Guide to Screenplay Formatting
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.
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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
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EXT. PHILADELPHIA - MORNING
Establishing shot: The Philadelphia skyline on a clear fall morning.xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxPROFESSOR (V.O.)
A film script is not a poem.
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?
Exactly! Even though you read a
book with your eyes, it's words,
you absorb it through your ears.
But, then, why is a film script
different from a stage play?
Perhaps you can tell us, Ms.
Gina Harrow, eyes closed. She doesn't respond.xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxPROFESSOR (CONT'D)
Ms. Harrow? Can you enlighten us?
xxxx(opens her eyes to slits)
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
So, a movie is more visceral?
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--
SMASH CUT TO:xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
EXT. STREET - DAYBOB 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.
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
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
Sorry, officer. Student emergency.
He races off. The cop raises his whistle to his lip, but
drops it and grins.
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
CRASH-- the door bangs open. It's Bob, badly winded. Everybody
Format. Bob Format. Sorry I'm
Only by an hour or so. Sit.
Bob sits. Close on:
Gina, wide awake now, amused. Bob catches her look, shrugs.
FADE OUTxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxTHE 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.
- Act Numbers
- Action, Breaking Up
- Agent Information
- Character Attributes
- Character Name
- Character Names-- Capitalization
- Character Descriptions
- Close On
- Continued (or CONT'D)
- Cut To:
- Date (on cover of script)
- Dialogue, Uncompleted or Interrupted
- Ending on a Visual
- Establishing Shot
- EXT (for Exterior)
- Fade In
- Fade Out
- INT (for Interior)
- Interrupted Dialogue
- Length, of Screenplay (pages)
- Length, of Pages (lines)
- Lines Per Page
- Numbering, Act
- Numbering, Page
- Numbering, Scene
- Page Length
- Scene Heading
- Sound Effects
- Time of Day
- White Space