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The screenplay format

How screenplays are presented in formatting terms. How this informs the production and the reader. How to make a screenplay follow the rules of formatting.

Screenplay format

The film industry and, by extension, the television industry, uses a format for the presentation of screenplays. This format is completely understood in the industry and has a few useful characteristics. When correctly formatted a screenplay runs at about one minute per page of script.

Screenplays are presented in Courier font (like a typewriter) and are left-justified. Pages are numbered and the name of the film, the author and the relevant contact details are all on the front cover. No textual emphasis, like bold or italic, is generally used, though there are exceptions to this.

Scene headings

Each scene begins with a heading, all in capitals. The basic scene heading comprises three parts: A location type, a location and a time of day for lighting.

Firstly we identify the location type. This is a traditional thing but not useless even today. If the scene is an interior use 'INT.' as the abbreviation. Exteriors are marked 'EXT.' and if the scene is a mixture of both then use 'I/E'.

Secondly we name the location. A good location name gives enough information to work out which rooms, gardens, streets are actually needed for the scene.

Finally (after a hyphen) we put 'DAY' or 'NIGHT'. This is the time of day the scene is set, not the time of day the scene is filmed. It's not uncommon for scenes to be shot in daytime when the scene is a night-time scene, and vice versa. The finished scene heading looks like this:

 INT. 221B BAKER STREET - LOUNGE - DAY
                

In a screenplay scenes aren't usually numbered. The reason is that the numbering is done during the pre-production phase and involves people other than just the writer. Scripts with scene numbers and notes for the crew are called shooting scripts.

General directions

General directions, or stage directions, describe the scene. They use the full width of the page between the margins. They contain the instructions to the actors about the actions they undertake during a scene. They do not normally contain instructions for the director because directors generally feel they should actually do the directing themselves. A typical example might be:

 INT. 221B BAKER STREET - LOUNGE - DAY

 HOLMES enters the room quickly, he's agitated and nervous
 looking around for something.  Watson follows him, calmly.
                

Notice that 'Holmes' is in capitals. By convention that's done the first time a character is introduced, to make it easier for an actor to scan for their first scene.

We leave it up to the director and cinematographer to work out how the scene is shot, but the actors need some guidance because they have to be able to find the right character mode even when the scenes are shot out of order. Any action, effects, stunts and anything else that is depicted on screen and doesn't fall into the category of 'dialogue' uses this format.

Dialogue

Every piece of dialogue begins with the character name who speaks the lines. The name is very indented, effectively centred, and is all in capitals.

The dialogue is also indented but less so, effectively having markedly narrower margins than the general directions. If the dialogue is by a character who is out of the scene at that moment the name is followed by '(O/S)'.

In the dialogue itself you can use parentheticals to describe changes in tone for the actors. If you use them they go on their own line. Because of this, never use brackets in dialogue, you don't need them and they'll confuse people. Parentheticals are more indented than dialogue, but less so than character names. The scene so far might look like:

 INT. 221B BAKER STREET - LOUNGE - DAY

 HOLMES enters the room quickly, he's agitated and nervous
 looking around for something.  Watson follows him, calmly.

                 WATSON
         What are you looking for?

                 HOLMES
         My pipe, my damned pipe!  I need to smoke
         if I'm going to solve this problem.
             (relieved)
         Found it!

 Watson shrugs and leaves the room.

                 WATSON (O/S)
         Well as long as you've found your pipe the
         Kingdom is saved!
                
Page conventions

Inconveniently, screenplays don't always format so that each new piece of dialogue starts and ends on the same page. By convention, if a section of dialogue runs over onto the next page then the word '(MORE)' exactly like that, is put on the bottom of the first page, immediately underneath the last line of dialogue that fits there. It's positioned in the same way as the character name. At the top of the next page the character name is repeated as if it was starting a new piece of dialogue, but with (CONT'D) after the name. The effect is something like:

 INT. 221B BAKER STREET - LOUNGE - DAY

 HOLMES enters the room quickly, he's agitated and nervous
 looking around for something.  Watson follows him, calmly.

                 WATSON
         What are you looking for?

                 HOLMES
         My pipe, my damned pipe!  I need to smoke
         if I'm going to solve this problem.
             (relieved)
         Found it!

 Watson shrugs and leaves the room.

                 WATSON (O/S)
         Well as long as you've found your pipe the
         Kingdom is saved!

                 HOLMES
         It may not seem important to you, Watson
         but if I don't have my pipe my methods
                 (MORE)
                


                 HOLMES (CONT'D)
         may fail me and then, yes, the Kingdom
         is imperilled.

 Holmes settles into a chair, filling his pipe.  He stares off 
 into space for a moment.

                 HOLMES (CONT'D)
         Damn!  Watson!  Where are my matches?
                

If you've been paying attention you'll have noticed I sneakily slipped in another rule. You also use the '(CONT'D)' mark if a character's dialogue is broken by stage directions. This happens quite often because there's often more to describe than just the tone or pace of speech.

Additional information


"The most expensive habit in the world is celluloid, not heroin, and I need a fix every few years."

Steven Spielberg