How to Write a Screenplay: Formatting Guide

How to Write a Screenplay

Page 85’s new blog series on the fundamentals of writing a screenplay

Screenplays are different than prose because of how technical the formatting is. Never fear — screenplay formatting is easy once you learn it! Some writers prefer screenplay format because it allows them to cut out the flowery details and focus on the essence of their story.

My professors (who are all working screenwriters) always tell us how important it is to get it right. Industry readers are much less likely to continue reading your screenplay (actually read, not skim!) if they see a barrage of formatting mistakes up front.

Here are all the basics of formatting:

Fading in and Out

At the beginning of a screenplay, you always start with “FADE IN,” which is aligned to the left. At the end of the screenplay, you “FADE OUT” (aligned left), and then you type “THE END” (underlined, aligned center, without a period, usually).

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Note: A lot of screenwriters drop the “Fade In” at the beginning of their script, saying that there’s no need for it. One professional screenwriter I talked to said that he’s been commended by multiple studio readers and execs for including the Fade in and writing the traditionally correct way, and that formatting a screenplay this way is a mark of professionalism.

Fading in and out are traditional bookends to a script that exists as a standard precursor to the actual story.

Omitting the “Fade In” isn’t a cardinal sin of screenwriting. Like all rules, you have to understand why it exists before you break it.

 

The Anatomy of a Slugline

A slugline indicates a change in location. One scene can have more than one slugline if the characters change locations.

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INT./EXT. are short for “Interior” and “Exterior” to indicate whether or not the scene takes place inside or outside.

Your LOCATION comes next. Specificity is your friend, here. “DIVE BAR” is always better than “BAR” and “LAUGHING CAVALIER HOTEL” trumps “HOTEL.

DAY/NIGHT comes after that. Don’t get fancy with “DUSK/DAWN/MORNING/TWILIGHT.” You can indicate the time of day through other ways, such as noting that the sun sets over the horizon in an action line while still using the DAY tag. It’s just easier for production this way, and also it’s less distracting.

  • If something takes place in multiple rooms, you can indicate separate rooms like this:

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and then cut to INT. JELLY BEAN FACTORY – BATHROOM – DAY to show an employee smuggling jelly beans through a small window right above the sink to his accomplice on the outside.

 

How to Use “CONTINUOUS”

In screenplays, you’ll often see something like this:

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Notice the “CONTINUOUS” after the second logline? That means that the audience follows Gus and Jan as they run into the kitchen to see paranormal activity at work. You use “CONTINUOUS” when a scene takes place in two locations and time doesn’t pass between them

Introducing Characters

When you introduce a character, their full name is capitalized, and then their age is in parenthesis, followed by a brief description, no longer than three lines, unless it’s the protagonist, than it can be around four lines.

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Note that Captain Zach is the “main character” in this situation, and he gets a longer description than the other characters.

Whether or not you decide to be specific with age (20’s versus 29) is up to you. If it’s a main character, you usually want to pinpoint their age, since 20 is much different than 29, but if a character is in and out for one scene, it’s okay to say 20’s if you’re more specific with other descriptive terms (like “trophy wife” instead of just “wife.”)

How to Write Dialog and Parentheticals

The basic format of dialog goes like this:

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The character’s name is in all caps, and their response is right afterward. Sometimes writers put their first and last name, nickname, or just their first name. I like just writing my character’s first names, with a few exceptions when a character is called something else. Pick whatever suits your character.

Parentheticals are descriptions of the character’s intonation, and are often just one adjective. Adverbs are okay, but most scripts I’ve read just stick with a one-word adjective. Only use parentheticals when you need to inform the reader of how a character says their line. Use this SPARINGLY! Parentheticals exist for clarity only. Parentheticals count as “telling,” so do your best to “show” your readers how a character speaks instead.

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Here’s how you indicate voiceovers (V.O.) and when a character says something when they’re not on screen (O.S.)

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Check out my article on the difference between VO and OS here!

When the same character speaks twice in a row, separated by an action line or two, you use (CONT’D) to indicate that they haven’t stopped speaking. This technique is really helpful to actors reading your script in table reads. You can also use CONT”Ds to break up monologues with action lines.

 

When to Use Caps Lock

So what do you put in all caps in a screenplay?

  • ALL sound effects (CRASH, BANG, SMASH, SCREAM).
  • ALL character names the first time you introduce them.
  • Sometimes, people capitalize important props that might come back later (he puts the GUN in his bag) so the reader doesn’t miss it
  • You can also capitalize gigantic, life-changing plot twists in order to make sure that the reader slows down to catch the enormity of the action. Example: “he FIRES THE GUN, KILLING CHARLIE.” If you’ve ever read the Lost pilot, every other action line is capitalized during the opening plane crash scene — a risky move that some agree with, and others do not. Use all caps in moderation, but know that you can use it to bring emphasis to huge events.

 

Bonus Example and Tip

Here’s an additional example of most of the formatting tips from above.

Bonus tip:

  • The names of large groups of extras are capitalized to make it easier for people who have to organize extras later (i.e. the Patrons, some of the Students, the Starving Artists, an assorted group of Catholic Priests or Llama Fanatics) and you want to stick with the same name for this group throughout the entire scene (or script, if they recur.) That way you won’t confuse your readers when suddenly the Starving Artists become Writers in the same scene even though you’re referring to the same group of people.

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…90ish pages later…

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Stay tuned for more articles on how to write a screenplay!

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