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How To Format A Script For The Spec Market

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May 1, 2018 73 comments
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How to Format a Script If You Want to Break Into the Spec Market

If you’re confused by screenplay format, you’re in the right place. The following post contains excerpts from our book, “Master Screenplay Format: a Clear Guide on How to Format a Screenplay for the Spec Market.

The overall message of the book when it comes to your movie script format is to stay as clear and consistent as possible in order to immerse the reader into the world of the story.

Rather than focus on how to format a script using dogmatic rules, the book focuses on “best practices” and script format choices.

Here are just two of the many anomalies contained in the book and our suggestions for better choices on how to format a script.

How to Format a Script Example #1: Misusing EXT./INT.

(This script format example is taken from section 2 on Sluglines)

The format EXT./INT. should be used when quickly cutting between interior and exterior locations. If you want to know how to format a script, we don’t recommend using EXT./INT. as it’s used in the following scene:

how to format a script

If we see Charlotte chatting on her cellphone before entering the gym, this needs an exterior slugline. Then, when she enters the gym, we’d need an interior one, like this:

how to format a script

Similarly, this use of EXT./INT. is also technically incorrect when it comes to script format:

how to format a scriptThis screenwriting format “mistake” sometimes happens when the writer feels a location is simultaneously inside and outside. But, using our earlier rule of thumb, can these characters look up and see the sky? Yes. And so—as with most football stadiums, tennis courts, concert venues, etc.—we’re technically still outside.

So this scene should be labeled as an exterior, like this:

how to format a script

In general, only use EXT./INT. when the action repeatedly switches from inside to outside a location or we’re seeing it unfold in both places simultaneously. High octane car chases and fight scenes are good places to use this technique. Here’s an example of how to format a script in this way:

how to format a script

How to format a script

How to Format a Script Example #2: Misusing Caps In Sound

(This script format example is taken from section 3 on Description)

It’s easy to get carried away with describing too many sounds in a script. This tends to lead to putting too many sounds in caps, which then leads to an overall misuse of the technique.

Here’s an example of all three errors:

how to format a script
Putting sounds in caps is something of a personal preference, but from a purist’s point of view, there are a whole host of “irregularities” in this scene.

Should you put all sounds in caps? Is there a difference between sound effects and natural sounds? What about animal noises? Or on-screen and off-screen sounds?

If you want to format sounds by-the-book, it can all get pretty confusing… A good way to make it less so, though, is to divide sounds in a screenplay into just two categories:

♦  Those made by actors (natural sounds)

♦  Those not made by actors (sound effects)

Natural Sounds

These include all sounds made by the actors themselves, such as laughing, singing, screaming, clapping, banging, knocking, playing musical instruments, etc.

If they’re on-screen, i.e. present in the scene and visible to the camera these sounds don’t get put in caps. If they’re off-screen, i.e. behind a door, under the floorboards or out of view outside, then they do get put in caps.

Sounds Effects

These include all sounds not made by the actors themselves, such as glass shattering, guns firing, cell phones ringing, music playing on stereos, cats meowing, babies crying, etc. It doesn’t matter if the sound originates on-screen or off-screen, they all get put in caps.

Perhaps the easiest way to remember all this is: all sounds get put in caps, except natural sounds made by actors on-screen.

Let’s take another look at the scene, this time formatted using all the “technically correct” uses of caps for natural sounds and sound effects:

how to format a script

how to format a script

 Here’s a recap of why this second version is technically correct:

It’s Best to Avoid Caps for Natural Sounds Made On-Screen.

In the second version of the scene above, people chatting, fingers typing, Ned collapsing on the couch and sighing, etc. are all natural sounds made by the actors themselves and therefore not put in caps.

Note, however, how the writer has overused the number of sounds throughout this scene: unnecessary descriptions of keyboards clattering and the sound the couch makes when Ned collapses in it, etc.

Use Caps for All Other Sounds

The music playing, baby crying, and pistol firing are all on-screen sound effects and therefore go in caps.

Note that babies aren’t actors as such, and so are treated the same way as dogs barking and cats meowing. The plates smash off-screen and so they go in caps too. As does the man’s scream, even though it’s made by an actor.

Try to Avoid Writing “We Hear” and “Sound”

It’s not a great idea to pepper your script with lines like: “From the kitchen, comes the SOUND of plates smashing,” or “Nearby, we hear a baby burst out crying.” In both cases, it’s clear what the actual sound is, and so this should be put in caps instead.

It’s a best practice to only use “we hear” or “sound” when it’s not obvious what the sound actually is. For example: “Tommy freezes. He’s just heard a LOW SOUND coming from the basement.”

Use Caps on Both the Sound and the Thing Making the Sound

In the above scene, the sound system, plates, man in the kitchen, baby and pistol all get put in caps as they’re the thing making the sound. Note that if you do use “we hear” it doesn’t go in caps, while “sound” does.

While the above rules may be “right way” of formatting sounds, it’s perfectly fine to eschew many or all of them and save caps only for those sounds you really want to draw the reader’s attention to—like a bomb going off.

###

If you have any questions at all on how to format a script, please leave them below in the comments section.

When it comes to script format, your aim as a writer should be to make sure that the dialogue and action lines come to life—that they paint a picture in as few words as possible, forcing the eye down the page at a clip, making the overall story and pace feel even cleaner and faster.

how to format a scriptIn short, the best spec script format is simply the one that helps the reader see and feel what’s happening on the page as best as it can.

And this is what we show you how to do in our book “Master Screenplay Format: A Clear Guide On How To Format a Screenplay For The Spec Market.

If you’d like us to review your script for formatting and grammar errors, please check out our Proofread/Formatting service.

More posts on how to format a script for the spec market…

♦  WHY YOU SHOULD STOP THINKING OF MOVIE SCRIPT FORMAT IN TERMS OF RULES

♦  50 OF THE BEST SCREENPLAYS TO DOWNLOAD AND READ IN EVERY GENRE

73 Comments
  1. Tatiana says:

    I like the way how you explained it , clear and simple , yet directly to the point. It really helps a lot. Especially capital in sound. Thank you so much for the wonderful tips.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Tatiana, glad you found it useful!

  2. vignesh says:

    Great work really useful..
    But If a character walks from road to the coffee shop in a CONTINUOUS SHOT.. Then what about the INT. & EXT.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Yes, it’s best to keep the INT. EXT. when using a CONTINUOUS.

  3. Michael says:

    “It’s best to avoid caps for natural sounds made on-screen.” You’re just arbitrarily inventing rules, you realize that?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      As we say in the post, it’s best to avoid deliberately putting natural sounds made by actors such as sighing, sneezing, typing on keyboards, etc. in caps. It’s better to leave caps for important sounds you want to draw the reader’s attention to.

  4. Michael Rogers says:

    In the second example of the misuse of capitalizing SOUNDS, why did you capitalize SOUND SYSTEM? Did I miss something? Are you to capitalize what the sound emits from as well?
    When you say, a BABY CRIES, the BABY is a character that we are being introduced to for the first time, so BABY is capitalized, correct?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Michael. As we say in the post “While the above rules may be “right way” of formatting sounds, it’s perfectly fine to eschew many or all of them and save caps only for those sounds you really want to draw the reader’s attention to—like a bomb going off.” Technically, though, it’s “correct” to put the sound in caps as well as the thing making the sound. Hence the sound system is creating the music so gets put in caps. The same applies to the baby – it’s not a character we’re being introduced to.

  5. Rick says:

    In my opinion and according to Dr. Format, the only sounds that should be capitalized are ones that are very important. I also believe the rules for television and film are different.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Rick, we agree.

  6. Jeremiah says:

    How cаn I find out morе of these formatting mistakes?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Here’s the link to our book: How to Format a Script for the Spec Market. You’ll find all the most popular “errors” we see in spec scripts in there.

  7. Isabella Palladino says:

    Very helpful. Thanks.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You’re welcome, Isabella.

  8. Carla Ruiz says:

    I think this is one of the best posts I’ve read on how to format script. Thank you.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Carla. Glad to hear it!

  9. Larry says:

    This is just dumb. Noone cares if we go inside and outside without their immediately being a scene heading.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      It’s confusing to the reader (not to mention production crew) if it’s not clear that we’ve changed location.

  10. Charles Simmons says:

    More formatting examples please.

  11. Patrick says:

    There’s conflicting information about what should be on the cover (card stock). Do we leave it blank since the title page follows or should the title information be on the cover as well?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Yes, leave the card cover blank.

  12. Rob says:

    Great article, but I respectfully question why shouldn’t we write this scene as:
    ———————————————————————————————–
    EXT./ INT. – GYM – DAY
    Charlotte enters the gym, talking on her cellphone. She walks down the hallway toward the changing rooms.
    ———————————————————————————————–
    Is it not true that:
    1) It’s a bang-bang action description of her changing scene locations. It’s not written in your scene description that she’s “chatting outside.” If she were, “chatting outside”, then it would definitely require its own scene heading. But, in my opinion, since she is “moving” into the gym — as the action in your scene is described (i.e. the scene [begins] with her entering the gym), it seems it should be acceptable.
    2) Adding a unnecessary scene heading wastes several lines of valuable page space. (or not, if the writer is trying to pad their script with more white space)
    3) Doing it under one scene heading offers better mental continuity for the reader, because their train of thought isn’t interrupted by having to [stop – read the new scene heading] then resume reading the action description.
    My two cents, for what it’s worth.

  13. Ted Ingerson says:

    Love this. Keep up the great work for us struggling writers ScriptReader Pro!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for reading, Ted!

  14. sergei says:

    Hi, I would like example of what to do when a character doesn’t know another characters name. Do we write the name in for the character?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      It depends whether it’s important for the story that the reader knows the character’s name or not as well.

  15. Stavros says:

    Sorry, this formatting process seems overblown and micro specific. If the reader, producer, studio, can’t see, feel through, in harmony with, the scripts intention, it appears an anal analysis and explanation of the tiny specifics involved with reading. It also is a waste of time when it comes to the written word. Yes, there should be format for lazy readers, but the purpose is to open the story for understanding, not microscopic analyses. Thank you

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Not sure what you mean by “there should be format for lazy readers.” The formatting should be clear for all readers to understand so they can just relax and enjoy the story.

  16. Nick Lowe says:

    Awesome post. I actually made that mistake in the second example. Thanks guys!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Nick!

  17. Ankit garg says:

    You have said dont use “we hear” or SOUND.. But then how do we distinguish if the sound is on screen or off screen? Baby cries or Sound of baby crying. “we hear clattering sound from the kitchen” or clattering of utensils. Both these have different connotations, one sounds on screen and the other off screen?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Hi Ankit, we say in the post try to avoid using “we hear” or “Sound” but it’s not a hard and fast rule. There aren’t any codified rules when it comes to formatting.

  18. Ankit garg says:

    If we are not using we hear or SOUND, how are we then supposed to differentiate between on screen and off screen sounds?

  19. Julie says:

    I want to know how to format a phone call. Is it Voice Over or Off camera or something else?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      It depends. We have a post here on how to write a phone conversation in a screenplay.

  20. H Wilson says:

    But a script does not need perfect formatting in order to sell. Just great story.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      True, but you don’t want to give the wrong impression by sending out a script with a ton of formatting irregularities.

  21. Terry says:

    Where can I download the book?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Do you mean our formatting book? You can find that here.

  22. Seamus says:

    Perhaps it is important to recognise how to format scripts. I had not taken it that seriously but will do now. Thank you.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Learning how to format a script is pretty important, Seamus. Glad the post helped.

  23. Stan Butler says:

    You might like to know the example using Int/Ext hardly ever happens. I would have chosen a bigger mistake for this post like too many montages.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You’re right, many specs contain too many montages, but that’s not really a formatting error – more of a stylistic choice that gets overused.

  24. Nicky says:

    Can anyone tell me the difference between this book how to format a screenplay and the one by Chris Ripley?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Our book is purely made up of the most popular formatting “errors” that we see in spec scripts that hold back the read, along with suggestions on how to improve them.

  25. Phil R Desmond says:

    EXT CRIME SCENE – NIGHT

    Newspaper reporters hot-footed it to be there despite only being given moments notice. Newt enters the building and approaches Captain Yates.

    Is this what you mean? I should have a new scene header when Newt enters? Before he meets Captain Yates?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      That’s right, Phil. You should also probably make it clear where we are, as “crime scene” isn’t really a location.

  26. Ashlee says:

    First class! Thank you script reader pro for helping advance my screenwriting knowledge a little more every day.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You’re welcome, Ashlee – glad you find the site helpful.

  27. Matthew Sanders says:

    What about I./E CAR MOVING?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      That’s explained in the book, but essentially you only want to use this slugline when we’re flipping rapidly between two locations – like a moving car as you suggest.

  28. Jessica Green says:

    I am really loving these examples. Going to buy your how to format a script book when I get paid.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Jessica, really appreciate it!

  29. Hakeem says:

    How should I use Continious?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You can add CONTINUOUS to a slugline when we’re following a character (or something) in a smooth transition from one location to another. For example:

      EXT. GARAGE – DAY

      Joe throws away his cigarette and heads back inside.

      INT. GARAGE – CONTINUOUS

      He sees Tommy exiting the bathroom and stops dead in his tracks.

  30. Nadine says:

    When should we use cut to, resolve to , fade in/out etc.?

  31. Eaternity says:

    Great article as always… I was wondering if you can tell me where I might be able to find finished sample spec scripts.
    All the scripts online are completed shooting scripts… with camera angles and direction also SFX cues. Which I was told is a big no no, if you want your script to be read and hopefully produced.
    Keep up the great work…
    Regards
    Scott

  32. Eaternity says:

    One more question if I may. Do you know of any proofreaders/editors that can go over a spec script to tidy it up and make it professional? (so it will be read and not thrown in the bin).
    I feel I”m to close to it and more than likely made some common mistakes…
    Regards
    Scott

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Yes, we have two services that could help with this: A Proofread/Formatting service and a Line Edit. Cheers!

  33. Kylo says:

    I have a script that needs formatting. How do I get this service please?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You can check out our Proofread/Formatting service here.

  34. Lillian says:

    I think this post is broadly right. There isn’t right and wrong but a reader at a studio is going to stop reading if they see certain things on the first page like no sluglines.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Well, if the writing’s good, even sluglines can be discarded. They won’t stop reading if it’s clear on the page what’s happening and the story is pulling them in.

  35. Rob B. says:

    Two questions:
    1) Could you do the Gym scene like this?
    EXT. GYM — Day
    Charlotte talks on her cellphone as she enters the —
    INT. GYM — DAY
    — walks down the hallway toward the changing room.
    2) Would you also consider writing it this way, to remove the “and?”
    Ned pulls out a PISTOL. FIRES at the ceiling.
    Thanks.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Yes, you could do both. Cheers!

  36. J. M. says:

    Hi! I’m writing my first script. My question is about line spacing (Word).
    When to skip lines and when to use single-spacing? In a dialogue, should I skip lines or use single-spacing?

    INT. DINER – DAY (skip line)
    It’s a local tourist place, but off-season empty. (skip line)
    The waitress approaches her with a coffee pot.
    CLEMENTINE (add space before paragraph)
    Hi, it’s me again! My home away from home. (add space after paragraph)
    WAITRESS
    Coffee? (add space after paragraph)
    CLEMENTINE
    God, yes. You’ve saved my life! Brrr! (add space after paragraph)

    Am I right?
    Thanks in advance!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Yes there should be a space between characters speaking. We recommend purchasing a screenwriting software program rather than trying to write in Word. A professional one (or even a free one) will deal with line spacing for you.

      1. J. M. says:

        Thanks!

        1. Script Reader Pro says:

          You’re welcome, JM!

  37. Sophie Heinzmann says:

    I’m a screenwriter from Berlin Germany. Would love to move to los angles one day and become a professional. Thank you for the inspiration.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      I’m sure you’ll make it, Sophie. Good luck!

  38. Nicolas West says:

    Do voiceover symbol go beside the character name? My screenwriting tutor says it goes underneath.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      That’s right, Nicolas. It goes beside the name.

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