Guide to Screenplay Formatting

(10/12/13)

By Ian Abrams, Director, Screenwriting & Playwriting Program, Drexel University

 

The rules of screenplay formatting are arbitrary and arcane, but if you want your work to look professional (and to be taken seriously by people who are looking for any excuse to reject you) you have to understand and follow them.

Here's a short screenplay, presented with links explaining the rules governing each of the dozens of elements that make up a professional film script.

A lot of these rules are purely mechanical, and there are screenwriting computer software programs that handle them automatically. One of the best is Movie Magic Screenwriter, which is required for all Dramatic Writing students at Drexel.

At the bottom of this page is an alphabetical list of the elements that make up a screenplay.

Please send me feedback on this page.

Title Page


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"FORMAT RULES!"

by

Anne Aspiring Screenwriter











 

Jan Agentxxx xxx x xxx x xxx x xxx x xxx x xxx x xxx x x
GREAT BIG AGENCYxx x xxx x xx x xxx x xx x xxx x xx x xxx x
1234 Wilshire Bl.xx x xxx x xx x xxx x xx x xxx x xx x xxx
Beverly Hills, CA 90212 xxxxx xxxxxxWGA Registry #1234567
(310) 555-1234 xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxJanuary 1, 2010


"FORMAT RULES"

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FADE IN:

EXT. PHILADELPHIA - MORNING

Establishing shot: The Philadelphia skyline on a clear fall morning.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxPROFESSOR (V.O.)
A film script is not a poem.

CUT TO:xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

INT. CLASSROOM - MORNING

A middle-aged PROFESSOR paces as he speaks.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxPROFESSOR
A film script is not a novel. A
film script isn't even a play. Why
not? What makes it different?

Reveal: the class. About a dozen students around a table.

Feature: STEFAN GILBERT, 19, a clean-cut eager beaver, and GINA
HARROW
. She's the same age, good looking and outdoorsy, half asleep.
Stefan raises his hand.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxx STEFAN
Because film is visual?

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxPROFESSOR
Exactly! Even though you read a
book with your eyes, it's words,
you absorb it through your ears.
xxxxxx(beat)
But, then, why is a film script
different from a stage play?
Perhaps you can tell us, Ms.
Harrow.

Close on:

Gina Harrow, eyes closed. She doesn't respond.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxPROFESSOR (CONT'D)
Ms. Harrow? Can you enlighten us?

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxGINA
xxxx(opens her eyes to slits)
Guts.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxPROFESSOR
"Guts?"

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xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxGINA
In a theater, you got space between
you an' the stage. In a movie, the
camera gets you so close it's like
you're right there. Somethin'
happens on screen, you feel it in
your guts before you think it in
your head.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxSTEFAN
So, a movie is more visceral?

xxxxxxxxxxxxxx GINA
Yeah, sure, whatever. The point
is, what you see's more important'n
what you hear. A new character
comes in, you gotta know all about
him before he opens his mouth.

The Professor nods as--

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EXT. STREET - DAY

BOB FORMAT races down a sidewalk, dodging pedestrians. He's 20, 
good looking but completely disheveled. He leaps over an open 
manhole just as--
      
A WORKMAN sticks his head up. WHAM!
      
      Bob goes flying, his backpack opens and books and papers scatter.
      
                              WORKMAN
           Schmuck!
      
                        BOB
           Sorry, sorry!
      
He scrambles to his feet, trying to jam his stuff into his 
backpack without taking it off. His cell phone RINGS-- "DAH DAH 
DAH DAAHHHH!"-- the opening notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. 
Bob flips it open and wedges it between his face and shoulder, 
still wrestling with his crap.
      
                        BOB (CONT'D)
           Hi, mom.
      
INT. MRS. FORMAT'S HOME / KITCHEN - CONTINUOUS
      
MRS. FORMAT, a matronly woman in her early 50s, applies icing to 
a large cake.
      
                        MRS. FORMAT
           Bob? I thought you'd be in class.
      
      Intercut.
      
      Bob races down the sidewalk.
      
                        BOB
           I am.
      
                        MRS. FORMAT
           It doesn't sound like it.
      
                        BOB
           We're on break!
      
                        MRS. FORMAT
           I wanted to leave a message-- don't 
           forget, it's Uncle Larry's going 
           away--
      
                        BOB
           Friday night! I know! I'll be 
           there! Gotta go!
      
He flips his phone shut.
      
Mrs. Format hangs up and looks down at the cake admiringly.
      
      CLOSE ON: The cake. Decorated with a sad little frosting face 
behind frosting bars, and the words "LARRY-- GOOD LUCK INSIDE!"
      
      EXT. STREET - CONTINUOUS
      
Bob stuffs the phone into a pocket, skids to a dead stop at a corner. 

BOB'S POV:

The traffic is jammed, bumper-to-bumper, in all four lanes. No
way to get through.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxx BOB
Great. Just great.

He takes a breath and--

--Jumps, onto the hood of a BMW. He scrambles from hood to hood,
ignoring the HONKING of furious drivers.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxBOB
Sorry, sorry!

He lands on the opposite sidewalk, directly in front of--

A COP. Not happy with what he's just seen. Bob doesn't miss a
beat. He pulls out his wallet, flashes a university ID.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxx BOB
xxxxxxx(crisp)
Sorry, officer. Student emergency.

He races off. The cop raises his whistle to his lip, but
drops it and grins.

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INT. CLASSROOM - MORNING

As before.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxx PROFESSOR
Some people consider the pre-1927
silent films the truest form of
cinema. I wouldn't go that far,
but there's a lot to be learned
from--

CRASH-- the door bangs open. It's Bob, badly winded. Everybody
stares.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxx BOB
xxxxxxx(gasps)
Format. Bob Format. Sorry I'm
late.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxx PROFESSOR
Only by an hour or so. Sit.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxx BOB
I--

xxxxxxxxxxxxxx PROFESSOR
Sit.

Bob sits. Close on:

Gina, wide awake now, amused. Bob catches her look, shrugs.

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THE END

The Elements of a Screenplay

Clicking on an item in this list will put a demonstration of how that element is properly used in a screenplay at the top line of your screen; clicking on that element will give you a definition in the bottom window.