Screenplays have a very specific format and for good reason. The script is the blueprint for the entire production and every department and every person on the shoot relies on it as a guide and instruction manual for the story that is being told. An entire list of rules of thumb can be extrapolated from the screenplay. One page of script equals one minute of finished film. One page of script equals one hour of work editing to reach a rough cut. Many productions aim to shoot four pages of script in one day. The list goes on and on.
All of this depends on the script being properly formatted, however. Professionals working in this industry have a zero tolerance policy for badly formatted scripts. Experienced script readers can flip through the entire script in a second by fanning the pages and tell whether it is formatted correctly or not. Forgetting simple things like putting a period at the end of your page numbers is enough to get your script rejected. If you don’t know how to do something like that, or you didn’t bother to research it, the inference is that you won’t know how to create a “smart” screenplay and know nothing about the business.
Not only is applying proper formatting critical to all later stages of the production, it is critical to even getting your script read by anyone experienced in the industry. Not knowing formatting is a fatal amateur mistake.
Script formatting is dictated by the Writer’s Guild of America. Their formatting rules are outlined in the document at the right. However, in the words of Einstein: “Never memorize what you can look up in books.” Or even better yet, never memorize formatting rules if you can get software that will automatically apply them for you.
Scriptwriting programs will not make you a better writer. They won’t make your concepts any good. They will improve your speed at writing if you already know what you want to write. They will also force you to conform to formatting rules, provided you know what they are.
Final Draft is the industry standard in Hollywood. Many of the script that I receive are in Final Draft format or PDF. Final Draft can generate a PDF, which is a universally interchangeable format and something you can send to anyone. Final Draft can be downloaded and used on a trial basis for screenplays of less than 15 pages – perfect for short films. Celtx also offers a free scriptwriting program that works well. For the most part, these programs are nothing more than glorified word processors.
When you sit down to write, keep in mind that there are only three components to the screenplay: Scene headings, Dialogue and Action.
The scene heading denotes a change in time or space and usually consist of three parts: Interior or Exterior notation (INT/EXT). The location (OCEAN BEACH) and the time of day if it is an exterior (DAY or NIGHT). Like so:
EXT. OCEAN BEACH - DAY
Action does not simply mean people running or shooting at each other. Action is anything that is not dialogue. Action could be like this:
Andy walks along a deserted ocean beach and spys an ancient bottle.
He opens the bottle to find a note. The note contains a strange sketch of symbols and faces.
Andy puts the note in his pocket and continues walking along, skipping stones in the water.
A layperson would not describe this scene as an action scene but it is all action and no dialogue. The more action you have in your script, the more visual it will be in its storytelling style and the more cinematic it will be. Dialogue is very often a critical component of story development but if you do not balance dialogue with action, you will end up with a piece that is more theatrical. If your script is almost entirely dialogue, why not make it into a stage play? Movies are a visual medium, you ought to tell your story with images.