How to Master Screenwriting Basics: Format
As a screenwriter, I’ve had a number of projects optioned and produced.
As a screenplay analyst, I’ve read thousands of screenplays for a wide variety of companies and contests, and given notes on scripts that went on to win the Best Screenplay Oscar, make millions in profit at the box office, and garner huge followings on TV.
I enjoy every element of my job, because of the creativity, the community of screenwriters, and the potential to read something amazing.
Every time I open a screenplay, I hope it will be the best thing I’ve ever read. And I think there’s a feeling of confusion in some writers, that there’s a sense that readers or analysts might want to look for the worst. I consider it my job to find what’s best, and to help give a chance to anything that has potential to succeed.
But, I also want every script I read to be great. And there are a lot of common screenwriting mistakes that come up over and over again in scripts I see. These are basic issues that are easily fixed.
Here are some of the key things to remember before you send out your script.
Screenwriting Format Basics
Let’s talk about format. It’s one of the easiest things to get right, if you use a screenwriting program! So – no excuses. One of the best ways to learn is to read other, modern scripts that have done well.
But, keep in mind, some screenplays you may find online contain elements that a draft shouldn’t – such as scene numbers, which are usually incorporated for shooting drafts or final drafts, often by the production department or Script Coordinator. If you’re sending your script in to a contest, and it’s not ready for production – ditch those scene numbers!
Anyway, let’s dive in to why format matters.
Why Does Format Matter So Much?
If you’re just starting out as a screenwriter, you might be wondering why format is such a big deal. Who cares what font you use or how many pages your script is?
The answer to that is: the production team, producers, and directors within the Hollywood system.
If you just want to shoot a film in your backyard with your friends – go wild. Write however you want to, with whatever font or program works for you!
But, if your goal is to get hired in Hollywood, you will want to know these screenwriting basics.
A lot of people think basic screenwriting format rules exist for obscure reasons, like “this is the way they’ve always done it.” And that might be partly true! There are certainly exceptions that prove a lot of these rules.
But, there are also really good, helpful reasons behind the screenwriting format basics that will help you understand the process of filmmaking better.
To understand why the rules matter, you have to know what they are.
1. Font Type and Size
Courier 12 Point Font.
This is the standard font for screenplays.
If you are writing a feature film or a single-camera comedy or dramatic TV show, this is generally single-spaced in the action lines. If you are writing a multi-camera show, the format is slightly different (double-spaced action, capitalizations).
I’ll go into more of that later, but for most of what you’re writing, you’ll be using single-spaced (for action lines) Courier 12 point.
Your margins are as follows:
Left, 1.5 inches. Right, 1.0 inches. Top, 1.0 inches to the body, 0.5 inches to the number. Bottom, 0.5 to 1.5 inches, depending upon where the page break comes.
You shouldn’t have to memorize this! Use a screenwriting program, like FadeIn or Final Draft.
And, besides, it’s all in the April Rider Script. If, for some reason, you want to be fancy and memorize each element.
Your dialogue is formatted like so:
Left, 2.5 inches. Right, 2.5 inches, with the character name in ALL CAPS, and tabbed 4.0 to 4.2 inches.
This offsets it from the action and helps the eye move down the page. As a side note, it’s more aesthetically pleasing and easier for the reader if the script’s dialogue is broken up with action lines within a page. So, a full page of dialogue is ok, but a page of dialogue/action/dialogue is more engaging on the eye.
In addition, screenwriting is a visual medium, so remember to include action to enhance those visual moments! People just standing around talking isn’t that fun to watch.
A lot of people get this one wrong.
These should be:
Start them about 0.5 inches to the left of the character name tab mark. Let them run about 1.5 inches wide. If the text goes over that length, it will drop down to the line below, and that’s ok!
5. Asterisks for Changes, Page Colors, and more!
These are standard “extras” that come into play when a script goes into development or production.
You’ll find that you’re able to mark changes in the script as you revise (depending on the software), usually with colored text and an asterisk on the right-hand column.
In addition, when you output new, revised pages during a shoot, you’ll usually color-code those pages for production. These are details that script coordinators and the production department usually oversee (again, depending on the production), but they are areas that a writer should be aware of. You may end up outputting your own changes, and knowing how to do these things will elevate your skill set.
6. Anything else…?
Capitalization, hyphens, and white space/line breaks are all utilized in screenwriting.
Some people like to bold all their slug lines. I don’t mind this. Some readers find it irritating. But as long as it’s consistent throughout, I have no beef with that.
What’s a Slug Line?
A scene heading, always in ALL CAPS, usually beginning with INT. or EXT. (or sometimes INT./EXT.).
One nitpicky thing I’ve sometimes been irked by is if a slug goes more than one line on a page.
So, if it’s really long and drops down to two lines, that can be irritating. It’s not a big deal if that happens – it’s just a visually pleasing thing (this never impacts how I judge or score a script).
I’d also say – remember to include time of day.
A slug line goes like this:
INT/EXT. [PLACE] – [TIME OF DAY]
Some people use periods instead of hyphens, and that’s fine. Just be consistent. And, remember – if you do use CONTINUOUS in your slugline, make sure it’s actually possible for the scenes to exist in continuous order in space and time.
I’ve had scripts come in where CONTINUOUS was used, but the scenes were happening either simultaneously, or days later. So – double check this.
Back to the big question…
Why Does Any of This Screenplay Format Stuff Matter?
The first reason is timing.
Each page of a screenplay is equal to 1 minute of screen time.
If you have a 90 page script, you can estimate it will be 1 hour and 30 minutes on screen (give or take a few minutes). This is immensely helpful. In a world where most films are about 1.5-2 hours long (2.5-3 for especially lengthy films), a page count can instantly tell the producer, director, and writer how long the script is on screen.
This also helps with production. Why? Because, when you’re shooting a film, you’ll usually shoot a certain number of pages in a day. This may vary with lengthy or complicated scenes. But, if you know your director’s usual page per day ratio, this can help your Assistant Director break the script into manageable shoot days.
For instance, if your director tends to shoot 4 pages a day, and your script is 120 pages, you’ve got (about) a 30 day shoot.
Note: this is not a perfect science, and it all comes down to what’s on the page. But it does help!
How else does it help?
If you’re doing it right, you’re capitalizing your character’s names when they first appear in the script.
JOHN, 20, enters the room.
John, 20, enters the room.
Why does this help? When you’re reading a stack of 20 scripts in a week, which isn’t unusual, it’s helpful to be able to pick out key pieces of information quickly. Sure, you should be outputting a cast report, and you should be doing a close read of every page, but you can make everyone’s life easier by following these standards.
What Else Is in That Info?
If you’re working with a standard screenplay program, which I recommend, you may end up saving production a lot of time. When I work with Final Draft, I can output what’s called a .sex file (seriously), which I can then input into a program like Movie Magic Scheduling Software (note: this is not an affiliate link, just software I have used to schedule films).
Exporting in the right format can help me break down a script by days, locations, page count – I can run reports on things like props and sfx, within the program itself. All helped by the script being in proper screenplay format to begin with.
This probably seems like a lot to take in, but it’s really basic.
If you’re still inclined to work with MS Word, you can follow these instructions to build a screenwriting template that has the appropriate margins for your basic script.
What About Multi-Camera Script Format?
Yeah, so we talked about that earlier. There’s a great article about this over on Screencraft’s website. The basics from that are as follows:
1. Everything is in ALL CAPS.
2. Character names are underlined when they first appear, as are Sluglines, Sounds, and Special Effects. In a non-multi-cam script, some of this might end up capitalized, rather than underliend.
3. Dialogue is double-spaced.
4. Character entrances and exits can be underlined, and there’s a lot more stage direction, like a character crossing from one side to another.
Multi-cam shows tend to be those that are filmed before a live studio audience. Think: Friends, Seinfeld, Big Bang Theory. They usually have a set number of 3-sided locations that are used in every episode, so they move around a lot less. They also tend to be comedies (I can’t think of one that’s a drama, but maybe someone else can?).
Single-cam shows tend to have more locations and move around within a space more freely.
So, to recap:
Format is a key area of screenwriting basics. There are production-related reasons why format is the way it is. Learn those basics (or get yourself a great screenwriting program), and you’ll be on a good path.
I’ll talk more about other basics of screenwriting later on, but if you found this useful, please sign up for my newsletter to get more screenwriting tips… and a free 5-minute pitch template that I’ve used to win screenwriting contests in the past.