While screenplays are first and foremost artistic pieces of creative writing, they are also important technical documents, allowing everyone working on a project to do their jobs. Since this is a technical piece of writing, there are some rules and suggestions to keep in mind while formatting your screenplay.
Screenplays are almost always written in some version of the font
Courier. That’s what gives them that old-fashioned type-writer-y look. Courier is what’s called a monospaced font, so each character is going to take up the same amount of width on a line.
The general rule of thumb is that one page of screenplay should translate to about one minute of screen time. But this only serves as a rough estimate and should be treated as such. If a script features a lot of rapid-fire, rat-a-tat dialogue, it might run long. For instance, Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue-heavy The Social Network is over 160 pages long, but the movie clocks in at a brisk 2 hours. On the other hand, if a script features little dialogue but a lot of action, it might run short. Christopher Nolan’s 106-minute film Dunkirk has a mere 82-page screenplay.
“The general rule of thumb is that one page of screenplay should translate to about one minute of screen time.”
Still, while it’s not an exact science, the “one-minute = one-page” rule gives you something to aim for. If you’re planning to make a ten-minute short film, then that script should probably be around ten pages. Nine or eleven pages probably isn’t a big deal, but an 18-page document likely needs some editing before you go into production.
At the beginning of each scene, there will be a heading which sets the stage by answering two essential questions: “Where does this scene take place?” and “When does this scene take place?” These scene headings are always written in
ALL CAPS. Some writers also chose to
UNDERLINE theirs but this is more of a stylistic choice. Whatever you choose, just make sure to be consistent throughout your whole screenplay.
An example scene heading might look like this:
INT. DINER - NIGHT
Now these headings are broken down into three components. The first two answer the “Where?” question, while the third component takes care of the “When?”
Exterior or interior
The first part of your scene heading tells us whether we are outside or inside. If the scene heading starts with
EXT. then it’s an exterior location (outside). If it starts with
INT. then it’s an interior location (inside). On rare occasions, you might see
INT./EXT. for a scene that cuts back and forth between the outside and inside of a location. An example of this would be a car chase where you want to intercut our protagonist heroically jerking the steering wheel and her sports car weaving through traffic without having to create a new scene heading every time you envision a change of perspective.
The next component of a scene heading is the location. Try to be as specific as possible without being wordy. For example, don’t say we’re in
JOHN'S HOUSE when you could just as easily say we’re in
While you’ll be describing your location in the screen direction, it’s sometimes a good idea to throw an adjective into the scene heading. Yes, it’s perfectly fine to say
INT. BATHROOM but think of the difference between a scene set in the interior of a
FILTHY BATHROOM vs. a
Time Of Day
The final part of the scene heading is the time of day which is separated from the location by a hyphen with a space on either side. Almost always, the time is
NIGHT. Occasionally you’ll see a
MORNING or a
DAWN or an
EVENING but this is only if that specific time of day is important to the scene taking place.
Also, some writers will use
CONTINUOUS when the scene at hand is linked to the previous scene with no break in-between. For example, if in Scene A, John opens the door of a restaurant, then the scene heading for Scene B which shows him shut the door behind him might look like this:
Please note that this
CONTINUOUS only works if this scene starts with John on the other side of the door. If we cut inside and he’s already sitting down at his table, then it’s better to just say the time of day again.
This is where most of your writing will happen. These blocks of text run all the way from the left margin to the right margin (no indenting on paragraphs here).
As the name suggests, screen direction is where you’ll introduce everything that the audience sees on screen. This includes descriptions of locations, characters, and props as well as any important action of the scene. If you want the audience to see something happen, you better describe it in your screen direction.
Below are five things to keep in mind when writing your screen direction.
Grammar is a suggestion not a rule…
In screen direction, it’s not vital that you follow every convention of grammar to a T. In fact, it’s not uncommon for screenplays to have sentence fragments or even one-word sentences. Why is that? Emphasis.
Screenwriters are also known to play a little fast and loose with capitalization. You should always capitalize character introductions, but also feel free to hit the caps lock for sound effects (
BANG! THWP! CREEEEEEAK), key props (
Kyle turns around to reveal he is holding a GUN.), or even just to draw attention to a point (
He hangs off the cliff, reaching to her for help. But she TURNS AWAY.).
…Except for your tense. That is a rule.
A screenplay is always written in present tense, as if the writer is transcribing events that are happening in real-time. So while most novels would say, “Rebecca ran out the door,” a screenplay would say,
Rebecca runs out the door.
Keep the paragraphs small.
If you read a lot of screenplays (which you should) then you’ll likely fall into the habit of reading the dialogue, but skimming the screen direction and scene headings in-between. Therefore, keep your readers’ attention in mind, and try to keep screen direction paragraphs as lean as possible.
When writing screen direction, the return key is your friend. As a general rule of thumb, use the utmost caution whenever you have a paragraph of more than five lines. Too many long blocks of text and you run the risk of a reader skimming or skipping over all those words you worked so hard on.
“We see” and Camera movements
Two things that internet screenwriting guides and gurus love to rail against are screenwriters saying
We see (along with its equally maligned cousin
We hear) and describing camera movements. However, these gurus ignore the fact that successful Hollywood writers use these devices all the time.
So, rather than outlawing
We see or camera moves, our suggestion is to use them sparingly.
We see can quickly feel repetitive and an overabundance of camera description can suck the life out of a script. Consider only mentioning the camera if its position or movement is absolutely crucial to the storytelling. For example:
The first time a character is mentioned in your screen direction, their name should be written in
ALL CAPS to draw the reader’s attention to the fact that we’re meeting someone new. The name should be closely followed by a description of the character. This description might mention the character’s age, appearance, outfits, demeanor, and general vibe. Main characters may get a whole paragraph of description while minor characters can often make do with a quick parenthetical. For example:
Jasmine points accusatorially at PRINCIPAL JOHNSON (50s, a bit of a slob), and he recoils back into his seat.
Now we get to the fun stuff: Writing what your characters say to one another.
When formatting dialogue, put the speaking character’s name in the center of the page in
ALL CAPS. Below their name will be a column of text with lines for the actor to say.
Sometimes to the right of the characters name will be a set of parentheses with one of these four things written inside of it.
(V.O.)is for voiceover. This is used when narration is played over the footage, but no one in the scene can hear what’s being said.
(O.C)is for off-camera and
(O.S.)is for off-screen. These two are used interchangeably and both refer to when someone in the scene is physically saying the words we hear (making it different from
V.O.), but the audience can’t see the speaker.
(CONT'D)means continued. This is used whenever a block of dialogue that is meant to be delivered continuously is broken up, either by screen direction or by a page break.
On the other hand, parentheticals give the reader a little insight into how an actor should say a line. It can be purely technical like
(into phone) or it can be about performance
(unsure of himself). However be very cautious when writing performance-based parentheticals. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it should be clear based on the situation and lines how a character is feeling.
Finally, dual dialogue occurs when two characters speak in unison or are speaking over one another. An example would be…
While this tool can be a lot of fun, and has been used to great effect (check out Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women for a recent masterclass in dual dialogue), be very careful with it. Dual dialogue is often used as a crutch by beginner writers who want to make their scripts seem more rapid-fire.
On the far right side of the page, screenwriters have the option to write in their own transitions (
CUT TO: etc). However, like camera moves, these should only be included if they are absolutely necessary to understand the story. For the most part, it’s assumed that moving from one scene to another will happen with a cut so adding a
CUT TO: only serves to take up precious page space. Yet in some rare instances– such as a particularly abrupt cut played for drama, irony, or comedy– a
CUT TO: or even a
SMASH CUT TO: may be appropriate.
Now, we’ve outlined the conventions of the traditional screenplay format, but there’s one crucial element we haven’t touched on yet. This element also happens to be the single most important thing when it comes to writing a a great screenplay: a great idea.
No amount of proper formatting will make up for the reason to write a screenplay in the first place: because you have an idea that’s so funny/dramatic/scary/weird that you would want to see it onscreen.
And once your great idea becomes a great plan, that’s when you can get to shooting.
If this post has inspired you to try to write your own script then check out our post on choosing the right screenwriting software for you. Trust us, this stuff is considerably easier when using a tool meant for screenwriting.