Screenwriting: Layout & Formatting
Screenwriting—the art of writing screenplays for films or TV shows—can be really exciting. It’s a great way to exercise your description and dialogue skills, and seeing your story come to life on the screen is really rewarding. However, like with writing a book, there are parts of screenwriting that seem unnecessary, such as formatting. The indentation and capitalization rules for screenplays might be annoying, but following them is an essential part of the pre-submission process.
Parts of a Screenplay
Scene Heading: Where and when is this scene taking place?
This heading includes several elements, the first of which is whether the scene is taking place inside (INT.) or outside (EXT.).
The second is the actual location, like BOB’S BEDROOM or ENGLISH CLASS.
After an em dash, we have the time of the scene, such as EVENING or THREE DAYS LATER.
So, a complete scene heading might look like:
INT. COLLEGE DINING HALL — DAY
This means the scene that follows this heading takes place during the day in the interior of a college dining hall.
Importantly, a new “scene” in a screenplay begins every time the setting changes, so if your characters step outside the dining hall, you’re going to need a new scene heading—even if they are continuing the same conversation.
Action: This includes all the descriptions and actions that take place during your screenplay.
Importantly, a character’s internal dialogue is not part of the action paragraphs. Unless a character narrates their thoughts (which is rare and would come up as dialogue), thoughts are not a part of screenplays.
You can, however, show what a character is thinking through expressions, gestures, and actions. Action only includes things viewers can see or hear.
Be as detailed as possible, so actors and directors know what the camera should see at all times. Even if you have a lot of information, however, you should not have large paragraphs. Split them into smaller ones, making sure you have a paragraph break every time the camera changes position.
This should be written in present tense.
Character: This precedes a line of dialogue and has a line to itself.
In prose, you might refer to the same character in different ways: Linda, the firefighter, Ms. Green, Richard’s girlfriend, and Alex’s sister could all refer to the same person. However, this can be confusing for directors, casting crew, actors, and everybody else who might eventually work with your screenplay. To simplify things, refer to each character in a uniform way for the entirety of the screenplay.
If the camera is not on the character in question, you need to add an extension in parenthesis:
O.S. (off-screen): the speaking character is near the scene that viewers see. They might be in a different room of the house, they could be hiding in the same room, or maybe the camera is just focusing on another character’s reaction to the dialogue. Either way, the character is at the setting but not on camera.
V.O. (voice over): the speaking character is nowhere near the setting and not on camera. The character might be narrating a dream or flashback that the audience can see, or someone might be talking over the loudspeaker.
Dialogue: People speak in screenplays—how surprising!
The basic rules of dialogue in prose still apply (keep it short and sweet, maintain each character’s unique voice, and make sure dialogue adds something to the plot).
Parenthetical: How is a line of dialogue supposed to be said? Should an actor be doing something (writing, looking in the opposite direction, etc.) while speaking?
This, if necessary, can go in parenthesis in the line between the character’s name and the dialogue.
A parenthetical statement in prose is an unnecessary part of the statement. In screenwriting, it’s no different. Use parentheticals sparingly and when needed. Context clues and the words being spoken should, most of the time, be enough for a reader or actor to determine how a piece of dialogue should be said.
Transitions: Directions for transitioning from one scene to the next.
DISSOLVE TO and CUT TO are examples.
Like parentheticals, these should be used sparingly. Unless you absolutely need a certain transition, let the editors and camera crew use their judgment.
Online resources, like Fade In, make formatting a screenplay easy, but here are the basics.
Font: Screenplays are always written in Courier 12 point font, in keeping with the old typewriter image.
Scene headings and transitions are always completely capitalized.
Character names that precede dialogue are always completely capitalized.
The first time you mention a character in an action sentence or paragraph, it should be completely capitalized. This is mainly to help the casting crew count the number of actors needed when skimming your screenplay.
Scene headings and action scenes are left-aligned.
Transitions are right-aligned.
Character names, dialogue, and parentheticals are centered.
Length of Screenplay: One page of a screenplay averages to about one minute of screentime. Because movies are typically between 90 and 120 minutes long, a screenplay should be between 90 and 120 pages long.
Have you ever written a screenplay? Let me know in the comments!