Screenplays have a rigid format that, if you’re writing on a computer, can seem odd and difficult at first. Perhaps the best way to write on a computer is to get a screenplay program, such as Movie Magic Screenwriter or Final Draft. Nonetheless, you can make Microsoft Word do what you need by changing margins on the ruler bar. The movie business is tough, and with so many scripts being written and sent to agents and actors, scripts that do not follow the format are often summarily dismissed. Realize that these screenwriting programs have features for scripts that go into production, but you do not want to use those features and it just signals you are new to a screenplay program and are probably a “greenhorn” (i.e. newbie; amateur).
You do not need such programs, though, if you follow the format carefully. This includes:
1) Dialogue is indented (2.7” from the left; 2.1” from the right), and screen directions run from the left margin (1.5”) to the right margin (1.0”).
2) Character names above dialogue are not centered but come in at 4.3”.
3) Parentheticals are minor directions within dialogue, and should be used minimally if you don’t want to come across as insulting the actors or director. Parentheticals have their own margins (3.5” from the left; 3.0” from the right).
4) Scenes start with uppercased headings called Sluglines, and they have three parts. Begin with INT. or EXT. for interior or exterior. Give two spaces and add the location. Use the same location name for each time you use that location. In other words don’t write “BAR” at one time and “GLORIA’S BAR” another time if it’s the same place. End with DAY or NIGHT. This last information helps the production staff decide which lighting equipment to bring. DEEP NIGHT or EARLY NIGHT doesn’t help them. Night is night. SUNRISE or SUNSET is acceptable if it’s in that magic hour when they have to shoot fast. Sluglines can contain a fourth element, such as year or a specific spot in the location.
5) You can use secondary sluglines, which replace the old-fashioned and never-used-now reference to camera angles. In other words, rather than saying CLOSEUP: A NUN’S HAND, you can just write A NUN’S HAND.
6) Page numbers are in the upper right. A period comes after the page number. The first page has no page number.
7) Don’t make any paragraphs very long. It’s better to have short ones or, in some cases, single sentences.
There’s a real art to the look and feel of a screenplay. Despite its rigorous format requirements, you still have to make the story flow through the words, giving action, short dialogue (much shorter than fiction or stage plays), and visuals. This is a visual medium, but don’t spend too much time on fine details—let the set designers figure that out.
You simply want to give the feel of places, and you create character by what people do and say. You cannot get inside anyone’s head as you do in fiction, and you write in the present tense. It’s best to read a few screenplays if you’ve never read any, before you start writing. The following two pages is a sample of the format.
By Christopher Meeks
EXT. SENDLING CATHOLIC SCHOOL - DAY (1889)
TWO MOTHS mate on top of a garden flower. ALBERT, age 10, and a girl, LISBETT, look at the moths with delight.
A NUN'S HAND
swats the flower hard, shooting away the moths, and she sternly glares at the two children.
Enough lallygagging! Into the chapel!
But what were the moths--
Mating! That's what all creatures do, my Mum says. All except priests and nuns.
Into the chapel!
INT. SENDLING CATHOLIC SCHOOL CHAPEL - DAY
A very old PRIEST intones at the front. All are bored, including Albert.
There is a physical efficacy in a relic which will cause it to, ah...
Dull, dull. Albert gazes at the stained glass windows. The sun makes the panels come alive, particularly one panel that shows a moth or butterfly ascending toward the moon and heavens. Transfixed, Albert slides down the pew closer.
To work miracles!
INSERT: ALBERT FLYING HIGH OVER THE CHURCH
like a moth, headed up quickly into outer space. He's joyous.
BACK TO THE CHAPEL
The priest's voice grabs Albert's attention. The priest holds out long, flat nails.
These nails are authentic replicas of the nails that affixed our lord, Jesus Christ, to the cross. Come forward!
Towering over the children, Christ-like, he hands the nails like Hosts for the awed children to hold. Albert looks up at the priest before him, whose head glows from the light behind it.
Nails exactly like these were hammered through Jesus's hands and feet.
Albert takes the proffered nail with joy and touches his nail as if it does have special power. This child is seeing things that others don't.
INT. EINSTEIN HOME - NIGHT - AT THE DINNER TABLE
Albert's mother, PAULINE EINSTEIN, a broad woman in a ruffled dress, looks fondly at Albert at the dinner table, which is sumptuously laid out for a seder. His father, HERMANN, sits at the other end.
Albert. Hold out the chair for your cousin Elsa.
Albert leaps up and helps ELSA EINSTEIN, 12, next to him. Her father, RUDOLF EINSTEIN, holds the chair for Albert's sister MAJA, 9.
Hermann, an imposing man with a thick handlebar mustache, holds his pince-nez glasses to his face and quizzically examines a Jewish Passover Haggadah, the book that outlines the service. His wife looks on expectantly.
You have to realize it's been many years since I've been to a seder.
How about you, father?
Her father, Rudolf, a wiry man, looks just as bewildered.