So, you’re writing your screenplay, and it’s a great story with lots of action and suspense. But stop for a minute. Your screenplay isn’t just about a great story; it’s also a tool for everyone involved in making it into a film. And if your formatting isn’t right, then no matter how good your story is, your script isn’t going to make it past the front door.
There are many ways of writing a screenplay, but the vast majority of the industry expect it to be presented as a PDF. Your choice is to format your script manually or use software (such as Final Draft) to do it for you. If you’re going to use software, then this article is not for you, but if you’re doing it manually, then grab a coffee, have a read, and print off my checklist at the bottom of this post.
What Type of Script
I’m going to concentrate on ‘spec scripts’ in this article as that is most likely the type of script most of my readers will be writing. The other type of script is a ‘shooting script,’ and that is an entirely different ball game. A spec script should not include any camera or direction instructions, I’ve known scripts end up in the ‘reject’ pile because they have this information in them.
Title Page (or fly page)
Your title page needs to be in black, courier, 12-point font (as with the rest of your script). Your title itself should be about a third of the way down from the top, and it needs to be centered. It also needs to be in capitals. Then use a double space before adding ‘by Your Name’ with another double space between the ‘by’ and your name.
Your contact information needs to go in the lower right-hand corner of the title page. You should include your postal address, phone number, and email address. This is also where you put your Writer’s Guild information if you are registered with them.
Your top margin must be one inch (2.54 cm). Your left-hand margin should be about one-and-a-half inches (3.81 cm), this is to leave space for a hole punch and binding. Your right-hand margin should be one inch (2.54 cm), and your bottom margin should be between half-an-inch (1.27 cm) and one-and-a-half inches (3.81 cm).
Page Numbers and Fonts
Page numbers can be preceded by the word ‘Page,’ but they must be followed by a period, e.g. ‘Page 12.’ Every page (except the title page) should be numbered starting with the first page of your script. The should be around half-an-inch (2.54 cm) from the top of the page and against the right-hand margin. Page numbers must also be in the same font as your script.
Everything in your script should be in 12-point Courier. By using this size, it makes it possible to estimate the length of a film from how many pages there are. No fancy fonts or colors should be in any part of your script.
Scene Heading and Description
It is an industry-standard practice to start a script with the words ‘FADE IN:‘ (including the colon – if you’re unsure of how and where to use colons, then head on over to my post on How To Use Colons). You should use the words ‘FADE OUT‘ at the end of your script. These words should be in the left-hand margin. A blank line should follow this before your first scene heading.
Next up should be a scene heading. These need to be in capitals and typically start with an ‘INT.‘ or ‘EXT.‘ to denote interior or exterior. Then comes the location followed by a hyphen and time of day (this can be MORNING, etc. It doesn’t have to be a specific time). An example would be INT. JOHN’S LIVING ROOM – MORNING Note the double spacing between the components. Exceptions to using ‘INT.‘ or ‘EXT.‘ would be to introduce a flashback or maybe a montage, e.g.
INT. JOHN’S LIVING ROOM – MORNING
John sits in his armchair reading the morning paper. His wife enters the room. They start arguing with each other.
SERIES OF SHOTS – JOHN’S CAR SPEEDS ACROSS LONDON
A) Jumps a set of lights in Oxford Street.
B) Narrowly misses a man on a pedestrian crossing.
C) Races across a congested bridge.
Any description or action should be fewer than seven lines. If a character is mentioned for the first time, then it needs to be in capitals.
Characters and Dialogue
Characters above dialogue should always be in capitals; This also applies to characters that aren’t proper names, such as ‘THE DETECTIVE.’ As mentioned above, you should always make sure that you capitalize the character the first time they are mentioned in the scripts’s scene setting.
Action and Dialogue
These sections should be in lowercase and single-spaced. As it implies, Action describes what a character is doing. It should never describe how a character feels or what they are thinking.
John feels scared and trapped.
John cowers behind the armchair, he stares at the door.
Or, you could describe what is happening and how John is feeling through dialogue.
One thing to point out here is that you should never refer to something that hasn’t already been introduced. For example, you should not say, “John grabbed his wife’s gun’ if the gun has not already previously been shown as belonging to his wife.
Dialogue starts with the Character Cue, e.g., JOHN or THE DETECTIVE. It should always be in capitals but not bold. If the character is not visible in the scene, then you can use VO (Voice Over) or OS (Off Screen). A third element of the Character Cue is what is called Parentheticals (also known as wrylies). These are instructions on how the character delivers the dialogue. Historically, these were used all the time. However, overuse of them is frowned upon these days, so if you’re going to use them, then use them sparingly.
Following the Character Cue is the actual dialogue. There are few rules on the use of this, not even grammar rules apply. It is perfectly acceptable to use slang or even incorrect spelling in dialogue if it is how the character would speak, e.g.
We wuz already in da pokey when d’brief turned up.
Dialogue should never have bold, capitalized words, or italics in it. If you need to emphasize a word, then you can underline it.
Aligning the components of your script is not an absolute science. The following are guidelines and can be slightly larger or smaller but not by too much.
And that’s it. By following the above guides for formatting your script, you can eliminate one of the big reasons for being rejected. Print my checklist below and use it to check your script follows industry-standard rules for formatting.
Before formatting your script, make sure you’ve had your pride and joy proofread. Proofreading should always come before formatting as it may change what words are on what pages. One thing guaranteed to get your screenplay dropped in the reject pile is too many grammar or spelling mistakes. If you’ve not had it looked at yet, then why not drop me a line; I’m sure I’ll be able to help add that final polish and make sure you have every chance of landing in the ‘further consideration’ pile.
Edit 11th February 2018
I have created a pre-formatted MS Word template that has the margins setup and shortcut keys for your script elements. If you’d like a copy, then fill in your email below: