LESSON 35

Screenplay Format

“Properly formatting your script is like dressing your script for its job interview with the reader — you want it to make a positive first impression. If your agent asked you for a piece of cake, would you grab a handful of cake and slap it down on the table, or would you want your presentation to be more professional and enticing?”

David Trottier
The Screenwriter’s Bible

You’re almost ready to start writing your screenplay!

Your full plot outline and expanded notes will guide the process. Before you begin, you need to understand how to use standard screenplay format.

In this module, we’ll cover how to write a “spec” screenplay. This is the format used to sell a script. Once sold, the buyer reformats it into a “shooting” script, also known as a “production draft.”

A spec script doesn’t have scene numbers or technical instructions. You might include the odd technical detail for the sake of clarity, but keep this to a minimum. Filmmaking professionals will do the rest.

Read screenplays. Search for screenplays of films you admire. Find screenplays in your chosen genre.

As you read these scripts, you’ll notice some don’t match the guidelines in this module. The most likely reason is they’re shooting scripts.

Your screenwriting software or online platform should take care of formatting a spec screenplay. You may still, however, need to change settings.

You can, alternatively, set custom margins in Microsoft Word and be careful to follow other formatting rules.

Spec screenplays have a standard format for at least three reasons:

They are easy to read.

They can be readily processed (script breakdowns) and reformatted for production.

The length of a film and individual scenes can be estimated since one page of screenplay corresponds to about a minute of screen time.


Six core elements:

The main body of a screenplay has parts.

Scene headings establish where and when the scene takes place.

Action description gives details of what is seen and heard (except dialogue).

Character cues identify which character speaks any dialogue.

Parentheticals indicate how the dialogue is delivered.

Dialogue is a character’s speech.

Transitions specify how a scene ends or shifts to another scene.


Present tense:

Everything (except dialogue) should be written in the present tense. This is how the reader and audience experience the story: what they see and hear in each moment.


Length:

Keep your spec script between 100 and 120 pages long.

Yes, some films far exceed two hours of screen time. This is usually because the spec was rewritten after it was sold, or the screenwriter is sought after and can get away with long scripts.

These reasons probably apply to other differences you see in published screenplays — many of which are shooting scripts rather than spec scripts.


Delivery:

Screenplays are usually emailed or uploaded in PDF format. You might also be asked for FDX, DOCX, or RTF, among other digital formats.

When a printed copy is requested, print single-sided pages and add front and back covers. Use plain white or pastel card stock. The whole script should be three-hole punched and have round-head brass fasteners (brads) in the first and third holes. Leave the middle hole empty.

Standard advice is to keep the covers blank and not have pictures or graphics anywhere in a screenplay.


Page numbers:

Page numbers go in the top-right of each page, aligned with the right page margin. A period (full stop) follows the number. No page number appears on the title (“fly”) page or the first page. Don’t include the word “page.”


Margins:

The following margins are based on a page size of 8.5 inches by 11 inches (21.5 cm by 27.9 cm).

The main body of each page should have 54 or 55 lines. Line-height spacing should be exactly 12-point (see font specifications below). The number of lines doesn’t include a line for the page number and a blank line that comes after.

Top and bottom page margins should be set to 1 inch. If you use A4-size pages, adjust the top and bottom page margins to ensure the page’s main body has 54 or 55 lines.

The left page margin should be set to 1.5 inches and the right to 1 inch.

Scene headings and action description should align with the left page margin of 1.5 inches and the right page margin of 1 inch. Note that scene headings don’t typically extend that far.

The remaining margins refer to the distance from either the left edge of the page or the page’s right edge, not from the left or right page margins.

Character cues for dialogue should have a left margin of 4.2 inches. They can extend all the way to the right page margin of 1 inch but hardly ever stretch that far.

Parentheticals should have a left margin of 3.6 inches and a right margin of 2.9 inches.

Dialogue has a left margin of 2.9 inches and a right margin of 2.3 inches.

Transitions should be aligned with the right page margin of 1 inch and have a left margin of about 6 inches.

The right margins for all elements should be left ragged, not justified.

Margins for character cues, parentheticals, and dialogue may differ by as much as a half-inch in some screenwriting tools. This is OK, but make sure parentheticals have a maximum width of 2 inches and dialogue a maximum width of 3.5 inches.


Font:

The standard font is 12-point Courier. Purists insist on Courier 10-Pitch Bitstream®, which must be licensed. Widely accepted free alternatives include Courier Prime, Courier Screenplay, and Dark Courier. Courier New is also sometimes acceptable but is much thinner than the others.

Don’t fret about which Courier font is the best. What’s more important is to set line-height spacing to exactly 12-point. This will ensure the main body of each page has 54 or 55 lines.


No “CONTINUED”:

You’ll see some screenplays with the word “CONTINUED” written at the top or bottom of a page. Don’t do this. It’s a shooting script convention.


Beginning and ending:

After the title page, begin the screenplay with “FADE IN:” at the top of the first page. This is aligned with the left page margin of 1.5 inches. It should be followed by one blank line before the first scene heading.

It’s acceptable to omit “FADE IN:” and just begin with the first scene heading.

Some screenplays start with titles, for example, “Based on true events,” or sound over a black screen. In such cases, write “BLACK SCREEN” and specify the titles and/or what is heard on the next line. Then, after a blank line, write “FADE IN:” as described above.

Some screenwriters indicate where to put the opening credits: “BEGIN CREDITS” or “ROLL CREDITS”. It’s customary not to bother with this. But if you insist, use either of the latter indicators to begin, then use “END CREDITS” to show where they should end.

It’s customary not to bother because the film’s director will decide. The director and other creative crew will adjust or shape other aspects of your screenplay. That’s how production works. Professionals get paid to interpret your script for the screen.

At the end of the screenplay, write  “FADE OUT.” or “FADE TO BLACK.” aligned with the right page margin of 1 inch. Then after three blank lines, center and underscore “THE END”.

It’s acceptable to omit “FADE OUT.” or “FADE TO BLACK.” and just finish with “THE END”.


Examples of a first and last page:

An example using a first page - Screen Story
An example using a last page - Screen Story


Let’s move on to the title page.

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LESSON 36
Title Page

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