Recently we suggested that if you prefer to write however you like, to avoid feeling that you’re stymieing creative flow by focusing on formatting, that you put off formatting until you go over your script for the first time, methodically. This would be the perfect time to make adjustments not only to your creative writing but to implement the required format you’ll have to conform to if you intend to submit your script to any higher up or studio.
Formatting ensures that you, the writer, are on the same page as the busy producer, shuffling through multiple scripts, with no time to waste trying to understand the structure and readability of your script. They must be able to read on autopilot, zipping from action to dialogue to header, all exactly where these things are expected to be found. Today we’re gathering the absolute basics of screenwriting, to help you keep in mind how your script should read.
The typical font is 12 point, 10 pitch Courier Typeface. If you want to get very pedantic about it, even the paper that your script is printed on tends to have a standard. American scripts are printed single-sided on three-hole-punched paper using the standard American letter size (8.5 x 11 inch). UK writers print onto two-hole punched A4 paper, and so must typically reformat their work when sending it to be printed by American producers, or keep all copies digital.
Now, on the left side of the page, before a scene is described in proper, lies the Heading (also known as a slug line). This contains a description of whether the scene is Interior or Exterior (abbreviated to Int. or Ext.), followed by the location name, and then a dash before the time (Day or Night), all of which are capitalized. Headings are used to help in planning production, so it is important to have these in place for every scene.
Beneath this, still to left, the Action of a scene must be written (in the present tense). It must describe what will be seen and heard, in full sentences which paint the scene but are succinct. Key props and character names are capitalized, but otherwise, type the Action as you would a normal sentence. Unless you are certain you’ll be directing, avoid descriptions of camera angles, shot sizes, and camera movement.
If you must include these, they are written in all caps, placed among the action descriptions, and therefore formatted in the same way; text aligned to the left. So an action description with camerawork included may read as follows: CAMERA follows BOB as walks over to the TRUNK. ANGLE. P.O.V. FROM INSIDE THE TRUNK. BOB smiles.
Once the scene has been set, and the important action which transpires as the following dialogue is said, that Dialogue is found immediately below, centered on the page (this means that notes can be written on either side in the blank spaces left as margins by centering the text). The name of the character who is speaking appears above their line in capital letters, but their dialogue is written with grammatically conventional capitalization.
This name should be short and unique enough to easily be identified by someone looking for only that characters’ lines, so don’t write a full name and surname. Extensions, which describe how a line is heard if a character is not literally seen delivering it on camera, can be added next to these names. They are not capitalized, and are placed in parenthesis, i.e. Voice Over and Off-
Screen (V.O. and O.S.) Parentheticals, on the other hand, describe how an actor should deliver their line and are sandwiched in parenthesis below the character’s name, above the dialogue. For instance, if a line should be delivered as if the character does not understand what is going on, (confused) would be placed below their name, and above the line being delivered itself.
Scene Transitions (CUT TO, FADE TO, etc.) are aligned to the far right of the page and do not indicate every single edit envisioned for the film, but important ones, like scene transitions or fades to black. Scene Transitions are capitalized, and end with a colon indicating the Heading which follows is the scene we have transitioned to.
Those are the basics. The most basic basics you could probably stand to learn when it comes to screenwriting, and even still, there is a host of options when it comes to software that can assist you in keeping your formatting straight, if you don’t feel formatting whilst editing your script will give you any additional focus, and may even give you trouble. For a good guiding example to refer to while revising these rules, take a look at the Nicholl Fellowship’s guide.