Format Your Screenplay to Make it the Best

    Creatives have a big problem. Especially when it comes to film.

    The creative side of filmmaking is fun, but when it comes to logistics like formatting your screenplay, we really struggle.

    I see a lot of short film scripts throughout the year, but only a few stand out. One of the reasons they stand out, is because they’re formatted correctly.

    WHAT BAD FORMATTING TELLS ME

    When I see a screenplay with lots of typos or incorrect formatting, it’s a struggle to look past it and see the story.

    In part it’s because I’m an editor and these things naturally stand out to me.

    The biggest reason for this is because it tells me how serious someone is about giving their best. It shows me the amount of passion and tenacity they have for their story. Most importantly, it shows me how much they believe in their project.

    If you struggle with formatting your screenplay, do the research. Figure out the correct way to do it and then do it. It’ll pay off in the end.

    There are a lot of resources out there for formatting. Books like, The Hollywood Standard: The Complete and Authoritative Guide to Script Format and Style are a huge help.

    There are also great programs you can download for screenwriting. Most of these do all the hard work. I highly recommend Celtx and Scrivener. Both programs have keyboard shortcuts to help you format your screenplay as you write.

    HOW TO FORMAT YOUR SCREENPLAY

    Each part of a screenplay has a place and purpose. These are the most commonly used.

    1. The Scene Heading

    Every scene starts with a scene heading. This is where the action takes place and will include a few specific elements.

    First thing you’ll write in your scene heading is the “Where”. If it’s inside, you’ll write “INT.” for interior. If it’s outside, you’ll write “EXT.” for exterior.

    The next part in a scene heading is the setting. If you’ve got a scene set in a kitchen, you’d write “KITCHEN”. Note, it should be in all caps.

    If you use a program like Celtx or Scrivener, they’ll help format it. If you’re using Word or another program, you’ll need to capitalize it yourself.

    By now, you should have the following:

    The last thing you’ll add to the scene heading is what time of day it is. The most commonly used are “DAY” and “NIGHT”. Other options are “DAWN” or “DUSK”. You’ll need to add a dash between the setting and the time of day.

    In the end it should look like this: “INT. KITCHEN – DAY”

    If your character(s) move locations during the scene from the KITCHEN to the LIVING ROOM, start a new scene heading. For the new scene your heading should look something like this:  “INT. LIVING ROOM – CONTINUOUS”.

    You’ll notice it changed from “DAY” to “CONTINUOUS”. This is because it’s taking place right after each other. Otherwise, continue to repeat “DAY” until you have the first night. 

    2. The Action

    The next thing you’ll add to your screenplay is a bit of action. This should set the tone of the scene. Everything you write will inform your Production Designer about what the place should look like. This doesn’t need to be too detailed, but if you have a significant prop it should be mentioned.

    Also, the first time you introduce your characters their names should be in all caps. The biggest thing to note here is your action needs to be done in present tense.

    Here’s an example:

    One other thing to note – When to start a new paragraph of action… Each page of a script equals roughly one minute of film. If there’s a moment you want to draw out, using a paragraph break can help.

    3. The Characters

    Before you jump straight into the dialogue, you need to let your actors know who is talking.

    If you’re using one of the programs mentioned above, they will automatically format this for you. If not, note that a character’s name should be all in caps and will be indented to roughly the middle of the page.

    Easiest way to do this is to change the format section to have the text align with the middle. However, I recommend you download one of the above programs to help you in aligning this correctly, because even with Word, it takes up more time than you want to spend on character and dialogue.

    4. The Dialogue

    As soon as you’ve written your character name, the next line down will be the dialogue.

    This is also formatted in a specific way. If you use Word or something similar, you’ll need to change the indent of your paragraph for the dialogue. It needs to sit evenly right under the character’s name, which if you remember, should be roughly in the middle of the page.

    A good rule for dialogue, is to keep it three lines or under.

    In the end you should have something that looks like this:

    The phone rings. He stares at it.

    LAST PIECE OF ADVICE FOR SCREENWRITING

    Have fun. Don’t get caught up in the edit or formatting. Get the words out first, then go back to edit what you’ve written. If you stop mid sentence to fix some piece of formatting it can ruin the natural flow of creating. Train yourself to write and then go back to edit.

    I know this can be a challenge for creatives, but the more you can make your screenplay look professional, the better.

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    • Charis Joy Jackson

      Producer, Director, Writer, Actress

      Charis Joy Jackson is a writer, director, producer and teacher working with The Initiative Production Company. During the day she makes movies and in her spare time is writing a novel. She's a self-proclaimed nerd who wishes she could live in Hobbiton. You can follow her on Instagram @charisjoyjackson

    • Show Comments

    • Jeanette O’Hagan

      Hi Charis – some good tips. In my sciptwriting unit in the MA – our tutor recommended Celtex – which had the in-build formating. I found it easy to use (and it’s free). Do you use a similar program?

    • Christine

      good clear comments. Well edited work certainly leaves a good impression. It has amazed me how many typos and mistakes I’m seeing in newspapers nowadays.

    • Nola Passmore

      Hi Charis – Some great tips there. I did a subject on ‘Writing for Stage and Screen’ when I did my Creative Writing Grad Dip at Tabor. I must admit I hated the formatting aspect. Back then, I didn’t realise there were software programs out there that could help. I’ll definitely try those next time. I think you’re right about us ‘creatives’. Formatting isn’t half as much fun as the plotting and writing, but if we can get it right from the beginning, there will be fewer tears before bedtime 🙂 Thanks for sharing.

    Comments are closed.

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