Learning the nuances of screenplay format isn't as hard as you think. Jeanne Veillette Bowerman shares advice on how and why it's important of format a screenplay like the pros.
Whomever declared not to judge a book by its cover clearly wasn’t a screenwriter. The Hollywood script reader passes more judgment than Judge Judy. In a split second, your hard work could be flung in the corner waste can.
Before your screenplay will ever be in a director’s hands, it needs to get past that script reader. When a script looks professional, the reader has confidence you’re not a newbie screenwriter and keeps turning the page. Poor formatting distracts the reader and immediately takes them out of your story. Trust me when I tell you that the script reader holds the keys to the Hollywood gates.
First, the reader checks the page length. With the benchmark of one page being one minute of screen time, your feature shouldn’t exceed 110 to 120 pages. Anything over that gets an immediate red mark. And if the first few pages are sloppy, down to the bottom of the slush pile it goes … or right into the trash.
See how judgmental we are?
While screenplay formatting has more rules than Dungeons & Dragons, don’t worry. I’ve got your back. Let’s stick to the basics.
For starters, use Courier 12 font. That’s nonnegotiable. Professional screenwriters use special formatting software, like Final Draft. If you’re just starting out, Celtx has a free plan.
Above all, don’t panic. Your formatting doesn’t have to be flawless, but the first 10 pages do. Once readers are pulled into the story, a typo here or there won’t hurt you.
YOU ARE NOT THE DIRECTOR. YOU ARE THE ARCHITECT.
When you write a screenplay that no one paid you to write, it’s called a “spec script.” Those are very different than “shooting scripts.” Most of the screenplays you read online are shooting scripts, which include camera direction and scene numbers. Those details are for the director, editor and the crew on set, not the script reader.
Your job is to write a spec script to grip the reader, making them have to turn the page. The director’s job is to bring your story to life. Stay in your lane.
Filmmaking requires dozens of people to bring a script to screen, and that’s just in the development stage. Your screenplay represents a blueprint, much like an architect creates, giving every subcontractor direction. How you format your script gives clues to guide not only the director, but also the casting director, set designer, costume designer and director of photography.
SET THE SCENE.
Every scene begins with a slugline in all CAPS. A slugline is the master scene heading that lets the reader know where the scene takes place. We also use subheadings to mark a secondary location within the primary location.
For example, the following scene takes place outside a store. The character Davis peeks in the window, allowing us to see what takes place inside. For this, you would format using both master and subheadings.
EXT. FRANKLIN’S DRY GOODS
Vendors decorate the sidewalk as Davis thrusts past and peeks
Rotund store owner, ROBERT FRANKLIN, straddles a stool behind the counter, a SIX-POINTED SILVER STAR pinned to his chest.
In this example, Davis has already been established as the protagonist, but when you first introduce a new character, you must put their name in CAPS. This detail assists the director and casting director to determine the roles they need to fill, as well as helps the actors (and their agents), who immediately flip to their character’s entrance. (If you missed my Take Two column on the importance of character introductions, you can find it on Scriptmag.com.)
If a prop or loud noise holds importance in the story, put those words in CAPS. In the above example, the silver star indicates the store owner also holds the power of a sheriff. The reader now understands he’s more significant, and the production design team makes note that this character needs a badge. By highlighting those specifics, your words will organically guide what you want the reader and camera to focus on.
Some writers only use CAPS for character introductions, which is fine, as long as you’re consistent.
Special scene headings, such as MONTAGE, SERIES OF SHOTS or FLASHBACK, are also capitalized. The beginning and end of these sequences need to be clear.
MONTAGE - DEFENSE WITNESSES
-- Mayor White on the stand -- Grins at Pace and Fletcher Turner.
-- Davis fumes.
-- Pruitt on the witness stand. His body language suggests good-ol-boy comfort.
-- Davis whispers to Sternfeld.
As a general rule, both MONTAGES and FLASHBACKS should only be used sparingly.
THE FASTER, THE BETTER.
While proper formatting helps the reader embrace your story, the best compliment is when a reader declares your script a “fast read.” We use that expression when a screenplay reads effortlessly, uses concise, active words and has a lot of “white on the page.”
White space keeps the eyes moving quickly. To help, use centered dialogue and short action paragraphs. Action descriptions should be three or four lines, with a new paragraph for each action. Since one can’t see what happens in someone’s mind, use the characters’ actions to convey their thoughts.
The “fast read” evolves during the editing process. The final stages of your rewrite involve wordsmithing. Edit like it’s a word game. Challenge yourself to hone your sentences until they’re lean and mean.
Turner and Heflin are disgusted and whisper to each other.
Reese gloats and steps away from the witness stand, nodding to a satisfied Davis.
An uneasy Kennedy moves his trembling hand from the Bible. He sits, peers out at the crowd.
Pace and Turner at the table with Bulger and lawyers.
Mr. Kennedy, will you please
restate for the court,
I am Justice of the Peace in
You testified earlier that
Jon Davis had committed the
crime of theft. In
your opinion, was he
Jon Davis guilty of theft
Pace and Turner look at each other, confident.
Kennedy glances toward the blacks in the back, catches Davis’ eye. A long pause.
That reads faster, doesn’t it? Yet, the original meaning stays intact.
Screenwriting requires concise wording and no flowery prose. The words you choose must only convey what can be seen or heard on screen, making every word as valuable as a piece of real estate. Choose wisely.
Use formatting to set the scene in the reader’s mind.
Examine your choice of verbs. Use only active verbs and avoid passive writing. The more visually you can write, the quicker the read will be.
Show exposition and character emotion in action instead of dialogue.
As new technologies arise, like text messaging and video calls, new formatting rules take shape.
Always stay up to date on industry formatting norms. DavidTrottier’s Dr. Format Tells All always sits within my reach.
Formatting properly allows the reader to fully absorb your story’s world. The more you can keep the reader turning the page, the better your chance of a script sale. Even Judge Judy won’t argue with that. WD
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