Formatting Your Script – The Basics

I’ve been asked by some people how to properly format a script. Note that I mean the actual formatting, page layout, etc., as opposed to how to write or structure a script. No one I know is dumb enough to think I know how to write or structure a script.

All self-deprecation aside, formatting a script is important. It’s at least as important as just knowing how to spell and knowing proper grammar. No, screw that – it’s WAY more important. If I get a script by someone who occasionally mixes up “its” and “it’s,” I hardly notice. If I get a script from someone and it’s clearly been written in Word with no formatting, I just immediately write it off. It’s a gut reaction. It means the person who wrote the script didn’t think they had the time to get to absolute zero before trying to start their project.

(The spelling comment doesn’t apply to you bastards who mix up “there” “they’re” and “their,” though.  You fuckers are on your own in your own special little section of hell).

If you’ve got an amazing story idea but no one is digging it, you might be surprised to find out that they never even read your script because they saw how it was formatted. Or more accurately, how it WASN’T formatted properly.

SOFTWARE

Okay, so the easiest possible thing to tell people is: get software. Some people immediately say “I don’t want to shell out for Final Draft – can’t you just tell me how to format it in Word? I don’t mind the extra work.”

First of all, no one in the film industry should ever say “I don’t want to shell out for – ” because you are ALWAYS asking other people to shell out to make your film. If you’re trying to sell a script, that’s what you’re doing, by default.

But, I understand that not everyone can pay the $250 for Final Draft right now, but they still really want to get writing NOW. Well, you people don’t have an excuse either, because:

You know it's actually worth something because it's not spelled like the basketball team (Oooh, snap!)

If you don’t hear a choir of angels singing, there may be no hope for you.

So, for anyone who’s not familiar, that’s the logo for Celtx, my favorite script writing software EVER. Click on the picture to be taken to their website.

An awesome part, but by no means the best part of Celtx is that it’s FREE. That’s right, NO mulah! You can subscribe to “Celtx Studio” (basically Celtx’s cloud services) for $5 a month. If you can’t afford $5 a month, I would suggest sorting out the rest of your life before you try making it in the film industry. But even if you don’t want to pay that, you can get the writing software for free. Absolutely free.

For writing, there are no downsides to Celtx when compared to Final Draft. Final Draft has a number of peripheral abilities that make it (maybe) a better program overall. Also, there are a ton of other programs that are designed to integrate with Final Draft. These include storyboarding programs, pre-production and production programs, etc. These programs work only with Final Draft, not Celtx. So yes, in the long run, Final Draft is the industry standard, and for a reason. But if you are in the independent film world, or if you just want to WRITE, just get yourself Celtx.

Whichever of the two you select, they will take care of a number of the most basic formatting elements for you:

  • All your text needs to be in COURIER font – not Helvetica, NOT NOT NOT Times New Roman, COURIER
  • Scene Headings, action, character names and dialog is all formatted for you automatically (more on that to follow)
  • You don’t have to handle margins, indenting, any of that – the program takes care of it for you
  • The programs have the capability to number your scenes, number your pages, give page counts, and export to .pdf

All of these things are a pain in the ass in Word, and you will make errors. Those errors will block people from ever wanting to read your work again.

FORMAT

Okay, so the software takes care of most of your work for you. But this would be a pretty shitty post if I just said “get this software. Problem solved.” And not that I don’t turn out shitty posts often occasionally, but I’ll go on a little bit in order to make this not be one of them.

All of the data I’m about to give you is based on using Celtx, NOT Final Draft, because I’m part of the entitlement generation that refuses to pay $250 for a service I can get for free, no matter how many of my elders and betters tell me to get Final Draft. That, and I’m a married father of two, and I’d have to justify the expense to my Jewish wife.

When you open Celtx, your screen should look something like this:

Celtx Home Screen

The menus to the left and right are not important to us right now. If enough people want me to, I’ll cover them in a later post. Right in the middle is all you have to be concerned about.

The middle area is your writing area. That dark grey bar at the top is your first scene header. Scene headers are generally formatted as follows:

(INT./EXT.) (LOCATION) – (DAY/NIGHT/TIME)

The scene header is always in caps. INT./EXT. means Interior or Exterior. You always whether your scene takes place indoors or outdoors. This is somewhat important to producers because they want to see at a glance how much of the film can be shot in a studio or interior location and how much of it will need to be done at an external location (which is usually more expensive).

Very rarely you may run into a scene that can’t accurately be labeled either way – the scenes in The Matrix where Neo and Morpheus are standing in blank white space are an example. However, these are very rare cases.

LOCATION means a description of your location. “STEVE’S APARTMENT.” “BUSY LOS ANGELES STREET.” “OFFICE BUILDING.” Just a couple of words describing where the action is about to take place.

The last label is DAY/NIGHT/TIME. Day and night are self explanatory. You can also use the “time” space to say something like “TEN MINUTES LATER” or “SAME TIME” if you are flipping back and forth between different scenes that are actually happening concurrently.

So with that formatting, a few scene headers might be:

INT. COFFEE SHOP – DAY

EXT. FOOTBALL FIELD – NIGHT

EXT. AIRPORT RUNWAY – SAME TIME

This puts your reader in the right head-space as they move scene to scene. It shouldn’t be where you’re spending the majority of your writing time, but it is important for you.

Last point: Scene headers are always in all caps. Your software will take care of this for you.

Now, if we enter a scene header in our Celtx screen and hit “enter,” you’ll notice something:

Action

Celtx has automatically put you in “Action” mode, where anything you write will be formatted as the “action” of your scene. This is where you put: “We’re looking at an abandoned warehouse in the middle of the night. Centered on the warehouse floor in the pool of a single green spotlight is a man in his mid-twenties tied to a chair.” You know, ACTION. This is the description of what is happening in your scene.

Now, for the first scene of your film, you’ll probably want to start off with action. Then again, maybe not. Or in subsequent scenes, you may start right off with a character’s dialogue. In those cases, you will find a little pull-down menu in the top center of your Celtx window:

Format Bar

This is your format bar. At any time, you can click it and change your format to any of the standard formatting conventions in a script:

  • Scene Heading
  • Action
  • Character
  • Dialog
  • Parenthetical
  • Transition
  • Shot
  • Text

So, after you write the introductory action of the scene (e.g., “We’re in a bar. A cute twenty-something blonde woman walks in. Her name is SALLY.), you’d then click on that bar to change from “Action” to “Character”. Assuming Sally has the first line, you’d then type “SALLY”. (Note: Character names above dialog are always in caps. This is something else your software will take care of for you.) Hitting enter again, your software should automatically enter “Dialog” mode, allowing you to write whatever the first character says to start the scene.

By now you should have something that looks like this:

Example Opening

And there you go. These are the building blocks of any script: Scene, Character, Dialog, Scene, Character, Dialog.

There are other nuances. Probably the biggest one is parentheticals, when you’re describing the way in which the character delivers a line. For example:

Parenthetical

But if you’re been paying any attention at all, you know that all you have to do is select the pull-down menu and click “parenthetical”.

FRONT PAGE

The last thing I’ll go over is your front page (or “title page”). This is the first thing someone will see when they look at your script.

At the bottom of the Celtx window is a tab labeled “Title Page”. Click it, and you’ll see this:

Title Page

The page is self-explanatory. At the top is your screenplay title (IN CAPS). In the “Author” field you put your name (not necessarily in caps) or the authors’ names if there’s more than one. “Based on” is there in case your screenplay is based on a previous work, such as a book, an essay, etc. Word of advice: I’d only put something in that field if I had the rights to it. But the discussion about rights is one for another time.

One important field to fill out is the “copyright” field. Put your copyright symbol (©) and your name, with the year. Also, if you’ve registered your script with the WGA (Writer’s Guild of America), put that here. Registering is always a good idea, especially if you’re shopping your script out to studios and not just indie filmmakers you’re already connected with.

Finally, there’s contact info. The contact info here doesn’t necessarily have to be yours; it’s there for whoever the reader should be contacting. If you’ve got an agent, their contact info should probably go there (along with the name of the agency, just to clarify that, yes, you’re a repped writer, bitches).

So despite three paragraphs of explanation, you can see the page is self-explanatory. It’s dick simple.

SUMMARY

That’s the point, really. All of this stuff is almost too simple. That’s why, if you can’t even format your script properly, the majority of producers and readers will toss it in their dumpster the second it hits their desk. Actually that’s being generous – it probably won’t ever hit their desk in the first place, their army of mindless drones will deflect it long before it would get there.

There are more nuances to writing a script. There are a ton of them. We didn’t get into the other format types in the pull-down box. But these are the bare bones. I might cover more nuances in the future, but really the best thing you can do is buy some shooting scripts and read them to get the hang of what people do. Any big bookstore will have an entire section devoted to shooting scripts of popular movies. The two scripts I always recommend to people are The Matrix and the pilot episode of Lost. You can find them online. To me, these scripts are works of art – maybe it’s because I’ve seen and loved both the final products, but the scripts themselves have me on the edge of my seat, gripping me from the get go and never letting go until the end.

If you haven’t already, it behooves you to learn proper formatting. You’d never give your script to a director who didn’t know how to use eyelines, he wouldn’t let a DP shoot it who didn’t know how to compose a shot, and you wouldn’t want an editor cutting it if he didn’t know how to edit. Film is a world of professionals, and you owe it to the other professionals in your industry to hold up your end of the film.

Garrett Robinson

Over 100,000 readers have read and loved Garrett's books, like the fantasy hits Nightblade and Midrealm. He's also a film festival favorite with movies like Unsaid, and a tech guru who posts lots of helpful how-tos for writers and filmmakers over at garrettbrobinson.com.

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1 comments
SyRichardson
SyRichardson

My automated formatting section in my paid Celtx quit working. How do revive it?

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