Maybe you’re thinking about writing a screenplay, but don’t know where to start. Or maybe you’re interested in following in the footsteps of writer-directors such as Mindy Kaling or Jordan Peele. Either way, it’s important to learn exactly how the professionals format their screenplays for film and television—from writing dialogue to avoiding the common errors of rookie writers.
All screenplays are formatted in a similar, standardized way. Whether you use specific software like Final Draft or just good old-fashioned Microsoft Word, make sure to include the basics:
Also known as scene headings, slug lines inform the reader where and when the action of a specific scene takes place. This allows the reader to fully picture your story and—when your script goes into production—the creative team to plan elements such as location, budget, and scheduling. Slug lines should be capitalized and aligned left. The three key things to signify in your slug line are:
- Whether the scene is an interior/indoor shot or an exterior/outdoor shot (INT. or EXT.)
- The location
- The time of day (usually DAY or NIGHT)
This is where you explain all of the action, subjects, and movements in the scene other than dialogue. When you introduce a major character for the first time, capitalize their name and add any descriptions that are absolutely necessary for the reader to understand who they are (age, demeanor, overall attitude, etc.). Note that you write action lines in the present tense.
Sometimes, your action will transition through sub-locations within the larger, overall location established in your slug line. Here, you’ll use a subhead, like so:
Whenever your character speaks, center and capitalize their name and write the dialogue beneath it.
Sparingly, you’ll use parentheticals to offer more specifics on your dialogue. Parentheticals can either indicate the emotion of a line or a small physical movement that happens in tandem with a line.
As you start out, be aware that you should only use parentheticals when they are absolutely necessary. Over-directing on the page can be the mark of an inexperienced writer. Be confident that the subtext of your dialogue is clear on its own and let your actors discover their own delivery.
For a specific screenplay font size, use 12-point Courier—it’s the industry standard due to each character and space being the exact same width.
The top margin of your screenplay should be one inch; the bottom and right margins can vary from there but by no more than a quarter inch. Your left margin should be about one-and-a-half inches, which leaves ample room for a hole punch once your script is printed. Most screenwriting software will have its own preset standardized templates, so you don’t have to worry about formatting columns yourself.
Scott Thompson, director of Boston University’s graduate screenwriting program, warns new writers not to manipulate the format to get more words on the page. “Don’t try to change the margins or the font. They’re all defaulted to be the industry standard,” he says.
“One of the most common things I see is if a student tries to squeeze in more [material], I’ll know immediately if they’ve changed the margins or the font,” Thompson continues. “People in the industry who read scripts know what they should look like. It just makes you look like a novice or like you’re trying to slide something by them.”
One page in a screenplay is roughly equivalent to one minute of screen time. A typical script for a feature-length film runs 90–120 pages, or one-and-a-half to two hours. Television scripts vary by genre. For example, a TV drama runs 45–60 pages, depending on commercial breaks or streaming network standards. A TV comedy, on the other hand, will be 22–30 pages. It’s important to always know the guidelines of your intended audience (or the people paying for your script).
“Sometimes in the industry, you get samples that are too short,” says screenwriter Brittani Nichols (“Abbott Elementary”). “It’s that thing of the time-honored knowledge of a minute per page. Since scripted network television shows have a run time of about 25 or 40 minutes, sometimes I’ll see scripts that are 22 or 23 pages, and that’s not long enough. It just feels like you don’t have enough story to tell, unfortunately.”
Nichols goes on to suggest writing a little over the page count of what you’re trying to submit. “Even if you’re writing something for a network, I would suggest leaning towards 30 pages. Because they’re not that long, and they will get cut down with editing and stuff afterward. Make sure you’re hitting all the beats of your story, and if you’re writing a comedy, make sure to pack in as many jokes as possible. Just having 22 pages is not really going to allow you to do that.”
Scene transitions indicate a specific kind of passage from one scene to another. The most common examples include: fade in, fade out, cut to, flashback, dissolve, or jump cut. In the days of old Hollywood, prior to the advent of modern editing technology, using scene transitions was a great way for the screenwriter to communicate their vision with the director and editor stylistically. In the modern age, more often than not you don’t need to include transitions between scenes, as it’s generally understood that one scene will flow naturally into the next.
If you do use a scene transition, make sure it’s because of a distinct stylistic or storytelling choice that will engage the reader. Don’t use “CUT TO” between all of your scenes because it’s redundant—we already know a new slug line means a cut—but maybe use a rare “SMASH CUT TO” for emphasis on a particularly jarring moment or image.
“Character filter is crucial to making good dialogue,” says Marvel scribe and showrunner Bisha K. Ali (“Ms. Marvel,” “Loki”). “Always ask yourself who is saying what things and why are they saying them the way they are saying them?”
After writing her dialogue, Ali does this self-check: “If you can cover up the name of your characters and read the dialogue and it all sounds the same, ask yourself, why do they sound the same? Are they twins? Then cool, in that case, it’s perfect,” she jokes. “But if they didn’t grow up in the same house and have the same lives, you have to ask yourself, what is it about your dialogue that isn’t showing they are differentiated from each other?”
After Ali outlines and begins her first draft, she likes to do what she refers to as “warmup couplets.” These are generally throw-away dialogue lines at the top of a scene that can help set the tone of a conversation between two characters. “The warmups help me recognize how I’m instinctively writing the characters or help me identify how I don’t need those lines in there,” Ali says. “It’s a sort of psychological trick that informs me about what my gut instincts are about this character. It challenges you to then go back and investigate what came naturally to you while writing.”
When you’re not writing, try and read as many scripts as you can from your favorite screenwriters to see how they convey dialogue and emotional beats on the page.
There are many ways to make mistakes in the pursuit of your craft, but these are the three major red flags that came up while speaking to our experts.
Don’t sweat your slug lines
There is a lot of online debate on whether they should be bolded or underlined or all capitalized. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t seem to matter, as long as they are listed properly on the script. “Just keep them simple and consistent,” Thompson says. “It’s not a big deal if you bold or underline them. You can find a screenplay with all three versions. It’s really about the content and it’s about not making these slug lines complicated.”
No matter how you format your scene headings, it’s important to launch right into your action. “The place people go wrong is that they say, ‘INT. KITCHEN - DAY,’ and then they start out their description saying, ‘We’re in the kitchen and it’s day,’ ” Thompson notes. “You’ve already established that in the line above. Don’t repeat the slug line in the description.”
Avoid typos at all costs
Professional script readers are incredibly busy and can look for the smallest reason to toss your script aside. Get a handle on common spelling errors such as “breaks” versus “brakes” or “lightning” versus “lightening.”
“There’s nothing that annoys someone more than typos, at least in my experience in talking to other writers and showrunners,” says Nichols. “Those just make you go like, ‘Come on, why are you wasting my time?’ This is not to be an elitist or even the grammar police, but if you didn’t put enough care into something that you’re sending out professionally [that’s not a good look].”
One of the most important things your screenplay can be is scannable. Typos can make a reader pause, and that can often be the difference between success and failure.
“That’s the last thing you want, is someone getting tripped up on something,” Nichols says. “You want your reads to be as easy as possible. You want someone to sit down, finish your script, and go, ‘Whoa, that only took 40 minutes—or however long you want it to feel like—it flew by. And when it’s little things like that, it really disrupts the rhythm of it.”
Find the creative process that works for you
While it’s good to set personal goals, allow yourself grace if certain well-known methods don’t work for you. The best environment for creativity is a balance of freedom and structure.
“I do not prescribe to the ‘write every day’ thing because I have ADHD and I don’t know what a routine is,” Ali says. “I used to be really obsessed with the idea that to be a real writer, I had to write every day.... Do it your way, of course, but if you’re not writing at all, and then the time comes to do it and you put the work in, that’s fine.”
A lot of the creative process happens away from your laptop, whether that means reading other scripts, watching similar films or TV shows, or just absorbing small details to use in your work.
“I’ll watch loads of movies over a long weekend and [jot down] references that I was thinking about for a scene,” Ali says. “You’ve got to let yourself be in the moment and try not to overregulate yourself. Let your body and your mind be in the process of absorbing and listening to what is tickling you.”
In the end, no matter your process, what matters is you keep trying.
“I’m messy as hell, I’m a messy person and I’m here doing my career,” Ali says. “You can be messy as hell and get really far if you’re persistent. Meeting those deadlines and being creative and having something to say is a bit more important than things like using the right software.”
Please note, Final Draft is a Backstage sister company.