How To Write | Screenwriting

Screenwriting Basics: The Format to Write a Screenplay

basic format of screenplays

A screenplay is also called a script. If you read scripts of famous movies like Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Dark Knight, Lord of the Rings, you’ll feel like reading more of these. Why? Because they capture your attention, keep you in suspense. Almost like reading a good novel. Except that writing a novel and a script are totally different. Hollywood many decades ago came to a conclusion that there has to be a specific way to write a script for a Movie and a TV series.

Related: Is the Screenwriting MasterClass Really Worth it?

This article covers only the screenwriting format for a Movie. Writing a TV series episode is similar but that’ll be covered in another article. Then, what is the perfect format for writing a screenplay for a movie? Now, there are two types of scripts:

  1. Submission Script or Spec Script: Spec script is written for readers. They can be mostly agents or producers. It is written in the hope of selling it.
  2. Shooting Script: A shooting script is written only for the director after the Spec script is purchased.

We’ll be looking at the format that 90% of Hollywood accepts for a Spec script. If you are not using any screenwriting software or don’t know which one to use, check my review of the best screenwriting software tools.

First of all, let’s look at what is covered in this article.

  1. Introduction
  2. Rules for Writing
  3. Scene Heading
  4. Action
  5. Character Name
  6. Dialogue
  7. Parenthetical
  8. Transition
  9. Shots
  10. Superimpose
  11. Title Page

1. Introduction

You can write a story in many ways. But it has to be enticing. And while writing it you should know the format and rules of writing it a movie script. Let’s look at the format of a script below.

basics of screenwriting

2. Rules for Writing

Screenplays are written in 8.5” x 11” (US Letter size). The page numbers are to the top right corner. The first page does not have a page number. After printing 3 holes are punched, used for binding with brads.

  • Font: 12- point Courier
  • Top and Bottom margins: 1 inch
  • Left Margin: 1.5 inch
  • Right Margin: 1 inch

1 page of a script is equal to roughly 1 minute of screentime (though this is debatable now). Usually a screenplay is between 90 to 120 pages. Though it can stretch to 130 pages in some cases. But a writer must try to limit it to 120 pages otherwise the reader might consider you as a beginner (who doesn’t know about formatting at all) and throw it away.

The length of a script may decide if your script will sell or not. If your script finishes at 90 pages, and you add unnecessary extra scenes in it to make it a little longer to increase screen time, your chances of selling it are gone down the drain. The film Gravity was 72 pages with a runtime of 91 minutes. And it won 7 Academy awards. So, it’s better to just write the script leaving the rest to the producer.

Related: 7 Best Udemy Courses to Learn Screenwriting Online(2020)

3. Scene Heading

Scene heading is also called a Slugline. The location where the scene is taking place is written in the scene heading. They start from the left of the page with a margin of 1.5 inch, always in capital letters.

Scene Heading starts with INT. or EXT. (INT is Interior & EXT is Exterior) which means where the action is taking place. Here is an example.

writing a scene heading 1

This means the scene takes place in Naomi’s Kitchen in the morning. You can also write DAY / NIGHT / DUSK / DAWN / EVENING. Depending on the situation in the scene. An example of EXT. is:

writing a scene heading 1

You can enter the location of the battlefield if the scene requires. 

4. Action

Similar to Scene Headings, Actions start from the left of the page with an indent of 1.5 inch. 

A very very important point here is, the action always takes place in the present time. Example of how to write action:

action explained in a screenplay

A example or how not to write:

action explained in a script

Never should you write action in the past tense. 

5. Character Name

Always in all caps the Character Name should start 3.5 inches from the left. When introducing a Character for the first time, the character name has to be in all caps in the action.

character names in screenplays

If the character is described as BEAUTIFUL WOMAN or as a DARK FIGURE, you can write that as well.

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6. Dialogue

Dialogue margin is 2.5 – 3 inches from the left and 2 inches from the right.

Dialogue is the essence of the character. If the character is off screen, then you can use V.O. after the character name like this below:

You can read more about writing a phone conversation in various ways in my article here on Writing a Phone Conversation in a Screenplay

7. Parenthetical

A parenthetical is 3.5 inches from the left and 3 – 3.5 inches from the right. It is never at the centre. It can be an action or emotion of the character. Parentheticals should be used only when required. An example:

dialogues in screenplays

Here is another example:

dialogues in screenplays

8. Transition

These are used when switching from one scene to another. They are 1 inch from the right margin and in all caps. FADE IN is used only in the beginning of a script. And FADE OUT to indicate that the script ends. Here are some types of transitions:

  • FADE IN:
  • FADE OUT:
  • CUT TO:
  • DISSOLVE TO:
transition in scripts

They are not used much nowadays. On the pro screenwriters use transitions as they work with directors all the time. Unless really required, better not to use them. They take up valuable space in the script.

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9. Shots

All caps and 1.5 inches form the left just like Scene headings. Here are some types of transitions:

  • CLOSE UP:
  • ANGLE ON:
  • PAN TO:
  • POV:
  • EXTREME CLOSE UP:
  • BACK TO SCENE:

An Example:

transition in scripts

Most people say that shots are very rare to use in a spec script. However I’d take the advice of John August in his screenwriting blog. He says that it’s useful sometimes but he uses it differently. And there are no hard and fast rules. You can also check this article on writing a shot.

10. Superimpose

A text or an image is placed on top of the footage. It’s written like this:

what is superimpose in screenplays

The text Year 320 AD will appear on screen. Language translations also appear here. 

11. Title Page

Title page font is the same as the script. It does not have a page number. It should contain the Title of the Script, Name of the writer, Writer’s contact information and Copyright notification. The Title page is written like this:

title page in screenplays

Spec scripts does not any date on he Title page 

Conclusion

The basics of writing are now covered. Writing with a script writing software is the best way to write it because you don’t have to worry about indentations. It does it automatically for you. 

If you haven’t already started, please do so writing by referring to the above format. 

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