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How to Format a Screenplay

By: Jeff Durham - Updated: 1 Mar 2013 | comments*Discuss
 
How To Format A Screenplay

When writing a screenplay for film or video, you may eventually want to pitch this to film production companies. Alternatively, even if you’re simply making a video for your own pleasure, you need to format the screenplay into a style which the actors and production team are going to be able to understand and will feel comfortable with.

Break It Down Into Scenes

When writing a screenplay, you need to break it down into separate scenes as this is what will visually move along your film or video. It will be your characters’ actions and their dialogue which will tell the audience what you want them to know so when writing in screenplay format, you need to think of each scene as a separate unit of action. You’ll need to define the following:

  • The characters that are in each scene
  • The time of day
  • Where the action takes place
  • What the situation involves
  • What the purpose of the action is

Scene Headings

Every time your characters move into a different setting, you need to create a new scene heading. That should be typed on one line and centred in the middle of the page. You should also stipulate the time of day and whether or not the scene is to be shot internally or outdoors. This is often abbreviated to INT or EXT depending on whether it’s an internal or external scene.

An example might be:

EXT – OUTSIDE THE PUB – NIGHT

Scene Descriptions

Underneath your scene heading, you need to provide a scene description. Any characters names should also be capitalised the first time they are used in a scene description and always capitalised in dialogue. Sounds that the audience hears should also be capitalised.

An example might be:

TONY is standing outside the entrance of the pub facing EMMA. He takes a long, deep drag of his cigarette then stubs it out on the floor impatiently with his foot.

Dialogue

When it comes to writing dialogue, the character’s name should all be in capital letters and centred on the page. As well as the dialogue itself, if you need to convey a character’s emotions, you should type this underneath his or her name.

An example might be:

TONY

(angrily)

I don’t know how she could do that to me Emma. I gave her the money so she could buy the baby new clothes. Not so she could blow it all on fags and booze.

Complete Scene

Therefore, using the formatting principles outlined above, a complete scene might look like this:

EXT – OUTSIDE THE PUB – NIGHT

TONY is standing outside the entrance of the pub facing EMMA. He takes a long, deep drag of his cigarette then stubs it out on the floor impatiently with his foot.

TONY

(angrily)

I don’t know how she could do that to me Emma. I gave her the money so she could buy the baby new clothes. Not so she could blow it all on fags and booze.

EMMA sympathetically reaches out and puts an arm on TONY's shoulder.

EMMA

(apologetically)

I’m sorry, Tony. It was probably my fault too. I encouraged her to come into town and go clubbing. She’s been a bit down since little Andy was born and I thought it would cheer her up.

TONY tenderly reaches out and strokes EMMA’s hand which is resting on his shoulder. He looks at her hand and then slowly gazes into her eyes.

TONY

(upset)

It’s not your fault, Emma. Jane’s started drinking at home too and it’s starting to worry me.

Suddenly, there’s a loud BANG as the pub door slams shut and out storms JANE who sees TONY clasping EMMA’s hand.

JANE

(furious)

What the hell’s going on here then?

Both TONY and EMMA are startled and look at JANE guiltily.

Screenplay Software

Formats do tend to vary somewhat when it comes to writing a screenplay but there are several useful software programs which you can buy which will do all of the formatting for you. It’s also not necessary to indicate particular camera shots within a screenplay. A lot of scripts you will see include these ‘shooting shots’ which will contain camera directions but whilst looking at existing scripts will be a useful way of understanding how a screenplay should be formatted, it’s not necessary to include shooting shots as that is the responsibility of the director of the film or video and not the screenwriter’s job.

However you decide to format your screenplay, you need to do it in such a way that prospective actors and film companies will be able to comprehend it if you want to make a positive impression, especially if you are hoping to get a company to commission a production of your film.

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