The basics of screenplay formatting for television and movies / films can be tricky to get right. It’s less intuitive than writing fiction, because we’ve all probably been asked to write stories at school, but many will write a screenplay for the first time much later in life. With a little work you will be a master in no time!

First of all, most screenwriters use a screenwriting software like Final Draft, Celtx, or Writer Duet. I use Writer Duet because I can co-write on there very easily (two people can work on the same doc at once) and it’s super cheap!

Why are Screenplays Formatted in this Way?

The first is that one page of a screenplay, when it’s formatted correctly, should equal about one minute of screen time. 

The second is to promote clarity. Script readers / assessors / creative executives / producers might read tens of screenplays each day, so they need to be written as clearly and consistently as possible so people can understand exactly what you’re trying to achieve in each moment, and clearly ‘see’ your film.

screenplays have to be user friendly because they are invitations to collaborate on your project to directors, producers, actors, and everyone else involved in the screen trade! They are not intended to be a finished product, like a novel for instance. 

Screenplays should be thought of as visual documents that ‘show’ not ‘tell’ your story. Therefore you should not include any description that includes information the director cannot ‘show’. For instance, don’t tell us the character is angry, show us the character smashing her fist through a wall. 

What are the Main Elements of a Screenplay? 

Scene Heading

This generally takes the form of identifying whether the scene is inside or outside, then the location, and then whether it is day or night. It’s always in capital letters. For example:

INT. SYDNEY. THE STAR HOTEL – DAY

Scene Description

This is what comes next and it’s generally most of the text that isn’t dialogue or in parentheses. This will include the information that sets the scene, and the character descriptions. 

Character Descriptions

Generally, you supply the name of the character, their gender, their age, and a key visual detail or two that lets us see the character and that really illuminates some aspect of their character. 

Dialogue

Both the character’s name and the dialogue itself should be centralised. 

Parentheses

These are brackets that can be placed beneath the characters name, and before the dialogue, to communicate (in one or two words) a piece of information that informs the delivery of the dialogue such as ‘angrily’.

Actors typically don’t like these directions, and will ignore them, as they want the freedom to deliver the lines with their own artistic interpretation. 

Page numbers and Scene Numbers

These are really important and the first piece of advice you get from any professional will be to include them if you’ve forgotten. People have to be able to navigate easily around your script! 

There you go! With a little practice, and feedback from people who have done this before, you will be writing screenplays like your heroes in no time! 


Oliver Adams

Letter Review was founded by Oliver Adams, who is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing, casual academic, and guest lecturer at the University of New South Wales. Oliver Adams has had short stories published in leading literary journals such as Overland, Southerly, Seizure, and TEXT. He has had novels long listed for major awards such as the KYDUMA, has received government funding to produce plays from Create NSW and screenplays from Screen NSW, and has performed / produced professional work at major theatrical venues such as the Sydney Opera House.