How To Format A Screenplay: Learning The Screenwriting Formula

Screenplay template

Writing a screenplay is no easy feat, yet transferring your story and characters into a professional screenplay format can be very rewarding. If done correctly, this is where you can truly make every aspect of your story come alive.

Unlike your story, the screenplay is visual, and detailing your characters’ actions help to advance your story scene by scene. These actions are key for the audience because they provide the audience with the information that they need to know in order to follow along. The dialogue that you write for the characters takes on the supporting role, supporting the characters’ actions. Speaking the details and actually seeing the character do the actions can be transformative in the viewers’ mind.

Each scene that you write for screenplay needs to be detailed. The scene is divided into multiple categories to cover these details. Elements to be considered include who (who’s there, which characters are involved in the scene), what (what is the situation that is taking place), when (time & day the situation is taking place), where (where this is all happening) and why (what’s the point of the scene?).

Writing a Scene Heading

Another main element to writing a screenplay is devising the scene headings. When your character moves to a different setting, you will need to create a new scene heading and answer all of the same questions above. Scene heading elements are placed in a specific order. Generally, the scene location is first followed by the time of day.

An example of this would be a scene set inside a critical care unit at night. The heading would be written:

INT. CRITICAL CARE UNIT – NIGHT

Notice the use of abbreviations and all words capitalized.

A Breakdown of Industry Norms

An example of screenplay formatting using Microsoft Word

Interior is abbreviated as INT., exterior is shortened to EXT., and a small hyphen separates the location of the scene from when the scene takes place. Generally, there will be a two-line space that separates the heading from the scene’s description — the what.

In the scene description, write the names of the characters involved in the scene using all capital letters. When the names are repeated in the dialogue heading, the names are once again always capitalized. However, if there is someone in the scene without dialogue, his or her name is not capitalized.

For example:

JUDY sits in a wheelchair with her leg raised. Her head is back and she stares aimlessly at the exit sign above her.

Someone who is in the scene, but does not have dialogue would be written as follows:

The man coughs as he falls down in the middle of the room.

Sounds that are auditory to the audience are capitalized such as WHISTLE. If the character is making the noise, the sound does not necessarily need to be capitalized.

An important formatting rule is that dialogue is always centered under the character’s name. The character’s name is capitalized when it is used as the dialogue’s heading. For example:

NURSE

I’m sorry…

Any sort of character description is written under the name in parentheses as such:

NURSE

(frantically)

What do I do?

Here is an example of a complete scene in the screenplay format:

INT. CRITICAL CARE UNIT – NIGHT

A desolate critical care unit. Dingy and hopeless.

Unoccupied seats except for two are lined up in rows. A broken TV mounted in the corner near the ceiling BUZZES with fuzzy, flickering images.

A man coughs as he falls down in the middle of the room.

JUDY sits in a wheelchair with her leg raised. Her head is tipped back and she stares aimlessly at the exit sign above her.

She sharply lowers her head and whips it around to see the man collapse. With fear in her eyes, she looks around for a nurse unaware of this man’s dire situation.

The critical care unit doors open and a newly trained nurse rushes out to help the man.

NURSE

(frantically)

What do I do?

JUDY

(frightened)

What do you mean? You’re the nurse, help him!

NURSE

I’m sorry

JUDY

(yelling)

Help him!

As a screenwriter, there are many valuable tools available to you from books, articles and computer software which help to clearly format your screenplay. Researching screenplay formatting will give you a working knowledge of what is to be expected in professional circles.

Click here to learn how to master the craft of formatting a screenplay in New York Film Academy’s BFA degree program in Screenwriting.

How To Format A Screenplay: Learning The Screenwriting Formula by

Comments

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11 thoughts on “How To Format A Screenplay: Learning The Screenwriting Formula

  1. Thank you so much, this was very helpful. I’m hoping to write a screenplay for a horror film. Much obliged to have read this info.

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