Friday, 5 December 2008


At last! As promised - FORMAT! The downfall of many a budding screenwriter.

I love it. Screenplay format is great. It's what turns a screenplay into poetry (yes, really). Crack the format, and you're a screenwriter. Learn how to master the format and your scripts will be crisp, clean and tight.

And you know what - it's bloody easy. Nothing to it.

Actually, I'm misleading you a bit, here. It is easy, but only when you figure out that it's not really about how the words are arranged on the page. It's about how the thoughts are arranged in your head.

Screenplay format is a way of thinking.

When I started out, there weren't any books about screenwriting (or if there were, nobody told me where to find them). No: the massive global industry of self-help screenwriting tutelage exploded in the 90s - strangely, at about the same time that executives started distancing themselves from writers and became REMOTE and UNREACHABLE.

So how did I get to learn format? Well, there was a book called The Writers and Artists Yearbook (all good retailers), and back then it had a page - ONE page - of standard screenplay format for you to copy.

That's how I started learning format. You can bin all those books that tell you how to do it because they'll just mess with your head. Most books on screenwriting make the whole process far too complicated. And Robert McKee is a charlatan. He knows nothing.

(There - I've said it; tee-hee-hee).

Format is about three things. Because the script contains three kinds of information.

1): The Scene Heading (where we are, what time of day)
2): Action/Scene description (what's happening - what we see)
3): Dialogue (what is said)

That's all. Nothing else. Don't worry about all those 'CONTINUED:' or 'CONT'D:' or 'CUT TO:'s because they're irrelevant. Just remember to use Courier New 12-point, black ink, white paper (A4) and to write on just one side of the page.

Oh, and if you submit a handwritten screenplay you will be taken out and shot by the Writers Guild, and rightly so.

So - three different kinds of information. And, to make things nice and clear, each one is laid out in a slightly different way.

1) SCENE HEADING. Always in capitals. Don't bother numbering your scenes - somebody else can do that.

Generally, a scene heading will start with INT or EXT, then a dash or full-stop, then a quick name for the LOCATION (which will be the same every time you return to that same place), then another dash, then some idea of the lighting conditions (DAY or NIGHT).

That's the scene heading:


Couldn't be simpler.

Now double space.

2) Action / Scene Description. This stuff is not in capitals and should be written in short, single-spaced paragraphs, preferably of no more than four lines each.

It should be justified to the left-hand margin. Do not justify to the right (that's sound political sense as well).

Please do describe what we are seeing. So many writers introduce a CHARACTER (capital letters) without telling us anything about them. Please think about your poor reader and throw 'em a bone, yeah? They need to visualise what you're writing about.

All action should be written in.

Double-space between paragraphs of action or scene description.

In fact, rule of thumb: every time you switch from one kind of information (say, action) to another (say, dialogue), double-space.

Scripts like it when you double-space. It gives them room to breathe and makes the page look nice and uncluttered.

So, you've written a paragraph or two of action. Then you

Double-space ...

3) Dialogue. Boy, does this cause problems.

The name of the person who is speaking is written in CAPITALS roughly in the centre of the page. Do not 'centre', though - use the tab key. The same number of tabs each time (I find, on my Word default setting, five tabs does fine).


If you need to explain how the CHARACTER is saying something (parenthesis), put it in brackets on the line below the CHARACTER's name. Better still, don't. Actors think they know how to speak lines and don't like being told what to do - not by a writer, at any rate (secretly, actors hate writers, because we're clever and, generally speaking, they're not).

If you must use (parentheses) then use to them indicate the CHARACTER's emotional state. Don't put actions in here - they count as action.


Dialogue is single-spaced, written normally (lower and upper case type as appropriate - you know all this) and occupies a column in the centre of the page.

Do not 'centre'. Use the tabs. Five tabs for the CHARACTER name. Four for (parenthesis), which you don't really need. Three for the dialogue.

Keep it neat and for God's sake don't let it sprawl right across the page. Nothing looks less professional than dialogue that doesn't know it's place. Down the centre of the page, please, in a nice, neat column.

Double-space between snatches of dialogue. Double-space between dialogue and action.

If you wish, you can write FADE IN: at the top of your script (left margin, then double-space). But it's not obligatory.

Don't write TITLES in your script.

And that's about it.

It's so simple, and yet so often it goes wrong. Writers try to cheat. They put too many words on the page (fatal mistake). They forget to change scene when a CHARACTER goes from one space to another. Their dialogue wanders all over the page. Everything's too cramped and messy.

If your format is chaotic, then your thoughts are too. Which means you haven't got a screenplay - you've got a mess.

Training yourself to write good, clean, clear format will teach you how to write a screenplay.

It's all about WHERE WE ARE, What we see, and WHO says what.

Keep it to that, keep the three things separate, make your page look nice and neat, and you can't go wrong.

(COMING SOON: Rocket Science - a piece of piss.)

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