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Before a Screenwriter can tell that next great love story, historical epic or zany comedy, they need to master screenplay format.

Understanding exactly how a script should look and be formatted is important for two main reasons.

First, knowledge of each element can go a long way in supporting the more creative aspects of screenwriting, such as creating memorable characters and building a solid story structure.

Second, as scripts are meant to be read, a solid screenplay format will help a reader move quickly through the story with ease, as well as indicate to them that the writer of it is of a professional caliber.

Before we jump into those screenplay formatting essentials, though, let’s tackle some commonly asked scripting questions that emerging Screenwriters often have.

And stay tuned, because as we progress through our rundown of proper screenplay formatting, we’ll be hearing about the business of screenwriting from Sharon Soboil (After We Fell, After Ever Happy, Love on the Air) and Thomas Bezucha (The Good House, Marvel’s upcoming Secret Invasion).

What Is the Difference Between a Script and Screenplay?

Short answer: Not a lot.

“Script” is a generic term that can refer to virtually any medium intended for a screen. That can mean a film, television show, web series or even a TikTok video.

The term screenplay is usually reserved for a script intended to become a film, but many industry professionals also use it when describing a TV script. As it would imply, the term teleplay refers only to a script for television.

What are the 5 elements of a screenplay?

Anna Keizer

Regardless of genre or story specifics, a successful screenplay will generally have these five elements in common:

1. Interesting characters. Audiences want to cheer for a sympathetic protagonist and hate on a devious antagonist. They want compelling supporting characters who either help or hurt the protagonist’s chances of attaining their central want or need. In short, a great script will have interesting and dynamic characters.

2. Protagonist’s goal. But why are we following the protagonist for two hours or more? Spending that time just to watch them clean their house or run errands is not going to satisfy from a storytelling perspective. Instead, the protagonist must have a clear and compelling goal. To survive a shipwreck. To win back their high school sweetheart. To be the first woman on Mars. Make the goal one where there is a risk of failure. It should never be a sure thing.

3. Compelling plot. What’s the story that will be told as the protagonist attempts to achieve their goal? Scripts are very much a show and not tell form of storytelling. Dialogue is a critical part of a screenplay, but you won’t have a compelling script if you just have the characters sitting around and talking about what they want. Give them stuff to do. Include plenty of action – even if it’s not an action movie!

4. Strong script structure. Feature scripts generally follow a three-act structure. The first act introduces the main characters, the stakes for the protagonist, and the inciting incident that sets them on their path to hopefully achieving their goal. The second act largely encompasses the highs and lows that the protagonist encounters as they move closer to or further away from their central want. Finally, the third act has the protagonist confront their final and most significant conflict – the climax – as well as the outcome to it.

To some degree, Screenwriters can tweak what happens in each act, but often the mark of a strong script is one that relies on having a solid three-act structure.

5. Conflict and resolution. It’s great if you love your characters. After all, you’ll likely be spending weeks if not months with them. But you have to make life difficult for them. A story where the protagonist immediately achieves their goal with no struggle or heartache isn’t much of a story at all. They need obstacles – and lots of them. That’s what makes ultimately the resolution where they do or don’t get their want so satisfying for audiences.

How Do You Write a Script for a Screenplay?

That’s what we’re here to teach you! Competent screenplay format relies on two factors: the elements that make up the actual composition of the page such as font, point size, and page number, as well as the screenplay-specific devices that help to tell the story.

Let’s begin with the fundamentals of what you see on a script page.

Font

Probably the most basic of the basics is the type of font used for scripts. The standard in the world of screenplay formatting is Courier1. For a Screenwriter to go rogue and use a different font can result in several outcomes.

Example of Courier font in screenplay for The Godfather

What you see above is the Courier font, the universal standard font for screenplays.

For one, it can indicate to the reader that the writer of the script is either a novice regarding scripting rules or is simply someone who doesn’t find the rules important enough to abide by.

Two, a script written in another font can throw off the typical time assumed when using Courier, which is one minute of screen time for one page of the script. For these reasons, Writers should stick to the standard of Courier font.

Point Size

Again, as with font, screenplays have a typical point size for all text, which is 12 point.

The reason? Much the same as why scripts are written in Courier font. It demonstrates to the reader that the Screenwriter understands standard screenplay format, and it also helps to maintain the usual ratio of one minute of screen time for each page of the script.

Changing point sizes in Courier font of screenplay

Those in entertainment have a trained eye when it comes to recognizing 12 point Courier font, so make sure your script follows this industry-wide standard.

Moreover, a font smaller than 12 point can make it more difficult to read the screenplay, and a font larger may misrepresent there being enough of a story to tell, à la using a larger font for a school essay to hit the required number of pages.

Page Number

It’s important to remember that for many Screenwriters, some of these basic script formatting rules are built into the many types of screenwriting software available to creatives, including the automatic addition of page number in the upper right-hand corner of each page, minus the first page of the script.

Page number in upper right hand corner of Lady Bird script

Page numbers are a must as screenplays often come in between 90 and 120 pages.

But as with any program that can experience the occasional glitch, Writers should always double-check that their work is properly formatted before sending off their scripts to Agents, Managers, executives or anyone else in a position to help that screenplay come to life.

As mentioned, the first page of a script need not have a page number, though every subsequent page should be numbered in proper numerical order.

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Title Page

The title page should likewise be part of every script — with one important exception. Many film festivals and contests that host competitions for best screenplay ask that Writers leave off the title page, which typically includes identifying information so that the readers are not in any way biased about the material they are evaluating.

Example of blank script title page

What you see above is a generic title page. Be sure to personalize it before sending out your work unless instructed otherwise.

Outside of that particular circumstance, Writers should always include a title page when sending out their screenplays. On that page should be the script title, author name, and contact information, such as email address and phone number, as well as any WGA or U.S. Copyright registration numbers.

How to Format a Screenplay

Time to move on to the specialized storytelling elements that are part of professional screenplay formatting!

What is the format of a screenplay?

Anna Keizer

A screenplay’s format is unlike virtually any other form of storytelling.

A screenplay is not prose. Its purpose is to clearly and concisely describe what is going on from scene to scene so that should the script be produced, other professionals who are part of the filmmaking process can translate what is written on the page to what is shot on set or location.

For this reason, what is on each page is kept to minimum. If it’s a new scene, there will be a scene heading to establish location and time, as well as action lines to describe what the characters are doing in that scene. Should they be speaking, there will also be dialogue.

There are additional screenplay format elements that can be used with discretion, but again, the goal of a script is to vividly convey the location, action, and dialogue of any given scene with clarity and brevity.


What are the 8 elements of script formatting?

Anna Keizer

The 8 elements of script formatting include:

  • Scene headings
  • Character names
  • Action lines
  • Dialogue
  • Parentheticals
  • Extension
  • Subheaders
  • More/Cont’d

Let’s dive into each element one-by-one.

1. Scene Headings

Diner scene from Pulp Fiction

Now onto the actual screenplay formatting elements! A Writer can’t tell a story without first alerting the reader to where they are, whether it’s a farmhouse in Kansas or the royal residence of the fictional planet Asgard.

Scene heading in Pulp Fiction script

Take a moment to think about what comes to mind when you read the words “COFFEE SHOP – MORNING.” That is why scene headings are so important, as they literally set the stage for the action.

Also referred to as sluglines, scene headings identify location and time of day, either independently (ex. “DAY,” “NIGHT,” “MORNING,” etc.) or in relation to the scene preceding it (ex. “CONTINUOUS,” “MOMENTS LATER,” etc.)2.

2. Character Names

Scene from Get Out

This one is fairly straightforward, but the importance of it should not be underestimated, especially when it comes to choosing character names3. A first-time reader of a script can get easily confused by characters with similar names such as Ann and Amy, so when selecting names, aim for diversity to minimize mix-ups.

Character names in the Get Out script

Character names don’t necessarily need to be uncommon to make an impact, as those from Get Out demonstrate. Just unique enough that the reader can differentiate them.

Also, while it’s ultimately up to the Writer’s preference, some screenwriting experts recommend always giving a name to even minor characters, such as a Cop or Doctor with just a single line, the reason being that it allows the future Actor playing that role to more deeply identify with it.

3. Action Lines

Scene from Wonder Woman

The goal of a script is to show and not tell a story. As such, it’s important that Writers not rely on action lines too heavily to explain the narrative. Keep it concise and in service to explaining only what cannot be told through dialogue4.

Action lines in the Wonder Woman script

Action lines can be useful in helping a reader imagine what is taking place in a scene, but screenwriters should always be mindful of keeping them to the point.

Also, Writers should keep in mind that a screenplay is not a novel. Large chunks of text slow the ability of the reader to make it through the script, and more importantly, may dissuade them from continuing to read it at all.

Some conventional wisdom is to keep as much “white on the page” as possible, as well as to make sure each page allows the reader to “read vertically” rather than horizontally — i.e. too much description.

4. Dialogue

Silence of the Lambs scene

Great dialogue is one of the most critical aspects of a good script and probably one of the most difficult aspects of it to explain. Why? Because dialogue relies entirely on the nature of the character speaking it. Is the character a babbler? Are they curt? Do they speak with a dialect that sets them apart from everyone else in the story?

Example of dialogue in the Silence of the Lambs script

The dialogue of a character should always help to inform their personality and who they are as it does for Crawford in The Silence of the Lambs.

Each of these questions points to creating distinct characters that could not be mistaken for anyone else in the narrative, which is one of the most crucial guidelines to keep in mind for dialogue5. In fact, some screenwriting experts advocate that each character should be identifiable by their dialogue alone even when their character names are removed from the script.

5. Parentheticals

Scene from Sunset Boulevard

Related to dialogue is the use of parentheticals, which typically are used to help inform how a line is spoken by a character6. While parentheticals can be useful, a good rule of thumb is that the majority of dialogue — and its intended delivery — should be clear on its own.

Parenthetical example from the Sunset Blvd script

As the parentheticals subtly indicate for this section of dialogue in Sunset Boulevard, Max should look at the cameramen to give his instruction.

Therefore, use parentheticals sparingly. Not only can excessive use of them indicate to the reader that the dialogue isn’t strong enough to stand on its own, but also it can hinder a future performance by the Actor playing that role, as they may feel boxed in creatively regarding delivery of their lines.

6. Extension

High school exterior from The Breakfast Club

Another screenwriting element used in conjunction with character and dialogue is that of extensions. Essentially, when a character name is listed on its own with their dialogue immediately following, it’s assumed that the dialogue is spoken by that character on camera.

Example of an extension in the Breakfast Club script

Throughout Brian’s voiceover in The Breakfast Club, the viewer sees images from Shermer High School that help to provide context for the story about to be told.

However, that’s not always the intended case in cinematic storytelling. So to clarify, extensions are used. Two of the most common extensions are “V.O” and “O.S.” The former, which stands for “voiceover,” indicates that the dialogue is being spoken by the character to the reader, audience, or themselves internally rather than to another character in their presence7.

The latter, which stands for “off-screen,” means that the dialogue is being spoken by a character off-camera.

7. Subheaders

Scene from the movie Signs

In some circumstances, the use of a brand-new scene heading is not necessary. For instance, let’s say two characters are having a conversation with each other within two different rooms in a house. Or the Writer just wants to bring the reader’s attention to a specific place or object in a scene.

Example of a subheader in the Signs script

The capitalized subheader indicates that the characters are watching what is playing on the television in the film Signs.

Instead of creating a new scene heading for each line of dialogue between the characters, a Writer may choose instead to use the subheaders “BATHROOM” and “ON PICTURE FRAME.”

However, just as parentheticals should not be excessively relied on in screenplays to help explain dialogue, nor should subheaders be used too frequently to help explain location or provide subtle camera instruction, as that is ultimately the prerogative of the Director and Cinematographer.

8. More/Cont’d

Scene from Hidden Figures

As with most screenplay formatting elements, the inclusion of “MORE” and “CONT’D” (short for CONTINUED) will likely be automatically inserted into a screenplay to help preserve fluidity and make sure the reader understands the continuation of dialogue.

Example of Cont'd in the Hidden Figures script

The action line breaks up Mary’s monologue from Hidden Figures, and the use of “CONT’D” shows that she resumes her dialogue before another character speaks.

When there is a page break in a script, but dialogue that continues from one page to the next, “MORE” will be inserted at the bottom of the page to alert the reader that the dialogue continues onto the following page.

On that next page, “CONT’D” will be inserted to again reaffirm to the reader that the character’s dialogue is still in progress. Most screenplay software will automatically insert “CONT’D” as well if a character stops speaking and begins again before anyone else talks.

Bonus: Fade In/Fade Out

Plane from the movie Die Hard

Bonus element!

And perhaps two of the most exciting screenplay formatting elements are the use of “FADE IN” and “FADE OUT.” Why? Because in many cases, these will be the very first and last words of a script. While some Writers might make alternate creative choices to begin and end their screenplays, these elements are the most common to signify the start and close of the narrative.

As such, Writers should include them to help guide the reader into and out of the script.

Example of a Fade In as part of the Die Hard script

Well, it’s clear that we’re not looking at the 405 freeway in Los Angeles. So why does the script read that after “FADE IN?” That’s part of the magic of moviemaking! It can always change between script and final cut.

In mentioning “FADE OUT,” it’s perhaps the ideal time to state that the above screenplay format elements do not encompass all formatting tools at a Writer’s disposal.

To fully understand and have a mastery of those elements, Writers should take the time to explore their screenwriting software to learn more about what they can use to help explain their narratives.

While a unique story or compelling characters can make a screenplay stand out against the competition, it’s creating a solid script formatting foundation and knowing how to enhance it that will also guide Screenwriters towards future success.

Bonus: Montage

Just to be clear, no script needs to have a montage. Plenty of them don’t. Hence, bonus element!

But a montage sequence can be a great tool for Screenwriters who want to quickly show passage of time via a series of brief scenes – often set to the score or soundtrack song – to keep the plot moving forward.

Formatting a montage sequence can be done in several ways. Some Screenwriters like to list the various scenes by letter. Some use dashes to separate them. In some cases, the scenes are simply formatted like action lines should they be brief enough.

Example of Montage Sequence in Armageddon script

Clarity is king in screenwriting, which is why it’s critical that you always distinguish when you have a montage sequence.

Here’s the vital bit to keep in mind, though, if you decide to include a montage sequence: Make it clear that it is indeed a montage sequence.

That means bookending the sequence with “BEGIN MONTAGE” and “END MONTAGE” each and every time you include one to make it abundantly clear to the reader what it is that they are reading.

How Long Should a Screenplay Be?

There’s no hard and fast rule regarding screenplay length. That being said, the typical sweet spot is somewhere between 90 and 120 pages.

A script substantially shorter than 90 pages is probably one with not enough story or “stuff” going on to make it a satisfying narrative.

And a script that’s longer than 120 pages? Well, here’s the thing. Your script is hopefully going to be read by other people. People who often read scripts all day long… Not to mention nights and weekends. When flipping through their reading options, do you think they’ll pick the script that’s 93 pages or 143 pages?

That’s not to say that scripts unequivocally cannot be longer than 120 pages. If you’re an established Screenwriter and have been hired to write a historical epic, it probably will be on the longer side.

But when you’re first starting out and establishing yourself, it’s better to err on having a shorter screenplay. Plus, many scripts longer than 120 pages often are bloated with scenes, dialogue, or other elements that can be taken out to make the story tighter.

What Should Not Be Part of a Screenplay?

We’ve been talking a lot about what is normally part of a screenplay. But what about the no-nos?

The unfortunate truth is that you may only have a few pages to impress someone reading your script. Often individuals like Agents or Producers won’t go beyond page 10 if they aren’t connecting with the material. So it’s up to you to make sure that everything you have on the page should be there.

Here are some of the most common mistakes Screenwriters make when it comes to what shouldn’t be in a screenplay:

Typos

We hate to be stern here, but there is absolutely no excuse nowadays to have typos in your script. You must be putting your best proverbial foot forward when you submit a script. Not only can typos be distracting for a reader, but also they imply that the Screenwriter did not care enough to ensure their correction.

Internal notes

Screenwriting is hard. Often Screenwriters will make an internal note to themselves about a particular scene to remember that they want to edit the dialogue or make some other change. That’s perfectly fine and even encouraged! Just make sure that you have removed all of those internal notes before submitting your script for someone else to read.

Unconventional formatting

You really want your script to stand out, so instead of using the standard 12-point Courier font, you decide to go with Comic Sans. Or you really don’t want to edit your 150-page script, so you bring down the font to 10-point. Trust us… The reader will notice the changes you make, and it won’t be a positive response. Stick with traditional formatting basics.

Images

Screenplays might be a show and not tell medium, but that doesn’t mean literally showing the reader what the scene should look like. Never include images, whether storyboards or other types of references, in your script.

Camera instructions

It’s a wonderful thing to be a Screenwriter. You literally have at your fingertips the ability to create characters, worlds, and stories all from your own imagination. That’s your job in this crazy business we call the entertainment industry.

But it’s not your job to dictate how the scenes you write will be shot. Of the many professionals who contribute to the filmmaking process, it’s the purview of the camera department to make those specific choices.

Editing instructions

Transitions can be a confusing part of the screenwriting process. Use them? Not use them? Just like camera instructions, transitions – which are essentially editing instructions – should be left to the professionals whose job it will one day be to make those decisions of how to move from one shot to the next. So use transitions sparingly. Very sparingly.

Instructions for the reader

A reader should without fail always understand what is happening in the world of your script without you having to include additional explanatory information that is not diegetic to that world. Not only do direct instructions make for a distracting read, but also they indicate that the script itself is not strong enough to convey on its own the action, themes, or other elements of the story.

Overly long descriptions

One way that Screenwriters circumvent the above note of not including instructions or information for the reader is to write elaborate action lines that go well beyond what is needed for the scene. For instance, unless it directly impacts the plot of the story, the reader doesn’t need to know down to the color of the buttons what a character is wearing in each scene. Keep descriptions short and relevant.

Too many parentheticals

Just as Screenwriters need to trust other professionals like the Cinematographer and Film Editor to understand how to film and cut the produced version of their script, they must also trust the Actors who will be bringing the characters in their script to life.

On occasion, parentheticals are perfectly acceptable to include for added guidance on how a particular line should be spoken. However, the inclusion of too many of them indicates that either the Screenwriter is choosing dialogue that cannot sufficiently get across what the character is trying to say or that they don’t trust the Actors to convey those lines accurately – or both. In short, trust your Actors.

What Is the Difference Between a Spec Script and a Shooting Script?

We keep talking about scripts, but the truth is that there are different kinds of screenplays that are used within the industry.

A spec script is in many regards a sample script of a writer’s aptitude and style. If you’re writing a spec script, you’re writing a screenplay on your own – no one has assigned it or hired you with the intention to pay you for your services.

That hardly means that it’s a waste of time. On the contrary, virtually every Screenwriter writes many, many, many spec scripts throughout their careers.

When just starting out, a spec script is your way of showing Managers, Agents, Producers, and others just how well you can write. And even when you start to get hired for specific projects, you likely will still write spec scripts if you have a passion project you want made.

On the other hand, a shooting script is a script that will be used for production purposes and has been marked according to the order in which the scenes will be shot.

And because edits and updates to a script are incredibly common during even the production phase, a shooting script will follow a specific process for the inclusion of new pages with identifying markers like different page colors to keep track of those changes.

What Do You Need to Know About the Business of Screenwriting?

To learn about the business side of screenwriting, we talked to Writers Sharon Soboil (After We Fell, After Ever Happy, Love on the Air) and Thomas Bezucha (The Good House, Marvel’s upcoming Secret Invasion). Here’s what they had to say about working with Managers and Agents and the process of selling your screenplay.

Do Screenwriters need Managers or Agents?

Sharon Soboil (After We Fell, After Ever Happy, Love on the Air)

Generally speaking, I’d say Managers are better than Agents. A Manager will go get you an Agent at some point. A Manager can help you get meetings and get to know people and help you to find your career trajectory in a macro sense.

An Agent is just there to sell you. They have 500 clients, whereas a Manager is going to have a little bit of time for you. They can read your material. They can give you notes on your material. They can send it to people. I would look for a Manager first if I were going to go in that direction.

I’ve gone through periods where I didn’t have a Manager or Agent, but I had an Attorney. Depending on how many people you know and how ensconced in the industry you are–like if your father’s a celebrity and can get you dinner with Marty Scorsese and you can get the script in directly–you probably don’t need a Manager.

Then you have an Attorney if Marty decides he’s going to option your material and that will be enough for you. As soon as he does option your material, every Manager and Agent will want to sign you and they’ll come after you, which is a better place to be.

One of the things I love that’s open to everybody via tickets is Sundance. Go to Sundance Festival–any festival. There are Agents and Managers there all the time and it’s a much easier place to meet people. Just meet them and socialize. You don’t have to sell yourself or anything but just keep in touch with them. That’s such a great way to meet Producers and Actors and talent. It’s a great place to go…and it’s fun.

Thomas Bezucha (Marvel's Secret Invasion, The Good House)

It definitely helps. I did a circuitous thing. I wrote a screenplay and I knew maybe ten people that were tangentially involved with film. I gave them each the script, hosted a dinner party, asked all those people there, and asked their advice. And I found a Producer that way.


How do you sell a screenplay?

Thomas Bezucha (Marvel's Secret Invasion, The Good House)

Most places won’t accept submissions unless it comes from an Agent. And then how do you get it to an Agent? How do you get started in the business?

I didn’t go to film school. I think people that go to film school are engaged earlier and have an advantage that I didn’t have.

My advice is you pick up a machete and start hacking your way into the jungle. Everybody I know has taken a different path. I think everybody knows somebody who knows somebody who’s in the business, and you sort of put it out there once you’ve got a script.

The other thing to know is, don’t ask people to read scripts unless you know that what you’re asking them to read is the best version of that script. Don’t submit professionally saying it’s a work in progress. You’re asking somebody to spend half a day with something.

Sharon Soboil (After We Fell, After Ever Happy, Love on the Air)

If you’re brand new, I’d say one of the best ways to sell it is to get into a competition. If you don’t have a Manager or an Agent and you don’t live in LA, I would say the Nicholl’s is fantastic. Scriptapalooza. Sundance Screenplay Competition. Austin Film Festival is getting bigger. Final Draft has one. Those kinds of competitions. Not the little ones, because some of those that are really small, they’re not as significant and they’re not going to be looked at in the same way.

Go to a festival. It’s frustrating when you don’t have a movie in a festival, I’ll be honest. A lot of the people at the festivals have a movie there and that’s why they’re there. And so they’re happy and joyous and they just won a competition … and you’re like, “Oh I’m such a loser.” But at the bigger ones, like Sundance, you can totally go there and meet that person’s Manager or Agent, who’s there because it’s their client. That’s helpful.