Writing a screenplay is a wildly imaginative process that can be frustratingly hemmed-in by formatting. Professional screenwriting programs like Arc Studio Pro automate the formatting process but they don’t answer the question new screenwriters most often wonder: Why do I have to do this?
We’ll walk you through the process of script formatting step-by-step. You may already know a lot about the screenwriting process so feel free to skip to the sections most relevant to your current projects. If you’ve never written a screenplay, hang around, we’ll answer how & why and make it entertaining along the way. The article includes:
If you are in a hurry, you can also take a look at our formatting 101 guide.
A screenplay is a layered and highly visual storytelling format disguised as an instruction manual. It instructs producers how to budget. It gives directors a clear blueprint. It provides actors with fully formed characters they can hone to perfection. Every person involved in the development and production of a feature film uses the screenplay as their primary guideline. That’s both fascinating and a hell of a challenge. How do you squeeze plot, character development, and killer dialogue into a document that industry types are going to skim, looking for the bits that involve them? It takes a unique blend of artistry and pragmatism but if you get it right, you’ll have a long and successful career.
Screenplays average 110-120 pages, but there are enough exceptions to this rule that you should accommodate the needs of your story, and worry about tightening your page count during the editing process.
The previous rule of thumb of one page equals one minute of screen time has been studied and reassessed. The runtime of a finished film is the product of extensive script and film editing handled at a later stage in the game. Don’t worry about trying to calculate the screen time each page will represent. Everything about the format of a script; font, margins, length of the descriptions is designed to hit that one minute mark. That said, do be cognizant of scene length. A scene can run anywhere from half a page to ten pages, but most scenes are limited to 3-4 pages.
Short answer: No. There are screenplay formatting elements intended to give screenwriters a medium in which to express character and scene directions but they should be used only when vital to the narrative. Movie making is a collaborative artistic process. Don’t explain a character’s tone of voice to the actors. Don’t tell the director where to position the camera. They are professionals. Give them a good story and trust in their ability to pick up on the nuances.
Screenplays were originally drafted using typewriters, meaning that the typeface was required to fit the typewriter page with consistency. Today 12-point Courier is used (though there are variations) in order to maintain that same consistency. Courier is a fixed-pitch (or monospaced font) meaning all character spaces are the same width. Any Courier-family font you use should conform to the original constant fixed-pitch ratio.
Visually speaking, industry-standard margins make for easy reading and put a spotlight on the dialogue.
Scene headings indicate the beginning of a new scene. The format is simple:
INT. (Interior) or EXT. (exterior) + name of location + time of day (vague)
EXT. CENTRAL PARK – MORNING
There is no art in a slugline. There are no adjectives. Think about the producer budgeting. Think about the director storyboarding the scenes. They need to know the math behind the story. How many scenes are set outdoors? How many are set indoors? Will travel be involved or can we use studio resources? Bringing your vision to life takes an intense amount of planning and scene headings are a planning tool so don’t overthink it.
Scene descriptions are typically written in 3-4 line blocks. The pacing is quick, details are sparse and the action is delivered in the PRESENT TENSE. This element of screenplay formatting is called ACTION because it narrates what is happening on-screen in real-time. If your character is neurotic reveal it via dialogue. If a childhood event in the character’s past is integral to the plot include a flashback scene. Moviegoers will never read the script. What’s on the screen is all they have.
Reread every scene you write. Ask yourself if each element can be represented on screen. Anything that can’t be shown has to be cut. Take a look at the scene below, an easy edit will jump out at you:
INT. COFFEE SHOP - DAY
A SCREENWRITER types furiously. His aggression draws the
attention of suntanned LA types. He reads what he has written
and realizes that he is telling rather than showing. He
slams his computer shut.
Don’t judge me! Y’all quit a long time ago.
The line “He reads what he has written and realizes that he is telling rather than showing” has to go. It’s unshowable. Inner turmoil has no place in the story unless it can be represented on screen via action and dialogue.
In the ACTION sections of a screenplay all-new characters are introduced in ALL CAPS:
INDIANA JONES (mid-forties, Harrison Ford type)
and referred to normally afterwards:
Indiana cracks his whip.
The format holds true for all characters represented on screen, no matter how minor:
BARTENDER, PAPERBOY, LITTLE GIRL.
In this case, think of the casting director. They are going to need a count of speaking and non-speaking roles in your movie. All caps helps.
Character names preceding dialogue sections should be listed in all caps and follow the margin guidelines outlined above. You can add (V.O.) following your character’s name to introduce a voice-over narrative or (O.S.) if the character speaking is off-screen.
Dialogue formatting is simple. Use the margins outlined above, don’t use quote marks and avoid extraneous punctuation. It’s writing dialogue where things get tricky. For some writers dialogue flows; it’s conversational, clever but not too clever. For other writers, dialogue is a gauntlet that has to be run page-after-page. Reading books on the subject is helpful, performing dialogue aloud is helpful, but as always, writing and writing some more is the best way to improve.
Parentheticals are listed below the character name (or within the dialogue section) to provide additional instruction: emotion, sarcasm, physical reaction. Parentheticals can be useful in scenes with multiple characters or to introduce elements that aren’t necessarily intuitive but it is important to trust the artistic smarts of the actors and the director. The best writers use less than one parenthetical per page on average. If you’ve done a good job developing your characters and setting the scene parentheticals will be redundant little notes.
To illustrate parenthetical formatting here’s a memorable exchange from Forgetting Sarah Marshall:
Can you get some towels for me, please?
I’m really losing a lot of blood.
(bad English accent)
You sound like you’re from London!
FADE IN:, FADE OUT:, DISSOLVE TO:; you know the nomenclature, you know that transitions are aligned 2.5 inches from right, and in your heart-of-hearts, you know that they are very rarely needed. Never let this would be cool supersede what the narrative requires. The director will have their own ideas for how the scenes should transition.
Script development programs like Arc Studio Pro were designed to maximize the amount of time you spend writing and creating. With automated screenplay formatting, outlining tools and real-time collaboration capabilities, it’s a no-brainer.
It sounds simple but it’s an important step that a lot of new writers skip. Read scripts from different genres. Read the scripts of movies you love and movies you hate. Pay close attention to the formatting. How detailed were your favorite writers in the action sections? Do writer-directors make more frequent use of parentheticals and transitions? How much changed via the collaborative process from script to screen?
Directors, actors, cinematographers, composers, special effects teams; a lot of talented and creative people will play a part in bringing your story to the screen. As you format and develop your screenplay, remember to inspire your collaborators without telling them how to do their job.
If you show a rough draft of your screenplay to friends and family all you’re going to hear is: I love it! When can I buy a ticket? Is it too soon to ask for an autograph? To them, the act of writing 120-pages of anything is an accomplishment in itself and they care about you so… That’s not what you need. Other screenwriters will ask the tough questions and tough questions will make you a better writer.
Writing a good script takes time. Editing and polishing takes time. And when your masterpiece is complete, the first question agents and producers will ask is, “What else do you have?” It’s a tough business with very few stories of instant success. Stay confident, be patient and keep writing; eventually, your talent will carry through.
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