Foolproof Formatting for Your Screenplay

I had mentioned I’d write something about screenplay formatting in an earlier article. I usually just set up template files for the different kinds of documents I write and forget about format as long as nothing goes wrong. Let me help you with setting up your own screenplay template.

If you have a target in mind for your script, try and get their format specifications first. There are many different ways to format a screenplay as you saw if you looked at the list in the article “Writing a Screenplay: Part 3 of 4 – Second Drafts”.

If you have no target for your script or the agent / producer doesn’t have a format in mind, here’s where you can start. Title pages are easy to change. It’s the body of your work that is of greatest concern. You wouldn’t enjoy changing the whole thing back manually if you finished it using one set of indenting and then an agent wanted different indents.

You can avoid that problem by using your word processor’s style settings. I use OpenOffice.org’s Writer, but every word processor I’ve ever worked with has had the option to create additional styles. In case you don’t have a good word processor, you can get the free OpenOffice suite here. I used Word and Excel for 10 years before switching and all the same functionality appears to exist in Writer and Calc except for VBA macros.

I’ll walk you through the steps using Writer as the example. If you’re using a different word processor, I’m sure you’ll be able to work out how to change the settings yourself. You’re a writer after all and probably know already.

I’ll circle around the topic a bit first. It’s good to have some context for what we’re doing. I don’t want to just tell you to do as I say. There should be good reasons.

Fonts.

First, a quick look at fonts. The normal screenplay font is 12 point Courier or Courier New. Here’s why. The following two sentences each have 10 words, 49 characters. I’ve repeated them in three popular formats.

Times New Roman

The quick brown emu jumped over the lazy red cat.

Spain has more rain on the plains than the brain.

Arial

The quick brown emu jumped over the lazy red cat.

Spain has more rain on the plains than the brain.

Courier New

The quick brown emu jumped over the lazy red cat.

Spain has more rain on the plains than the brain.

Notice how the sentences are the same length with Courier New but not the other two fonts? It’s the only one of the three where all characters and spaces take up the same amount of horizontal space. It doesn’t look as nice as the other fonts but makes for easier reading. Give them what they want.

Indents.

The next thing they want is 1.5 inch (3.8 cm) margins and very specific indents. With 12 point Courier New, this leaves room for 55 characters between the margins.

These are the indents from the left edge of the page.

17 Left Margin (This would be the 1.5 inch mark)

28 Dialogue

35 Parenthetical directions

43 Character name

63 Transitional instructions (CUT TO:, etc.)

69 Page number

72 Right Margin

If we remove those first 17 spaces, we get this table;

0 Left Margin

11 Dialogue

18 Parenthetical directions

26 Character name

46 Transitional instructions (CUT TO:, etc.)

52 Page number

55 Right Margin

Styles.

You don’t need to set stops for the margins. You can set the other five stops as styles in your word processor. I’ll walk you through the steps with Writer. You can easily find a tutorial for a different word processor by searching Google for “word-processor-name styles”.

1. In Writer, click on Format and select “Styles and Formatting”. A window opens.

2. Right click “Default” and select “New”. The paragraph style dialog opens in the Organize tab.

3. Name your new style “Default Screenplay”.

4. Click the Font tab, set the font to Courier or Courier New and 12 point. Then click OK. “Default Screenplay” is now an available style.

5. Right click “Default Screenplay” and select “New”.

6. Name your new style “Dialogue”.

7. Click the Indents & Spacing tab and change the Indent Before Text to 2.8cm. Each character takes up 0.255cm.

8. Repeat steps 5 to 7 for the other formats using the following list;

Dialogue 2.8cm

Parenthetical directions 4.582cm

Character name 6.618cm

Transitional instructions 11.709cm

Page number 13.236cm

Now as you write your screenplay you can set the style of each item using the Styles drop down listbox on the Formatting toolbar. If you later get a request for different indents from an agency, you can change the styles and your entire document will be updated instantly. Your script indents are foolproof.

You can find more information on screenplay formatting at Script Links. A good place to start is their article “Basic Screenplay Format”. It’s a long webpage loaded with information.

Article by Ivan Izo.

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