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The Most Important Screenplay Formatting Guidelines You Need To Know

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

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When you start writing screenplays, one thing that can be intimidating is the strange formatting. But really, screenplay formatting comes down to just a few basics that cover 99% of situations you’ll encounter.

Relieved? Good. Let’s make you an expert in the 6 basic elements of screenplay formatting so you can get back to actually writing.

Screenplay formatting elements

The important elements to know are:

  1. Scene headings
  2. Action lines
  3. Character names
  4. Dialogue
  5. Parentheticals
  6. Transitions

And to be honest, if you know the first four you’ll be fine. The last two aren’t essentials – you could absolutely write a screenplay without ever using them.

For visual reference, here’s the first page from the screenplay LADY BIRD, written by Greta Gerwig:

Even if this is your first time seeing a screenplay page, you can probably identify most of the formatting elements.

As we go through the elements, you’ll see that this isn’t a “perfect” screenplay page (formatting-wise). And most of the time in a spec script, that’s totally fine. As long as the screenplay reads clearly and we’re not confused by the formatting, you don’t need to stress about being technically perfect.

What each screenplay format element is and does

Identifying the elements isn’t generally an issue, of course. It’s understanding the purpose of each element that can trip us up. Here’s what each one does and how to use it:

1. Scene headings

Scene headings appear at the beginning of each scene to let us know where and when the scene takes place. You might also hear them called “slug lines”. The most important aspects of this element:

  • it’s in all caps
  • it has three main parts:
    • INT. or EXT. to let us know if we’re in an interior or exterior location;
    • the name of the location (keep these consistent – if you call something SUBURBAN HOUSE, make sure you always call it that, don’t switch to HOUSE IN SUBURBIA later in the script);
    • and DAY or NIGHT to let us know what time of day we’re in.

Now, in a spec script (meant to be read, not optimized for production), you might choose to use LATER, DUSK, DAWN, or other more specific time-of-day designations. I’d say use these somewhat sparingly, only if it’s important to know or really adds something to the scene.

Typically, those three parts are formatted like this:

INT. SUBURBAN HOUSE – NIGHT

You can, if you want to, add a second, more specific area of the location. For example, if your script takes place in a house and you want to write one scene to take place in the kitchen, while other scenes take place in other rooms, then you’d use:

INT. SUBURBAN HOUSE – KITCHEN – DAY

Within the scene heading, you move from more general to more specific when you’re using these secondary locations.

One more common scene heading: if a character is in a car, it’ll look like this –

INT. JOE’S CAR / EXT. CITY STREET – DAY

Some people like to bold their scene headings. That’s fine. And you might notice in the LADY BIRD example page, Greta Gerwig chose to use different punctuation in her scene headings. She likes the way it looks with periods instead of dashes. This is a less common way to do it, but it works just fine. Anyone who complains about periods instead of dashes is nitpicking unnecessarily.

2. Action lines

This is the action of your movie – all the stuff we see and hear, except for dialogue. Exciting! (But… don’t go overboard. Remember, you’re not writing a novel.)

Action lines are written in third person present tense. It might feel weird, but it’s industry standard. It gives the feeling of watching the movie as it plays out in real time, like so:

Lady Bird sits on the just made bed. Marion sits beside her, moves the hair out of Lady Bird’s eyes.

Within action lines, important sound effects and objects we need to pay attention to are sometimes written in all caps to emphasize them. For example:

The door SLAMS.

But again, this should be done sparingly. When you emphasize everything, you emphasize nothing.

The first time we see a character, their name should be written in all caps in the action lines. (LADY BIRD didn’t do this, but should have.) There’s quite a bit of variety in character introductions, but generally you’ll see something like this one, from the 17 BRIDGES screenplay:

DETECTIVE SCRUGGS (58), gruff, unshaven, a typewriter in a computer world.

That’s name, age, and a brief description to give us a sense of the character. For the character’s age, you can also use a general range, like (40’s), or (early 20’s), or eliminate the parentheses if you prefer, as in:

DETECTIVE SCRUGGS, 58, gruff, unshaven, a typewriter in a computer world.

3. Character names

A “character name” element shows up on its own line, always in all caps, when the character speaks. (As opposed to a character name you use within an action line to describe the action on screen.) It’s sometimes also called a “cue line”, which makes sense – it cues whichever character needs to deliver dialogue.

A minor character might not have a proper name, and could instead be referred to as CHUBBY CHEERLEADER or RECEPTIONIST. As with location names, character names should be kept consistent (don’t confuse us by calling the same character by different names unless it’s for some specific, deliberate effect).

If a character cannot be seen while speaking the dialogue that follows the cue line, use an extension of either O.S. or V.O. after the name. What’s the difference? For most cases, all you need to remember is:

  • O.S. = “off screen” and means the character isn’t in the camera shot
  • V.O. = “voice over” and means the character isn’t physically in the scene

4. Dialogue

Dialogue is simply exactly what you want us to hear spoken in the movie. We know who’s meant to say the line and whether we see them on screen thanks to the character name (or “cue line”) that came just before the dialogue.

5. Parentheticals

Parentheticals are words or phrases that show up in parentheses on a separate line between a cue line and the character’s dialogue. Not every chunk of dialogue requires a parenthetical and, in fact, these should be used only as necessary.

Parentheticals are meant to help convey instruction for delivery of the dialogue or context for the emotion of the dialogue that follows, especially if the tone isn’t apparent. Again, use with caution. Writers often feel like they need to indicate a lot more than they do, like when a character is being sarcastic, such as:

             JANE
          (sarcastic)
Wow, your really know how to flatter a gal.

But really, if the scene is written well, it’s probably not necessary to tell us which lines are meant to be delivered sarcastically. We’ll understand what’s going on from the context.

6. Transitions

Transitions like CUT TO, DISSOLVE TO, SMASH TO, SLAM TO can all be used to indicate a specific transition between scenes. The transition is followed by a colon and is right-justified.

You might want to use these occasionally to get a deliberate effect in your script (like in the LADY BIRD example, which gives us a time jump in one location), but you don’t need a transition between every scene. (In older scripts you might still see CUT TO between scenes, but that’s pretty outdated now.) And if you use any of these too frequently they’ll lose the effect you’re trying to achieve, so be judicious.

The other 1% of situations

My best advice when it comes to screenplay formatting is: don’t stress. And definitely don’t let formatting questions keep you from writing. Knowing how to use the six elements above will cover 99% of the screenplay formatting situations you’ll run into.

Here’s a PDF of these screenplay formatting guidelines for handy reference.

And yes, there are a few “special” situations you might encounter. When in doubt, remember the golden rule of screenplay formatting: tell us what we’re seeing on screen.

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.

Subscribe