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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, Let Him Go, The Family Stone, Big Eden).

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 Do You Need to Know About the Business of Screenwriting?

To learn about the business side of screenwriting, we talked to Writer Sharon Soboil (After We Fell, After Ever Happy, Love on the Air. Here’s what she 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 (The Good House, Let Him Go, The Family Stone, Big Eden)

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 (The Good House, Let Him Go, The Family Stone, Big Eden)

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.

And those aren’t that expensive to go to. Go hang out at the bar or stand in line for any of the movies. And, once in the theater, say hello to your neighbor. Make it fun for yourself. If you don’t come off crazy or obnoxious, the people you meet will most often respond in kind.

How long does it take to sell a screenplay?

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

I have a movie that’s going into production that I wrote that’s been optioned over and over. I won’t even admit to you how long it’s been around. It’s finally getting made. The Queen’s Gambit took thirty years.

I just wrote two movies, After We Fell and After Ever Happy. I wrote the first one in March and the second one in June and they went into production in August. And it’s already done! There’s a trailer out for After We Fell. (I don’t think I’m allowed to tell when they are coming out.) That was a Writer-for-hire situation, so they went right into production.

The average amount of time it takes to get a movie made is seven years. It’s a marathon. Sometimes you just hit at the right moment and they need that movie and they have that money or they have an Actor on board. Or something happens that just shifts the dynamic of the project. Before you know it, it’s a year later and you’re going into production.

Find a Producer that really loves it. That’s what you’re looking for, no matter how long it takes. As you become more coveted as a Writer, you can charge them for an option. In my humble opinion, even if you’re not in the Writers Guild, I always feel like if somebody puts money down, they’re serious. Whether it’s $1,000 or $10,000, it holds them accountable.

I know newer Writers; you just want people to be excited about your script and take it. I get that. Give people a period of time and they’ll prove to you that they like it. If it’s a big Producer, then I would give them more flexibility. If it’s a smaller Producer, I’d ask them to give you a little bit of money because otherwise, they’ve got these projects that they’ve put out way more money for and those are going to be their first priority.

So it depends on who the Producer is, if they’re new or if they’ve been around. Is the Producer an independent Producer? Are they taking the money from their own pocket? Great. Get a shopping agreement or get an option.

Hey, what do you think about trying our new Film Career FinderFilm Career Finder really quick? It’s totally free and could help get your career moving fast! Give it a try. You have nothing to lose.

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.

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.

What Are the 8 Elements of Script Formatting?

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

The 8 elements of script formatting include:

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

Let’s get started…

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.

Screenwriter Sharon Soboil
Sharon Soboil

An award-winning screenwriter, her start into feature writing took her around the globe: The sex-trafficking story Catching India, for Jennifer Siebel Newsom; The Wine Revolt to Bordeaux; her period rom-com Of Corset’s Mine to England, with Jason Connery directing being shot Summer 2021.

Keeping her sane during the covid lockdown, she was tapped by Voltage Pictures to adapt the third and fourth bestselling YA novels, After We Fell and After Ever Happy for the After franchise. Her true story ROO!, about a girl and her dog, is being produced by Resonate and Metro Int’l. Her TV movie Love On The Air was Hallmark’s submission for the Emmy’s, and a Leo Award winner.

She has written several shows for Amazon, Disney, and Freeform. Her half-hour comedy series Harmful If Swallowed, about the pharma world, was bought by Participant Media. Her female-led drama series, HOT, is set up with Bronwyn Cornelius and Element 8 and she is developing the series SAVED with Kerry David, starring Sharon Leal. She has been brought on to develop the TV series based on the NY Times best-selling book series Marked Men.

She is one of 36 storytellers in the off-Broadway show Period Piece (streaming in April) a series of funny and moving stories about menstruation. Sharon is an active member of the Women’s Writer’s Guild Committee, and sits on the board of the Hollywood Women’s Film Festival. She is repped by Josh Kesselman at Thruline Entertainment.

Screenwriter/Director Thomas Bezucha and Kevin Costner
Thomas Bezucha

Thomas Bezucha recently adapted the neo-noir western Let Him Go, from the novel by Larry Watson. Bezucha also directed and produced the film which starred Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, and Lesley Manville for Focus Features.

Bezucha’s debut feature Big Eden, remains the most-honored film in the history of Gay and Lesbian Film Festivals and landed him on Variety’s list of 10 Screenwriters to Watch in 2000.

His follow-up, the hit holiday comedy The Family Stone, featured an ensemble cast led by Diane Keaton and also starred Rachel McAdams, Luke Wilson, Claire Danes, Dermot Mulroney, Craig T. Nelson, and earned Sarah Jessica Parker a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by a Female Lead in a Musical/Comedy in 2006.

Bezucha also directed Selena Gomez in Monte Carlo for 20th Century Fox and wrote the screenplays for The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, directed by Mike Newell and starring Lily James, and The Good House with Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline, which will be released in 2021 from Tribeca Films and Amblin Partners.

Prior to his career in film, Bezucha spent a decade in Creative Services at Polo/Ralph Lauren, setting visual direction for store and environment design worldwide.

  1. 1Screenwriting.io. "Is there a standard screenplay font?". Screenwriting.io. published: 2020. retrieved on: 17 September 2020
  2. 2Brown, Michael Ray. "Script Format: Scene Headings". Story Sense. published: 2018. retrieved on: 17 September 2020
  3. 3Hellerman, Jason. "How to Write Good Character Names in Your Screenplay". No Film School. published: 20 December 2018. retrieved on: 17 September 2020
  4. 4Ferris, Michael. "The Magic Bullet: Action Lines". Script Mag. published: 13 December 2010. retrieved on: 17 September 2020
  5. 5Miyamoto, Ken. "The Single Secret of Writing Great Dialogue". Screen Craft. published: 24 September 2017. retrieved on: 17 September 2020
  6. 6August, John. "Using parentheticals". JohnAugust.com. published: 10 September 2003. retrieved on: 17 September 2020
  7. 7StudioBinder Staff. "Formatting a Screenplay: How to Put Your Story Into Screenplay Format". StudioBinder. published: 5 August 2019. retrieved on: 17 September 2020
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