes. The following will break down the basics and show you a few different alternative approaches that you can use to make your script read properly.
So whether you’ve ever formatted a script or not, chances are you’ve seen one before — its unmistakable font, weirdly large margins, seemingly random bits of ALL CAPS text, parenthesis, and more stylistic flourishes that comprise a document that looks like no other.
Here’s the crucial bit: these aren’t just cool design details to make a screenplay looks screenplay’y; these are strict formatting rules that have been standardized and adhered to for as long as visual mediums like film have been around.
The harsh reality is that no Hollywood executive worth their salt will take one passing glance at your screenplay if it doesn’t comply with all of the standards of script formatting that every other screenwriter respects. It could be the most inventive idea in the world, a sure-fire box office darling guaranteed to make all involved rich beyond their dreams . . . but it won’t even make it to the desk of the lowliest executive or producer if it isn’t formatted properly.
Screenwriting revolves exclusively around the visual, making it unlike any other form of writing or storytelling, including poems, novels, essays, and more. It’s a language of its own and a massive exercise in storytelling efficiency that works to externalize internal ideas and motives that translate onto a screen.
And script formatting is the easiest way to learn this language, write within the most relevant creative boundaries, and ensure that you’re taken serious by the check-writers and decision-makers who can make your storytelling dreams a producible reality.
In this complete guide to education you on how to format a script, we’ll cover all of the script elements, formatting rules, and nitty-gritty details you need to know, understand, and apply in order to turn that billion-dollar idea in your brain into a billion-dollar screenplay.
Ready to embark on the learning adventure of your creative lifetime? Let’s go!
Why the Font is So Important in Screenplay Formatting
Script formatting is a huge umbrella topic that addresses a bevy of screenplay mechanics, from typography and font size all the way down to specific screenplay elements, their placement on the page, and their relationships with one another.
To start the process of learning how to format a script, let’s begin with the highest level formatting rules before zooming into the more creative functions of script elements themselves and how they should be written and organized on the page.
If you’ve seen a script before, you’ve probably wondered, “What’s up with that weirdly specific font and the crazy amount of random spacing?”
Specific, yes. Random, not so much! One of the most critical and probably widely recognized elements of script formatting that makes these documents so distinct is their unique font. Screenplays must use 12-point Courier font at all times! This is a very strict rule that every professional adheres to, because like most principles of script formatting, it serves a unique purpose beyond the cosmetic.
Using a 12-point Courier font creates the closest 1:1 relationship possible between script length and screen time. This industry-wide typography plays a huge rule in maintaining the rule that one page of a traditional screenplay translates to roughly one minute of screen time in the final product.
The keyword there is roughly, because the recurring caveat for just about any screenwriting rule is that it is largely dependent on genre. That said, on average you can rely on a 90-page script translating into a 90-minute feature film.
Why the careful need for a 1:1 relationship between page count and run time? Not only does it ultimately provide your production team a general idea of a film’s scope or budget, but even before that, it gives prospective financiers, producers, and other readers a high-level metric to make the same determinations.
Without that measurement, executives and other prospects won’t have a way to garner a first impression of your film’s projected size.
Margins, Spacing, and Other Screenplay Format Rules
While the 12-point Courier front may be sacred, it’s far from the only rule document-level rule that screenwriters need to respect in in learning how to format a script. Spacing and margins throughout your screenplay help support the exact same effort, fostering a careful balance of storytelling information and empty space to substantiate that precious 1:1 ratio.
First up, margins. On each and every page you need to adhere to the below spacing requirements:
- 1.5 inch margin on the left of the page
- 1 inch margin on the right of the page
- 1 inch on the of the top and bottom of the page
These margins serve a bit of a dual purpose, not only promoting the 1:1 ratio but also providing an ample amount of space for script notes. Whether they’re your own notes, creative notes from the studio, scheduling notes from the 1st AD, or financial notes from your Producer, these margins are used as a collaborative brainstorming space throughout every phase of your screenplay’s life.
As written, each page of your screenplay will have roughly 55 lines on it, including all of the screenplay elements that we’ll get into in just a minute.
Page numbers are always positioned in the top right corner of every page, the only exception being the first page of your script, which is not numbered. Page numbers should have a 0.5 inch margin from the top and are always followed by a period. Why? Because that’s the way it’s always been done, and this is an industry that relies on tradition and historical success!
Without getting too into the weeds here, there’s another spacing rule that needs to be defined and respected throughout your writing which relates to dialogue.
A large majority of your screenplay elements will stick to the aforementioned margins. Where this deviates is with character names and dialogue, both of which are kept significantly more centered on the page with wide margins on either side, almost as if they were columns.
Character names, which are always capitalized for readability, are positioned exactly 3.7 inches from the left side of your page. Dialogue for that character is entered immediately below, and this block of text starts 2.5 inches from the left side of the page.
Why, you ask? Altogether now . . . “the 1:1 rule!” The character names and dialogue spacing are probably what provides that distinct “screenplay” look that makes this document so distinguishable, even for those completely unfamiliar with the craft and industry. But each of these rules services a careful purpose, and must be preserved in order to be taken seriously.
If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed, that’s understandable. These are strict adjustments to manually make within your own Word, Pages, or other document and where screenwriting software really shines. The best softwares, like Celtx, automate all of these formatting elements for you, so that you can stay strictly focused on storytelling while it does all the boring work in the background.
How Script Formatting Informs Screenplay Elements
Your screenplay is so much more than a storytelling document with funny spacing and a very specific font; it’s a complete creative roadmap that translates thoughts, feelings, and motives into on-screen actions. All of the mechanics of a script function to serve this purpose, of externalizing the internal and visualizing the otherwise unseen.
Screenplay elements are the building blocks of this effort, the tools in your creative toolbox that allow you to extrapolate all the feelings of your characters and minutia of your story into lights and sounds that readers of your script can appreciate and, more importantly, the audience of your final product can understand and participate in.
There are around a dozen major screenplay elements that we’re going to cover, but some of these are more supplemental and additive. Let’s zoom in first and foremost on the most essential screenplay elements and their formatting. These are elements that will appear in every screenplay on the planet, whether it’s a script for a short film, video game, web series, TV pilot, blockbuster film, or anything in between.
Each elements has their own unique formatting system and stylistic etiquette. Outlined below are the five fundamental screenplay elements you must understand, what their storytelling function is, and how to professionally format them within your screenplay, either manually or by using screenwriting software.
Before you proceed, make sure you have firm understanding of these elements and that you can learn, practice, and master them before going deeper to the more auxiliary elements.
A Scene heading denotes the time and place where a scene takes place.
The first part of a scene heading specifies whether it is inside our outside, written as ‘INT’. or ‘EXT.’ (Interior or Exterior).
If a scene is taking place both inside and outside, you can write ‘INT. / EXT.’.
The second part of your scene heading will refer to the setting – a house, a plane, a farm, whatever. Just make sure its capitalized.
The third part will specify time of day, usually in relation to the prevailing lighting conditions that you envision. ‘DAY’ and ‘NIGHT’ are the most common, but you can use more specific words, i.e. ‘AFTERNOON’ or ‘DUSK’.
A properly formatted scene heading should look like this:
If you wish to add more elements to your scene heading, such as shot types or subjects, separate them with a dash. A good rule of thumb is to go from general to specific in terms of these elements, for example:
99 out of 100 times, this will be the very first line on page one of any script, and for good reason as this piece of information literally “sets the scene.” These handful of words contain a bevy of information, all of which tell your reader exactly when and where the ensuring action is taking place.
These are the 3 core elements of any scene heading. The only other additive and potential fourth piece of information you might include is CONTINUOUS — to signal a scene that takes place immediately after another and follows a continuous motion, for example a character walking from inside one location to outside another — and MOMENTS LATER — which would take place shortly after the proceeding scene but includes some sort of cut or edit.
In later screenplay edits, you can get more comfortable with employing the very few exceptions to these scene heading rules, such as writing INT./EXT. to describe the ongoing action in and around a car, or to us MORNING or DUSK at the end of your heading to be more specific about the time of day.
For the purposes of both writing and formatting simplicity, stick to the basics for now and let future editors or contributors be more explicit about these semantics only when necessary.
Recommended Celtx Article: 9 Script Editing Tips for DIY Script Editors
Action Lines and Descriptions
The meat of your script, action describes everything that is happening within a scene outside of dialog. Action is written in standard paragraphical format, albeit with a few quirks. The most important quirks are the rules surrounding capitalization. There are three things that, as a rule, should always be capitalized in a piece of action: the initial appearance of a character with dialogue, sound effects (and, if present, the objects producing the sound), and camera directions.
As you can see from the screenshot above, immediately following your scene heading is an action description that — you guessed it! — describes the action. Make every effort to keep your action descriptions to only a few lines unless absolutely necessary.
Ever heard the old adage, “If I had more time, I would be more brief?” This is often where novice screenwriters commit one of the greatest sins — writing overly long action descriptions. You need to work hard to be succinct and clear. Avoid floral language or unnecessary detail. You’re not writing poetry, you’re writing a descriptive message about what needs to be visualized on screen.
Your action description doesn’t need to include any literal action so much as describe what’s been seen on screen. No need for any dialogue either, as that’s an element all its own. Just remember: brevity is your friend!
Action description are not all caps, but should include some all caps elements to help with your script breakdown later on. When introducing a character for the first time (and only for the first time), capitalize their NAME in the action description. You’ll also want to capitalize important PROPS, STUNTS, SOUND DESIGN, and other ELEMENTS that will require special preparation before filming takes place.
As discussed, character names are centered in the middle of your screenplay, 3.7 inches from the left side of the page. Any time a character speaks, you need to name whoever is speaking by writing their name in ALL CAPS, with their dialogue immediately below.
When introducing a character for the first time in an action description, capitalize their NAME and include a very short sentence (or just handful of descriptive words) that detail their age, personality traits, or other unique characteristics that provide your reader a better understanding of who they are.
To simplify formatting and your script breakdown later on, make sure to use the same name for your character throughout your screenplay, even if their name is changed or shortened throughout the course of your story.
The character element proceeds any dialog spoken by that character. The character’s name should always be capitalized. If the dialog spoken by a character is appearing Off-Screen (for example, a person yelling from outside a house), you must specify it as follows:
If a character is not on screen but the source of their dialog is, such as a telephone or radio, or if the dialog is narration, then you specify it as Voice Over, like so:
Dialogue is widely considered one of the most challenging and time consuming elements of the entire screenwriting process. It’s truly an art form all its own, and an area where even some of the best writers in the world struggle to convey a consistent level of authenticity.
It also means it can be the most rewarding. To format your script dialogue, ensure it’s centered on the page with a 2.5 inch margin on the left side and placed immediately below the character who is speaking. No need for paragraph breaks or any script formatting changes until they stop speaking or another character begins speaking.
When writing dialogue, make an effort not to project your own voice or thoughts on your character. Focus on who they are as individuals and try to understand who they fundamentally are in real life. The closer you get to understanding them, the more organically you can establish their unique, and believable, voice.
While not as fundamentally important as the other four elements, parentheticals are another piece of the creative puzzle that provide a unique layer of texture that the other screenplay elements cannot.
Parenthetical direction is inserted into dialog to describe what a character is doing while they speak, or how they are speaking. They should not include punctuation nor should they be capitalized. Try to keep them short, telegraphically written, and if you are describing multiple actions you should link them together with semicolons. Never end a piece of dialog with a parenthetical. For example:
In other words, parentheticals provide technical direction to your actors, but equally important for the reader is how they convey the way a specific line should be performed. These are tiny descriptors that add a surprisingly amount of depth. They can create either an emotional dynamic — (tearfully) (joyfully) (terrified) — as well as micro-actions and body language — (shrugging) (standing) (scoffing).
To properly format these, as you can see from the image above, place them directly in between your character’s name and their dialogue in parentheses. They can also be placed within dialogue to signify a short break (aka. “Beat”) or to convey a shift in mood or action.
Although these are fun to write and extremely helpful in conveying on-screen subtleties, they should be used very sparingly and only when absolutely necessary. Novice writers love to go overboard with these, and while they provide nice texture, it’s equally important to leave both actors and readers space for their own interpretations.
Other Major Screenplay Elements and How To Format Them
Now, it is time to get slightly nittier and grittier with more in-depth screenplay elements and how to format them. These elements are not difficult concepts to grasp, but what they may lack in difficulty, they make up for in specificity!
These terms and abbreviations are standard and used for screenplay elements throughout the filmmaking industry. Once you become familiar with them, they will become second nature, and will only help to further texturize your script.
If you have read a professional screenplay before, then you will likely have seen some of the screenplay jargon peppered in throughout the script. Let’s dig in:
- Transitions. This is an element which you do need to be familiar with despite using it infrequently. Transitions are signals to the reader, and editors, that the action in a scene is being cut and the next scene starts. However, don’t forget that most scenes end without being announced by a transition; scenes without explicit transitions are assumed so be standard cuts. When you write a specific transition into another scene, there are several ways of communicating how a scene is ending. Below are some of the most common examples:
- CUT TO: typically used to signal a “hard cut” which dramatically moves the action away from a scene after a crescendo, almost acting like its own punctuation mark
- SMASH TO: this is a very abrupt edit that usually goes from mid-action in one scene to mid-action in another. This is a popular technique in comedies.
- DISSOLVE TO: this is a subtler transition where the action slowly fades away as the following scene comes into sharper focus.
- MATCH CUT TO: a complex editing technique where the composition or action of one scene leads directly into the same composition or action of the next scene. This trick is often used to convey time passing
- INTERCUT: indicates a cross-cutting between two scenes happening at the same time on screen. This is most commonly used to portray phone calls by cutting back and forth between two characters speaking
- Extensions. This element is key for making onscreen conversations feel authentic. Like real life, conversations are often interrupted by noises or other people. Extensions are the screenwriting details that add this level of detail. Extensions are placed in all caps, right next to a character’s name and on the same line. Here are a few of the most common and useful extensions to know:
- CONT’D. This is simply an abbreviated way to say “continued”, and is to stress the continuation of a piece of dialogue after it was interrupted by a noise or character (or a page break within your script)
- V.O. You will see this when a voice over is being used, therefore indicating that the narrator speaking cannot be heard by those on-screen and their words are being delivered to audiences, carrying on over the action on screen.
- O.S. or O.C. These acronyms are frequently used to denote what is happening Off-Screen or Off-Camera. This element allows for sounds to be heard by audiences and characters without showing them or their sources on screen. This is a common device used in horror films.
- INTO DEVICE. This element is used when a character is speaking into a device (like a phone) rather than directly to another character.
- PRE LAP. When dialogue or sound from a subsequent scene starts while the preceding scene is still ending, this overlap is called a pre-lap and written in the far-right of the page in all caps
- SUBHEADERS. Subheaders indicate another time or place within the same scene, a sort of shortcut tp show there has been a small change of location on screen with creating a new, numbered scene. The use of how to best use subheads is disputed, as some argue that new scenes demand more than subheadings given it will require a film production to create a new set up. For example, KITCHEN TO HALLWAY as a character walks or LATER to indicate a short time jump
- SHOTS. The shot element allows you to specify a subject within your scene, guiding the reader’s perspective. Shots are always capitalized, and separated from the action by a line break.
- A common method of being more specific with your shot lines is to use phrases like ‘ANGLE ON‘ or ‘CLOSE ON’ to preface the subject of the shot. Avoid using too many articles in your shot descriptions – try to make them as short as possible. Shots can also be used to specify on-screen text, such as superimpositions. For example:
- CHYRONS. These are often known as “Titles”, which highlight what text appears on screen. Place the word CHYRON or TITLE, followed by the text you wish to appear on screen. This is a useful one to use if you’re changing location or time and want to make it easier for your audiences to keep track.
These elements will become second-nature and allow you to tell your story with greater clarity and visual vibrance.
Writing Time and a Scripts Length
All creative projects and creative people take varying amounts of time to start and complete their work. Scripts are no different. Writing your first script can take more time because you will be learning the ropes, but a few months is an appropriate amount of time to create a really impactful first draft.
It could take you 2 weeks or the better part of a year, it just depends on your story and your style of writing. That being said, it is useful to set a deadline to keep yourself on track and accountable to ensure you do, in fact, finish your project.
It is true that having a thoughtful and polished logline, treatment, and beat sheet can be used like handrails and will go a long way in helping you write your script at a healthy pace. Having those documents to hand should allow you to write on-average 5-7 pages of script in a full 8-hour work day.
Remember that one script page tends to equal one minute of screen time, so try to aim for a 90 page script for your 90 minute movie. It is best to consider 110 pages as the ceiling; having a lean script shows you’ve been diligent and decisive about what needs to be in your script.
Now that you have the step-by-step guide on how to format a screenplay and everything with it . . . what’s stopping you? Remember this advice and insight here will help translate your ideas and creativity into a polished screenplay.
But remember, there’s much more to screenplay formatting than is described here, but these basics provide a solid foundation. The best way to study the full complexity of formatting is to read some scripts yourselves. The Black List’s official blog currently hosts some great resources in this department, including the most recent round of nominated screenplays from the 2020 Oscars.
As Brene Brown once said, unused creativity isn’t benign – it metastasizes. So, use your creativity! Throw yourself head first into the amazing world of scriptwriting and enjoy the process!