Formatting

Script Formatting 101: A Guide for Impatient Newbies

Screenplay formatting rules are notoriously confusing and strict. Read on to learn the absolute basics to get you started with your script – and nothing more.

Setting artistic limits within the traditional screenplay format is a big part of what separates the pros from the newbies. Here we will introduce you to the four most important elements, that you need to get started writing, without confusing you with details such as page marginsArc Studio Pro handles that for you.

In order to help you format like a pro, we’re going to discuss the format and purpose of: 

  1. Scene Headings
  2. Action
  3. Character
  4. Dialogue
script formatting basics
Opening scene of Pulp Fiction by Tarantino

SCENE HEADINGS: Info without the Art

Every scene starts with a scene heading (or slugline). Scene headings are simple instructions: They tell the director and actors where the scene is set and the time of day. That’s it.

INT. (Interior) or EXT. (exterior) +  name of location + time of day (vague)

The scene shown above is the opening of Pulp Fiction. Notice the simplicity of the opening scene heading. 

INT. COFFEE SHOP - MORNING

Tarantino is known for his chatty characters and love of detail but he keeps the scene heading as basic as possible. He wants the reader to absorb the setting at a glance because he knows that action and dialogue are where his story really comes to life. Imagine how distracting it would be if he had added even a couple of adjectives. 

INT. A GRIMY OLD SCHOOL COFFEE SHOP - LATE MORNING

Kill your adjectives and move on to the good stuff. 

ACTION: A Concise Breakdown of What’s Happening On Screen

What’s happening on screen; that is the most important element to keep in mind. Introduce your characters, set the tone and avoid lengthy character profiles. Let’s return to the example above. Here is how Tarantino introduces the characters: 

Two of these people are a YOUNG MAN and a YOUNG WOMAN. The 
Young Man has a slight working-class English accent and, like 
his fellow countryman, smokes cigarettes like they are going 
out of style.

A few points to note:

  1. Action is always written in the PRESENT TENSE. You can check out this article to understand how other tenses can be used.
  2. Characters are initially introduced in ALL CAPS.  
  3. Details are limited. 

Tarantino helps the reader visualize the scene by mentioning the character’s accent and penchant for cigarettes. His age is simply “young” and we aren’t given any details about his physical features. Often a tic or personality detail is more impactful than superficial details. 

Points one and two are immovable. That’s standard screenplay formatting. Point three is a matter of style. Every writer introduces their own sense of originality but be careful not to let your prose get in the way of pacing. Action sections are typically in 3-4 line blocks. Keep the story moving forward. Keep the reader wrapped up in what’s unfolding.   

More info in this article: Action lines – what can they accomplish?

CHARACTER: Who Is Speaking?

The character speaking is listed in all caps with dialogue immediately following. You’ll be using a professional screenwriting program so no need to worry about margins and spacing, that will all be automated. You can add (O.S.) if the character is off-screen at the moment of introduction or (V.O.) if the dialogue will be introduced as a voice-over.

DIALOGUE: Remember the Screen Time!

Dialogue formatting is a non-factor thanks to user-friendly screenwriting programs.

  • Don’t use quotation marks. 
  • Avoid extraneous punctuation!!! 

Everything else comes down to the art of dialogue writing. Good dialogue can be the difference between an average screenplay and a great one. There are hundreds of books on the subject but here’s a quick bit of advice: write it all and edit mercilessly. As always, less is more. 

PARENTHETICALS, SHOTS and TRANSITIONS: The Danger Zone of Screenplay Formatting

When you’re just starting out, you can safely ignore parentheticals, shots, and transitions for a while.

Parentheticals are instructions related to character and dialogue. They can be used to introduce a subtitled section or specific instructions about line delivery. Avoid using them unless they are vital to the story. Let the actors act. 

                  FAMOUS ACTOR
               (under his breath)
          Newbie writers and their damned
          parentheticals.

I am this character! 

Shots tell the director how to film a certain piece of information, e.g. close ups. Directors generally don’t like to be told such things, so stay clear of them initially.

Transitions are similar. They’re right-aligned cues that provide special instructions for moving between scenes. Common examples include; FADE IN: and CUT TO:. Transitions are occasionally necessary but they can also infringe on the director’s concept. Let the directors direct. 

This covers the basics, continue here to learn writing efficiently using Arc Studio Pro’s superior editing tools.

READ SCREENPLAYS: It’s the Best Way to Learn

Reading screenplays is the best way to learn script formatting. Read writers other writers idolize like Charlie Kaufman. Read scripts written by writer-directors like Christopher Nolan. Read big action scripts and broad comedies. Watch the movies they became. Pay close attention to the sparseness of what’s on the page versus the full sensory experience of what’s on the screen. New screenwriters often overwrite. A big part of successful screenplay formatting (and writing) is learning to be clear and persuasive within the pre-set industry format of a script. 

Use a leading scriptwriting program.

Trust in the collaborative nature of film making.

Read other writers. 

And if you want to go further check out our Ultimate Guide to Screenplay Formatting

Good luck!

Michael Bartolomei

Former Director of Development of Mandeville Films & Television in Los Angeles, Michael Bartolomei is a published author and story teller.

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