Screenwriting: Self-Guide

Screenwriting: Self-Guide

Stephen J Browne

Introduction: For the record, I've written up this document mainly for my education. Ever since r/Screenwriting rightfully ripped me a new one when I posted my Second Draft of my Final Major Project I made it a priority to improve my formatting for my future screenplays to be as corrected as they can be. 

Most Formatting notes below can be automatically formatted by most screenwriting software. It's not a requirement to know all of it, I just wrote it down for good measure.

Screenwriting Software and other Resources: https://www.reddit.com/r/Screenwriting/wiki/meta/resources

Software Recommendation: FADE IN Professional Writing Software is my go-to writing software, it’s been used among successful creatives like Rian Johnson (Knives Out, The Last Jedi) and Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) to name a couple. 

It’s simple and easy to use, it does formatting automatically which helps massively in keeping you in the rhythm of writing. The selection of options gives you everything you need and more, and they have an excellent support team that will not only help you but will also take feedback to improve their product. Damn I wish I was sponsored by them. 

There's a free version that gives you reminders when you go past ten pages and watermarks the top left half of all pages when exported. For students, they offer FADE IN for $49.95/£35.27, give it a try and if you love it like I do this is definitely something to consider. 

Text/Font: Courier, 12 Font 

Courier fonts are the professional standard for screenplays. Courier or Courier Prime are the most recommended, Courier New is acceptable however it has been accused of increasing page counts depending on the software you use. Overall any Courier font should be fine.

Script Margins: 

Margins can depend on your region, however the standard margin stated by screenwriting.io suggests:

Page Margins:

Left Margin: 1.5 Inch 

Right Margin: 1 Inch 

Top Margin: 1 Inch 

Bottom Margin: 1(0.5 – 1.5) Inch 

Dialogue Margin: 1.5 Inch against set Left and Right Margin. 

Page Count Margin: Top right corner of the page, 0.5inch from the right margin. 

Title Page(s) should not be numbered as they don’t count as the first page.

Slug Line and Action Margin: 1.5 Inch Left Margin 

Basic Elements:

Starting/Ending: Most scripts start with FADE IN to begin and FADE OUT to end, however this is not a requirement. 

MUSIC IN: Some scripts start with music like the beginning of Raging Bull

OVER BLACK; Text/Title against a black screen.  

  

Scene Heading/Slug Lines: Scene Heading or alternatively called Slug Lines specify three things in order. 

  1. Inside (INT.) or Outside (EXT.)

  2. The exact location of the scene (WAREHOUSE, SCHOOL etc.) 

  3. Time of Day (MORNING, AFTERNOON, EVENING, NIGHT)

 

Slug lines must be in CAPITALS and must have a Hyphen (-) between the location and time for the day. 

Example by April Rider’s “FOR A FEW DAYS MORE”: 

EXT. TEXAS CAPITOL BUILDING – DAY

TIME Note: Sometimes specifying the time of the day is not always necessary. The Matrix Screenplay doesn’t specify what time of day for half of its slug lines, either because the time of day is deemed unnecessary or a scene doesn't even have a time of day.  

Action: The brief description of a scene. The job of an action is to introduce anything relevant such as characters and describing visuals on the screen. Using great Descriptive Language will aid the effect of your action(s) for anyone reading it. 

Characters: Actions must have character names capitalized when first introduced in a scene (Introduced Visually).

Character’s names must always be capitalized above Dialogue. 

If your character is talking off-screen then an (O.S.) would be needed next to the name. If the character is doing a narration/Voiceover then write (V.O.). 

(O.S.): Off-Screen

(V.O.): Voice-Over

Parentheticals: Bracketed small description of character actions or emotions during Dialogue Delivery. Written in between the CHARACTER NAME and DIALOGUE. 

It’s important to use parentheticals sparingly and use them when necessary.  

Examples: 

Dialogue: The words coming out of your characters’ mouths, simple right? It’s important to write dialogue in an interesting and exciting way, and stick true to the theme of your screenplay. If you're looking to improve your dialogue then look no further than Quentin Tarantino.

Here are some links to some great videos/Resources that look into Dialogue, especially Tarantino. 

The Closer Look (2015) How To Write Great Dialogue. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hEgsIV98ZmU&t=3s [Accessed 01 June 2021] 

Now You See It (2016) Dialogue in Film: How Should Characters Talk?. Available at: https://youtu.be/WpK5dXw0WzI [Accessed 01 June 2021] 

Tarantino, Q. (1990) Reservoir Dogs.96. Available at: https://www.scriptslug.com/assets/uploads/scripts/reservoir-dogs-1992.pdf [Accessed 01 June 2021] 

Transitions: The creative passage from one scene to another. There are many types of transitions that we’ll go over. 

It’s important to note that you must use Transitions only when necessary, by that I mean for an intentional creative reason. 

COMMON TRANSITIONS: 

CUT TO: The most common one, simply just cutting from one scene to another. 

Notes: In Old Hollywood Scripts this is used every time a scene ends, however nowadays that is considered bad practice and pointless as the reader already knows that the scene cuts from the slug line. It’s rarely used but some writers may use it to show an extreme change from one scene to another, like a shock in effect. 

JUMP CUT TO: Used to show a jump in time between shots at a fast pace. Can be used to show adrenaline within a character at a certain scene. 

MATCH CUT TO: When two shots are matched visually, this transition can be used for a number of creative reasons. It can be used to show a change of character or feeling within something/someone.  

SMASH CUT TO: A Transition used to give a fast unpredictable change between shots, such as showing severe change or a jumpscare. This is a transition that should be unexpected to the audience and should give a severe change in tone. 

WIPE TO: A transition that whips from one scene on top to the next, whether that would be from left to right or right to left. Star Wars uses this transition a lot and is infamously known for it. 

TIME CUT: A transition that shows a change in time, whether that would be showing a character progressing through time or showing a location progressing in time with different people. 

RARER TRANSITIONS:

FADE IN/FADE OUT/FADE TO: Simply what the names say, these are rarely used in modern screenplays and other transitions render these obsolete. However it can be used if you feel like it’s needed, other transitions like DISSOLVE TO: can be used instead.  

DISSOLVE TO: When the end of a scene fades out whilst going into the next, this is one of the more difficult ones to achieve and was quite common but in pre-2000s films.

 

Page Count Rule of Thumb: One Page results in One Minute of Film, with PROPER formatting. 

In the eyes of Studio Executives if your screenplay is longer than 120 pages then you’ve either got some trimming to do or you need to really justify the length as necessary.

Overdoing it: If you're writing a 1hr 40min movie and it comes out as 150 pages, this is most likely due to descriptions that are too long or because of an overly florid writing style. you probably need to trim down the descriptions to something simpler and more on the point. 

It’s also important to acknowledge that websites like the Black List don't review scripts that are longer than 175 pages. 

Directing and Writing: When you're directing/producing your own screenplay, you’re more open to adding additional notes or descriptions to your script. Generally, you're more open to breaking the rules. 

When Quentin Tarantino was writing Kill Bill, he carefully described each action one-by-one in his script as he imagined it. This may be to aid him in Production for when he comes to film those scenes, or he may just be really nerding out and no one has the balls to say no to him. 

The general rule of thumb is that there are 3-4 lines per action. Whilst it’s highly recommended to follow this rule by most screenwriters, this is something that I thought would be nice to acknowledge and if you truly believe that this would aid your production then I don’t see why you shouldn’t.

The Script for ‘A Quiet Place’ inserts different fonts and even images to demonstrate the visuals and certain details. Something that’s heavily stigmatized among Screenwriters however the use is justified and obviously made it through executives.  

Scene Direction: Screenplays must be written in the current tense, this will provide clearer direction as well as avoid any confusion for actors. 

There are no general rules to writing scenes, but if you're writing an exciting scene make sure it is exciting to read. Use condense descriptive language to make your actions more snapper and fun to read. 

Grammar: If you want anyone to take your screenplay seriously, grammar is key. Grammar mistakes can draw the reader out of your screenplay so it’s important to use tools such as Grammarly to your advantage. 

Proofread it by yourself, or even better you can give it to a friend or a higher-up to proofread it for you. Having an outsider with a fresh perspective will always be better and they will almost definitely find more errors than you can. 

 

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