Film & TV

What Is a Screenplay? Formatting Tips and Tricks

Written by MasterClass

Mar 6, 2019 • 5 min read

MasterClass Video Lessons

Aaron Sorkin Teaches Screenwriting

A screenplay is a blueprint for a film, movie, or tv show, and it is the first step in taking your story from page to screen.

Close

What Is a Screenplay?

The screenplay—also called a script—is a written document that consists of everything that is seen or heard on screen, i.e. locations, character dialogue, and action. A screenplay is a piece of art that tells a story, but it is also a technical document that contains all the information needed to film a movie.

What Does the Screenwriting Rule “Show, Don’t Tell” Mean?

Unlike a novel, which can illuminate a character’s interior thoughts or spend time describing a setting or place, a screenplay should only contain information that you can “show” on screen. A screenplay should only describe things that are seen on-screen,. This means that if a character is feeling sad, you must find a way to show that they are sad. Instead of writing, “Jessica is sad because she thinks her cat is missing,” write a scene where the character cries and hangs a sign for a missing cat.

How Long Should a Screenplay Be?

Screenplays typically run between 90 to 120 pages long; one page roughly equates to one minute of screen time. Screenplays are made up of many scenes, and each scene can be as short as half a page or as long as ten pages. However, most scenes are usually three pages or less.

What Font Is Best for Writing a Screenplay?

Screenplays have specific formatting requirements so that the one page per minute of screen time rule always holds true. One element of that formatting is font—its essential that the font used has consistent spacing. As such, most screenplays are written in Courier 12 point font. Courier is a “fixed-pitch” font, which means that each character and space is exactly the same width.

What Are the Right Screenplay Margins?

In keeping with the one page = one minute, screenplays follow these rules for margins:

  • The top and bottom of every page have a 1” margins.
  • The left margin is 1.5” so there is room for the hole punch to go through when printed.
  • The right margin is 1.”
  • The entire screenplay is single spaced.

What Is the Proper Format for a Screenplay?

All screenplays are formatted in roughly the same way. Although you can play within the format, generally speaking, screenplay format consists of scene headings, action lines, characters, dialogue, and parentheticals.

  • Scene headings: Also called a “slugline,” the scene heading tells us where we are in the world. INT. POLICE STATION - NIGHT lets the audience know that we are inside a police station and it is night. Scene headings should always be in all caps (they can sometimes be bolded) and should always be brief, however, some writer’s utilize a two-part scene heading, for example, INT. POLICE STATION - BATHROOM - NIGHT. The addition of the “BATHROOM” tells us where specifically in the police station we are. This kind of slugline is commonly used in films that might have a lot of scenes in the same location, like a house, and is used to differentiate between the rooms. Similarly, some writers will use a combination of scene headings and something called a subheader, which is like a truncated scene heading.
screenplay formatting headings

Close

This is a more stylized version, but the truncated scene headings help maintain the pace of the scene. However, if you prefer the traditional method, you could just as easily write full scene headings for every new room in the house Megan walks into.

  • Action: Action lines describe character movement in a scene, but they can also describe anything the audience can see on the screen. Action lines are always written in the present tense. For example: The science lab is empty. Jose squats behind a lab station. He grips his knife behind his back.

You can capitalize, underline, or italicize certain words or phrases within action lines for added emphasis. Major props are often mentioned in all caps or an emotion might be emphasized with an underline. For example:

screenplay formatting action

Close
  • Character: All characters should be introduced before their first line of dialogue. Each time a new character is introduced, write their name in caps. Any minor or ancillary characters should be introduced in caps as well, such as AUDIENCE, BARTENDER, or ANGRY TEACHER. If you are writing a car chase and the car plows down a street full of people, you don’t have to write “people” in all caps as they are not a character, but rather, they are part of the action.

Most characters are introduced with a bit of information about their personality, age, or appearance to help paint a mental image for the reader and help lead the casting directors to find an actor who fits the part. There are two ways to accomplish this:

  1. As part of the character’s name. For example: TIMMY (21, bleach blonde hair, eyebrow piercing)
  2. In an action line. For example: TIMMY (21) jumps off his skateboard, wiping his bleach blonde hair out of his eyes to reveal a series of eyebrows piercings.
  • Dialogue: Any time a character speaks, whether out loud or in voiceover, it must appear as dialogue. Dialogue is centered on the page, one inch from the left margin. The name of the character who is speaking should always appear in all caps above the line of dialogue. You can add a qualifier next to the character’s name if the dialogue is meant to be heard in voice over (V.O.) or when a character is speaking but they are not seen on screen (O.S., for offscreen). For example:
screenplay formatting dialogue

Close
  • Parentheticals: Parentheticals appear beneath the characters name and above the dialogue and indicate how something is meant to be performed if it isn’t clear from the dialogue itself. A parenthetical can say “earnest” or “sarcastic” or can indicate that a character is singing or shouting. For example:
screenplay formatting parentheticals

Close

What Isn’t Included in a Screenplay?

  • Too many parentheticals. Most writers are cautioned against using parentheticals too often for fear of coming across as trying too hard to direct an actor’s performance.
  • Camera angles. Screenplays typically don’t include camera angles or information for how to shoot a scene, as that is the domain of the director. Just describe what you want to see on screen (i.e. “A giant tear runs down the clown’s face.”) and the director and cinematographer will decide what kind of transition or angle they need (i.e. a close-up shot of the single tear running down the clown’s face).

Can You Write a Screenplay in Microsoft Word?

Microsoft Word has a “screenplay template” that you can download for free from the Microsoft Office website. Once the template has been added to Word, simply open a new “screenplay template” and start writing. The standard Microsoft Word toolbar will automatically update to reflect common screenwriting needs like toggling between dialogue or action lines.

What Are the Best Screenwriting Software Programs?

There are many good programs from web-based applications to downloadable software that can format your screenplay for you.

Popular screenwriting programs include:

  • Final Draft
  • Celtx
  • WriterDuet
  • Movie Magic Screenwriter
  • Fade In
  • Highland
  • Scrivener
  • Screenplay Formatter (a Chrome extension for Google Docs)

Ready to start writing your screenplay? Learn how Shonda Rhimes begins her screenwriting process, how Aaron Sorkin reworks his screenplays, and how Judd Apatow tackles first drafts.