The Why and How of Screenplay Formatting

Eureka! It has found you! That once in a blue-moon inspiration for your screenplay has sparked within your mind and you’re ready to write! 

Put that pen to paper and let the magic flow! Let the words shoot out of your fingertips like lightning!

One quick reminder: be sure it is formatted properly.

Don’t shoot the messenger! Goodness knows we didn’t make the rules. We get that industry standards for proper screenplay formatting can feel limiting and the rules can seem overwhelming, but we promise there is a bright light ahead. 

Here’s what we know: there is a structure, it’s what industry people expect, and we stick to it. Some would say it’s a blueprint for executives and producers to determine the cost of a project. Others would argue it is necessary for the ease of reading. We would say it’s both and more. 

While we have an idea of how the current industry standard for screenplays came to be, it’s hard to say who is really responsible for it. Although, our best bet is on Johnathan T. Screenplay. 😉

What we see in screenplay formatting today is the brainchild of art and functionality.

So, before we dig deep into the industry standards for screenplay formatting, let’s get a little back story…a little exposition, shall we say.

The Why: Some Backstory on Screenwriting

Screenplay formatting was crafted out of necessity and by the compounding pressure of a growing industry. In the early days of film, crews could spend hours waiting for a director to determine how to shoot a scene. With summaries written to include only brief descriptions of the action of the scene, directors were heavily relied on to be the end-all-be-all architects behind the filming process. 

Films became a phenomenon. As they grew in popularity there became a growing demand for more spectacle and complexity on screen. This required the filmmaking process to evolve. Summaries morphed into “scenarios,” which more clearly outlined the order of the action and the filming steps. Now others working on the film, not just the director, knew the production plan. 

The new focus of writing for the screen became consistency and efficiency. Those working on the films needed a realistic idea of what producing the work was actually going to be like. Scenarios grew into continuity scripts that outlined the production elements in greater detail. 

Props, makeup, scenic elements, and lighting needed to maintain appropriateness and consistency from shot to shot. Locations, actors, shots, and more all needed to be accounted for and scheduled. Time could now be efficiently used during pre-production to plan out every detail and streamline the whole process. 

Keep in mind all of these shifts in what we now call screenwriting were influenced by multiple artists, studio executives, and even Supreme Court rulings. What we see in screenplay formatting today is the brainchild of art and functionality. It is the slowly curated structure required to envision and produce stories for the screen.

The How: Screenplay Elements & Formatting

A screenplay consists of various structural elements that communicate a stories visual and production scale. When the script is formatted correctly, it will not only tell an engaging story, but also convey a concise vision for a production team to execute.

When the script is formatted correctly, it will not only tell an engaging story, but also convey a concise vision for a production team to execute.

Readers can easily progress through the content without the confusion of whether they are reading descriptions of action or dialogue or where the story is taking place, and production teams can easily identify, organize, and schedule filming by location, shots, characters, etc. 

On the page, these structural elements fit within specific designated margins. Additionally, a screenplay should follow the industry standards for font style and sizing, line spacing, page numbering, and more. 

Remember, all of these formatting rules are for the benefit of the reader–the person who’s going to make your story into a movie!

Scene Heading – A.K.A. Slugline

This is a single-line description of the location and time of day. 

Sluglines will always start with EXT. (exterior) or INT. (interior) to identify whether the scene is outdoors or indoors. DAY, NIGHT, DUSK, etc. are really for the production team and lighting crews, but they do help craft the visual for the reader. 

Be sure to maintain the names of locations throughout the script. This will help the reader follow the story and allow production teams to break the script down for filming.

The first scene heading does not have line spacing before it. All subsequent scene headings have two lines of space before them to help separate the scenes on the page. 

Did you know? If a scene takes place in a car, the scene heading usually includes EXT./INT. Unless, perhaps your character is driving the car indoors?

Action

These lines are the present-tense, narrative description of the action of the scene. 

Multiple lines of action should be separated so you don’t end up with large paragraphs of text. A good rule of thumb is if your block of action is longer than four lines, there’s probably a more concise way to write what you want to see there.

This is where those creative juices can flow! Really craft the mood and experience for the reader.

Character Line – A.K.A. Character Cue

Character lines identify who’s who. Or, at least, who is about to speak. 

The cue should only include one name to identify who is speaking (i.e. HEATHER, DR. WHO). If a character is off-screen or the dialogue is a voiceover, include (O.S.) or (V.O.) next to the name.

Dialogue

This is the dialogue, of course; the lines of speech delivered by the character. 

Crafting dialogue is an art and there are not necessarily industry standards for it. However, there are principles and guidelines to keep in mind.

Parenthetical Line

As needed, this line appears in parenthesis just below the Character Cue to more specifically define how a line of dialogue should be delivered. 

Parenthetical lines generally do not include descriptions of the character’s actions unless it affects the delivery of the line.

Transition Line

This is basically an instruction indicating a jump in time or space from the scene you’re in currently, such as CUT TO: or DISSOLVE TO:. 

We wish we could be more exact with when and how to use transition lines but this often falls into the category of “Unwritten Rules of Screenwriting.” 

The most common transitions used are FADE OUT: and FADE IN:, which would be used at the end of the previous scene and just before the following scene. People who don’t like having two extra lines for FADE OUT/IN: will use DISSOLVE TO: instead, which basically means the same thing.

CUT TO: is used, but is a little more outdated. It indicates a regular cut, and used to be included in between every scene. It’s evolved now that people know when they see a new scene heading that we’re cutting to it. So, it’s rarely used except for emphasis–like if you cut to the next scene in the middle of someone talking for dramatic/comedic effect.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of all of the elements found in a screenplay. There are many arguments for if and how you should include specialized information. 

Always consider if including something is going to propel the story forward and if it is necessary to envision what appears on screen.

The How-Much

The best thing to keep in mind as you write your first screenplay is to think of your screenplay as a blueprint. It is the structure that the story is shared through. 

Also consider that the length of your script is relatively determining the length of the film. The general interpretation is:

1 page of writing = approx. 1 minute of screentime

This 1:1 ratio will never be an exact measure, but it’s a great way to get a quick estimate of the length of the movie your script will one day become. If you’re writing a breezy romantic comedy and your first draft comes out to 155 pages, that may be an indicator that you need to make some cuts. The average page length for a feature-length screenplay is 95-125 pages.

The Bright Light

All of these formatting standards can feel overwhelming, but writing should and can be a fluid, inspired action. 

While many of us wish we could snap our fingers and have our ideas magically appear on the page, there is still a magic in being able to translate your ideas through a format that will best communicate the entirety of your vision to the people who’ll make it come to life.

…WriterDuet removes this anxiety for you…

You shouldn’t have to feel bogged down by the technical nature of formatting rules. The great news is, WriterDuet removes this anxiety for you: all of these industry-standards for formatting are built into every template. Easily move from scene heading to action to dialogue all from your keyboard. Remove the stress and write freely, for free!

Screenplay formatting is the framework for your vision. It is the skeleton for you to craft your story around. Scene headings, action lines, dialogue lines, etc. are simply the place holders. Vision may be subjective, but if you know the rules of formatting, you can learn how to tell your story in a way that lets people see how objectively good it really is!

So, keep that spark going. Craft your story and bring your world to life. Let the formatting organize it for you.

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