Alright — you’ve got it. The screenplay idea that will change the world, break box office records, and win you every single Oscar. Only… you don’t quite understand how to format a screenplay. Do you even really need screenplay format?
Our answer? A resounding “Yes!” Screenplay format is necessary if you want anyone to take your magnum opus seriously, but more importantly? It’s necessary if you want your script to become an actual finished film.
How to Format a Screenplay
Why screenplay format?
Why do we need it?
It’s not just stylistic. Script format helps the script breakdown process, which is one of the most important steps in turning a screenplay into an actual film.
The script breakdown is when the director, producer, and a few other key crew members review your screenplay and mark every important element that will have to be procured.
Think of it like this: Your script is the blueprint for the show everyone is about to spend twelve hours per day, five days a week working on.
So if you don't write INT. UNDERGROUND DUNGEON, and you want a scene to be set in an underground dungeon, you're the only one to blame when your location manager doesn't find a nice underground dungeon for...whatever you're writing.
This is why proper screenplay format will make this process immensely easier. Don't you want to make this painless for the nice crew people? They're turning your script into an actual movie!
Screenwriting software (such as StudioBinder, Final Draft, Highland, or Fade In) can make this process a little more automated, but it’s still important that you understand what the different elements mean.
Using these elements correctly is essential to proper script writing format. This is true for everything from short film scripts to million-dollar blockbusters.
Sluglines (also known as scene headings) tell the reader where the action is happening. It’s a location, followed by a time, and looks something like this:
Click above if you'd like to read the full screenplay for The Royal Tenenbaums online, in free screenwriting software.
When it comes to sluglines, you first have to establish whether the scene takes place inside (INT.) or outside (EXT.) A period, then the location of the scene, followed by the time of day (Day, Night, Morning, Evening, etc.).
If a scene directly continues from the previous scene, mark it “continuous” in the time slot. If it's a couple minutes later, feel free to use "moments later" in your slugline.
If it’s a flashback you will, shockingly, mark “flashback” there.
Sometimes you’ll have a scene that takes place in both an interior and an exterior. Most of the time, this will be in a moving vehicle of some kind. In those cases, start your slugline with “INT./EXT.”
If you’re using screenwriting software, it will format it correctly for you, but if you’re doing it yourself, be sure to put the entire slugline in ALL CAPS.
Sluglines are important because they are how your assistant directors and line producers will plan out how things get shot.
The difference between one scene being night and the next being day is important to continuity for hair, makeup, and wardrobe departments.
That's why this is one of the most essential elements in movie script format - it tells you when and where a scene is taking place in the grand scheme of the script. Knowing the time of day and where the scene takes place affects nearly every department in a major way.
FORMATTING A SCREENPLAY
2. Action lines
Your action lines go right beneath the slugline. Proper screenplay format dictates that they always be written in the present tense and as visually descriptive as possible.
Specifically, action lines tell the reader what they will see and hear in the finished film. You can give actors vague directions like "Jonathan is upset by this," but only if it's something the actor can physically portray.
Leave all those internal thoughts for the novel you're writing on the side.
When it comes to screenplay format, clarity is king – remember, a script is a document to be turned into a movie, not read on its own.
Department heads will take things literally and, oftentimes, without question. So if you write something ridiculous in the description, they'll take it upon themselves to figure out how to make it real – that's their job.
Here's an example of action lines in a screenplay. Note that the action's writing provides "just the facts" in a clear and readable way.
Click below to read the entire sample scene in free screenwriting software:
Make sure you're deliberate and precise with your action lines. Find the balance between letting a director direct a scene, and giving the propmaster enough information to get exactly what you want.
This is especially true if you're writing something as chaotic as a fight scene or a car chase, where every detail has to be planned out. The more complicated the production, the more important it is for you to follow proper script format. This type of work is why screenwriting format was developed the way it was.
There are two hard and fast rules for capitalization in screenplay format – always capitalize a character's name the first time they appear, and always capitalize transitions.
Beyond that, you can also capitalize important props, sounds, and camera movements.
Anything you want to use the movie script format to call out things important enough to merit the attention of those doing the script breakdown.
Just don't go overboard with it. There's nothing more annoying and CONFUSING then when someone RANDOMLY capitalizes EVERYTHING ON THE page.
formatting script elements
Dialogue is straight-forward. At least in terms of formatting. Writing good dialogue is a topic all its own.
You center and capitalize a character ID and put dialogue underneath. Your character ID need not be your entire character’s name. It could be a first name, a last name, or an alias.
Whatever best identifies the character as that character. And stay consistent – if a character is identified as "McCloud," he stays McCloud, even if we eventually learn that his first name is "Jack."
The only exception to this rule is if your character goes in disguise, especially if they fake a voice whilst disguised.
For example, this person would be "Bruce Wayne."
While this person would be "Batman."
Even though they're technically the same person in a different costume.
If you find that to be too confusing, another method is to use a slash. "Bruce Wayne" becomes "Bruce Wayne/Batman" whenever he's Batman, and just regular Bruce when he's not.
And just to be absolutely clear, here's how dialogue looks in an actual screenplay. Click the sample below, from The Royal Tenenbaums, to see how to format dialogue in a script like the pros. You can also read the entire screenplay by clicking to view how other screenplay elements are formatted as well.
When writing dialogue, the idea is to let the characters speak for themselves. Always front and center, of course, is the reality that you, the writer, are shaping those characters. Using software that takes care of screenplay formatting automatically so you can give all your attention to the characters and their lines is critical.
formatting a screenplay
Extensions go next to a character name in parentheses and tell us how the dialogue is heard by the audience.
Most screenwriting software will provide the standard screenplay format extensions once you start typing the parenthetical. They are:
VOICE OVER (V.O.)
When a character is speaking over the action, but isn’t heard by the other characters in the scene. Usually narration, but can also be a character's internal monologue.
OFF SCREEN (O.S.)
When a character is speaking and is heard by other characters, but can't be seen by the audience or other characters. Just write (O.S.) next to the character's name. " Off camera" or (O.C.) is also acceptable.
Examples of extensions include:
- Someone making an announcement over a loud speaker.
- A character making a dramatic surprise entrance.
- A disembodied ghostly voice.
Fairly self-explanatory – characters speaking into their phones or radios, rather than to each other in person.
This is most useful when characters are speaking to someone on the phone and someone right next to them. Or when using a local news station for expository information.
Dialogue from the next scene that starts before the current scene has ended. Simply write "pre-lap" in the parentheses next to the character's name.
formatting a script
Parentheticals can seem like extensions at first glance, but there are a few key distinctions. Extensions are technical directions – they explain where the person saying the dialogue is in the scene.
Parentheticals are directions to the actor – they detail how the line should be performed.
Here's an example of a parenthetical in proper screenplay format. This comes from The Royal Tenenbaums:
As far as script format goes, parentheticals are placed directly beneath the character ID in (parentheses). Some examples include:
- AS LOUD AS POSSIBLE
Parentheticals can also include actions for the actors to perform while speaking. This is especially common in television, where page space is at a premium.
- DRAWING HIS WEAPON
- FALLING TO HER KNEES
If you're using screenwriting software, it's important to change elements when writing parentheticals. You can't just write them into parentheses and hope it reads correctly!
FORMATTING A SCREENPLAY
Transitions indicate how an editor should transition between two scenes – they're on the far right of the page (right justified) and placed between two scenes. Like this:
Back in the 40s, knowing how to use transitions was a major part in knowing how to format a screenplay. These days, however, most editors know that no transition indicates a standard cut.
So rather than mark everything with a “Cut To,” only use a transition when you want it to stand out in some way. Proper screenplay formatting usually indicates these as being capitalized.
Much like with parentheticals, your screenwriting software will likely have the standard transitions preloaded for you. These include, but are not limited to:
Any transition not marked is assumed to be a cut. This particular transition indicates a more abrupt cut than normal.
It is also widely used when formatting multi-cam scripts as it marks the end of a scene.
Because multi-cam scripts are formatted with page breaks for both scenes and acts, it's important to notify when the scene is ending versus when it's an act break, which is also a commercial break.
This is key for editing purposes, and also readership as act breaks are critical plot-wise.
This is a really, really, really abrupt cut. The kind of cut that comes in mid-sentence. A great example of smash cuts is from the film, "Hot Fuzz." Smash cuts are used here to as a form of montage (which we'll get into later).
When one scene “dissolves” into another scene, almost transforming into that scene. This is primarily used to indicate that time has passed.
MATCH CUT TO:
A tricky form of edit – where you cut the film so the last shot in the previous scene (say, a hand reaching for a knife) matches the first shot in the new scene (a hand reaching for an apple).
This is a great transition to use if you're looking to build foreshadowing or tension in your story, calling attention to specific actions and objects that will be critical later on.
This is where you bounce back and forth between two different scenes. It’s usually used for phone calls, but not always.
It's important to list if this is expected as it can have a big affect on the overall production schedule.
formatting a screenplay
Subheaders are like mini-sluglines that indicate another place or time within a scene. They’re even formatted like sluglines - left-justified and capitalized. Take a look at this example to get an idea of what we mean:
If you’re using screenwriting software, you’ll probably have to format it as a “scene header” – that’s perfectly fine!
If you’re shooting within a large house, a subheader might be used to indicate a change in rooms. From the creepy FOYER to the haunted LIBRARY, for example. Or to indicate a detail of a certain location.
Or you might want to use a subheader to indicate a jump in time. If a cop is on a long stakeout and you want to show that time has passed, you’d throw it under the subheader LATER.
This is one of the gray areas in script format where some (mostly those in production) say it should be slugged as a new scene (since it's a different time and may require a different setup).
Writers, on the other hand, tend to prefer to save the line so they don't push a page. So instead of saying INT. CAR - LATER, which requires more space, they'd just say LATER and continue the scene since it never changed locations. Either way is proper script formatting, the use of a subheader is simply more casual.
Formatted like a caps-locked action line, shots direct our attention to a specific visual or way of seeing something.
Much like transitions, these were much more common in the old days of Hollywood.
In modern times, they're typically used by writer-directors, but also when the writer feels that a visual is key to the entire scene and wants to be sure the director knows it.
Most screenwriters today only specify shots when it's absolutely critical to the interpretation of the scene.
By indicating a particular type of shot in a script, keep in mind that you as a writer are also hammering home to the reader that this is a movie and cameras will be recording it. On a certain level, this can take the reader out of the story, so you might want to use the technique sparingly.
To start a montage, training or otherwise, write “Begin Montage” as if it were a subheader. Then list out your scenes as you normally would.
Once the montage is over and Rocky finally ran up all those steps, close off your montage with “End Montage,” again written as if it were a subheader.
That’s “scene heading” if you’re using screenwriting software.
Click below to read a montage example in free screenwriting software:
With a montage, you have some leeway in how you write it. For example, writers often prefer to simply list individual lines, or lines set off by hyphens, within the action to indicate different montage locations and subscenes.
Just know that if you want to format your script for production, you'll need a slugline for each individual shot or scene within a montage (as in the montage example above). That's because each location means a different setup and a whole separate set of production concerns.
formatting a screenplay
Lyrics are tricky when it comes to how to format a screenplay, particularly when they have to be matched to action on the screen. No screenwriting software has a “lyrics” element.
An important rule of thumb when learning how to write a screenplay is that, when done properly, one page of film script equals roughly one minute of screen time. Emphasis on roughly.
Since lyrics take up a lot of page space, but don’t take as much time to sing, that can throw the balance off.
You have two options for solving this problem.
SPACE IT OUT
You can spread out the lyrics on the page with shots and action directions. This will let you design a little of the choreography and help establish the rhythm and pacing of your big musical number.
DESCRIBE THE SEQUENCE
Rather than list out each individual lyric, describe the general feel of the song and the sequence that accompanies it.
This is how Damien Chazelle wrote the musical sequences in La La Land.
Chyrons are the text that appears over the screen – usually used to indicate the time and place of the scene to the audience. You’ll see this sort of thing a lot in military or spy movies.
Start an action line with the word “CHYRON” (yes, in all caps) followed by the text of the chyron.
Some writers like to use the word “TITLE” instead of “CHYRON”. It’s a personal choice. If you were using Title, it would look like this:
Using "Chyron" would look exactly the same, only swapping the word "Chyron" for "Title".
Either one is, also, proper script format.
12. End of Act
This is a special kind of formatting that’s only important if you’re writing for network television.
Whenever you reach the end of an act (or teaser) where the show would cut to commercial break, note it by putting “End of Act One”, (or Two or Three) centered and underlined, into your script.
Then you skip a page and put “Act One” (or Act Two or Three) at the very top – again, centered and underlined.
If you’re using screenwriting software, it’s very important that you open your template as a “one hour” or “half hour” drama. If you open it as a feature film script, the screenwriting software may not include that element.
Also, keep in mind that a single-cam sitcom and a multi-cam sitcom have a very different script format.
The single-cam is, essentially, a movie script with act breaks. While the multi-cam has double-spaced dialogued, capitalized action lines, and the new acts begin halfway down the page, and each new scene starts on a new page (as we mentioned).
Make sure you know which one you're writing and then write to that screenplay format. These two types of comedies have quite different tones, aesthetics, and productions. It's critical that the reader, and even more so the production crew, know which one you've written.
Pro Tips for Writing Movie Dialogue
It takes practice before screenplay format becomes second nature, even when you’re using a pre-made template or specialized screenwriting software.
It’s so different from any other form of writing because the script is never meant to be the finished product – it’s a blueprint for the film or TV show.
Need some help polishing the dialogue now that it's in the proper format? Check out our Essential Screenwriting Tips for Writing Better Movie Dialogue!