How to Write a Screenplay
The information below is meant to be a general guideline on
how to properly format a screenplay. Industry standards
may vary slightly and many working screenwriters have different
storytelling methods, but the basics outlined below should be a
good start for anyone who has never written a screenplay.
What is a screenplay?
Do I need screenwriting
Spec Script vs. Shooting Script
Only Write What the Audience Can See
One Shot Per
Show, Don't Tell
Voice-Over & Off-Screen
Tips: Read Produced
What is a screenplay?
How important is the format?
A screenplay is a blueprint for a
film and offers the reader a chance to see the film play out in
their head while they read. There are basic formatting rules for
screenplays that are essential to learn if you hope to get your
screenplay produced. It doesn't matter if you have an amazing
story, a script that isn't formatted properly immediately jumps
out as "unprofessional" to readers, producers, actors, and
anyone that is accustomed to reading scripts as part of their
profession. Getting a screenplay produced is tough enough
without putting yourself at a disadvantage with an incorrectly
Do I need screenwriting software
to write a screenplay?
No, but screenwriting software can take care of most of the
basic formatting rules for you and includes many other helfpul
tools. For free screenwriting software, check out
WriterDuet. If you don't mind spending money for software,
Movie Magic and
have a very good reputation in the industry. Either way, do some
quick research to find out what best fits your needs.
Spec Script vs. Shooting Script
A "spec" script is a speculative screenplay which is written for
the purpose of being optioned and produced. A "shooting"
script is a screenplay that is used during the production of a
film and is most commonly written by the director and/or
cinematographer. Features such as scene numbering and
camera direction (PAN UP, ZOOM IN, CRANE UP, etc..) are
only used in shooting scripts and should not be used in spec
scripts since the director and/or cinematographer will be making
these decisions, not the writer. Though occassionally a
writer may include some direction in a spec script, it is
typically not recommended. All NYC Midnight
screenwriting competitions are for "spec" scripts, not "shooting
The standard page size for a
screenplay is 8.5" wide x 11" high typed in portrait (not landscape).
The top, bottom, and right
margins should be set at 1.0" and the left
margin should be set at 1.5". When writing your
screenplay, an approximate guideline for the different elements
|Speaking Character Name
|Line of Dialogue
If you are writing your screenplay
using industry accepted software, the margins will be taken care
of for you and it's ok if they vary slightly from the
The standard spacing between the
different elements of a screenplay is listed below:
||Speaking Character Name
|Speaking Character Name
||Line of Dialogue
|Speaking Character Name
||Line of Dialogue
|Line of Dialogue
||Next Speaking Character Name
|Line of Dialogue
The standard font for screenplays is 12 point in Courier,
Courier New, or Courier Final Draft ONLY.
All text should be black on the natural white
background of the paper.
Pages should be numbered in the upper
right corner of the page, approximately 0.5" from the top margin
and 1.0" from the right margin. The first page should NOT
be numbered. The title page should not count as a page in
For NYC Midnight
competitions, only the title
of the screenplay and logline should appear on the title
page. The author's name should not appear on the title
page or anywhere in the screenplay in order to keep the judging
anonymous. That being said, if you plan on submitting your
screenplay after the competition, make sure to follow the
standard rules below.
Outside of our competitions,
the title page should contain the title of the screenplay, the
author's name, and contact information to get in touch with the
author. Do not include any special fonts, illustrations,
pictures, or additional information as it will immediately jump
out as amateur to seasoned professionals in the industry. The
title should be ALL CAPS and centered horizontally and
vertically on the page with "Written by" triple spaced below the
title, and the author's name or names double spaced below
The contact information (email
address, phone number) of the author or agent of author
(depending on who is the primary contact) should appear in the
bottom left hand corner of the page approximately 1.5" inch
from the left margin and 1.0" from the bottom margin.
While mailing address has traditionally been included with your
contact information, many feel that including an email address
and phone number is now sufficient. Here is an example of
properly formatted title page:
In the United States it is recommended to get your work
copyrighted and/or registered with the Writer's Guild of
WGA East), but it is not required to put this information on
your title page or anywhere else in your screenplay. If you do
decide to put your WGA registration numbers or copyright
information on your title page (even though it is not common
among professionals), it should be in the bottom right hand
corner 1.0" from the right margin and 1.0" from the bottom
Only Write What the Audience
Can See or Hear!
You are almost ready to begin your
screenplay, but make sure you remember this tip when writing! If you are not describing what an audience can see or hear, it does not belong in a screenplay. For example:
Since the audience will not be able to see that
Frank wished he
had a time machine based on how it is written above, you will
need to revise this so the audience can hear that he wished he
had a time machine through a voice over (designated as
V.O. for voiceover and further described in the
Now the audience will know that Frank
wished he had a time machine through his voice over.
Keeping this rule in mind when writing will make it very easy
for the reader to visualize the film in their heads.
When beginning your screenplay, the first thing to write is
FADE IN: to signify the screenplay is about to
start. While it is considered a transition, it is only
used once at the opening, and is 1.5" from the left margin as
opposed to all other transitions in the screenplay which are
approximately 6.0" from the left margin. You will need to
double space between FADE IN: and the next line in your
Each scene needs to have a scene heading which describes to the
reader where and when it is taking place. Every time the location or
time of day changes, a new scene heading is required.
Scene headings are written in all CAPS. It includes three major elements:
Interior or Exterior
as INT. or EXT.)
Defines if the location is inside or outside. For example,
a restaurant would be considered an Interior location (INT.) and a
public park would be considered an Exterior location (EXT.).
MASTER SETTING/SPECIFIC SETTING)
Defines the location where the scene is taking place. It
should define a master setting which is the main location such
as a building, apartment, house, etc... and if necessary, any smaller, more
specific locations within the master setting such as a kitchen,
bathroom, living room, etc.. of a house (for example). A
few examples of how the location is written are below:
INT. POLICE STATION/HOLDING CELL
INT. FRANK'S HOUSE/LIVING ROOM
INT. FRANK'S HOUSE/BEDROOM
EXT. PUBLIC PARK
Time of Day
DAY or NIGHT)
The last element to include in a scene heading is the time of
day. You don't need to include the exact time, just
whether it's during the DAY or NIGHT. This helps during
the pre-production process as filmmakers need to know if they
will depend on natural light or will have any specific lighting
So, using all the elements above,
here are a few examples of complete scene headings:
INT. COFFIN - NIGHT
INT. POLICE STATION/HOLDING CELL -
INT. FRANK'S HOUSE/LIVING ROOM - DAY
INT. FRANK'S HOUSE/BEDROOM - NIGHT
EXT. PUBLIC PARK - DAY
Scene headings are left justified at 1.5" from the left margin
and require a double space before starting a new action line.
Here is an example of a scene heading at the beginning of a
This is where you create the images
of the film in the reader's head. As stated above, action
lines should only describe what an audience can see or hear.
They should be short and concise, easy to visualize, and should
move the characters, and plot forward. Action lines should
always be written in the present tense.
One Shot (or Action) per Paragraph
Typically, each shot or action requires it's own paragraph in a
screenplay. Here is an example of how NOT to write an
This paragraph is way
too clunky and includes several shots which should have their
own paragraph. Below is a better way to pace it out:
You'll see that now each paragraph represents a shot and flows
much easier for the reader. When describing the shot or introducing a character through your action lines,
try not to
exceed 4 action lines per paragraph for the sake of the reader.
This rule varies slightly, but most are in agreement that the
shorter the better.
Character Introductions in
Characters are also introduced through action lines.
Always put a character's name in ALL CAPS when introducing them
for the first time in your screenplay. You don't need to keep
them in caps throughout the screenplay, only the first time you
introduce them to the reader. Animals, such as the ENGLISH
BULLDOG above, need to be capitalized as well when first being
It's also important to describe the character in the introduction so that
it paints a better picture for the reader. What age range?
Male, Female, Other? Do they have important physical
attributes that help define their character? A few
examples of important attributes would be eyeglasses, a large
scar on their face, morbidly obese, scrawny, in a wheelchair,
tattoos, very carefully manicured, etc. Are they wearing
something in particular that helps define their character such
as a tuxedo or flip flops? An example of a character
introduction is below:
Character descriptions are not necessary for minor characters if
they don't add to the story. For example, a MALE SECURITY
GUARD that makes an appearance in a single shot does not need 3
lines of description for his character unless it's vital to the
When introducing minor characters, such as the
MALE SECURITY GUARD above, make sure to include #1, #2, and so
on if you are using more than one of the same character.
For example, if you will introduce another MALE SECURITY GUARD
at a later time in the screenplay, make sure to refer to the
first as MALE SECURITY GUARD #1 when you introduce them and
continue to use that name throughout the screenplay.
Character Descriptions in Action Lines
Once you have introduced the characters, you don't need to
continue to include their physical attributes unless it's
important to the scene. But, it is important to convey the
character's emotional state in most scenes so the reader sees
his or her development throughout the story. The better
you can describe the character's emotional state, the more the
reader will be able to visualize it and get invested in the
story. For example;
This description explains the scene but doesn't do a very good
job of describing his emotional state. Here is a better
description of his emotion:
Of course, there are infinite number of ways a writer can convey
the story through their action descriptions, but remember that
getting the reader caught up in the story through the emotion of
the characters and descriptions of the scene is one of the most
important aspects of screenwriting.
Show, Don't Tell
An age old adage in screenwriting (and creative writing for that
matter) is that it is usually always better to communicate
something through an image or images, rather than having a
character explain it to the audience. Of
course dialogue is necessary in most stories, but following this
rule when possible will make for a more visual read and a more
watchable film. For example:
While the writer is trying to get across to the audience that
Frank is in debt and in a big predicament if he doesn't pay his
rent, this isn't the best way to do it. It's not realistic
for the character to be talking to himself about something that
he already knows and will take most people out of the story
Don't underestimate your audience. By simply flashing an
EVICTION NOTICE or LAST ATTEMPT FOR RENT letter lying next to
his calculator in an action line (shown below), the audience immediately
grasps that he is in deep financial trouble without having your
character say a word.
When your characters speak, it is
called dialogue and it is written in a specific way.
First, you need to write the name of the character speaking in
ALL CAPS approximately 3.5" from the left margin. Any
Parentheticals (further described in the section below) are
single spaced beneath the speaking character approximately 3.0"
from the left margin. The dialogue is then inserted as a
single space below approximately 2.5" from the left margin.
Never center the dialogue on the page! It should always be
left justified at the approximate margins listed above.
If there is more than one character speaking in the scene, you
will need to identify each speaking character every time they
speak. Speaking characters are double spaced. For
If the same character speaks through an action, you need to
write (CONT'D) next to the character's name after the line of
action. For example:
This is to let the filmmakers know that the speaking continues
through the action and will most likely end up as one shot as
opposed to several shots. As with most of the basics such
as margins and spacing, CONT'D is taken care of automatically by
most screenwriting programs.
When a character is speaking in a scene but is not physically in
the scene or not physically speaking in the scene, you need to designate the dialogue as either
voice-over (V.O.) or off-screen (O.S.) which is placed on the
same line as the speaking character's name in the dialogue.
If the character is physically present in the scene but is not
visible during their dialogue (i.e. locked in the bathroom,
hiding under the bed, etc..) then it needs to be designated as
off-screen (O.S). If they are not physically present, such
as acting as a narrator or speaking on the phone, then it should
be designated as a voice-over (V.O.). Also, if the actor
can be physically seen but you wish to have him/her
communicating their thoughts or narrating to the audience
without actually speaking in the scene, you will need to
designate the dialoge as voice-over also (V.O.).
Parentheticals are direction for the actors and are placed
beneath the speaking character's name in the dialogue to express
the actor's emotions or actions. As with any direction in
a spec script, it should be minimal, so make sure to use
parentheticals only when necessary.
Parentheticals are placed on their own line, in parenthesis (),
single spaced below the speaking character's name, and
approximately 3.0" from the left margin. They are
typically only a few words, never a full sentence, and always in
lower case. If you are using more than a few words to
describe the emotion or action of the actor, you should be using
an action line preceding the dialogue.
When you need to represent a brief pause in the character's
speech, you should use the parenthetical (beat) between the
lines of dialogue.
Some examples of parentheticals using emotion, action, and a
brief pause are below:
Direction for how one shot transitions in the next shot in your
screenplay is called a transition. For example, "FADE
IN:", the very first text in a screenplay, represents the very
first shot of the film fading in from black (or another color).
All transitions are double spaced and are approximately 6.0"
from the left margin.
Popular transitions also include "DISSOLVE TO:" and "CUT TO:",
even though "CUT TO:" is redundant since every shot cuts to
another shot. "CUT TO:" is most commonly used for comedic
or dramatic effect by alerting the reader to the contrast
between the shots. For example:
The other important transition besides "FADE IN:" that needs to
be included in your screenplay is "FADE OUT.", which represents
the end of the film. There should be no further text
beyond "FADE OUT." besides "THE END"
which is double spaced and centered on the page. For
Questions, Comments, or
While this article covers the basics,
you may find that there are many topics and aspects of a
screenplay not mentioned here. If you have any questions
or comments regarding any aspect of the screenwriting process,
let us know in the comments section below
and we will do our best to get you an answer as soon as
possible. You can also ask any questions in our
Screenwriting forum to tap into the knowledge of thousands
of writers in our community.
Other Tips: Read Produced
Reading produced screenplays is a great way to learn the art
quickly and see varying storytelling styles from some of the
best writers in the business. Produced screenplays also
have the benefit of a finished film to watch as well.
Check out the website
(The Internet Movie Script Database) to download and read
hundreds of classic and award winning films, including latest
releases. Keep in mind you may see some of the top
screenwriters breaking some of the rules mentioned above, but
that's not an excuse to break the rules yourself. Until
you have one or more multi-million dollar features under your
belt, breaking the rules will only make it harder to be taken
seriously by professionals that read scripts for a living.
Thanks for reading and keep challenging yourself as writers!