Writing a story of any kind can be intimidating, but scripts are their own kind of monster. For the uninitiated, the formatting is especially daunting, because it must be there for a reason. Writing stories requires learning in and of itself – plot, characterization, pacing, theme, setting, etc. – but now you have to learn what all of these other things mean on top of that?
Fear not, my friend.
It’s easier than you think. In fact, because I’m all about simplifying things, you’ll know what you need to know by the end of this article.
In the old days, people used to have to format their scripts manually. With typewriters. Then they’d have to do it with whatever word processing program they were using. Thankfully, I’ve never had to endure such frustration.
And neither do you.
There’s software that does all that automatically. I recommend it. There’s no reason not to use it. That’s all I’m going to say about that. Pick one. Use it. Forget about manually formatting. Done.
Here are some suggestions:
- Final Draft – the industry standard, though it isn’t cheap
- Movie Magic Screenwriter – another industry standard, also not cheap
- Celtx – free alternative; this is what I use
- Adobe Story – subscription price plan
- Trelby – another free solution
There are plenty of options to choose from. You will be fine. Again, there’s no reason whatsoever for not having screenwriting software if you’re trying to write a script.
Why We Need Formatting
You may have noticed that all scripts look the exact same. They all employ the same stupid Courier font, the same spacing, margins, indents. If you’re a designer like me, you’ll probably be tempted to change the font to something more pleasing to the eye.
Don’t do it.
All of the formatting is there for standardization. By using Courier 12 pt, it ensures that we can glance at a script and estimate running times. One page is equivalent to about one minute on screen. Courier is a fixed-pitch font, so all the letters are the same width. This enables consistency.
Within the script you’ll find other formatting, such as slug lines, also known as Scene Headings, action, dialogue, transitions, parentheticals, etc. The script is presented in this way so as to make it easier to be made into a film. Simple as that. It is a blueprint. Anyone working on the production should be able to glance at the script and know what is going on. The standardization makes it so there is no time wasted trying to figure out what the screenwriter meant. “Is this the actor’s dialogue?” It’s already done for you.
Scene headings, or slug lines, mark the start of a new scene. They convey basic information about that scene as well – inside or outside, where the scene is, and whether it’s day or night. That’s basically all you need to know. They are also written in all caps (the screenwriting software will do this all automatically).
- INT. – use this when the scene is inside (a room, house, cave, car, etc.)
- EXT. – use this when the scene is outside
- DAY – use this when the scene is during the day
- NIGHT – use this when the scene is during the night
These are really all you need, but you can be more specific if you like. Just try to limit this to when it’s absolutely necessary. Is the sun going down important? Use SUNDOWN maybe instead of DAY or NIGHT. Is the scene exactly at 10 am? Use that, then. I would also err on the side of specificity when it comes to listing where the scene takes place. Instead of JAKE’S APARTMENT, say what specific room. JAKE’S BEDROOM.
INT. JAKE’S BEDROOM – DAY
Action delineates what action is being taken by the actors, as well as whatever we see happening on screen. You don’t want to include anything here that the viewer cannot see, like thoughts. A couple other general guidelines are that you shouldn’t have more than like 4 lines in a row. Space them out a bit. Ideally, you want your script to be smooth and easily read.
Another tip is to make the action last as long on screen as it takes to read it on paper.
Some other considerations:
- The first time a character appears on screen, put their name in all caps. Every time after that, use normal capitalization. This is helpful for the reader to easily see who is new, without making them pause to wonder if this character has already appeared somewhere else and they just can’t remember. I’ve even seen one script that added a reminder, which was helpful:
- David (last seen trying to burn down the courthouse)
- Describe the character’s important features the first time as well. Simplify by only including relevant stuff. Is there a scar on the character’s face? Include it. Will it matter if the character has blue eyes or brown? Leave it out. Give us only the important stuff. Notice above I included that Benson Moore is 17. You don’t have to be that specific. The following is totally acceptable:
- SARAH CARPENTER, early 30s, enters wearing jeans and a hoodie, hair pulled back in a bun.
- Use present tense. What is happening is happening right now.
Dialogue, put simply, signals who says what. That’s it. That’s really all you need. Who is talking? What are they saying? It’s really that simple, minus a couple other things you should probably know.
- V.O. – if the character is narrating, use V.O. to explain that.
- MATT (V.O.)
- O.S. – if the character says something off-screen (we can’t see them talking), use O.S. to show that.
- JENNY (O.S.)
- You don’t have to give each character a name. In fact, I don’t think you should if the character only serves a fleeting purpose. When you name a character, you can confuse the reader into thinking that character has some importance to the story other than logistically. It’s okay to use things like CAB DRIVER or CLERK. This is entirely up to you. Aaron Sorkin likes to give them all names as a courtesy to the actors.
- Limit a character to no more than 4 or 5 lines of dialogue. Break it up with action. Utilize other characters to interrupt. It’s easier to digest that way. And it’s easier on the actors.
- Try not to force a specific way of saying the dialogue. Let the actors do their jobs. You may see some scripts including italics or underlines in dialogue for effect. Limit yourself on this. If you absolutely must, though, use a parenthetical. The most common one is beat, which signals a pause. I try to stay away from ones like (sarcastically) or (angry). About the only other ones I will use are to show a specific person the dialogue is meant for. For example, a character might start out talking to one person and then switch to another. Rather than use action, it’s easier to just use a parenthetical.
Everything I listed above is all you actually need. You may see some scripts that include transitions or specifics like camera angles or different shots. Those are unnecessary. The director will handle all of that. Just like how you don’t want to dictate the way your actors play the characters, let the directors and cinematographers and editors do their jobs.
You might see other scripts that use transitions like CUT TO: or FADE TO:
These are totally unnecessary. They also get annoying after a while. Some say they scream amateur! You know what is already there that signifies a change to another scene? The next scene heading. Done. No need to worry about it. There’s also FADE IN and FADE OUT. These mark the beginning and end of the film. Could you get away with leaving them out? Probably. I’m pretty sure the first scene heading will let us know we’re starting the movie. I would, however, still add FADE OUT to the end. Why? To let everyone know it’s done. After all, they could be missing pages and not know it.
Sometimes you’ll see a word written in all caps. This is usually to signal that this thing is important, like a specific sound or a specific thing in the scene. A tattoo, for instance.These are typically used in shooting scripts; they don’t belong in a spec script. I mention them here so you know what they are.
But would it kill your script to have some on there? Probably not.
If you absolutely must do this, sacrifice these things for the sake of readability. Use your best judgement. The best bet is to simply never use them at all.
Scene and Page Numbers
You will also have the option of adding in scene numbers and page numbers. I’ve read that you don’t want to do this for a spec script (a script you are trying to sell), but I like to do it because it helps me stay organized. It also helps for table reads and production.
There are other things I did not mention, and it’s because I want to keep things simple. This is really all you need to know. I suggest reading as many scripts as you can get your hands on. Try Scripts.com or DailyScript.com. You’ll see people using all sorts of techniques. That’s okay. Obviously, these subtle differences won’t kill your script. But if you want to be safe, check out the Screenwriter’s Bible. That’s the book you want. Another excellent and quick resource – you can read it in like an hour – is the formatting guide put out by Final Draft. By all means, experiment. Have fun. And read lots of scripts. Good ones and bad ones.