Screenplay Formatting

If you're new to screenwriting, you'll quickly find that the screenplay format seems unusually and dauntingly specific. Realistically, you'll most likely already have come across at least one piece of screenwriting software that handles it for you automatically.

Whether you use Final Draft, Fade In, Movie Magic, CeltX, or any other software won't make or break your career but it helps to understand what the standards are that your software is adhering to, so you're not just blindly going with what it does automatically.

If you've so much as taken a glance at the screenplay of your favorite produced movie, you may have even noticed that some writers seem to deviate a little from the old widely accepted feature screenplay formatting standards.

So what exactly can you get away with and what would just make you look like an amateur without a clue?
Let's review basic feature screenplay formatting first, as generally accepted by the Hollywood community, so we have a common starting point. (Don't worry about memorizing this, your software will likely already do all of this by default. We're including this so you know what it's going for, before you make any changes to it.)

  • Page Margins: 1 inch on the top, bottom, and right edges of the page. Use a 1.5 inch margin for the left edge. (Screenwriting software typically sets this by default as soon as you choose their movie format so there's rarely a reason to set this manually.)

  • Font: Courier, 12pt, or equivalent monospaced font. It may not be pretty, but it's a tradition that originated in the typewriter days of Hollywood and stuck ever since. In general, an unknown writer (as in anyone who doesn't already have a long list of screenwriting credits in major films) would come across incredibly unprofessional by deviating from this old standard. (It's worth noting that screenwriting software typically defaults to a custom version of the Courier font for technical reasons, but the appearance of the resulting script is still consistent with a 12-pt Courier typed script.)

  • Sluglines (aka. Scene Headings) are flush against the left margin. They begin with either "INT." (for interior), "EXT." (for exterior), or "INT./EXT." (for locations involving both such as interior car scenes with the exterior clearly visible) followed by the name of the location in all caps, then " - NIGHT" or " - DAY". For example, "INT. LUCY'S HOUSE - DAY" would work as a typical slugline. By default, screenwriting software also generally defaults to two blank lines before a slugline, and the slugline itself is not bolded or underlined - its only real emphasis is that it's typed in all capital letters. In recent years, however, many specs with bolded or underlined sluglines have been optioned, sold, or were highly regarded in general. This is one of those recent deviations that've almost become its own standard in the sense that readers will rarely hold it against you, even in terms of a first impression, if you do it. It's mostly a matter of personal preference so go ahead and bold your sluglines if you like to. (If you're using screenwriting software, there's usually an option somewhere in its menus that allows you to edit the elements of your format, so it shouldn't take long to add or remove this for an entire script without having to do it manually every time.)

  • Action description, which is used to describe settings as well as people, their appearances, actions, etc., is flush against the left margin. Unlike sluglines, it's almost never a good idea to bold them. Never write them entirely in capital letters (only multi-camera sitcoms do that, not movies.) The only things that should generally be in all-caps within your description lines are the first appearance of a character (not any subsequent references to the same character) and prominent sound effects. Some writers like to use caps for emphasis - this won't make or break your script but it'd be a good idea not to overdo this, as it tends to make a script look messier.

    Also, modern screenplays should limit description paragraphs to 3 lines each. If you read a variety of recently produced films' screenplays and also read some older ones from, say, the 1940s, you'll notice that recent scripts tend to have a lot more white space. The general rule of thumb is: think of each paragraph as a new shot. Try to describe what the audience sees and hears -- keep the reader's attention on that. Don't overwrite flowery prose, it's not a novel.

    There's no need to use specific camera directions like "CLOSE ON" or "ANGLE ON" in most cases, just press enter and start a new paragraph. The content of the description will already imply the camera direction. (Some writers adamantly disagree with this, so it's up to you -- especially if you already know the director or intend to direct it yourself -- but if in doubt, don't overdo it. Either way, it's a good idea to keep descriptions shorter since most readers will be biased against long, dense over-written paragraphs.

  • Dialogue: The name of the character (above dialogue blocks) are indented 2.2 inches from the left margin, which equals 22 spaces of Courier 12pt. (Screenwriting software and some templates typically offer a shortcut to this such as a single stroke of the TAB key. There's rarely a reason to space or tab repeatedly to get there unless you're really writing your script on paper on an old typewriter.) One line beneath the character's name, his or her dialogue appears 1 inch from the left margin (equivalent to 10 spaces.) And if you're using parentheticals (which should be used sparingly, many actors have been known to despise the over-use of them) then they should appear 1.6 inches (16 spaces) from the left margin. (Also, unlike multi-camera sitcom scripts, movie scripts present parentheticals on a separate line.)

  • Transitions are flush against the right margin, and may include "CUT TO:", "FADE TO:", etc. The only exception is the introductory "FADE IN:" which is flush against the left margin but is rarely used in recent years (it remains optional, however, and won't be held against you if you choose to open with it.) Most scripts, on the other hand, still end with a final "FADE OUT." which is widely understood to imply the transition to the movie's credits. It's also worth noting that transitions between scenes (such as "CUT TO:", "FADE TO:", etc.) are often omitted in modern screenplays. The only real reason to use them now is to give added emphasis to a particular transition between key scenes. For the majority of scenes in your script, simply providing a new slugline already makes it implies a new scene if the location is different and the context of it (in the story) already implies a transition. It's more common in modern screenplays to use "CUT TO:" only for emphasis (like a comedic cut that visually contradicts a line of dialogue, for instance.) If and when you do decide to use a transition at all, most screenwriting software automatically detects these phrases (especially when you include the colon) as being a transition and automatically switches to the appropriate formatting element for you.

  • Page numbers are flush against the right margin, with a reduced top margin of only 0.5 inch from the top edge of the page. All pages are numbered except for the first page. (This is, of course, a basic feature of almost every screenwriting software package or template, so it's rarely a concern as long as you're typing your script on a computer.)

The basic format offered as the default feature film script format in screenwriting software or template should suffice.

Now the non-standard changes that have become common:

- Optionally bolding or underlining sluglines (aka. scene headings)
This has become commonplace in both features and TV scripts, but it's not entirely a new standard. It's mostly a subjective choice on any given project. So if you like it, use it. If not, you can keep it in the default unbolded non-underlined style.

- Optionally single-linebreak (instead of double) before sluglines
By default, most screenwriting software will linebreak twice before a new slugline. It's become commonplace to choose to single-space it (one linebreak instead of two) instead. Most formatting customizations that affect page length (like playing with margins) is typically frowned upon as a cheat too far, but single linebreaks before all sluglines has become a relatively acceptable choice used by many professional screenplays. So if you prefer it, you can do it.

The plain truth goes back to a philosophy shared by many readers: If your story is amazing, and it's told well within the confines of this medium, you can go ahead and do a few things a little differently... That is, of course, as long as you're not blatantly trying to cheat page length aside from the spacing of sluglines mentioned above. (Yes, most readers have seen the tricks and it realistically won't give you a great first impression even if you've written the next great commercial thriller.) Aside from that, if you make a minor mistake in formatting that doesn't affect the quality of your script, it's unlikely any qualified reader in town will hold it against you.