Worries about screenplay formatting leave some screenwriters in a panic, terrified that one slip-up could see their precious script chucked in the bin. While most good readers are far more interested in the content of your story than your presentation, getting the basics right helps to make your script a more engaging read.
The basic screenplay format has evolved to help you make your vision clear to the reader and in turn allow a production team to capture that vision on screen. Some rules are pretty hard and fast, while others have a degree of variation and flexibility.
Here are my tips on making script formatting work for you.
Let’s start at the beginning.
1) Front Page / Cover Page
This should contain the project title and your name centred, and your contact details, and/or your agent’s details, in the bottom left corner.
Script Angel Towers
Don’t add photos or images. Keep it simple.
Some screenwriting software has templates; if you’re using these be sure to delete unnecessary elements eg ‘based on, if any’.
Don’t add your WGA registration number, even if you’ve chosen to register it, unless it’s specifically asked for.
For tv scripts, I’d recommend the following layout:
By Hayley McKenzie
2) Page Numbers
Essential. Top right is the most common position but bottom right is also sometimes used.
3) Scene Headers (aka Sluglines)
This tells us where the scene takes place.
These are always ALL CAPS. Underlining and/or bolding are ok but not necessary – again, the rule of thumb is keep it clean and simple.
It should contain the following information only:
a) Interior or Exterior
Written as INT. or EXT.
b) Location type
Stated as simply as possible.
You don’t need to preface with adjectives, like ‘Pretty Cottage’ or ‘Small Cottage’. You can use the action lines to give more detail if necessary, for example, that it’s pristine or dilapidated.
c) Time of day
You only need to define as either DAY or NIGHT.
EXT. COTTAGE. DAY
Some screenwriting software templates allow for multiple variations eg Dusk or Dawn or Late Afternoon but I wouldn’t recommend unless it’s absolutely essential for the reader’s understanding of the story.
The elements within a scene header are typically separated by a dot:
INT. COTTAGE. DAY
Or you can separate the DAY/NIGHT element with a dash ‘-‘
INT. COTTAGE – DAY
Areas within a location
Dealing with areas within a location, for example rooms within a house, can be done by defining the larger location first, followed by the area within it:
INT. JOANNE’S HOUSE. BEDROOM. DAY
I’ve also seen it done the other way around:
INT. BEDROOM. JOANNE’S HOUSE. DAY
Alternatively, you can merge the two elements to shorten it to:
INT. JOANNE’S BEDROOM. DAY
Whichever version you choose you must stick to that format and make sure every scene header is formatted the same way. Consistency is the key.
Later and Continuous
Indicating how this scene relates to the previous scene can be done by adding Later or Continuous to the end of the scene header:
EXT. COTTAGE. DAY
Mary runs to the front door. Fumbles for her key.
INT. COTTAGE. DAY – CONTINUOUS
Shaking, Mary slams the front door behind her and slumps to the floor.
Most readers don’t object to it, but to be honest it’s rarely necessary as we can guess that the action is continuous from the juxtaposition of the scenes and their content.
When your scene is set inside a moving car
I’ve seen professional writers, directors and script editors disagree about how best to convey this. Technically the car is not a location but a prop, so the scene header should just read:
EXT. COUNTRY ROAD. DAY
Mary grips the steering wheel of her car as she hurtles down the lane.
Although this is technically correct I find it harder to digest as a reader, because the scene header creates a visual image of a country road but then when I read the action lines after it I have to adjust the image I’ve just created by creating an image of your character in a car.
As a reader I find the clearest and most efficient way for me to visualise the scene is something like this:
INT/EXT. CAR. COUNTRY ROAD. DAY
This way I can easily create a visual image of your characters in a car and the car travelling in an exterior location.
4) Action Lines
These describe the action taking place.
Don’t forget to put your character’s name in ALL CAPS the first time we meet them and always indicate their age.
Avoid indicating camera angles or shot directions, e.g. CLOSE-UP.
For more information, check out my article on Writing Great Action Lines.
What a character says (their dialogue) is indicated under their character name:
The dialogue should be indented, not centred. I’ve struggled to replicate it here but just read any produced screenplay and you’ll see the correct position for the dialogue.
To indicate that we can hear a character speak but can’t see them you use V.O (Voice-Only / Voice-Over) or O.S (Out of Shot):
To indicate a character’s action or attitude as they speak you can add a direction in parentheticals, though they should be used sparingly:
Characters speaking another language
There are no hard and fast rules for this but in my experience the following gives the clearest indication of your intention in the most efficient way possible.
Assuming that your screenplay is written in English, always write dialogue in English, even if it is to be spoken in another language.
If it’s just an occasional line then it’s best to indicate the language to be spoken in the parenthetical.
If one or more characters speak in another language throughout a scene then you can continue to use the above method for every piece of dialogue, although this does start to feel quite cumbersome to read. Alternatively, I think it’s ok to simply indicate the language one or more character will be speaking in at the start of the scene in a note in the action lines: N.B Paul and Mary speak in French throughout the scene.
Phone calls – 1 sided and intercutting
To indicate that the character we’re watching is speaking into the phone simply add this as a direction within the parenthetical.
To cut between two sides of a phone conversation you need to indicate that we’re going to INTERCUT. I find that the clearest way to do this is to establish both locations and then indicate that you want to cut between the two:
INT. MARY’S HOUSE. DAY
Mary picks up the phone and dials.
INT. JOANNE’S HOUSE. DAY
Joanne jumps at the ringing phone. She picks up.
6) Scene Transitions
This indicates how the scenes are edited together, for example CUT TO: or FADE TO: and they are placed on the right hand side of the page.
They are not needed in a spec script. If you decide that you really want to include them then you must include them after every scene – beware that it will add massively to your page count!
7) More and Cont’d
You can use More and Cont’d to indicate that a character’s dialogue continues on the next page.
Most screenwriting software does this automatically but don’t worry if yours doesn’t – it’s helpful but not a necessity.
8) Scene Numbers
These should not be included when writing on spec, although they are incredibly useful when in active development with a script editor and essential for production.
As with many elements there are a few ways you can indicate flashbacks. My preference is the following:
INT. MARY’S HOUSE. DAY – FLASHBACK
Scene contents here, then at the end of the scene….
10) On-Screen Captions
To identify an on-screen caption use the following:
SUPER: London, 1852
The ‘Super’ is an abbreviation of ‘super-imposed’. I’ve also seen the following which is fine:
CAPTION: London, 1852
11) File Format & Naming
Don’t forget that you are naming your file so that is makes sense for the recipient. When working in development on multiple drafts with a writer I always date each draft. However, when you are sending your script out to someone for the first time it’s better not to include a date or draft number:
Desk Wars by Hayley McKenzie – Episode 1 Script.pdf
Whatever software you’ve used to create your script you should always convert to PDF for sending it out.
12) Screenwriting Software
There is no denying that Final Draft is the industry-standard software for film and television, in both the UK and US.
There are other screenwriting software providers, some of which are free; Movie Magic, Celtx, Writer Duet, Fade In, Scrivener, Adobe Story, Amazon Story Writer, to name just a few. And, given that you’ll be converting your script to PDF anyway, you just need to find a software that feels right for you.
In all script formatting, clarity and consistency are key so that the formatting doesn’t draw our attention away from the story.