Format a New Screenplay or Spec Script (updated for 2014)
Every screenwriter needs to format his or her own screenplay before submitting it for review. An experienced film agent, movie producer or development executive notices a screenplay's format first before anything else. He will not bother reading your screenplay if you cannot follow basic formatting rules. An incorrect format raises red flags that you are inexperienced and perhaps too incompetent to write an interesting story.
A proper format presents your screenplay in an orderly way so that whoever reviews your script can visualize your story on the big screen as well as find the reading experience enjoyable and engaging. If you are serious about selling your script to Hollywood or any production company, then master the formatting first.
In this special Hub, I will show you everything about formatting a spec script properly and teach you the crucial elements that construct a successful screenplay. With this knowledge you will feel more confident that entertainment industry professionals will read your screenplay instead of rejecting it immediately.
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I suggest you read my other Hub, Format a Title Page for Your Screenplay to learn how to create your title page, as well as to learn about additional formatting rules.
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First things first: TYPEFACE and FONT SIZE
The industry standard for screenplays is the original 12-point Courier typeface. This is a fixed-pitch font used for all screenplays. Courier is a monospaced font, meaning every character of this font is consistently aligned with each proceeding character as you type.
Do not use the font (or any variation) called "Courier New," which Microsoft installs on your computer. As an "updated" version to the original Courier typeface, the newer version produces higher line spaces and heavier punctuation marks.
If you don't have Courier installed on your computer, you can download it for free from the Internet. It is a royalty-free font.
Let me show you the slight comparisons between Courier and Courier New.
Courier and Courier New Fonts
Margins for a Screenplay
The following margin sizes are based on industry standards for a spec screenplay. You may see slight variations in margin sizes from other reputable sources, such as using a 1" left margin or a 0.75" right margin. Minor variations in margins are common and acceptable. I like to use a 1.5" left margin to accommodate a 3-hole punch on the left side for binding.
1) LEFT MARGIN: 1" (one inch) to 1.5" (one and a half). If you are printing your script and fastening it with brass brads, then use the 1.5" left margin to accommodate the three-hole punch.
2) RIGHT MARGIN: 1" (one inch). You can also set the right margin to 0.5" (half an inch) if you choose; however, a 1" right margin will allow long words to touch over the right margin so you don't have to hyphenate.
3) TOP MARGIN: 1" (one inch), This one inch space includes space for the page numbers which fall 0.5" (a 1/2 inch) from the top margin.
4) BOTTOM MARGIN: 1" (one inch).
You will not need to change these margins for any section of your screenplay. Set them and forget them.
SCENES—the DNA of all Screenplays
Drilled down to its basic components, a screenplay consists of scenes. Scenes are the building blocks of all screenplays. Every scene consists of four simple elements:
1. SLUGLINES: reveals the location and time of the scene.
2. ACTION BLOCKS: provides a visual description of what you see as you enter a scene. An Action Block establishes the setting, situation, and/or event.
3. CHARACTER CUES: the name of the character in all caps.
4. DIALOGUE: verbal exchange of words between or among characters.
Picture a scene as an item of action. Each scene defines Who (character or characters), What (the circumstance or obstacle), When (the time of day), Where (location where everything is happening), and Why (the purpose of your characters' actions).
It's amazing how many aspiring screenwriters fear the thought of formatting their own screenplays. They have the notion that the formatting process it is too complex to understand. In reality, you are only formatting four elements. And each element follows the same order.
Margins for Screenplay Elements
LEFT MARGIN (inches)
RIGHT MARGIN (inches)
4 - 4.25
* Parentheticals (Wrylies)
3.5 - 3.75
Spacing Between Elements
Slugline and Action
Action and more Action
Action and Character Name
Character Name and Dialogue
Dialogue and Next Character Name
Dialogue and Action
Character Name and Parentheticals
Parentheticals and Dialogue
Action and Slugline
Dialogue and Slugline
After FADE IN:
Before FADE OUT
After FADE OUT
After THE END
OMIT TRANSITIONS IN SPEC SCRIPTS
Because we are working on a spec script and not a shooting script, we do not need to insert transitions such as "CUT TO:", "DISSOLVE TO:", "QUICK CUT:", "FADE TO:", etc.
Transitions are visual cues used for "filming a story," not for "writing a story." As a screenwriter, you are writing a story, not filming it.
The job of adding appropriate transitions to your script falls on the shoulders of the director, producer and/or a hired screenwriter(s) after your spec screenplay has been optioned for production. It is then referred to as a "shooting script."
Bottom line: leave transitional elements out of your script.
To show you where a typical transition appears in a shooting screenplay, I have added one "CUT TO:" transition on the first page of my spec screenplay. If I were submitting my spec screenplay, I would omit the "CUT TO:" as well as any other transitions.
MY SPEC SCREENPLAY
Throughout this tutorial, I will be using the first and last page of my spec screenplay for examples. Here is what the first page of my screenplay looks like, formatted correctly:
I will now separate each element so you can see how each element contributes to the other elements. I will also show you basic format, line spacing, margin widths, etc.
DISSECTING MY SCREENPLAY FORMAT
I have color-coded parts of my screenplay so that you can see what elements construct a typical screenplay and where each element starts on a line.
CYAN: Fade In
GREY: Action Block/Description
DARK BLUE: Transition
GREEN: Character Cue/Name
The red numbers running down the middle of the page indicate line spaces to help you see the single and double spacing between specific elements.
You will notice the first page is NOT numbered. Numbering begins on the second page as "2." in the top right hand corner. The screenplay's Tite page (not shown) is NOT counted as a page number.
I designed the above image to show the precise measurements of each element that makes up a typical spec screenplay. The image reveals the left and right margins (in inches) of each screenplay element.
Industry format allows minor variations in margin sizes for each element, so don't be surprised if a seasoned screenwriter tells you to use a 1" left margin instead of a 1.5" left margin, or a 2.9" left margin for dialogue instead of a 3" left margin.
You will notice the following:
1) Character names are NOT centered on the page. Ever. Every character name begins at a 4" left margin, no matter how long the name.
2) Dialogue is NOT centered vertically with the character name, although it may appear to visually.
3) Dialogue has its own left and right margins, and NEVER runs the length of the page.
4) Sluglines and Action Blocks are the only two elements with normal left (1.5") and right (1") margins and do run the length of the page.
Starting Your Screenplay: the Famous "FADE IN:"
To start a screenplay, add the transitional phrase:
—ALL CAPS, in plain text, with a colon.
Double line space after it.
Every spec screenplay begins with "FADE IN:" so always include it. "Fade In" means the movie screen transitions from black to the first scene.This is always the first line of your screenplay. Even though it is considered a "transition," it is flushed left.
1st Element: SLUGLINES / SCENE HEADINGS
The first element of a screenplay is called a "Slugline" or "Master Scene Heading" because it introduces the start of a scene (i.e., where the story is taking place at that moment).
A common Slugline follows this format:
INT. LOCATION - TIME OF DAY
EXT. LOCATION - TIME OF DAY
Note: a Slugline is always in ALL CAPS.
A slugline contains three specific parts:
PART 1) INT. is abbreviated for "interior" (i.e., inside a house). EXT. is abbreviate for "exterior" (i.e., outside the house). Make sure you put a period at the end and leave a single space after it.
PART 2) Part two specifies the location of the scene, such as LIBRARY, PRISON, FOREST, COMPUTER LAB. If you need to be more specific as to location, you can add a hyphen (with a space before and after) followed by a more specific location such as LIBRARY - MEDIA ROOM.
PART 3) Part three specifies the time of the scene. The most common periods of time are DAY or NIGHT. You may also use Dusk, Dawn, Early Morning, Late Night, etc., if you feel your story needs a more specific time, otherwise use just DAY or NIGHT. Keep things simple!
Remember, a new scene is created every time you change your story's Time, Location, or both. Your screenplay will have a lot of Sluglines introducing new scenes or scenes that go back and forth from interior to exterior and vice versa.
The above Slugline is telling us that the main (opening) scene is taking place 1) outside at the 2) high school soccer field at 3) nighttime.
It has three parts (as mentioned before). I have numbered them for you.
2nd Element: ACTION BLOCKS
Following a Slugline is the "Action" (sometimes called "Action Lines" or an "Action Block") which describes what is happening at the scene (in present tense) and which characters are involved.
Important: You always need to add an Action Block (no matter how short) after every Slugline. An Action Block can be one sentence of description or an entire paragraph of description and action.
Each Action Block should be no longer than five lines. Brevity is important! If your Action Block absolutely needs more than five lines, then use a double-space to break up bulky paragraphs.
An Action Block contains...you've guessed it...A-C-T-I-O-N. Do not create action that a viewer cannot see or hear on-screen.
A screenplay is visual and your characters' actions progress your story from scene to scene. Actions reveal to your viewers what they need to know. Each leading character's dialogue sustains and moves the action. Watching a character act on something is much more dynamic than having the character speak about it.
Sample Sluglines with Action Blocks
INTRODUCING A NEW CHARACTER
Whenever you introduce a new character, you type the character's name in all UPPERCASE letters the first time he/she appears in your screenplay and BEFORE the character speaks for the very first time.
Always type the character's name first, followed by a description. The character description can be as brief as a few words to as long as a paragraph (if need be).
Remember: you are NOT writing a novel, so every word counts. Write tightly and choose your descriptive words carefully and sparingly to define your character's unique traits and personality.
Popular Character Intros in Popular Screenplays
Writing a Good Character Introduction
To describe your character after a first introduction, ask yourself these questions:
1) Who is your character? Is he the story's main protagonist, the antagonist, or a secondary or supporting character?
2) What is unique about your character? What special skills or traits does he have?
3) What is your character's occupation or hobby?
4) What are your character's goals? What inspires him?
5) What are your character's strengths and weaknesses? What does he fear most?
6) What time period does your story happen? In the past, present, future?
7) Where is your character geographically? What is his environment like?
8) What does your character look like to other people? What does your character think about himself?
3rd Element: CHARACTER CUES
Character Cues is just another term for Character Names. Before you write a piece of dialogue or describe a piece of action, you must identify the character who is speaking or doing the action. You provide the Character Cue in ALL CAPS, followed by the dialogue or action on a separate line. Use first names only, especially for Lead characters. No need to use a character's full name unless you think it is necessary to avoid confusion with other characters.
4th Element: DIALOGUE
Dialogue are the words that your characters speak, usually written in present tense. When you need your character to speak, you insert the Character Name (also called a Character Cue) and write the dialogue on the next line. When you need a second character to respond to the first character, you follow the same format: Insert a Character Cue (the name of the second character), followed by his or her dialogue on the next line.
Offscreen and Onscreen Dialogue
You may encounter instances where two of your characters are not talking to each other in person, face-to-face. Sometimes you will need characters to speak off-screen or speak through a cell phone from another room, or simply use dialogue to narrate a scene.
Whenever viewers cannot see the character who is speaking but know from where the character is speaking, you simply add the abbreviation (O.S.), known as OFF SCREEN, next to the character's name (in parentheses) like this: BRIAN (O.S.)
For example, if your character is speaking on the phone from somewhere in the house, you should use (O.S.) to indicate that viewers can hear him speak but do not see him on screen.
Many screenplays use a narrator to provide background information and to progress the story. Viewers never see the narrator but can hear him speak. Because a narrator is not designated as a character, you use the word NARRATOR as the character cue, followed with (V.O.) for VOICE OVER. It would look like this: NARRATOR (V.O.)
Not all narration is NARRATOR (V.O.), Sometimes you will have a leading character interject parts of his life into the movie through narration. In this instance, you include the character cue with (V.O.). It would look like this: FRED (V.O.)
Parentheticals (also called parenthetical directions or wrylies ) reveal how the character speaks his dialogue or what action the character is doing when he speaks his dialogue.
A parenthetical can reveal the character's attitude/emotional feeling or verbal direction when speaking his dialogue, or it may provide subtle direction for the actor who is playing the character. Like most elements in a screenplay, parentheticals must be brief, concise, and descriptive. Only use parentheticals when absolutely needed. An experienced screenwriter uses them sparingly because his action blocks and dialogue are enough.
Another reason to avoid parentheticals is that directors and actors often interpret how to deliver a piece of dialogue or in which direction to act out a scene.
The "Continuing" Technique
One common technique in using parentheticals is when action interrupts the character while speaking, but he then later continues his dialogue. This parenthetical technique is known as "continuing."
(rising out of bed)
It's after eight. You're going to miss the bus again.
Brian yanks the bed sheets off of Elisa. She sits up in bed, puts on a long pink shirt, and scuffles to the bathroom.
(continuing) I'll make you some coffee.
Put parentheses around parentheticals and always place them on a separate line.
Sample Screenplay Parentheticals
ENDING A SCREENPLAY
Signifying the end of your screenplay is easy. You simply insert (in ALL caps) FADE OUT. (with the period) and flush it against the right margin. Then insert three line spaces and insert THE END in ALL caps and underline it.
2nd View of Last Page
A Style Guide for Screenwriters
Here are a few additional stylistic rules to follow when writing and formatting a screenplay.
- Do not center character cues, or their proceeding dialogue.
- Do not add a colon after a character cue.
- A Character Cue occupies only one line.
- Do not use bold, italics, or underline text in a script. Use ALL CAPS for emphasis.
- Two (character) spaces always follow punctuation at the end of a sentence. This is why you see two spaces after a period that ends a sentence.
- Two spaces always follow a colon.
- Keep your screenplay under 120 pages, but no shorter than 90 pages. Remember that one page equals one minute of screen time.
- Insert the page number at the top right-hand corner. Add a period after the number to indicate that it is a page number and not a scene number. Never use the word "Page." Just use the number.
- Page counts start with the first page. You do not count the Title page.
- Do not put a page number on the Title page or the first page of "FADE IN:". Begin page numbering with page 2.
- Leave the header blank, except for the page number. Leave the footer blank.
- Do not write CONTINUED or CONT'D at the top and bottom of each page.
- Do not add camera directions: ANGLE ON, CLOSE ON, POV, PAN, DOLLY WITH, ZOOM, etc.
- Remember to spell out single and double digit numbers, times (ten o'clock), as well as personal titles (except for Mr., Mrs., Miss), and nearly all other words.
- Do not use hyphens to break a word, especially in dialogue, unless it is a hyphenated word such as twenty-five, low-budget, mother-in-law, etc.
- A Character Cue or Character Name is either the name of the character (FRED), or a description (FAT WOMAN), or an occupation (MECHANIC).
- Characters with less than a few lines of dialogue in the entire screenplay do not need a Character Cue or a Character Name.
- Name your minor characters according to their function or characteristic, such as STRONG MAN, SMART KID, WORRIED WOMAN, etc.
- Print your screenplay on 20lb. white paper, with a three-hole punch. Print on one side only.
Useful Resources for Screenwriters
- Screenwriting Contests for Screenwriters
Find the best screenwriting contests compiled by the staff of FreelanceWriting.com
- Screenwriting Competitions for College Students
I created this special Hub to help students and graduates identify the best screenwriting competitions.
- Screenplay Page Numbering Help
I show you how to page number your screenplay the right way.
- Screenwriting Software and Reviews
A collection of the best screenwriting software used by professionals in the entertainment industry.
- Free eBooks on Screenwriting
I have rounded up the best collection of free ebook on screenwriting.
Favorite Screenwriting Books
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