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.
Watch: How to Format a Screenplay
Before we dive into the article, watch our video on screenplay format as well!
Why do we deal with screenplay format?
It’s not just stylistic. Screenplay format helps the script breakdown process, which is one of the most important steps in turning a script into an actual finished 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.
Using a script breakdown sheet or script breakdown software, they’ll note every character that needs an actor, ever costume change, every prop that needs to be found or built, etc etc etc.
An example of breaking down a script in StudioBinder.
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 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.
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:
Only, you know, without being partially green
First, you have to establish whether the scene takes place inside (INT.) or outside (EXT.) A dash, 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 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 slugline in ALL CAPS.
2. Action lines
Your action lines go right beneath the slugline. Proper screenplay format dictates that they always be written the present tense and as visually descriptive as possible.
Specifically, they 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 action, clarity is king — remember, a script is a document to be turned into a movie, not read on its own.
This is especially true if you’re writing something as chaotic as a fight scene.
There’s only one hard and fast rule for capitalization in screenplay format — always capitalize a character’s name the first time they appear.
Beyond that, you can also capitalize important props, sounds, or props. Essentially anything important enough to merit the attention of the people doing the script breakdown.
Just don’t go overboard with it.
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”.
Brooding billionaire playboy
While this person would be “Batman”.
Even though they’re technically the same person in a different costume.
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. 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.)
Someone making an announcement over a loudspeaker
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.
Dialogue from the next scene that starts before the current scene has ended. It’s a bit confusing to explain in words, so take a look at this example:
If you like, you can call this example a space pre-lap. We won’t stop you.
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.
Parentheticals are directions to the actor — they detail how the line should be performed.
Screenplay format-wise, parentheticals are placed directly beneath the character ID in (parentheses).
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.
If you’re using screenwriting software, it’s important to change elements when writing parentheticals. You can’t just write it in parentheses and hope it reads correctly!
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:
That circled red part? That’s a transition.
Back in the 40’s, 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.
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.
This is a really, really, really abrupt cut. The kind of cut that comes in mid-sentence.
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 something in the previous scene (say, a hand reaching for a knife) matches something the new scene (a hand reaching for an apple).
This is where your bounce back and forth between two different scenes. It’s usually used for phone calls, but not always.
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:
Ratatouille (2007) has so much to teach about screenwriting and creativity.
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 change rooms. From the creepy FOYER to the haunted LIBRARY, for example.
Or you might want to 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.
No, not those kinds of shots.
Those are for you get your script into screenplay format
Formatted like an capslocked 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.
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 Daniel-san has learned the secret of the Crane Technique, 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.
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 of screenplay format is that, when done properly, one page of screenplay 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.
This method requires you to already have your songs written as well.
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 (2016).
Whereas this format is good if you’re going to compose the songs later on in the process.
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.
12. End of Act
This is a special kind of formatting that’s only important if you’re writing for 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”, 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 screenplay, the screenwriting software may not include that element.
Screenplay Format Takes Time to Learn
It takes practice before screenplay format becomes second nature, even when you’re using a premade 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.
But follow these tips and keep practicing, and you’ll be writing as easily as you write in prose in no time.
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