Screenplay Formatting: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Get It Right
“Like any kind of writing, there are good days and frustrating days. But even frustrating days can be rewarding.”
– Ethan Coen
Formatting is the way in which your screenplay appears on the page. It includes scene headings, dialogue, character names, action, and other features such as margins and font. It immediately distinguishes a screenplay from another form such as a stage play or a novel, for example.
Why Is It Important?
Screenplay formatting is an industry-wide standard that allows the writer to communicate exactly what will be seen and heard onscreen. It can be easily understood by directors, producers, and other professionals, which is essential in an industry as collaborative as filmmaking.
Having a standard way of communicating allows readers to be undistracted by trying to decipher a new form each time they read a script, and instead to immerse themselves in what really matters – your story, your characters, and the world you have created.
For screenwriters, formatting also helps to make a positive, professional impression from the very first page. A well formatted screenplay helps to create a sense of confidence that the writer is familiar with the form and has taken the work seriously. Perhaps ironically, excellent formatting is not noticeable. The only time industry professionals are likely to notice formatting occurs when there are errors.
Standard screenplay formatting is also visually clear and uncluttered. Not only is this more likely to appeal to the reader, it also helps the writer to emphasise being concise.
Formatting may seem dull in comparison to crafting sensational scenes, compelling characters, and dynamic dialogue, but putting effort into learning the basics will make the screenwriting process smooth and natural later on.
Try the reading and software suggestions below, and you will quickly build the confidence to create professional-looking screenplays every time.
The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier
A comprehensive introduction to screenwriting, used by both professionals and aspiring screenwriters alike.
Screenwriting For Dummies by Laura Schellhardt
A concise, intelligent, and friendly guide that you will return to time and again. It contains excellent advice on writing and formatting a screenplay, with additional guidance on how to get it into the hands of Hollywood.
Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field
Syd Field is one of the industry’s pre-eminent analysts and provides excellent insight on format, structure, and the “formula” of writing. There have been several popular editions since it was first published in 1979.
A Minute Per Page
It is generally accepted in the industry that a page of script equates to a minute of screen time, meaning a 90 page script would have a running time of an hour and half, for example. This tried-and-tested measure is not only helpful to professionals such as producers and directors, it can help you to understand when and where there are certain milestones and turning points in your story. Altering margins, fonts, and other aspects of standard formatting would affect a rule that the industry has relied on or years. Play it safe, and stick to the standard.
Investing In Software
If you are serious about screenwriting, specialised software can save time and energy once you have learned the basics.
Final Draft – The number-one-selling screenwriting software in the world. It is less affordable than some alternatives, but available on Mac and Windows with a number of helpful templates.
Movie Magic Screenwriter – The official software of the Writers Guild of America East. It has all the major features and tools of Final Draft, and you can also change the layout of the interface to minimise distractions.
Celtx – An ideal choice for students or for those who want to try screenwriting without any major financial commitments. It is a pared down version of more standard screenwriting software but is still effective, and has a handy collaboration mode that is great for production teams.
WriterDuet – Rapidly growing in popularity, Cloud storage is available and collaboration between writer teams is particularly easy. It is free to use with an upgrade to the “pro” version available for a fee.
Jessica Sinyard is an award-winning screenwriter and published sports journalist based in North Lincolnshire. Her feature screenplay Wild Dog Country won the Best Feature Screenplay Award at the Illinois International Film Festival in Chicago (2009), and her subsequent screenplay Follow Me was a finalist for Best Screenplay at the Queens International Film Festival in New York (2009). Her feature screenplays and television pilot scripts have been selected for several additional festivals including the Polar International Film Festival (Wild Dog Country, shortlist, Best International Feature Screenplay), the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards (Rook’s Parliament, Quarterfinalist Best Television Pilot, and White Nights, semi-finalist Best Television Pilot).