How to Format a Screenplay
Story and character are of course the most important elements to any screenplay. But when you are pitting your script against hundreds of others, incorrect formatting could make or break your success.
In this article I address some common formatting mistakes and how to correct them. The examples I have pulled from produced screenplays can be found free online for public use.
The general rule of thumb is that one page of a script translates to one minute of screen time. So, if your script is 300 pages long that means you're writing a five hour movie. No good. The general ranges for screenplays are as follows:
Feature-length scripts: 80-120 pages
Hour Pilot: 40-60 pages
Half Hour Pilot: 25-35 pages
Short: 12-25 pages. This category has the biggest leeway when it comes to length. It all depends on your story and what you plan to do with it. Some competitions accept three minute shorts while others accept 40 minute shorts.
Now you're wondering about that gap between a 40 minute short and a 80 minute feature. What if you write something that is 60 pages? My general advice is if you're writing a feature, your script needs more. If you're trying to write a short, you need to cut something out. A feature isn't usually shorter than 80 minutes because that isn't enough time to create a believable character arc and a satisfying conclusion.
Also remember that a page of dialogue will generally transform into less screen time than a page of action.The run time of The Social Network is two hours and one minute but the screenplay is 163 pages. This is because the protagonist has a lot of dialogue and the actor speaks at a rather rapid pace.
If you like to read the scripts of your favorite movies (like I do) then you will sometimes find that the scenes have been numbered. Below is an example of a numbered scene from The Matrix written by Larry an Andy Wachowski:
NEVER number your own scripts. Screenplays are numbered after they have been picked up, funded, and are in pre-production. Scenes are numbered so that even after revisions are made to the script, all the producers and crew members know which scene is which. Numbering your scripts looks unprofessional.
Scene headings, or slug lines, appear at the top of every scene. They are always written in caps and tell us where the character is and what time of day it is. They usually look like this:
INT.KATE'S ROOM-NIGHT or EXT.HIGHWAY-DAY
You may be tempted to specify the time of day by writing MORNING or SUNSET. Sometimes screenwriters do this and it's okay, but to be 100% clean and professional I always say stick with DAY or NIGHT and describe it further in the action. Your scene heading might read DAY but your description might say: "The sun is rising as Mike rides his bike down the road." Or you can signify the time through dialogue as in this example from The King's Speech written by David Seidler:
Note the specificity of the location and the time of day as "NEW DAY." This is perfectly acceptable as time change is not always obvious and the more clarification you can offer as the writer, the better.
A common mistake I see when reading competition entries is the misuse of CONTINUOUS in a scene heading. This signifier is quite literal. It should only be used when the action continues directly into the next scene. For example:
This action is continuous because when you visualize it as it could be filmed, we see Jessie head to the front door then cut directly to outside of the house as she opens it. Here is the same story but told without time continuity:
The only difference is that we don't see Jessie head for the door. The difference is small but it is not continuous. If you don't see a character exit a scene then there is a time jump as they enter the next scene, whether it is one minute or five hours. Misusing this label tells readers you don't understand how scenes cut together.
SCENE TRANSITIONS AND FLASHBACKS
Another common mistake I see in scripts is overusing scene transitions like FADE TO, CUT TO, etc. These transitions are usually not necessary because the scene heading is enough to show a time or location change. The only time you should use them is when this transition is not obvious. Here is a great example from The Matrix :
We need to see "CUT TO:" because the scene ends abruptly. Suddenly we are taken out of a mysterious dreamlike scene and into "reality."
This clarity is needed with flashback sequences, as well. Introducing a flashback is as simple as including it in your scene heading.
Often times one scene will be introduced as a flashback and the following scene has no indication of whether or not it is a flashback. Even if three scenes in a row are all part of one big flashback or dream sequence, I always suggest you indicate this in each scene heading. It may feel redundant, but the clarity will be appreciated. When the sequence has ended, you can indicate this by writing a separate slug line:
END FLASHBACK or END DREAM SEQUENCE
Description is the most important part of every screenplay. It is the main source of information and can make or break a script. Description is always written in present tense because it's meant to mimic "watching" the action unfold. Remember that everything in a script is going to be turned into something we can see or hear. Avoid giving information that would be impossible for an audience to know. For example:
Lester enters the coffee shop. Sitting in the corner he sees Ben, who is reading a book. Ben and Lester have been friends since college.
It starts off good. We see Lester walk in and Ben sitting in a corner. But how would an audience know that Ben and Lester have been friends since they were in college? How would you communicate this visually? If you find yourself writing descriptions that can't be transitioned to the screen, take these out (and save them for your novel!).
A character's name is ALWAYS in caps the first time they appear in a script. Some writers like to capitalize a name every time it appears which is acceptable but not the most visually appealing. After the name comes the age. This can be specific (42) or general (40s) and does not have to be in parenthesis. Just be sure whichever style you choose is the same throughout your script.
You may include a few descriptors after introducing a character like shy, loud, confident, slicked-back hair, anxious, grungy but smart, etc. but it's not required. This is pretty much the only time it is acceptable to include information that won't make it to the screen. A brief description provides a nice baseline for an actor and director to shape a character. Some acceptable ways to introduce a character in a script:
He looks up and sees MARISOL (22, sharp-tongued and prideful) standing over him.
In walks STEVEN HAYWORTH (40s) a short man with an anxious manner.
Here is the introduction of the character Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair, and Peter Jackson:
Even though this example does so, never write in your own camera directions. More on that below.
What are camera directions? Anything that signifies a specific shot such as ANGLE ON in the above example. This also includes: wide shot, close up, close on, zoom out, pan left, tilt up to, handheld, static shot, dolly with, etc.
Long story short: NEVER write camera directions. The reason you see camera directions in so many screenplays is because--similar to scene numbers--they are written in after the script has been picked up by a production company or studio, a director has been hired, etc.
Writing in camera directions oversteps your job as the screenwriter. It's the director's job and the DP's job to create shots and camera angles. If you have a specific vision for a scene, the best thing to do is write it in a way that implies a certain manner of shooting. Here is an example from The King's Speech:
By focusing the description on "nervous eyes" we picture a close-up of someone's eyes as opposed to a big wide shot of someone pacing nervously. This demonstrates that the writer had a specific vision for the action but left room for the actor and director to choose their own style. This is important because it shows you understand the creative collaboration that goes into making a movie. The screenplay is the first stop, not the last.
Dialogue can be one of the hardest things to write. It should be natural and each character should sound unique all while giving the audience important information. That's tough! Luckily, the formatting isn't so tricky.The character name preceding the dialogue should always be the same. I've seen characters suddenly change names when the plot has an identity reveal, or the character goes undercover. Even if there is a name change in the story, the name on the page should remain the same. Otherwise, it's confusing for the actor and is simply impractical when it comes to listing names on a breakdown or a callsheet--not to mention in the credits.
This tool is used with dialogue to clarify it's meaning or to whom the character is speaking. This tool should be used sparingly. It's not unusual to have a screenplay without a single parenthetical because, well, it just didn't need it. Many writers new to screenplays will write in a parenthetical for almost every piece of dialogue because they're afraid you won't understand that the character is angry or joking or yelling. The dialogue itself should imply emotion and tone.
Here is an example of a good use of parentheticals from The King's Speech:
These parentheticals tell the actor something that he would otherwise not know. While there should certainly be plenty of room for the actor to determine how he will play the character, these notes let him know what is happening to his character physically and emotionally. Bertie is very regal and reserved so the note (exploding-stammer free) tells us this is a sensitive subject that pushes Bertie to lose control.
Here is an another example, also from The King's Speech:
In this case, this note was used for clarification. This note tells the actor that Myrtle is responding to Lionel and not to Antony.
(VO) VS (OS)
These abbreviations are used beside a character's name to show whether a character is giving voice over narration or is speaking offscreen. These are used incorrectly more often than almost any other formatting element. While the difference is subtle, they are not interchangeable. The abbreviation may appear as (O.S.)/(V.O.) or (OS)/(VO). As always, consistency is key!
A voiceover is used when a character is not physically present in the scene but we hear their voice. This happens when we hear a character's thoughts, the story is being narrated, or perhaps a character is reading a letter and the audience hear's the contents as a narration.
Here is a great example from Bridget Jones's Baby written by Helen Fielding, Dan Mazer, and Emma Thompson:
Here, Bridget is narrating her own story but she is not speaking in the scene which makes her dialogue a VO.
Offscreen (OS) dialogue is used when a character is physically present but is not on camera. Perhaps a teen is in his room and we hear his mother yell that dinner is ready, or maybe a character is listening in on a conversation through a door.
Here is an example from The Matrix:
This is a great example of proper use of (OS) as well as implying camera direction. The description "We hear voices whispering" tells us that Morpheus and Trinity are present but Neo cannot see them. It also implies that the screen is black without giving camera direction. Then when the focus shifts to Morpheus, Neo becomes the offscreen character.
Screenplay formatting is not as hard as it seems. Many of these things are done automatically by screenwriting software. Celtx is a great free software that will get the job done for you. You can find it here.
If you're ever in doubt about the right way to format your script, always remember that consistency is key. Now grab your favorite caffeinated beverage and get started on the next big thing to hit the silver screen!