What exactly defines a screenplay?
A screenplay (or script) is written by a screenwriter (or script writer) as a blueprint for the wonderful films you see today.
Screenplays can take many forms: short films, TV series or feature-lengths. But you may be asking…
SCRIPT PAGE LENGTHS
How many pages are in a movie script?
Well that depends… We’ll break it down for you, however please remember these aren’t set-in-stone and they certainly aren’t rules; just a guide.
How many pages in a short film?
0 – 40 pages.
How many pages in a TV episode?
Comedy: 22 – 45 pages.
Drama: 45 – 75 pages.
How many pages in a feature-length?
40 Pages +.
How do I format a script?
You might have the greatest story ever thought of, or the most well-developed characters in your head, but often that won’t matter to a producer, an agent, or a screenwriting competition.
You’ve missed something crucial: your script, your formatting.
Like any art form, scriptwriting and script formatting is subjective to a certain extent. Many academics, writers, script doctors, and gurus have added their opinions, tweaks, and expressed their concerns with various methods.
This is the first instalment of a ‘script writing how to’ for hints and tips – a do’s and don’t’s of script formatting – to ensure that your story is seen and appreciated as it should be.
But, you might think – formatting a screenplay… is it really that important? Does it really matter?
Surprisingly, yes, for these reasons:
A screenplay being correctly formatted means less work down the line for directors, casting producers, lighting designers, props managers, location scouts, and everyone else. This is because what you put to paper is the ultimate guide to your story and your world, and you want it to be perfect.
Often, you might not get the chance to communicate with production once your scripts have been optioned, so what you’ve got on paper goes. If you’ve not expressed clearly who is speaking, where they’re speaking from, or what they’re doing in-between, there’s going to be misinterpretations when the script goes into production.
If it goes into production, because…
Agents, producers, executives and competition judges will often look at a poorly formatted, messy, or convoluted scripts and pass on it if they’ve got a pile of scripts beside them that are easy to understand, laid out correctly, and ultimately look more professional.
Some very clever people at the origin of screenwriting worked out that roughly a minute of script equals a minute of screen time. A sixty-page screenplay would more or less equate to a sixty-minute TV Pilot episode, and so on. This, however, only works if your script has been correctly formatted. Prose-like text, missing lines, and inconsistent line spacing will cause this minute-to-page ratio to fall apart.
However, reading this article and performing your own research into script formatting will ensure that your masterpiece is readable, concise, and conforming to professional standards.
SCRIPT WRITING SOFTWARE
What do I write a screenplay on?
Firstly, my advice would be investing in, or simply seeking out, some scriptwriting software.
You can use paid software or free screenwriting software depending on your budget. At the end of the day, they both format screenplays and if you’ve got a winning idea that’s well-formatted, your software won’t make the difference.
The industry standard, especially in the likes of the BBC, is Final Draft – but online alternatives such as CeltX and Scrivener also assist in your formatting.
However, an acceptable screenplay formatting template is available for free download on Microsoft Word. Otherwise, you can mock up your own version using 1.5 line spacing, Courier font, tabulating, centering your dialogue, and following the following example.
I would, however, recommend investing in professional software – an artist would buy the best brushes to create the masterpiece, so think about the tools you use to write your screenplay carefully.
What font is used for scripts?
The screenwriting font we use today has derived from the old-fashioned typewriters. There are two main fonts that are accepted in a screenplay which is Courier or Courier New.
How to format action in a script
Action, or Stage Directions/Scene Directions/Scene Descriptions, is what we, as the audience, see on the screen – what the characters are doing, what is visual. These are sparsely detailed, unlike prose, and focus on generalisation rather than dramatic description.
They also tend only to be a paragraph long, and a new paragraph should be taken for another beat of action. This will become more clear when you’re writing, but the idea would be that a single beat of action is the character’s first move, the second beat the character’s next, and so on.
Rather than use jargonistic terms such as P.O.V. or C.O. within action, a common trend is to simply tell the audience what they are seeing as if they were part of it. Directors and cinematographers tend to make technical decisions, so use the action to tell the story rather than explain how it should be made.
Same goes for SFX cues – consider telling us what we hear rather than cueing it as it’ll maintain the flow of your script and include readers in the world of the story instead of dragging them out.
How to format characters in a script
Upon a character‘s first appearance in the action of your script, their name should be CAPITALISED and/or emboldened. Another common trend is to capitalise a character’s name in action throughout, as it helps readers – particularly actors – discern if they are in a scene or not. This trend has been carried over from playwriting.
A capitalised character’s name, however, should appear above their dialogue at all times and should be centred. If carrying on from previous dialogue which has been separated by action, you should also include (CONT’D), (cont), or an appropriate variation alongside the character’s name.
Most scriptwriting software will do this automatically for you, but if not, remember to include it and keep it consistent throughout as it looks more professional.
How to format dialogue in a script
The dialogue under a character’s name should also be centered, along with (parenthesis) which should be the line immediately above. Parenthesis, or parenthetical information, expresses how a character is communicating their lines, or what they are directly doing as they are saying them i.e. bouncing a ball, smoking, on phone, etc.
A general consensus is that parenthesis should be used sparingly, if at all. Usually, it isn’t entirely necessary and actors don’t need to be told how to act their scenes. Even sarcasm or irony can be conveyed through clever dialogue writing, or, at a push, italicising the dialogue.
A rule of thumb is that dialogue shouldn’t run over three lines without being separated by action, otherwise the character would look to be monologuing. Either break up your action by letting us know how other characters are reacting or if they are on the move, or consider condensing your dialogue.
How to format Voice-Over in a script
Voice-Over and Off-Camera dialogue can also be tricky to format, which you can read about here in detail, or follow the below example.
Read, read, read scripts!
Ultimately, to be a formatting master you have to learn these tricks and implement them, be consistent throughout, and be clear. Take a step back from your script and let someone else read – if they’re struggling to understand it, try and make your formatting more understandable.
The best tip I can give you, however, is read industry screenplays. There are plenty of excellent websites you can find them on, including the BBC Writers Room Script Library, featuring TV and Film.
Read as many as you possibly can, study, and keep writing. With practice and following these examples, you’ll be able to present your script and idea in its best form!
Keep an eye out for more Formatting 101 Blogs, and make sure to read our Blog on Formatting Voice-Over.
Eden Luke McIntyre is a Scottish writer, editor, and script consultant. His qualifications include a Master’s Degree in TV Fiction Writing and Bachelor of Arts with Honours Degrees in Film & Media Studies and English Studies, specialising in Scriptwriting, Creative Writing, and Researching the Media. Besides consulting on scripts, Eden writes content for radio, stage, and online, and was appointed as a BBC Writers Room Scottish Voice in early 2020.