Correct Screen­play Format­ting

Why is it important?

Presenting work that has a profes­sional appear­ance is crucial. In the rabidly compet­itive world of film-making, a poorly or slop­pily presented script can be rejected out of hand simply on appear­ance. Readers may assume, with some justi­fic­a­tion, that if you can’t be bothered to master screen­writing conven­tions, you’re not worth the invest­ment of time required to give your script proper consideration.

And invest­ment is the key word here. Film­making is an expensive busi­ness and money people tend to be deeply conser­vative. If you put on a tie to ask your bank manager for a loan, think how much more of a commit­ment is needed to finance even the most modest project. Unless you have a proven track record, you ignore conven­tion at your peril.

typewriterMost scriptwriting conven­tions, it’s true, hark back to the days when writers bashed out their work on battered Reming­tons and certain rules may strike you as outdated. Why, for example, is it considered neces­sary to use a mono­spaced type face like Courier or Prestige Elite when most of us now work on computers?

The answer lies in the fact that these conven­tions have evolved with the history of the film industry into a shared and estab­lished “language” (in the case above: use of the right typeface ensures each page equals a minute of screen-time.) A script in produc­tion draws on the consid­er­able exper­i­ence of profes­sionals who are part of that history. You need to commu­nicate with them in terms they understand.


The best way to learn these is to get a copy of a profes­sional film script. Reading a few will quickly show you that the rules aren’t completely rigid; writers will bend them when they need to. Never­the­less, there is an accepted “industry standard” which the novice would be wise to master.

Here is a condensed descrip­tion of correct Screen­play Format adapted from Michael Hauge’s book “Writing Screen­plays That Sell” (Elm Tree Books):

Outer Margins should be indented 1 inch from the Right, and 1 & half inches from the Left Edge of the Paper.
Text begins 1″ from Top of Page, ends 1″ from Bottom.
Page Number is placed a half inch from the Top, 1″ from Right.
Scene Heading : ALL CAPS; starts at Left Margin. Double Spacing between Scene Heading and Action/Description.
Action/Description format goes to the Outer Margins. Single or Double spaced between para­graphs; Double spacing between Action/Description and a Char­acter Name.
Dialogue : indented 3″ from Left, 2″ from Right. Double spacing between Dialogue and the next Char­acter Name.
Char­acter Names : ALL CAPS; indented 4″ from Left. Single space between a Character’s Name and following Dialogue.
Brack­eted Acting Direc­tions are centred under the Character’s Name. Single spaced before and after.

If you find this daunt­ingly complex, you needn’t become depressed or anxious about it. The good news is that, if you own or work on a computer, you can largely auto­mate most of this format­ting. You may not even need to think about it at all!

Stylesheets – the (almost) pain­less solution

The key to auto­mated screen­play format­ting is the stylesheet. There is a facility built into most word processing soft­ware that allows you to save a partic­ular bit of format­ting and then apply the same format­ting to another piece of text.

This saved ‘record’ is called a style. A style can include all kinds of instruc­tions: what type to use, what size, whether it is CAPITALS or lower case, how far it is indented, line spacing etc; all the inform­a­tion needed to format your script. You can also set up one style to auto­mat­ic­ally follow another – for example, a dialogue style after a char­acter name style.

A default Microsoft Word docu­ment already includes a number of default styles that are embedded (see graphic) called ‘Heading 1’, ‘Heading 2’, ‘Heading 3’ etcetera. It is easy to add to them.

Simply format some text the way you want it to look, select it and then go to the Format Menu and choose Style as an option. Then give your style a name and save it.

To use your style, select a piece of text and then apply it from the Style Menu. The text should take on the char­ac­ter­istics that you saved. Styles are very versatile. If you make a mistake, it is easy to tweak the style after the event. You can even base one style on another.

Three ways to use stylesheets

Method One – the D.I.Y approach

Open a new docu­ment in your favourite word processing program and, refer­ring to the specific­a­tions above, create a docu­ment with the right margins and page settings.

Next type in a short script specimen, employing examples of each format (Scene Heading, Action/Description, Char­acter Name, Dialogue, Paren­theses, Trans­ition). You need only do this once so make sure it is correct.

Save each of these as a style with an iden­ti­fi­able name and then delete the examples and save the whole docu­ment as a template. Now each time you want to write a new script, you simply open your template, type some­thing and apply the right style to it. (With some programs, ie. Microsoft Word, you can speed up the process even further by creating custom keyboard short­cuts – read the manual to find out how)

Method Two – borrow some­body else’s

If you don’t want to go to the trouble of creating your own stylesheet, simply steal some­body else’s. You’ll find this easier if you use a well known program like MS Word.

Go to the links page on this site and visit one of the free film script web sites out there. Down­load a script in Word format, delete the content and save it is a template. Be sure to check before­hand that the format­ting is correct.
 Altern­at­ively you can down­load a stylesheet I have created for Microsoft Word here. Right or Control-Click and choose “Save target as” 

Method Three – invest in profes­sional software

There are several propri­etary soft­ware programs out there that are marketed to help scriptwriters. Most of them are glor­i­fied stylesheet programs with ‘bells and whistles’ added on. Some of the cheaper ones are just add-ons for well-known word processing programs so be careful to check what you’re paying for.

One industry standard at the moment is an Amer­ican program called Final Draft which includes templates and stylesheets that cover every require­ment. It features many auto­matic timesaving func­tions and has many clever facil­ities built into it — but all this comes at a price. If you can afford it, this is a worth­while invest­ment (espe­cially if you’re a hard­working and prolific profes­sional) but it’s by no means essen­tial to achieving good results.

© David Clough 1992

  • Fatim Brugiere:

    David — Thank you so much for this amazing and valu­able website. A million thanks. Kind regards. Fatim

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