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Screenplay format, part 2

Do it right

The script pages

Margins

Commerical screenwriting software understands the correct margins and as long as your screenplay elements are tagged with the right styles they will be formatted correctly. Just for completeness here are the accepted margin specifications.

The blank margin on the pages should be 1" all around except on the left where the three-hole punching requires a 1 1/2" margin. Therefore the left margin of the typing will be 1 1/2" from the left side of the paper. Since 12-point Courier font gives you exactly 10 characters per inch measuring horizontally, the typing will start 15 spaces from the left side of the paper.

Most elements of the script start at the left margin and are left justified (ragged right). The main exceptions are:

Character's names are 37 spaces (3.7 inches) from the left margin.

Actor's instructions are 31 spaces (3.2 inches) from the left margin and should not exceed 20 characters per line before wrapping to the next line.

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Dialog starts 25 spaces (2.5 inches) from the left margin and should not exceed 35 characters per line before wrapping to the next line.

Page numbers should appear in the upper right just inside the blank margins and there should be a double space before the script continues, except the first page should not have a page number. If you later decide to insert some material after the script has been distributed you should insert pages numbered 55A, 55B, and so on so all the pages don't have to be recopied and confuse everyone.

Many members of your crew and the actors in particular will fill their script with personal notes about what has to happen at certain points or how to play a scene. By not renumbering and reprinting all the pages they don't need to throw away or manually renumber the pages with all their notes.

Screenplay elements

The first page begins with a transition "FADE IN:". The only transitions you should use are FADE IN: at the beginning and FADE OUT: at the end. Other transitions are recognized such as CUT TO:, FADE TO: JUMP CUT TO:.

Once upon a time it was common for writers to specify choices that are decided by the director, cinematographer or editor in an attempt to show the story more visually. No one does it anymore and it's considered bad form. Leave out anything that indicates camera movement or film editing directions.

The start of your screenplay

FADE IN:

You many next choose to have an establishing shot as the first thing to prepare the audience for where the story will take place.


A harsh beam of light cuts across the big city on a cold, grey
morning. A lone female jogger runs along the waterfront.

OR


EXT. NEW YORK CITY - DAY - ESTABLISHING

A harsh beam of light cuts across the big city on a cold, grey
morning. A lone female jogger runs along the waterfront.

Generally you don't want to indicate the opening credits because they will be worked out in the final edit. If you have a particularly wonderful idea that will tie the credits into the beginning of the story then you can indicate where credits start and end like this.


ROLL CREDITS.

A harsh beam of light cuts across the big city on a cold, grey
morning. A lone female jogger runs along the waterfront.

END CREDITS

Screenplay scene headings

The master scene headings describe the place and time of each scene that is part of your story. The first word, "EXT." or "INT.", indicates if the scene is exterior (outdoors) or interior (inside a structure). Next is the name of the location followed by a hyphen and an indication of the time when this scene occurs. The most common times are "DAY" or "NIGHT".

Note that scene headings are always uppercase.

EXT. THE OPEN PASTURE - DAY 

Indicating if the scene is indoors or outdoors helps the cinematographer decide how much of what kinds of film to buy. As more and more films are shot digitally this become less important to know.

By giving the scene a location title it is easier to group scenes that will be shot at the same place together while making the schedule. Movies are almost never shot in the order they appear in the screenplay. It is much more efficient to group all scenes that occur in the same location together and film them at them same time. This pattern is only broken when an important actor's schedule requires them to shoot all their scenes within a certain timeframe.

Indicating the time of day also helps in scheduling when scenes will be shot. Daylight scenes can be shot together while night scenes are saved for filming at night or using special techniques to simulate nighttime.

You can also use CONTINOUS or SAME to indicate that one scene follows right after a previous one in the same location. Sometimes LATER is used to indicate the location is the same but there has been a passage of time.

Avoid using MORNING, NOON, TWILIGHT, LATE EVENING or other precise indicators as they are usually unnecessary and make the job of scheduling more difficult.

It is preferred to add a fourth element to the scene heading if greater precision is absolutely necessary for a reader to understand the scene.

INT. HOTEL LOBBY - NIGHT - SAM'S DREAM

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Screenplay secondary headings

Master scenes that are broken into sub units or have sequences that occur in different places within a basic location may require secondary headings. So, for examlpe, this scene heading:

INT. SAM'S LIVING ROOM - NIGHT

could be followed by this "slug line" subheading:

BEHIND THE SOFA

If the scene remains the same but there is a laps of time then indicate it with this scene heading:

INT. SAM'S LIVING ROOM - LATER

Or simply include a "slug line" subheading:

LATER

If you need to move the emphasis to one of the characters you should write:


SAM

removes a knife from his pocket.

BRAD

drops to his knees and begins to cry.

You can use a similar technique if the action is moving from one area of a location to another.


INT. PARKING STRUCTURE - NIGHT

Sam lunges with his knife but Brad deflects the blade and makes a mad
dash for the parking structure exit. He bolts through the door into a

PARK

with Sam in close pursuit.

Screenplay action description

Screenplays generally consist of Headings, Action (or Description) and Dialog.

Action paragraphs (or narrative description) is always left aligned. Double space between the paragraphs.

Action is written in the present tense because films always take place in the present as they are viewed. Only describe what absolutely needs to be described with an absolute minimum of adjectives.

In action paragraphs less is always better. If the description is of an old farm house then just call it an old farm house. Do not preceed it with a long string of detailed adjectives. The director and set designer's jobs are to put together the set that will fit with the story.

			
Sam stops his truck in front of the old farm house. A dog runs out to
greet him, wagging it's tail.

Each action paragraphs should describe one "beat" of the story or one image.

NEVER write something that can't be represented on the screen. Something like the following is not acceptable

			
Sam's calm expression hides the seething anger that will soon explode.
He silently cocks the gun hidden in his pocket.

A film can only show what can be seen. If Sam's expression is calm then the audience can't know that he is angry. If he is about to explode then that needs to be described when it actually happens, never in a statement about the future. Finally, if the gun is hidden in his pocket how can the film show him cocking it? Everything described must be something that is visible and happening now.

The first time a character appears their name should be capitalized and accompanied by a minimal description of the character.


SAM, a weathered cowboy, steps into the bar.




Screenplay Dialog

Dialog consists of three elements: the Character Name, optional Actor's Direction, and the Characters speech.


                       SAM
                  (gasping for air)
           Help!

Screenplay inserts

An INSERT is used to bring some element of the scene into full frame. Some examples would be a clock face, a letter or newpaper article, a book or a sign.


Violetta lifts the letter in her trembling hand

INSERT - THE LETTER
"My Dearest Violetta, I have left Vienna and count the minutes until we will be reunited." BACK TO SCENE She drops the letter on the floor.

Screenplay flashbacks, dreams

The use of dreams and flashbacks are universally considered bad writing today. However, if you must, here is how to do it.


FLASHBACK - SAM AS A YOUNG BOY

A 10-year old Sam sits fishing by a river bank. Sally sits down beside him
and tries to kiss him. Sam screams in terror, drops his fishing pole into
the river, and runs away.

BACK TO PRESENT DAY

Screenplay montages

A montage is a sequence of related shots at different locations or times all expressing a similar idea or a passage of time. Use one of the following formats:


MONTAGE - THE LOVERS GET TO KNOW EACH OTHER

-- They have a cup of coffee at a trendy coffee shop

-- They walk down the street holding hands

-- They drive together in a convertible through the countryside

-- They hold hands, then kiss, while walking on a moonlit beach

OR


SERIES OF SHOTS

A) They have a cup of coffee at a trendy coffee shop

B) They walk down the street holding hands

C) They drive together in a convertible through the countryside

D) They hold hands, then kiss, while walking on a moonlit beach

Screenplay ending

On the last page of your screenplay you can do either one of the following. Triple space down the page and center "THE END".

THE END

Or place "FADE OUT." at the right margin.

FADE OUT.

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