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Screenplay Format

First off, screenplays are not a literary form like a novel. They are many times removed from their intended audience and are used by directors, actors and many specialized crafts people to create a movie the audience can experience. The screenplay is more like a blueprint for the construction of a movie.

Screenplay format is controversial because format is one of the first items to cause a script's rejection. Your screenplay needs to reflect industry standards and expectations. That begins with following format conventions.

Fashions change. There are a lot of conflicting points-of-view about what is the proper format. Currently the sought after format is VERY simple with just a few "rules."

What's Not in a Screenplay
There's a major difference between a professional screenplay and one from a beginner. In a professional screenplay there are no shots. CLOSE UP; WIDE SHOT; HIGH ANGLE CRANE TO CLOSE UP; etc., all shots have been excised from the script. Once again, there are ABSOLUTELY NO SHOTS in the screenplay. In addition, other than FADE IN and FADE OUT, any transitional information is excluded. No more are the screenplays cluttered up with CUT TO or DISSOLVE TO. Also eliminated are MORE when dialogue is carried past the end of the page, as well as the CONTINUED when it continues on the next page.

If a writer finds it difficult omitting the directorial cues, review Slug Lines (Master Scenes), where you'll find helpful guidance and an effective mantra.

It's clear the current screenplay format has been streamlined and is not cluttered anymore. Consequently, anyone, in or out of the movie biz, can read a screenplay and understand the story. Happy are the bankers, lawyers, doctors, dentists and all the investors in the world. They can now read a screenplay without needing to learn a special language or needing a producer to tell them if it's good or bad.

What Is In a Screenplay
Master scenes or slug lines represent scenes which are the basic element in a screenplay. The best definition of a scene is an event happening in one time and at one place. If either the time or the place change then there is a new scene.

Slug Lines
Each scene in your screenplay requires a slug line.

The rules for what's included in a slug line and the way it looks on the page are quite simple. Slug lines are ALWAYS capitalized and as brief as possible. They usually contain the following information about the upcoming scene:

Exterior or Interior
The "exterior" or "interior" designation is never spelled out but abbreviated in the script as EXT. or INT., most often with a period. Some screenwriters drop the period. The best way to think of this feature of the slug line is that everything is either outside or inside.

The Location of the Scene
Another feature of the slug line describes the location of the scene. These are kept brief to avoid the slug line running into a second line.

The Time of the Scene
The time indication in the slug line has some flexibility and could include any of the following terms: DAY; NIGHT; DUSK; DAWN; EARLY EVENING; EARLY MORNING; NOON; MIDNIGHT; 2:00 A.M.; LATER; MUCH LATER; A DAY LATER; A WEEK LATER; and anything else the screenwriter can think of which is short and makes sense to the story.

The Dash
Some writers use a dash, some don't. I think it helps the communication since it's really the punctuation for the slug line. It has a space on both sides. It's helpful to think of the dash as a substitute for the words "of" and "during." For example: INT. "of" SPACE SHUTTLE "during" NIGHT. The dash is employed to make it easier to read: INT. - SPACE SHUTTLE - NIGHT.

The Font
Some printing fonts are beautiful and some are ugly. The proper screenplay format uses one of the ugly ones: 12 point Courier. This is used because it's a non-proportional font in which each character in the font takes exactly the same amount of space on the page as any other character. This is desirable because when a screenplay has the correct format with the correct font it represents a page a minute. At a page a minute, a 120 page spec screenplay will represent two hours of screen time.

The Margins
The top, right and bottom margins are set at one inch. The left margin is set at one and one-half inches to allow for binding the finished screenplay together.

Some elements in the format are always capitalized to isolate them from the rest of the elements. The slug line is always capitalized. All the character's names above the dialogue and the transitional FADE IN and FADE OUT are capitalized. The first appearance of a character is noted by capitalizing the name in the description.

The tabulations allow for the isolation of various story elements. Each tab presents a distinct and different element. The tabs are presented here in inches from the margin, which, again, is one and one/half inches from the edge of the paper. From the left margin, which is at Zero, your tabs should be set at:

1.25 Start of the dialogue column
2 Parenthetical dialogue cues
2.75 Character names
4.25 Reference for end of the dialogue column
The dialogue is a column running down the middle of the page beginning at 1.25 inches and wrapping at 4.25 inches. This 4.25 tab is just a visual reference to show you when to wrap the dialogue.

Parenthetical dialogue cues, set at 2, are a way for the writer to suggest to the director and actors how to interpret a piece of dialogue. Only short cues in lower case belong here. Description of action does not belong in the parenthetical cue location.

Character names have a tab at 2.75 from the margin. The character names are not centered on the page, but rather are aligned in one even column.

The format is made up of both single and double spacing. Set your word processor for single spacing and leave it there, then double space as needed.

Single spacing takes place inside all paragraphs, after the characters name and before the dialogue, before and after all parenthetical dialogue cues, and inside all dialogue.

Double spacing precedes and follows: all slug lines, all paragraphs which contain descriptions of characters, scene, or action dynamics, preceding the character's name, and following all dialogue.

Format Software
There are a number of formatting software products available which can save you some time while writing a screenplay. Depending on the software, you'll have to turn off some of the defaults and custom set some others when you print your marketing copies. For instance, you do not want your scenes numbered during marketing as it's a sign of a beginner. But using the numbering feature during the creation of your screenplay is very handy. There are other helpful features.

The most popular format software products are Final Draft and Movie Magic.

You've plotted your story, developed your characters, and written a scene-by-scene outline of your story. Now you're ready to write it in professional screenplay format.

Keep in mind that a screenplay is visual and your characters' actions move the story forward from scene to scene. Actions show the audience what it needs to know. Your characters' dialogue supports the actions. Seeing a character do something is far more powerful than having him or her talk about it.

Think of a scene as a unit of action. In each scene, define who (character or characters), what (situation), when (time of day), where (place of action), and why (purpose of the action).

Scene Headings: Each time your characters move to a different setting, a new scene heading is required.

Scene headings are typed on one line with some words abbreviated and all words capitalized.

Authors Hillis R. Cole, Jr. and Judith H. Haag say in their book, "The Complete Guide To Standard Script Formats," that "the various elements of a scene heading must be arranged in a specific order."

Specifically, the location of a scene is listed before the time of day when the scene takes place

Example: A scene set inside a hospital emergency room at night would have the following heading:


Interior is always abbreviated INT. and exterior is abbreviated EXT. A small dash (hyphen on your keyboard) separates the location of the scene from the time of day.  Leave a two-line space following the scene heading before writing your scene description.

Scene descriptions are typed across the page from left margin to right margin.

Names of characters are displayed in all capital letters the first time they are used in a description, and these names always use all capital letters in a dialogue heading.


      CATHY sits at the end of the first row of plastic chairs. Her head is bent over, and she stares intently at the floor.

The names of characters who have no dialogue are not capitalized when mentioned in scene descriptions.


      A man moans softly as he presses a bloody gauze pad against his forehead. A woman cradles a listless infant in her arms.

Sounds the audience will hear are capitalized (eg, ROAR or WHISTLE). In "The Complete Guide To Standard Script Formats," authors Cole and Haag state: "Sounds made by characters are not considered sound cues and do not require capitalization."

Dialogue is centered on the page under the character's name, which is always in all capital letters when used as a dialogue heading.


                                            I'm sorry…

If you describe the way a character looks or speaks before the dialogue begins or as it begins, this is typed below the character's name in parentheses.


                                            We did everything possible.

Here is an example of a complete scene in the screenplay format:


      A crowded hospital emergency waiting room. Clean but cheerless. 

      Sick and injured people sit in plastic chairs lined up in rows. A TV    mounted near the ceiling BLARES a sitcom. No one is watching.

      A man moans softly as he presses a bloody gauze pad against his   forehead. A woman cradles a listless infant in her arms.

      CATHY sits at the end of the first row of plastic chairs. Her head is bent over, and she stares intently at the floor.

      She raises her head slowly, brushes her long, silky hair away from her face.

      We see fear in her eyes as they focus on a clock that hangs above the front desk. She twists a tissue between her fingers and is unaware that bits of it are falling on the floor.

      The door to the emergency treatment room opens, and a middle-aged    DOCTOR dressed in hospital green walks through the door toward Cathy, who bolts out of the chair and hurries toward him.

                                            We did everything possible.

                                            What are you saying?

                                            I'm sorry…


      All eyes in the waiting room are riveted on Cathy and the Doctor. Cathy lunges at the Doctor, beating her fists against his chest.

                                                                   CATHY  (CONT'D)
                                            You killed him!

Our scene ends here with Cathy's last words, but it could continue with more dialogue and action. Note that (CONT'D), the abbreviation for continued, is added in parentheses next to Cathy's name above. CONT'D is added here because Cathy has just spoken and is continuing to speak. Her dialogue was interrupted by a description of other actions, not by another character's dialogue.

To make sure you use the correct tab settings, it's advisable to use one of the excellent screenplay formatting programs available for your home PC. Such programs include Movie Magic Screenwriter 2000 and Final Draft, both of which make the job of formatting your screenplay much easier.

Even if you use screenwriting software, it's important to have a working knowledge of screenplay formatting so that your presentation copy looks thoroughly professional.

We recommend that you read professional screenplays and familiarize yourself with formatting. However, many published screenplays are shooting scripts and contain camera directions.

As a screenwriter, you are not required to indicate camera shots. In fact, it's not advisable to do this because it's the job of the film director, not the screenwriter.

Formatting Exercise: Format the situation described below into a screenplay scene. Use correct scene heading, action descriptions, dialogue, and parenthetical descriptions for characters' dialogue.

Situation: Bob and Marianne walk into a dark movie theater. The movie has already started, and nearly every seat is occupied. Bob, a tall, stocky young man, carries a super-sized box of popcorn and a super-sized drink. Marianne, dressed in a revealing tight sweater and jeans, carries a bag of potato chips and a large drink. She moves down the aisle quickly, scouting for seats while Bob struggles to see her in the dark. He stumbles over his own big sneakers, and popcorn spills from the container onto several patrons seated near the aisle. Bob apologizes, and other patrons tell him to "shut up." Marianne waves to Bob from the front of the theater. She's found two seats up front. She calls out to Bob and waves frantically. A variety of comments are heard from other patrons.  Bob catches up to Marianne, and they move across the row to their seats. Bob steps on a woman's toes, and she shrieks. He apologizes. Bob and Marianne finally settle into their seats. He munches his popcorn happily and slurps his big drink. A woman seated behind Marianne squirms to see the screen above Marianne's big hair. Marianne turns toward Bob and kisses him noisily on his cheek. He smiles and squeezes her thigh. A man seated behind Bob says something unkind. Bob turns around, smiles, and tells the man he must be jealous. It's quiet for a few moments.

Marianne begins opening her bag of potato chips. A man seated in front of her turns around and looks at her viciously. Marianne offers him a chip, but he declines.  Marianne munches contentedly on her chips and sips from her big drink as she watches the screen. The audience is no longer watching the screen.  Their angry eyes have settled on Bob and Marianne.

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Top Screenwriters
Hollywood screenwriters will typically receive 2-3% of a film's total gross as salary.

George Lucas
Movie: Star Wars III
Gross: $848,000,000+
2-3%: $22,000,000+ (aprox)

Bryan Singer
Movie: Superman Returns
Gross: $368,000,000+
2-3%: $9,500,000+ (aprox)

Peter Jackson
Movie: King Kong
Gross: $547,000,000+
2-3%: $14,000,000+ (aprox)

James Cameron
Movie: Titanic
Gross: $1,835,300,000+
2-3%: $46,000,000+ (aprox)

M. Night Shyamalan
Movie: The Sixth Sense
Gross: $661,000,000+
2-3%: $16,500,000+ (aprox)