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December 20, 2019

The Ultimate Guide to Screenplay Formatting

Getting formatting right has traditionally been a pain for screenwriters. However, getting it wrong can hamper your script's chances of being taken seriously by agents and executives. However, there is no need to stress! Professional screenwriting programs like Arc Studio Pro can automate the formatting process making formatting painless. However, if it's your first time writing a screenplay, you need to know the basics! That's why we've created this ultimate guide to screenplay formatting.

We'll walk you through the process of script formatting step-by-step. If you already know a lot about the screenwriting process, 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.

The article includes:

If you are in a hurry, you can also take a look at our formatting 101 guide.

Screenshot of the page of a script in Arc Studio Pro.

The ultimate guide to formatting your screenplay

There is no need to be overwhelmed. While some writers take liberties, generally, screenplay formatting is pretty straightforward and follows set rules.

What is a screenplay?

A screenplay is a basic blueprint for your movie or episode that serves as an instruction manual for directors, actors, and producers. It instructs producers how to budget. It gives directors an overview of what the film is about. It also provides actors with fully formed characters they can hone to perfection.

How long should a screenplay be?

Screenplays for films average 110-120 pages and television series episodes are generally 45- 60 pages. A good rule of thumb is a page per minute of on-screen action. However, there are many exceptions to this rule. Above all else, you should accommodate the needs of your story. Worry about tightening your page count later during the editing process.

A scene can run anywhere from half a page to ten pages, but most scenes are limited to 3-4 pages.

Should a screenplay contain acting or directing instructions?

Short answer: No. Screenplay formatting elements are intended to give screenwriters a medium 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.

What font do I use?

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) 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.

Formatting: Margins

Visually speaking, industry-standard margins make for easy reading and spotlight the dialogue.

  • 1-inch at the top and bottom of every page
  • 1.5 inches along the left margin (to leave space for the hole-punch)
  • 1-inch along the right margin.
  • Character names: 4-inches from the left side (2.5 inches from the preset left margin)
  • Parentheticals: 3.5 inches from the left side (2 inches from the preset left margin)
  • Dialogue: 2.5 inches from the left side (1 inch from the preset left margin)
  • Transitions: 6 inches from the left side (or 2.5 inches from the right side)
  • Page Numbers: Top right corner of every page.

Formatting: Scene headings/sluglines

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)

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.

Here are some examples:

EXT. CENTRAL PARK – MORNING
INT. ISABELLA'S APARTMENT - VIVIENNE'S BEDROOM - TUCSON, NEW MEXICO - MORNING
EXT./INT. MATTHEW'S CAR - M25 MOTORWAY - OUTSIDE LONDON, AFTERNOON
INT. FRANKIE'S BEDROOM - TORNADO AVENUE - ATLANTIC CITY - EVENING

Formatting: Action (or scene description)

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. For example, 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.

                   SCREENWRITER
Don’t judge me! Y’all quit a long time ago. Drink up!

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.

Formatting: Characters

In the ACTION sections of a screenplay, all-new characters are introduced in ALL CAPS. Here is an excellent example from the script of Casino Royale when the main antagonist Le Chiffre is first introduced in all caps.

Excerpt from Casino Royale

And then, the character, once introduced, is referred to normally (lowercase) afterwards:

Excerpt from Casino Royale.

The format holds true for all characters represented on screen, no matter how minor:

BARTENDER, PAPERBOY, LITTLE GIRL.

Formatting: Dialogue

We need dialogue to be formatted correctly to avoid confusion about who is speaking and when. It should be easy to read on the page so actors can easily learn their lines. Dialogue appears any time a character speaks, regardless of whether it is a voiceover, a reverie, or a monologue, no exceptions.  Use the directions listed above, putting the characters' names centered in caps and the dialogue also centered.

Remember, if you are using screenwriting software to write your screenplay, many platforms make it easy and almost automatic to format dialogue correctly. Arc Studio automatically formats dialogue for you if you press the command and 3 for character and command 5 for dialogue.

Dialogue tip: When writing dialogue, try to emulate conversations you've heard in real life. There are many books on the subject, but sometimes it can be more useful to sit in a coffee shop and listen to interesting conversations, jotting them down in a notebook.  

Consider this example of dialogue from episode 10 of season 4 from The Crown by Peter Morgan. In this dramatic moment, Deputy Prime Minister Geoffery Howe, having resigned from Thatcher's government in protest of her leadership, makes a blistering speech in the House of Commons that would ultimately lead to her downfall.

Excerpt from the Crown.


Formatting: Voiceovers

If you want to introduce a voiceover, you need to correctly note this in the script. Since your dialogue is likely to continue for several pages, you should ensure your characters are in all caps. You can then add V.O. afterward to indicate this is a voiceover. O.S. can be used if the character is speaking off-screen.

Here is a classic example of a voice over from the opening of  Martin Scorsese’s classic gangster picture Casino, written by Nicholas Pileggi:

Excerpt from Casino.

Formatting: Parentheticals

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. Still, it is essential to trust the artistic smarts of the actors and the director. For example, the best writers average use less than one parenthetical per page.

If you've done an excellent 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:

                            ALDOUS
                     (TO KUNU)
             Can you get some towels for me, please?
             I’m really losing a lot of blood.

                             KUNU
                     (bad English accent)
             You sound like you’re from London!  

Formatting: Transitions

There are many ways to transition from scene to scene. The most common way is a simple cut. To articulate this on the page, you can start a new scene.

Alternatively, you can specify a cut sometimes; this makes the screenplay flow. For example, in this episode of The Crown, we can see that writer Peter Morgan has specified that we are moving from the title sequence to the main scene.

Note that the transition is on the right-hand side of the margin. For example, you can use commands and 7 in the Arc Studio Pro shortcuts.

However, this can get boring, and there are many other ways you can sparingly signpost your audience that the scene has come to an end.

FADE IN/FADE OUT

This is less common in modern cinema and television shows. When we fade in or fade out, it's generally used to signpost a more significant transition of scene or time. Fade to black is also a common type of fade.

Here we can see it in use in episode 10 of Season 4 of The Crown as Thatcher comes to terms with the fact her premiership appears to be coming to and.    

Other examples of transitions we can consider include a dissolve in which the scene falls apart, losing clarity until we see the next scene.

The director is king

Remember not to go overboard with scene transitions since the director and editor often have their ideas. It's OK to offer them suggestions occasionally, but remember they are likely to change.  

Can you write a screenplay on Google Docs or Microsoft Word?

While writing a screenplayYou can write a screenplay on Google Docs or Microsoft Word. They are great tools. We even have a free template that you can use to get you set up. The advantage here is that you can use the comments feature for collaboration and share the link to your screenplay very easily.

But remember, the joy of using state-of-the-art screenwriting software like Arc Studio Pro is that everything is automated for you. So if you start a new line, the software will pick up whether you are trying to write a new line of dialogue or a unique character, and you can change these with a simple keyboard shortcut.

You can also take advantage of the storyboard writing features not present in Google Docs or Microsoft Word.

Remember to always import your Arc Studio screenplays to Word, Google Docs, or indeed a PDF once you've written them.

Best screenwriting software

Arc Studio Pro

Arc Studio Pro is part of a new generation of screenwriting software. It is available as an iPad/iPhone app, can run in a web browser or be downloaded to your computer. This means you can write from literally anywhere.

It's designed to help you take your screenplay from the planning stages right up until you are ready to submit to major production companies and agents. Take advantage of their advanced storyboarding features and tools to keep track of your characters and plot points.  

The easy-to-use shortcuts make it a breeze to use, so your writing is not continuously interrupted by figuring out the correct formatting.

Final Draft

For years Final Draft was the industry-leading scriptwriting software, and many companies and writers like Arron Sorkin adopted it straight from the typewriter.

However, it's comparatively expensive, and it isn't as versatile as some of the newer generations of software. Also, customer support can be challenging, and it can take a while to get used to it.  

Celtx Script

Celtx Script is the swiss army knife of the film industry. It isn't just a screenwriting software but an entire production suite that helps you see your screenplay through from script until it is produced.

This is a perfect piece of software if you plan to finance and produce your script independently. However, it's worth noting that Celtx is a bit more limited with its features and isn't made to be as easy to collaborate with other team members.

If you'd like a more in-depth run-down and comparison of the screenwriting software options that are available, check out this blog post.

5 screenplay formatting & editing tips to help you get started

#1 – Use a professional screenwriting program

Script development programs like Arc Studio Pro were designed to maximize the time you spend writing and creating. It's a no-brainer with automated screenplay formatting, outlining tools, and real-time collaboration capabilities.

#2 – Read screenplays & watch the movies they became

It sounds simple, but it's an essential step that many 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?

#3 Trust in the collaborative process

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.

#4 Join a good screenwriting community

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 challenging questions will make you a better writer.

#5 Be patient

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.

                HAPPY MAN
Welcome to Hollywood! What's your dream?
Everybody comes here; this is Hollywood, the land of dreams. Some dreams come true, some don't,
but keep on dreamin' - this is Hollywood.

Get started today

Formatting your screenplay with Arc Studio Pro is a breeze. If you're interested, be sure to sign up for a free trial today to help you make up your mind.

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The Ultimate Guide to Screenplay Formatting
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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David Wain

For decades I've been searching for a seamless screenwriting app and and everything has come up way short – until Arc Studio. Writing and collaborating is easier than ever and it gets better every week. Well done!

David Wain
Writer/Director "Role Models"