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Erin Pearson
June 24, 2020

Formatting a Script: Turn Your Story Into a Screenplay

If you are just getting into scriptwriting, you may be wondering what the proper format for scriptwriting is, and why is there an industry standard for script formatting (also known as a screenplay format)? Plain and simply, because it’s easy to read and understand when there is a standard. Everybody can be on the same page, so to speak. If your work doesn’t fall into the proper format, it is highly unlikely it will even be read by industry professionals- even if the script itself is amazing. We will do a quick breakdown of a proper script format and then we can talk a little bit about scriptwriting software that formats perfectly every time, so you don’t have to stress.

There are a lot of things to keep track of when formatting your script. Here is a quick 9 point screenplay formatting guide:

  1. 12-point Courier font
  2. 1.5 inch left margin
  3. 1-inch right margin (between .5 inches and 1.25 inches)
  4. 1-inch top and bottom margins
  5. Estimated 55 lines per page.
  6. Character names (in all caps) 3.7 inches from the left side of the page or 2.2 from the margin.
  7. Actor parentheticals should be 3.1 inches from the left side of the page or 1.6 from the margin.
  8. Dialogue 2.5 inches from the left side of the page or 1.5 from the margin.
  9. Page numbers should be flush to the right margin, a half-inch from the top of the page, followed by a period. The first page is not numbered.

You can use Google docs or Microsoft Word to write your script following this format, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. That’s how I wrote my first script and it was so stressful trying to make sure everything was formatted correctly. Thankfully, there is a lot of screenwriting software out there to choose from. Some are even free! I’ll run over some of the best options for you to choose from. If you are just starting out on your screenwriting journey, I’d recommend one of the free options at first to make sure it’s something you want to stick with before you lock yourself into a paid subscription (not all are subscriptions).

Best free script writing software.

  • Celtx - Celtx gives you 3 free scripts before they ask you to pay for a subscription. As far as a free option, to begin with, it’s pretty good. I’ve used it myself and it’s definitely adequate, and like with all tools, it’s a personal preference. If you try it and like it, stick with it. It is intuitive and the subscription gives you a lot of options for preproduction and production preparation. You can view an eleven-minute tutorial on the scriptwriting software here.

  • Trelby - Trelby is free and easy to use software that always has been and, probably always will be, free. It is a fairly basic software without all the bells and whistles but allows you to easily toggle between scripts making editing a breeze. You can view a tutorial for Trelby here.

  • Highland 2 - Highland 2 is created by writers, for writers. And uses Markdown format for adding in image links. It’s free to download and use on your Mac. The free edition provides no time limit and you are able to write entire screenplays with it, though your PDFs will have a Highland 2 watermark on each page. If you decide to purchase the Mac app, the $49.99 will remove the watermark and give you additional templates. View a tutorial for Highland 2 here.

  • WriterDuet - WriterDuet offers free and paid versions of scriptwriting software. The free version has a limited number of projects you can create and plus, pro and premium versions offer you more tools and unlimited projects at affordable rates. You can watch a tutorial here

Best paid scriptwriting software

  • Slugline - Slugline is free up to 6 pages, making it ideal for writing short films with free software. It is built for Mac and usable on iPad or iPhone. It is a very intuitive, no fluff software with a low cost of $39.99. This software is designed for the writer who doesn’t want all the extra distractions that other software provides. You can view a video tutorial here

  • Final Draft 11 - Final Draft offers a free trial, but is ultimately the most expensive scriptwriting software out there at a whopping $250. However, you do get what you pay for. I wouldn’t recommend this option to the new writer as all the extra elements can be quite daunting. This software is created for the professional who wants all the add ons to help create the perfect script. It is also able to easily export into Movie Magic which is a huge plus. You’ll notice at the bottom of the Final Draft web page that it is the preferred software for major studios like Pixar, Disney, Netflix, and NBCUniversal. Personally, I’d wait to purchase this option until you are making a regular income from your script writing and have built up a substantial understanding of great story building. You can view a Final Draft tutorial here.

  • Fade In - Fade In offers a free trial and then has a one time fee of $79.99. This fee includes all upgrades as time goes on, which I think is amazing. I want to invite you to view this tutorial so you can feel as impressed as I do with the software they have developed to make scriptwriting organized and user friendly. Fade In provides an intuitive, clean, and distraction-free writing environment.

  • Scrivener - Scrivener was originally meant for novels though they do provide several scriptwriting formats. Scrivener offers features like character lists, notes, locations, descriptions, meta-tag for reviews, synopsis, corkboard view for acts and scenes, and accepts images for inspiration. It’s a great app for planning your script and with it’s lost cost of $30, it may be something you’d want to consider using in tandem with a scriptwriting software that is a little more intuitive and user friendly. Scrivener doesn’t do script formatting super quickly because it’s meant for novels. But if you are a novelist and a scriptwriter, Scrivener is a great tool as you get two quality options for an incredibly low price. You can view a short overview of the software here.

Now that we have a good understanding of some of the different software to choose from, we will take a moment to define some key terms, so you understand their purpose and their place in your script.

Unlocking Scriptwriting Terms

  • Title page - The title page should have three basic elements to make it look clean and professional; the script title, your name, and your contact information. Whichever scriptwriting software you choose, it will offer a template for this.

  • FADE IN - If you have been reading scripts, you will notice that a majority of them begin with these capitalized words, “fade in”. “Fade in” is often used as a transition between scenes to give the film a certain feel. I would imagine that the popularity of the “fade in” at the beginning of a film is because it gives the viewer a sense of a calm transition from reality into a story world. Alternatively, we have all been to the intense action film that starts us off in the midst of a bloody battle and forgoes the calm fade in and opts for the dramatic shock that causes the viewer tension and suspense right from the start, setting the tone for the entire film.

  • SCENE HEADING - Scene headings, also referred to as a “slug lines”, are like character names and transitions, as they are written in all caps. The scene heading is a one-line description of the location and time of day in the scene. It is important here to note that if you use the same location multiple times in the film, to write the scene location the same way every time. For example, if you choose to name a location “park”, don’t change the name to “playground”. It could cause confusion when the Line Producer is doing script breakdowns.

  • Action - The scene heading is always followed by the action lines that briefly describes what is happening in the scene and what the location looks like. Pro tip 1: Give enough, but don’t give too much direction as many directors like to feel that they have some creative control over this aspect. Pro tip 2: For the sake of the Line Producer, any and all pertinent props should be written in the first action describing the location. It will save them so much time and headache if they don’t have to flip back and forth between scenes trying to figure out what belongs in each location. If an alarm clock is mentioned in scene 20, make sure it’s written in scene 3 when that location first appears. They will be overjoyed.

  • Character’s first appearance - Included in the “action” category is the Character’s first appearance. Before you introduce the new character through dialogue, they should have a place here. The Character’s first action should have their name in CAPS, a brief description including their ethnicity, gender, build, personality, and overall appearance. It’s like a 5-second overview of the entire character profile.

  • CHARACTER - The character’s name, known as the character cue, always appears above his or her dialogue in full caps. Make sure the name is written the same way every time, even if the character develops a nickname or a name change over the course of your script. The scriptwriting software you choose will track all character names, making it quite easy to do this.

  • Dialogue - The lines of speech for each character. Pro tip: Unless your character is literally supposed to monologue, don’t write a monologue. Pay close attention to real-life conversations. People are regularly interrupted or there’s a lot more back and forth between people in a conversation than you’d really realize when you’re at your computer... by yourself... in your imagination... characters speaking should take on a lot of different dynamics and because people speak and communicate differently. Dialogue is difficult to write because you are one person who thinks one way and it’s your job to get into the head of make-believe people and think and speak their way, which is different for each person you write. It takes a lot of practice. Be open to constructive criticism.

  • Transition - You’ll find in the link a quick rundown of all the transitions used in film and a brief description of each and when it might be a good idea to use them. “Cut to”, “fade in”, “fade out”, “flash cut”, “smash cut”, “freeze-frame”, etc. are all editing instructions that have a purpose and add a certain feel to the reader and viewer. A “fade in” rather than a “cut to” may aid in indicating that time has passed, for example. It may be that the director chooses exactly how the transitions end up in the film, but they still offer powerful visuals if used well in your script. They almost serve as the cherry on top when you’re looking for a sale. It might not be the biggest selling point, but it does add a certain appeal, whether or not the reader recognizes it.

  • SUBHEADER - The subheader is similar to a scene heading but is used when you are in the same location, but the character moves to a specific spot. Say, your characters are in a bar and one of them needs to walk behind the bar for something and will spend some time back here creating a sort of “scene within a scene” scenario. This would usually be part of an action and written in all caps.

  • Parenthetical - The parenthetical belongs underneath the character’s name and gives a very specific note about how the line is delivered or heard. (Whispered), (over phone), (angry), etc.

  • Extension - The extension is placed in parentheses and is used to describe how the voice will be heard on screen. For example, (V.O.) for voice over or (O.S.) for off-screen.

  • More/Continued - Frequently, you’ll be writing along and you’ll get to the end of a page in the middle of someone’s dialogue. The “more” or “continued” is there to indicate that the same character is still speaking when the page is turned.

  • Intercut - Often used during a phone conversation when you want to show both sides of the conversation. The Intercut gives instructions for a series of quick cuts between two locations.

  • Spec Script - Spec Script is short for “speculative screenplay”, which is a non-commissioned and unsolicited screenplay. A spec script is something you would write on your own and then shoot for selling your script to a production company or find an opportunity to produce it yourself.

  • Master Scene Script - The master scene script is distinct from the shooting script in that it does not include camera direction. The director takes the master scene script and adds camera direction to it for him/herself to create the “shooting script”. Over the years, the role of the scriptwriter has changed. It used to be that scriptwriters did all of the above. It is now for the screenwriter to focus on the literary aspect, leaving the script as a blueprint for the director.

Scriptwriting requires a lot of organization, planning, and understanding of story building. It requires a lot of skill and a lot of training, but once you really get into the swing of things, it is such a blast! For more screenwriting tips like how to write a script that sells and how to pitch your script, follow the links!

Have a wonderful day!

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