top of page

Screenwriting 101: How to Write and Format a Screenplay


Nearly all films are based on a screenplay, yet very few people actually read them, and fewer know how they work. As one of the most in-demand art forms today, screenplays are oddly misunderstood as no one outside of film production reads them. They are not exactly literature, as it belongs to cinematography, but not considered a film either as it has no images; the screenplay finds itself lost between art forms. Its place within art has always been bumpy, especially today as countless screenwriting manuals have been published, each of them claiming different ways to write for screens. Being one of the most popular forms of media, cinema attracts many artists eager to break into the industry, screenwriters included. The objective of this Screenwriting 101 series is to remove the veil from the elusive art of screenwriting, revealing once and for all the true nature of a screenplay.

Screenwriting 101 is divided into six:

  1. Screenwriting 101: The History of Screenwriting

  2. Screenwriting 101: How to Write and Format a Screenplay

  3. Screenwriting 101: Three-Act Structure I - Origins

  4. Screenwriting 101: Three-Act Structure II - Basics

  5. Screenwriting 101: Three-Act Structure III - Rigidity

  6. Screenwriting 101: Three-Act Structure IV - Failure

Screenwriting 101: How to Write and Format a Screenplay

Screenplays owe their meteoric rise in popularity to screenwriting manuals published in the 1970s (Price, 2013, p. 16). Prior to the change, no clear format existed as studios each had their own way of writing (Price, 2013, p. 144). Today, the default script format is the spec script (Trottier, 2014, p. 170). The spec script uses the master scene style which “includes only those angles absolutely necessary to the telling of the story and no more” (McKee, 1997, pp. 383–384). Despite its fairly recent standardization, the screenplay format is still unknown to most people: “Everybody, it seems, has his/her own conception about what is, and what is not, screenplay form” (Field, 2005, p. 217). Sometimes it is a shooting script or an earlier draft. Thus, an understanding of exactly how to wield the modern screenplay format becomes quite tricky. The “most bizarre of writing forms” (Akers, 2008, p. 111) is actually quite simple; composed of only three main components: scene headings, descriptions and dialogues (Trottier, 2014, p. 183). In essence, a script is simply a text made for images (Field, 2005, p. 107).

Before learning about the screenplay format, understanding the reasons behind the selection of the spec script as the default option is crucial to using it appropriately. Before being made, screenplays need to sell. Therefore, the purpose of a spec script is that it is written in speculation of a sale (Trottier, 2014, p. 1). According to David Trottier (2014), a successful screenwriter and script consultant, screenwriters must write for the reader:

The main person you are writing for is the reader or story analyst. After all, when an agent or producer receives your script, she hands it off to a reader. The reader recommends it or not. If he doesn’t recommend it, then the agent or producer never reads it. Thus, it is essential to understand that you are writing for a reader. (p. 168)

William M. Akers (2008), a screenwriting professor at Belmont University, adds that scripts should be written for actors as they are the stars of the movie and they are the ones who attract an audience (p. 55). Before reaching an actor, a script first goes through a reader, a development executive, and a producer. Therefore, the spec script was chosen for its marketing potential. For personal purposes, anyone can use any kind of script format, but it will not work if they try to sell. The spec script ranges from “about 90 to 120 pages” and is written in 12-point Courier or Courier New font (Trottier, 2014, pp. 185-186). The page length reflects the film’s runtime as “one page of script equals one minute of screen time” (Thompson, 1999, p. 367). It is important to note that this theory is not absolute and seems to apply only when the director respects it (Thompson, 1999, p. 367). Regardless of whether it is correct or not, industry readers expect feature film scripts to be between 90 and 120 pages, approximately corresponding to 90 and 120 minutes. As for the font, writers used Pica as it was widely available on typewriters and each character had an equal width (Trottier, 2014, p. 188). The arrival of computers caused a shift to the 12-point Courier for the same reasons: wide availability and constant character width (Price, 2013, p. 202). Figure 1 below, shows that screenplays written on typewriters look like modern screenplays due to the similarity in fonts and general format.

Figure 1: Still from "The Shining" (1980).

Since film is an inherently visual medium, so is screenwriting: “[film] is primarily a visual medium that requires visual writing” (Trottier, 2014, p. 2). To write a screenplay, one must write visually. Akers (2008) explains that readers create images in their minds based on what is described and the order in which it is written (p. 141). Screenplays are meant to be transformed into image format for film. Logically, any reader should visualize a movie in their head when reading a script; this is what writers should strive to do. Aspiring screenwriters should not undermine this concept as it is one of the few key elements that nearly all screenplay manuals agree on: a screenplay is told in pictures (Akers, 2008, p. 141; Cole & Haag, 1980, p. ii; Field, 2005, p. 107; King, 1988, p. 17; McKee, 1997, p. 381; Snyder, 2005, p. 147; Trottier, 2014, p. 2). Visual writing is far a complex concept. Nonetheless, the concept must be invoked as the format hinges on creating images; creating mental images by writing in pictures is an essential background to screenplay formatting.

First, screenplays require scene headings. Also called slug lines, scene headings indicate the camera location, scene location, and time of day (Trottier, 2014, p. 194). For example, a scene heading may look like: INT. HOUSE - DAY. The first component tells the reader if the scene takes place inside or outside: INT. or EXT. (short for interior and exterior). Sometimes, a scene may use both indications at once as explained by Trottier (2014): “Sometimes a scene begins outside, but quickly moves inside (or vice versa). In such cases, the following camera location notation is permissible: INT./EXT. CAR - DAY” (p. 94). Although rare, the INT./EXT. notation can be used in cases where a new scene heading would interrupt the flow of the scene. Scene headings are always written in capitals (Cole and Haag, 1980, p. 26). The second component is the scene location. In the previous example, this is HOUSE. It is generally preferable to include a precise location, like BEDROOM instead of HOUSE, but that varies based on the story’s needs. Two location indicators may be used when it is necessary to know the general location. For instance, EXT. 99TH PRECINCT - BROOKLYN - MORNING (figure 2). This scene heading suggests an establishing shot as the location is the 99th police precinct in Brooklyn. The following scene uses the same idea INT. 99TH PRECINCT - BRIEFING ROOM. Once the general location is clearly established (99th precinct), it can be omitted, INT. BRIEFING ROOM - LATER (figure 3). Both the 99TH PRECINCT and BROOKLYN notations were removed once they were clearly established.

Figure 2: Excerpt from the "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" script, p. 4.

Figure 3: Excerpt from the "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" script, p. 26.

The final component in the scene heading is the time of day. Convention asks to privilege DAY or NIGHT over other periods. For example, “most often this will be DAY or NIGHT. Avoid terms like DUSK, DAWN, LATE AFTERNOON, EARLY EVENING, HIGH NOON, GLOAMING, or the time on the clock” (Trottier, 2014, p. 194). Precise times should be avoided because directors will have a limited time window to shoot the scene; most movies are shot in DAY or NIGHT settings (Trottier, 2014, p. 195). When the time of day remains the same from one scene to the next, writers use the term SAME or omit the time altogether as shown in figure 2 (Trottier, 2014, p. 195). When a scene takes place after a certain amount of time, but stays at the same time of day, LATER is used, such as in figure 3 (Trottier, 2014, p. 195). If an action continues from one scene to the next without any time interruptions, CONTINUOUS is used. If there is a short time gap between two scenes, a writer may use MOMENTS LATER as in EXT. GAS STATION - MOMENTS LATER. A fourth and final component may be added to the scene heading if necessary: “Sometimes additional clarifying information is appropriate in a scene heading. This information might indicate the year (1812), the time of year (winter), or the time of day (5:45 A.M.)” (Cole & Haag, 1980, p. 33). Here is how that would look: EXT. NEW YORK - DAY (1985) or EXT. NEW YORK - DAY - 1985. This information should only be added if the year is crucial to the story. A movie featuring time travel, for instance, may need to include the year.

Figure 4: Excerpt from "Gravity" (2012), p. 19.

Second, once a scene heading is written, descriptions follow. It is imperative to avoid going straight into dialogue; a writer must include a description line before a character speaks. Akers (2008) says, “I call a slugline with no scene description a ‘naked slugline’ – and you shouldn’t do it […]. Always include scene description - it tells us what’s going on” (p. 124). Scene headings (sluglines) situate the scene, but do not provide any context for it. Without a description after the heading, it becomes difficult to create a mental picture of the scene. Unlike stage plays, description lines are not stage directions. Again, the screenplay is meant for a reader which means it is a visual narrative and not directions. To fit this scope, descriptions should stay short and friendly to the eye. “Limit your paragraphs to a maximum of four lines (not four sentences), although I would strive for paragraphs of one or two lines” (Trottier, 2014, p. 214). This may seem like a harsh recommendation, but it holds true for most description paragraphs in produced screenplays. Once more, screenplays are a visual medium, so long literary descriptions from novels have no place in this context. David Trottier (2014), a screenwriter and consultant, cites an example from the script Rocky (1976), “The gym looks like a garbage can turned inside out. The ring is small enough to ensure constant battle” (Stallone, 1976, as cited in Trottier, 2014, p. 217). The description is short and visual, instead of lengthy and wordy:

The gym is littered with good wrappers, leftover hot dogs and tacos, gym clothes, and other debris. It looks like no one has cleaned it in over a month. It is truly a mess. There is a push broom in the far corner. The boxing ring is smaller than normal size, with two wooden stools outside the ring at opposite corners. (Stallone, 1976, as cited in Trottier, 2014, pp. 216–217)

While both versions provide a mental picture, the shortest one is better because it provides the same image in a more efficient manner and cuts out redundancies. The longer version adds pointless indications such as “[t]here is a push broom in the corner” and “with two wooden stools outside the ring” (Stallone, 1976, as cited in Trottier, 2014, p. 217). The presence or absence of a push broom and stools contributes nothing to the scene unless these items are used for an important event in the story, which they are not. All the reader needs to know is that it is a crummy gym. Akers (2008) echoes the idea, claiming a maximum of five lines for descriptions for the same reasons (p. 145).

However, scenes often need longer descriptions, especially in the case of action films (figure 5). If no dialogue is spoken to interrupt a description sequence, then it must be broken up based on the images or ideas it relays (Trottier, 2014, p. 214). To enhance the readability of the script and to make it friendlier to the eye, empty spaces are necessary: “The more ‘white space’ you can have on the page, the better it looks” (Field, 2005, p. 221). Thus, breaking up long description sequences into individual paragraphs helps the reader follow the scene and imagine the movie (figure 5). In summary, descriptions must be short and visual. It might seem simple at first glance, but mastering the art of visual writing requires a great deal of practice. What can be learned fairly easily is the technical aspects of scene descriptions.

Figure 5: Excerpt from the "Aliens" (1985) script, p. 102.

Many technicalities need to be learned in order to respect the standard screenplay format. Perhaps the simplest rule is to “use caps for the character’s name in the stage direction the first time he enters the script” (King, 1988, p. 47). This formatting convention helps to guide the reader when new characters appear. It may seem easy to distinguish between characters on screen as viewers can actually see the actors who play them. Readers have no such visual cues, which is why capitalization is necessary to indicate a new character. Writers can write every character’s first appearance in capitals if they wish, but it is only required for important characters or those with speaking parts (Cole & Haag 1980, p.55; King, 1988, p. 47). Additional uses of capital letters are important sounds, optical effects, and camera direction (Akers, 2008, p. 116: Trottier, 2014, p. 238). It is generally advised to keep capital to a minimum as they interrupt the flow of a scene and are hard to read (Trottier, 2014, p. 238). To highlight a word or prop, writers should avoid capitals, italics, and bold (Trottier, 2014, p. 248). Underlining is the accepted practice when it comes to highlighting something in the script (King, 1988, p. 47). To the uninitiated, this convention is contradictory to many produced screenplays available online. Capitals, italics, and bold all appear in those scripts. Instead of emphasizing words with underlines, writers use capitals (figure 6). Italics often serve the purpose of words written on the screen, such as a letter or text message (figure 7). Extra-diegetic words that appear on the screen are not in italics, rather the term SUPER or SUPERIMPOSE indicates that the following words are superimposed on the screen. Trottier (2014) explains that scripts that are about to be produced or are developed in a studio, are closer to shooting scripts than spec scripts. The spec script is meant for a reader. However, if a screenplay is already in the hands of a studio, writers do not need to please a reader, they need to please the production crew. As such, conventions change. All sounds, special effects, camera angles, and props can be capitalized. A shooting script is made to be shot, a spec script is made to sell. Since most screenplays online are produced scripts, the format will be closer to a shooting script than a spec script (Trottier, 2014, p 171). Additionally, there is no way of knowing exactly which version of a script is available online. Clues such as dates, draft numbers, scene numbers, and camera angles hint at a shooting script since none of that information should be in a spec script. What should the writer do? “When in doubt […] always opt for clarity. That makes it easy for your reader” (Trottier, 2014, p. 195). If it is impossible to relay information without italics, the writer should use italics. Proper spec script format provides guidelines, not absolute rules: “This is proper, contemporary, and professional screenplay form. There are very few rules, and these are just the guidelines” (Field, 2005, p. 221). If a scene works better by disobeying a rule or guideline, then it should do it as a scene takes priority over format. “As you know, the rules can be bent and even broken” (Trottier, 2014, p. 318). This applies to all formatting conventions.

Figure 6: Excerpt from "It" (2017), p. 2.

Figure 7: Excerpt from "It" (2017), p. 11.

A cardinal rule of spec writing is to avoid directing the camera: “Never call a shot. That’s not your department. They [studios] have movie directors and cinematographers who are well paid to figure out that stuff” (Akers, 2008, p. 174). Not only is the writer impeding the director’s job, but they are also interrupting the read. Yet again, the spec script is made for a reader. When indicating a shot or a camera angle, the reader is pulled from the story. For example, “if you write TRACK ON, does the reader see a film flowing through his imagination? No. He now sees a film being made” (McKee, 1997, p. 383). Calling shots in a spec script is like breaking the fourth wall; breaking the suspension of disbelief by referring to the filmmaking process. The equivalent in a film happens when an actor stares at the camera. Just like any formatting convention, this one can also be broken at times. If the best way to clearly conjure a mental picture in the reader’s mind is to write a camera direction, the writer should do it: “You can, maybe, two or three times in an entire screenplay, get away with calling a shot, but it better be diabolically important” (Akers, 2008, p. 174). Referring to the camera is a hindrance to the reader. In It (2017), the slow motion and smash cut make for a nice image, but they should be omitted for a spec script (figure 8).

Figure 8: Excerpt from "It" (2017), p. 52.

Since screenplays are made for film, writers must avoid including elements that may be impossible to shoot. “As a general rule, only describe what the audience can actually see on the movie screen and hear on the soundtrack, such as sounds” (Trottier, 2014, p. 216). Saying what a character thinks or feels is a common occurrence in novels, but not in screenplays. A movie cannot film someone’s thoughts. In fact, “ninety percent of all verbal expression ha[ve] no filmic equivalent. ‘He's been sitting there for a long time’ can’t be photographed” (McKee, 1997, p. 381). A person sitting can easily be filmed, but not the concept of 'for a long time'. That would require filming the person sitting for a long time, which would quickly bore any viewer. To the list of unfilmable expressions, Akers (2008) adds “assumes,” “feels,” “thinks,” “realizes” and “appears” (p. 136). It is impossible to see a character realizing something. Maybe there is a facial expression that implies a realization, but nothing conveys exactly what the character realized, and that is if the viewer even understood that the facial expression is a realization. Instead, common practice is to write the actions that are filmed. An action can convey the unfilmable. For instance, Robert McKee, the most sought-after screenwriting lecturer in the world according to IMDb, uses the example of a man waiting for a long time. In the example, McKee (1997) proposes that the character stubs out his tenth cigarette, nervously looks at his watch or even yawns, trying to stay awake (p. 381). All of these can be filmed and they imply what previously could not be photographed for 'waiting for a long time'. Despite these restrictions, thoughts and feelings can still show up in screenplays. In the example below (figure 9) from The Bourne Identity (2002), the protagonist’s thought process appears in the script. Bourne’s nervous behavior can be filmed, but not quite the descriptions. The audience cannot tell exactly what is going on in Bourne’s mind, but they can still feel the scene. It is impossible to film Bourne telling himself “don’t run -- smile -- stay small,” but it is possible to film the actor, Matt Damon, shuffling briskly, trying to stay cool. In this case, the unfilmable translates to filmable.

Figure 9: Excerpt from "The Bourne Identity" (2002).

Another example from It (2017). An awkward silence can be filmed, especially when it has been set up properly. However, the specific image, “hoping the awkwardness will get flushed away too” (figure 10) cannot appear on the screen. There exists a middle ground between filmable and not filmable as those concepts are more of a spectrum: “Film is a magnificent medium for the poet’s soul, once the screenwriter understands the nature of story poetics and its workings within a film” (McKee, 1997, p. 386). Movies are stories told in images. Naturally, screenplays conjure up images in the reader’s head. They will inevitably use imagery to produce pictures just like poetry. Indeed, screenwriting has much in common with poetry, “If screenwriting is closer to poetry than novel writing (it is), then great screenwriting is next door to haiku” (Akers, 2008, p. 144). Using imagery is encouraged in a screenplay as an entertaining style is preferable to an informative one (Trottier, 2014, p .218). Thus, writing the unfilmable, rather the partially filmable, is common practice in screenplays when the writer understands the mechanics of visual writing.

Figure 10: Excerpt from "It" (2017), p. 60.

The final component of the screenplay format is dialogue. Proper formatting is straightforward: “the dialogue is located in the center of the page, single-spaced, and it is what the character says” (Field, 2005, p. 221). Traditionally in stage plays, dialogues stay on the margin. In screenplays, all spoken words must be at the center of the page. When a character talks, their name should be capitalized and placed before the dialogue (Field, 2005, p. 221). Film dialogues should mimic real-life speech. In fact, Akers (2008) recommends writing down overheard conversations to understand how real people talk (p. 95). Dialogues should use the form of real speech: awkward pauses, non-sequiturs, pointless repetitions, profanity, poor word choices, and phrasing (McKee, 1997, p. 374); not its content: “screen dialogue, therefore, must have the swing of everyday talk but content well above normal” (McKee, 1997, p. 374). McKee (1997) explains that real-life conversations rarely have a purpose, people talk just to talk (p. 374). Inversely, film dialogues always serve a function: “dialogue serves two basic functions in the scene: Either it moves the story forward or it reveals information about the character” (Field, 2005, p. 221). If dialogue does not help the story in any way, it should be avoided. It should be noted that excessively revealing information through dialogue is frowned upon in the screenwriting industry. Screenplays are a visual medium, the image always takes priority over dialogue, “the regretful second choice” (McKee, 1997, p. 380). Additionally, explaining things through dialogue tends to hinder the story’s progression by slowing down the action (Field, 2005, p. 107). McKee (1997) provides a crucial distinction between film speech and real speech: “Dialogue is not conversation” (p. 374). Conversations have little meaning other than socialization. Dialogue, on the other hand, must help the story in some way.

Much like descriptions, dialogues should likewise be short. Numerous exceptions may apply, but dialogues are meant to be brief and “generally convey one thought. One or two sentences are plenty in most cases” (Trottier, 2014, p. 248). In its need to adopt real conversation form, dialogues lean on the shorter side. This economy of words does not only spur from an attempt at realism but from the aesthetics of cinema. Cinema is 80% visual and 20% auditory (McKee, 1997, p. 375). Allowing longer speeches amount to favor audition over vision, which is contradictory in the field of film. This does not mean that speech has no place in art. On the contrary, it promotes a different, more concise conception of speech like stikomythia: “The essence of screen dialogue is what was known in Classical Greek theatre as stikomythia—the rapid exchange of short speeches. Long speeches are antithetical with the aesthetics of cinema” (McKee, 1997, p. 376). Of course, a great deal of dialogues exceed the two-sentence limit and work well. The shorter length is a recommendation that can often be ignored if the writer understands the advantages and limitations of cinema. Dialogues in film must use conversation form, remaining short and true to life, but not content as they fulfill a role in the story.

Figure 11: Excerpt from "The Big Lebowski" (1998), p. 7.

Uncommon in screenplays, stage directions can be included in the dialogues. To accomplish this, one must use parentheses “under the name of the character speaking, always single-spaced. Don’t abuse parentheses; use only when necessary” (Field, 2005, p. 222). Actors are extremely skilled at acting, therefore there is no need to micromanage them by indicating how a line should be said with parentheses. If a director is better at finding shots than a writer, then actors are better at saying lines. Parentheses, also called parentheticals or wrylies, are the same as directing the camera. Actors’ skills notwithstanding, parentheticals may be used when the meaning of a dialogue is not clear (Akers, 2008, p. 120). The spec writer should always keep in mind that they are writing for a reader. Parentheticals are for a reader to understand a scene, not an order to the actor, who ignores them anyway (Trottier, 2014, p. 241). For example, in Casino Royale (2006) (figure 12), plenty of information changes the way to view the scene, making it necessary to add clarifying parentheticals.

Figure 12: Excerpt from "Casino Royale" (2006), p. 2.

The scene starts with Bond waiting for Dryden in his office. Dryden keeps his cool, knowing that he has a pistol if things go south. He starts by playing off the danger and in the middle of his speech, gains confidence as he realizes he holds more power (Campbell, 2006). With a single description paragraph and a dialogue, the dynamics of the scene change. At first, Dryden is vulnerable but gains confidence. Of note to beginner screenwriters is that this “realization” is filmable since the writers focused on actions instead of thoughts (McKee, 1997, p. 381). The gun for self-defence, the speech, and the parenthetical all clearly show Dryden’s feelings without directly alluding to them. His confidence soon sinks as Bond finished his sentence “two” (Campbell, 2006). Dryden realizes something again, Bond already has one kill, and he is the second. A description line indicates that Dryden is unnerved, changing once again the scene’s dynamics. The parenthetical (“smiles” to cover) (Campbell, 2006) is necessary in this case because his following dialogue seems completely disconnected from the situation otherwise. Why would Dryden ask about cricket if he just noticed he is about to be killed? The connection between cricket and the current scene is Bond’s previous kill, Dryden’s contact at the cricket club (Campbell, 2006). This inquiry about cricket is subtext, he is actually asking about the contact, the death of whom he is about to learn. The flow of this short scene moves efficiently. At first, Dryden is vulnerable but regains his confidence only for it to be stripped again by Bond. Its strength emanates from the way each piece of information — description, dialogue and parenthetical — modify the atmosphere. Neither (gaining confidence) nor (“smiles” to cover) (Campbell, 2006) are directed at the actors; rather it is for the reader to clearly grasp the scene in their mind. Without these directions, the reader could easily get confused as the rhythm is fairly complex despite how straightforward it may look on screen. Parentheticals have their rightful place in screenplays when used correctly. They are significantly more common than camera directions, but should still be used sparingly. If the subtext of a dialogue or a scene is ambiguous, a parenthetical can help out. For example, “CLEO: (loathes him) I love you” (Akers, 2008, p. 126).

Just like scene headings and descriptions, dialogues can also use technical terms. Here is a list of the most common terms, including some that belong in description paragraphs:

V.O.: Voice-over. “It is either a narrator or dialogue from another part of the movie that is laid over the scene we are watching” (Akers, 2008, p. 122).

O.S.: Off-screen. “A character is in the other room or off camera when we hear them speak” (Akers, 2008, p. 122).

O.C.: Off camera, the same definition as off-screen: “a term now used only in television. The movie term is off-screen (O.S.).” (Trottier, 2014, p. 273)

INTERCUT: “When a screenplay alternates from one scene to another scene, which takes place at the same time” (Hellerman, 2019). This device is most often used for telephone conversations, but, in theory, any two scenes can be intercut.

MONTAGE: “[A] sequence of brief actions and/or images expressing a single concept or idea, such as a passage of time, falling in love, places within a geographical location, training (as in the movie Rocky), or a stream of consciousness” (Trottier, 2014, p. 203)

FADE IN/FADE OUT: A type of transition used mostly to mark the beginning and end of a script (Heckmann, 2021). Writing fade in a