Screenplay Format: How to Write a Script
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.
Probably the most basic of the basics is the type of font used for scripts. The standard in the world of screenplay formatting is Courier. For a Screenwriter to go rogue and use a different font can result in several outcomes. 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 them. 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.
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. Moreover, a font smaller than 12 point can make it more difficult to read the screenplay, and a font larger than it 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.
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 righthand corner of each page, minus the first page of the script. 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.
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. 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.
Now on to 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. 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.).
This one is fairly straightforward, but the importance of it should not be underestimated, especially when it comes to choosing character names. 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. 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.
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 dialogue. 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.
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? 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 dialogue. 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.
Related to dialogue is the use of parentheticals, which typically are used to help inform how a line is spoken by a character. 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. 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.
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. 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 presence. The latter, which stands for “off-screen,” means that the dialogue is being spoken by a character off camera.
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. 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 “HALLWAY.” 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.
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. 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.
Fade In/Fade Out
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.
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.
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