Movie Making Manual/Writing/Screenplay Format

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This Module is part of the Movie Making Manual
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In the Motion Picture industry, screenplays are usually presented in a standardized format. This format has been developed over the years in the Hollywood studio system in order to approximate a rule of thumb of one script page equaling one minute of movie screen time. This "Hollywood Standard" format has become widely adapted and accepted worldwide due to the proliferation of screenwriting software such as Final Draft and Movie Magic.

The main characteristics of this standard are:

  • 3 holed Letter size 8.5"x11" paper (US and Canada) or A4 paper format (rest of the world)
  • Character names and Dialogue should be formatted to appear centered (see below)

Writers submitting their work to US based production companies are strongly advised to follow this standard as any deviation from it is often regarded as a sign of an amateur screenwriter. Many in the industry say they refuse to accept non-standard scripts but stories abound of writers with "stunt submissions" such as the one in 2004 at Cannes. Supposedly someone took a chance and printed their screenplay up like a paperback novel (bound with a fancy cover and everything) and even though the screenplay was no good the size was very popular (being less bulky than a conventional screenplay) and lots of people took copies and read them. So some may conclude that sometimes breaking the rules works. However, as it was pointed out, the screenplay in this case was no good, so it once again reinforced the commonly held preconception that fancy stunt submissions are usually done by amateurs, whereas professionals follow the standard format.


Formats[edit]

Screenplay[edit]

Although some writers utilize their own modifications on the standard screenplay format, there is a basis upon which all feature film screenplays are formated.

The standard screenplay format is devised for simplicity of reading by many different departments in addition to roughly timing out to one minute of screen time for one page of script.

Screenplays should be written in twelve point Courier font. Twelve point Courier is an important component of the standard format for two reasons. One is nostalgic (Courier font resembles the look of a page written on a mechanical typewriter), but the other reason is highly practical: Courier is a monospaced font meaning every glyph is the same width (as opposed to variable-width fonts, where the "w" and "m" are wider than most letters, and the "i" is narrower). With a monospaced font only a certain number of letters will fit on each row and each page, assuring uniformity of the format and achieving the one page per minute of screen time formula.

Final Draft, the popular screenwriting software has developed their own Courier font, Courier Final Draft. This font was designed to mimic a PC Courier font on Mac computers to achieve further uniformity between the platforms. There are no differences between the glyphs of Courier and Courier Final Draft and the two fonts are interchangeable on those platforms.

Utilizing any font other than twelve point Courier or Courier Final Draft will result in a screenplay that does not adhere to the standard format, does not approximate the one page per minute of screentime formula and therefore regarded as highly undesirable by producers. NOTE: The Courier New font alters the pitch of the typeface, taking up more space on the page and therefore altering the overall page count of a script document. Courier New font is not recommended for screenwriters.

Margins are generally set as such (spaces are assuming 12 point font at 72 spaces per line):

  • Scene Number (if used) is 1.25 inches from the left edge or 13 "spaces" in
  • Scene Heading 1.75 inches from the left edge or 19 spaces in
  • Action 1.75 inches from the left edge or 19 spaces in (cut off at 55 characters (including spaces) per line)
  • Dialogue 2.75 inches from the left edge or 29 spaces in (cut off at 35 characters (including spaces) per line)
  • Character name is centered on the page (about 43 spaces in)
  • Parenthetical direction is 3.5 inches from the left or 36 spaces in (cut off at 16 characters (including spaces) per line)

Elements of the screenplay[edit]

Screenplays traditionally start with FADE IN in the upper left hand corner of the first page, immediately followed by the scene heading for the first location.

SCENE HEADING (SLUG) A scene heading always starts with a distinction whether the location of the scene is indoors or outdoors. INT. signifies an interior location whereas EXT. signifies an exterior location. These are always abbreviated and followed by a period and one blank space and then the name of the location where that scene takes place. Scene headings, also called slugs, are placed for each and every location in the screenplay, including all the various elements of a location. For example INT. OLD HOUSE LIVING ROOM might be followed by INT. OLD HOUSE KITCHEN if the characters or action moves to the kitchen. It is not correct to have INT. OLD HOUSE and move characters from one room to the next within the same scene. Each room is treated as a separate location in the script because when the film is actually shot these sequences will most likely be shot out of order (all scenes in the kitchen will be shot together and all scenes in the living room will be shot together, possibly on different days) and, possibly, in completely different physical locations (the kitchen may be a practical location in an Old House, the living room might be built on a soundstage). Some writers like to put a hyphen between the main location and the sub location, IE: INT. OLD HOUSE - LIVING ROOM and INT. OLD HOUSE - KITCHEN, but this is not required. Following the location name is one or two hyphens (depending on writer's taste) and the time of day the scene takes place; DAY, NIGHT, DAWN, DUSK, EVENING or MOMENTS LATER, CONTINUOUS (if the scene is immediately after the following as in the characters walking from the living room to the kitchen in one conversation). After the Scene heading, there are two carriage returns (one blank space) and the ACTION begins. Scene headings are always in all capital letters.

ACTION Action is the description of what is happening in the scene, IE: Mark walks into the living room from the kitchen and picks up his books. Action is always written in present tense (Mark walks, not Mark walked). Action is in non-indented paragraph/prose form and is the longest element on the page (spanning from the far left to the far right hand margins of the page). It is generally accepted that action should not be longer than 10 lines without a break. Action also describes the locations, as much as necessary. Action is always in traditional English upper/lowercase. There are two line breaks between the end of action and the name of a character speaking (one blank line between action and character name) or the beginning of a new scene (one blank line between the end of action and the scene heading for the next scene).

CHARACTER NAME When dialogue is spoken, it is preceded by the name of the character speaking the dialogue. The Character Name is placed on its own line and centered on the page. It is always in capital letters. There are some modifiers that can be placed after the character name in parenthesis (separated by a single space). Voice Over (V.O.) IE: JOHN (V.O.) is dialogue that is presented on the film's audio track, but is not spoken by the character on screen. Voice Over can be a voice on a telephone or the sound of the character's own thoughts. Off Screen (O.S.) IE: JOHN (O.S.) is dialogue that is spoken by a character in or immediately near the physical location of the scene, but who is not visible on the screen in that shot or scene. This could be a character speaking from another room. There is only one line break after the character name before dialogue (no blank space).

DIALOGUE Dialogue is the actual spoken words by the character. It is placed immediately under the centered character's name and indented considerably from the left hand side and slightly from the right to stand out on the page. Dialogue is presented in standard upper/lowercase text (ALL CAPS can signify extreme emphasis or SHOUTING). Underline and italics can be used for emphasis, but should be used sparingly.

PARENTHETICAL DIRECTION This is very brief (usually one or two words) of direction or clarification that is placed within a character's spoken dialogue. It is placed, indented from the dialogue, on a separate line and enclosed in parenthesis. Parenthetical direction is only specific to the speaking character (not to other characters in the scene) and should be extremely brief. It can indicate a parawr use, a direction of conversation to a different character in the scene, a notation on a specific emotion or intent in the following dialogue. Parentheticals are always in the middle of dialogue - dialogue never ends with a parenthetical direction. Parenthetical direction is usually written in all lowercase letters IE: (beat). After the dialogue ends, there are two line breaks (one blank space) between the next character name or action or a new scene heading.


Some standard format notes:

  • The first time a character is introduced in action, their name is presented in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS to point out their introduction.
  • Sound effects such as a phone RINGS or an alarm BEEPS are placed in all capital letters to point them out.
  • Scene transitions such as DISSOLVE TO:, CUT TO:, FADE TO BLACK: are placed flush right, on their own line. They are placed at the end of a scene with one blank space before a new scene heading. Generally speaking, they should be used sparingly.

An HTML example of screenplay formatting (incorporating all of the above) can be found at: [1]

More notes on screenplay formatting can be found at: Academy notes on Screenwriting Format

Other Formats[edit]

  • Television
  • Stage Play
  • Radio Drama

Process[edit]

Draft Script[edit]

Locking the Script[edit]

As part of the pre-production process, the script is going to be accepted and locked. This provides the basis for keeping everyone on the same page. A locked script means that the page numbers do not change. Every copy of the script will have the same page 10 because it will never change. As new material is added, sub pages ("a" pages) are added (10a, 10b, 10c and so forth). If significant deletions are made as to eliminate all the material on a page, it remains in the script as a blank page merely with the word "OMITTED" on it. In addition to page numbers, scene numbers are also locked and treated the same. If a scene is cut from the script, its number remains and the slug reads "OMITTED"; added scenes are sometimes identified with capital letters 101A, 101B, 101C and so forth. Sometimes additional scenes are numbered as in 101-1, 101-2 or 101.1, 101.2. Numbering is somewhat preferred as the traditional system for identifying coverage on slates while shooting a movie is to designate each new shot with a letter. Scene 101 may be one page in the script, but the final scene may be made up of 15 different camera angles. On the set, these will be designated on the slate and in continuity notes as 101a, 101b, 101c and so forth, so it can be confusing to see scene 101Aa, 101Ab. Each assistant director or unit production manager has their own system for locking the script and each script supervisor has their own system for designating shots on set. It's up to that team to coordinate how these numbers will be implemented.

Rewrites[edit]

Throughout the production process the script may need to be modified or re-written. Scenes are added, moved, deleted, or changed.

The location supervisor reports that the restaurant location will not be available. The director confers with the writers and decides that the scene can take place in a park instead.

This means the casting director doesn't need to cast a waiter for the scene, but a hot dog vendor and a street entertainer will be required.

The scene has moved from indoors to outdoors, different lights/film may be required. The DoP will need to know this.

The costume designer no longer needs to dress 40 extras in evening dinner attire.

It's very important for everyone to be on the same page; changes are usually printed on different color pages. For example, if everyone else is carrying light-blue scripts, and you have a pink script, then you've got a problem.

Templates[edit]

Screenwriting Software[edit]

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Lessons in Screenplay Formatting[edit]

  • Wikiversity has a free lesson in Script Formatting for a very short motion picture. The lesson uses the free demo version of Final Draft (Macintosh or Windows version). This lesson can be completed in less than two hours. And you can earn points!
Note: While many of the lessons of Wikiversity Film School are not complete, this one is ready for you to begin immediately. And it is fun.