There are three general types of screenplays (movie, hour length TV and half hour length TV) and two associated formats (radio plays and stage scripts). Although each of these five formats have specific needs, there are many similarities in the way each are presented.
Movie and Television screenplays generally shoot one minute of action for each page of script (assuming the page is mostly dialog). Movies can film for the entire runtime, but Television has to allow for commercials and station breaks. Therefore, movie screenplays generally consist of 90-125 pages, and television screenplays have 50-54 pages for a one-hour show and 25-27 pages for a half hour show. Radio plays, which are rare but still exist, follow the same page length and production timing guidelines as television screenplays. Stage scripts – in general - follow the same guidelines as movie screenplays.
Screenplays and scripts are visually based and present the pictures and sounds exactly as they should appear on screen or on stage. Radio plays are audio based and present only the sounds as they should be recorded and broadcast. As such, there is little character description other than generalities to establish as view and all character development is in the action and conversation. You will find no background or thoughts other than as spoken or shown visually.
Due to the strictly limited amount of time and the tastes of the viewing or listening public, minor anachronisms are acceptable as long as they move the plot along and prevent slow spots in the production. Some examples of these anachronisms are:
Of course, none of these are likely in real life but they’re accepted by the viewer and used to move the action along in the least amount of time.
The format of a screenplay makes it as easy as possible to tell background from action and conversation. (details for creating a template in any word processor are at the end, this section is intended as a visual reference) All background (called action) is left justified and runs the entire length of the page. All conversation is indented left and right and runs down the center of the page. The first time a character’s name or designation (COP #1, for instance) is given, it is capitalized. After that, the first letter is capitalized in the action and the name is entirely capitalized in conversation mode.
Names are indented twice in the conversation sections, modifiers are indented one and conversation is not indented and is not placed in quotes. Italics and underlines are used for emphasis. For example (Bobby had been introduced earlier in the screenplay, but Ray has not):
Crosses to the door,
Hey, man, my car broke down. Can
I use your phone?
I guess. C'mon in.
Ray, a large, overly muscled man in a stained tank top and cut off jeans, enters.
(pointing to phone)
It's over there on the stand.
Had Ray entered before speaking, his description would have looked like this:
Notice that Ray’s character is defined by how he looks (a large, overly muscled man in a stained tank top and cut off jeans) and how he speaks (Hey, man . . .). Little more than the minimum to establish the character is given as those decisions are made by the directors, the casting agents and the producers. Background is much the same - the bare minimum to show what is absolutely needed, for example,
No specific constellations or nearby planets or stars were mentioned. Had they been important, they would have been added.
As you can see, there is nothing in the screenplay that is not seen, done or heard by the viewer. As such, this tends to be a very visual format.Screenplay terms and abbreviations:
|(V.O.) or (VO)||Voice Over|
|(O.S.) or (OS)||Off Screen|
|(cont'd)||Same character as last dialog|
|(filtered)||Voice coming through phone, radio, etc.|
|INTERCUT||Repeat last scene heading|
Terms such as CUT TO: and CLOSE ON: do not belong in a spec (speculative) screenplay and should be avoided. Including them will tend to annoy the readers and producers who you want to buy your screenplay.
The beginning of each scene occurs under either of two circumstances: a significant passage of time and/or changing location. The beginning of each scene – in fact it’s very first line – designates the base circumstances of the new scene (Indoor/outdoor, location and time), as follows.INT. MY OFFICE – DAY
This line, called the slug line, sets the stage. If this is a new location of there is a significant change from the last time the location was used, include enough description to enable the reader to picture it in his/her mind.
The overcast sky outside the single dirty window provides the only light in the tiny room, falling on the cheap and well-used desk and chair. At the desk, the WRITER is franticly typing on a laptop computer.
It's me. I don’t like bothering you but
those revisions were due yesterday…
Just enough description to set the image and then straight into the dialog.
As a matter of style, try to avoid long stretches of nothing BUT dialog (known as talking heads) by inserting minor but telling bits of action – a character nodding instead of or in addition to saying yes, for example, keeps the visual aspect of the screenplay in the reader’s mind.
Next, if you’re just starting out and can’t afford (or don’t want to spend money on) a program that will format the screenplay for you, you can create a template in any word processor by adding these margins (all measurements in inches counted from the left margin – add 1.25 inches to count from the edge of the page):Document
Paragraph spacing: 2
Paragraph spacing: 1
Right: no setting
Paragraph spacing: 1
Paragraph spacing: 2
Paragraph spacing means the number of lines after the carriage return.
Note that the character name does not have a right margin setting. This does not mean names should be long enough to wrap to the next line. Shorter is better.
Finally, a note on style:
Exposition for the sake of exposition is a major turn off called Rubber Duckies. Actors love them but directors, editors and producers hate them. Avoid having a character tell what the character can be shown doing. Remember, movies are a visual medium. Get into a scene as late as possible and get out as early as possible. This will let you maintain the fastest possible pace and make reading (and, later, watching) the movie as enjoyable as possible.