How to Format a Screenplay A brief and comprehensive guide
Dave Trottier (AKA Dr. Format)
Formatting is the language of screenplays. It's the expression of your story in an industry-accepted style. This style communicates your story to other professionals (readers, agents, producers, directors, etc.) in a language they understand. Thus, clarity is a key screenwriting principle. Formatting style consists of three main parts--scene headings, action, and dialogue.
The proper and creative use of scene headings is a valuable screenwriting skill. There are three types of scene headings (sometimes called slug lines).
1. A master scene heading identifies the master (or primary or overall) location. It consists of three main parts: camera placement (INT. or EXT.), the location, and the time (usually DAY or NIGHT). On occasion, a fourth identifier can be added such as the year or the special type of scene (such as FLASHBACK).
Remember to focus the heading on a specific location. "Winter" is not a location, nor is "Super Bowl XXX" nor is "Lovely Christmas Morning with snow falling." Do not include description in a heading, such as "a spacious and thoroughly equipped laboratory." Save the description for the description (action) section.
INT. LABORATORY - DAY
The use of the term CONTINUOUS in the "time" slot of a heading simply means that the action happens continuously from the previous scene to the current scene without any jump in time. If that continuity is already obvious, then you can choose not to use that term. The word SAME is used to indicate that the scene happens at the same time as the previous scene. For example:
EXT. LABORATORY - SAME
2. A secondary scene heading identifies a secondary location that is part of the master (or primary or overall) location. For example, if the master location is Bubba's house, then secondary locations could include the kitchen, living room, bedroom, and so on. Because the secondary location is part of the master location, camera location and time do not need to be indicated in the heading. For example:
If you wish to jump to later at the same location, simply type
Sometimes a master scene heading will include both a master and secondary location. For example:
INT. BUBBA'S HOUSE - KITCHEN - DAY
As long as we're inside Bubba's house, you can use other secondary locations as well, such as STAIRWELL, LIVING ROOM, BEDROOM, and so on.
If you wish to avoid the use of secondary headings, simply head your scenes with master scene headings throughout the script.
3. Special scene headings include the following: MONTAGE, SERIES OF SHOTS, FLASHBACK, INSERT, DREAM, INTERCUT, and others. There are many ways to properly format these, but the following two methods are the most widely used.
The first method simply tags the name of the special heading at the end of the master scene heading, as follows:
EXT. SUNSET BEACH - DAY - FLASHBACK
The second style begins by identifying the special heading (or scene type).
MONTAGE - JOHN AND MARY FALL IN LOVE
If you wish to type scene headings in bold, underscored, or both, you can.
Action is the narrative description of a screenplay where you describe what the characters do, including important sounds that are part of the action. Only describe as action what the audience will actually see on the movie screen or hear on the soundtrack. Do not include music cues.
As a general guideline (meaning there can be exceptions), allow one paragraph per visual image or beat (unit) of action. Try to keep paragraphs to four lines or less.
When writing action, almost nothing must appear in all-CAPS. Only character first appearances and technical/camera directions (which should be extremely rare) must be written in all-CAPS. It's acceptable to put sounds in all-CAPS if you wish.
A dialogue block consists of three parts.
1. The character name (or character cue) should be consistent throughout the screenplay. That makes your script easier to follow for readers. Of course, you can call John anything you want in the action, and other characters can call him anything they'd like in their speeches.
Sometimes a character cue should include an extension. In the example below, assume that John is off screen when he says his speech; that is, he is in the scene, but not visible on the movie screen.
JOHN (O.S.) (wryly) I meant every word I said.
Another common character extension is V.O. for voice over; for example, when a speech is heard through a telephone or similar device.
2. The parenthetical is sometimes referred to as actor's instruction, I, or a wryly. Use parentheticals sparingly. Their main purpose is to indicate subtext where it is not otherwise obvious. You may also use parentheticals for small actions, such as "tipping his hat," or "to Jane" to indicate whom the character is addressing when it's not otherwise obvious. Generally, actions that take more than 5-7 words should be written as--you guessed it--action.
3. The speech consists of the words the character says. If the character screams without the use of actual words, then that's a sound and should be written as action.
OTHER FORMATTING ISSUES
Your spec script should appear in some variation of the Courier 12-point font.
The title page should contain the title in all-CAPS (centered about a third of the way down), followed by your byline (also centered). Your contact information should appear in the lower right or lower left.
As a spec writer, you will not need to number your scenes, use camera directions, or write CONTINUED at the top and bottom of certain pages.
Some special notations are sometimes necessary; for example, if you'd like to superimpose some words:
SUPER: "Three Years Later"
Your script's left margin should be 1.5 inches. For dialogue, indent about ten spaces for the speech, another six for the wryly, and another six or seven for the character cue.
Transitions (or editing directions such as DISSOLVE or CUT TO) are used sparingly in a spec script. As a general guideline, only use transitions if you have a dramatic/comedic reason for them. And that's the purpose of formatting--to effectively communicate your story to a reader.
As formatting becomes more and more natural to you, you will more clearly see its usefulness, logic, and creative possibilities.