Movie Script Format and the Myth of Industry Rules.

Why you should stop thinking of movie script format in terms of rules.

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by Script Reader Pro in Screenplay Format
July 30, 2015 44 comments

Why you should stop thinking of movie script format in terms of rules.

(This post is an extract from our book “Master Screenplay Formatting: A Clear Guide On How To Format A Screenplay For The Spec Market.”)

Rather than discussing rules and regulations like most formatting books, we prefer to talk about how to format a script in terms of choices.

This is because, when it comes to movie script format, there are very few hard and fast “rules.” However, some script formatting choices will make you look more amateurish than others.

In this post, we’re going to discuss why and how you should start to reframe your mind to think about movie script format in terms of choices rather than cast iron rules and give a couple of examples along the way.

The two types of movie script format choices.

When it comes to thinking of your movie script format in terms of choices, there are good ones and bad ones.

Bad movie screenplay format choices.

The bad ones tend to do three things:

1.  Confuse the reader. They have to struggle to figure out what’s going on in the scene because it’s not clear due to the formatting.

2.  Be inconsistent. Elements change throughout the script. (V.O.) becomes (v.o.) becomes (VOICEOVER.)

3.  Irritate the reader by going against “the norm.” These things aren’t necessarily “wrong” but they’re not usually seen in a script. For example, writing action lines in all caps.

Better movie screenplay format choices.

Good screenplay format choices tend to do the following:

1.  Make it easy to understand what’s happening. The reader shouldn’t have to struggle to figure out what’s going on, such as if a character’s indoors or outdoors, as it distracts hugely from the read.

2.  Remain consistent. Every single element, character name, slugline etc. stays the same throughout the whole screenplay.

3.  Largely stick to “the norm.” While you’re trying to get noticed with a spec script, it’s best not to do things your own way just for the sake of it. You’re running the risk of irritating the reader if you do.

Let’s start our exploration on how you should aim to make better movie script format choices rather than look for definitive rules, by taking a look at how to format an email and/or text message in a script.

Movie script format example 1: how to format email/text message conversations.

In this case, instead of worrying about if you’re following “the rules” and formatting the conversation “correctly” it’s better to think in terms of choices.

Rookie format choice.

Short messages can be handled with an action line, wrapping the message in quotation marks. However, problems arise with your movie script format when whole conversations are written out using this method, like in the following example:

movie script formatWhile this method is fine for one message, it doesn’t look so great for whole conversations. Again, there are no formal rules to follow here.

Better format choice.

Feel free to tweak this or come up with your own, but we think email, text and instant message conversations are best handled as normal dialogue—albeit with a couple of minor alterations indicating the fact we’re reading messages.

Here’s an example of a better screenplay format of the same scene:

movie script formatYou could also switch out the character cues for actor directions and quotation marks for italics, like so:

movie script formatAs we said, it doesn’t really matter how you do it as none of this stuff is codified anywhere when it comes to movie script format. Go with the method that feels right to you and that doesn’t confuse the reader.

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Movie script format example 2: misusing INT. instead of EXT. and vice versa.  

Sometimes a location may feel like it’s an interior when really it’s an exterior, and vice versa.

Rookie format choice.

Here are some examples of mistakes we see in this regard:
movie script format

Better format choice.

And here’s how these scenes could be better handled:

movie script formatAs a general rule of thumb, if a character can look up and see the sky, it’s an exterior. If not, it’s an interior. But what if they’re underwater? In this case, it depends on how we arrive underwater.

Let’s say you have a character on a beach who then decides to go swimming. That could be handled with a mini slugline, like this:

movie script formatBut let’s say we’re not following a character underwater, but just jumping into a scene that’s already set underwater. In that case, we recommend something like this:

movie script formatOr here’s another alternative:

movie script formatIt’s not that important which particular words you use—i.e. UNDERWATER, or UNDERWATER SHOT, or UNDERWATER SEQUENCE—as long as it’s clear what’s happening.

Scenes set in outer space can also cause confusion but stick to the general rules for underwater scenes above—avoiding INT. or EXT. before either of them—and you should be fine.


screenplay format bookIn our book, “Master Screenplay Formatting: A Clear Guide On How To Format A Screenplay For The Spec Market” we show you how a few bad movie script format choices are never going to be a deal breaker as to whether your script gets picked up or not. But consistent and obvious bad choices can make a reader think the writer doesn’t know what they’re doing story-wise either. Whether that’s true or not.

It’s extremely rare that a script riddled with formatting mistakes turns out to be a masterpiece. It’s all about making your script as easy to read and as professional as possible. Why deduct points from it before they’ve even read the story?

We hope this helps clear up some of the confusion surrounding movie script format. Always remember, there are no rules, just choices, and it’s always best to go for the clearest, most easily understood screenwriting format you can.

And don’t forget to make your life as easier by using one of these 5 best screenwriting software, or these 10 best free screenwriting software options.

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Enjoyed this post? Read more about how to nail format and write a great script…

How to Format a Script If You Want to Break Into the Spec Market

How to Write a Screenplay That’s Unlike Any Other in 6 Steps

16 Screenwriting Tips That Will Improve Your Script Today

[© Photo credits: Pexels]

  1. Elyssa says:

    What about when you’re writing about us, the audience, looking at a computer screen and you’re watching what’s happening on it?
    We see on a computer screen: the same man slams his glass on the table and laughs.
    ON COMPUTER SCREEN: the same man slams his glass on the table and laughs.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You can format it as you like, but the second option’s better – with or without the ALL CAPS. Hope this helps.

  2. Sylvie says:

    Great great post, and right on time 🙂
    If I may, I have a question: my protagonist is thrown in the sea and find herself resurfacing underneath the overturned boat. Is that INT. or EXT.? I wrote
    Thanks for your help!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      That’d probably best be handled with a mini slugline like

      She resurfaces underneath the


      Continue action…

      1. Bob Canning says:

        On the subject of Formating, an issue came up with the annoying (CONT’D)s when a character’s speech is interrupted by action. I avoid this like the plague as it seems like a big DUH! and it looks like unnecessary clutter to me. I know (CONT’D) at the top of a page, followed by (MORE) on the bottom of the previous one, are a must.

        Before emailing you, I checked three screenplays: Wes Anderson’s “Budapest Hotel” AND Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of NY” and they avoid this as well. Another, “Three Billboards,” uses them.

        Are we to assume either/or rules? I read on another site: “Be consistent. Either use (CONT’D) throughout or don’t use it at all.” Certainly makes sense. I choose not to use it, but I’l like your opinion on it.

        1. Script Reader Pro says:

          It’s personal preference, as with a lot of these formatting “rules.” We agree with the post – either use it or don’t, but just be consistent. Cheers!

  3. Charles V Abela says:

    So do you accept spec scripts?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      For script coverage? Yes, we mainly help aspiring writers with spec scripts.

  4. Raul says:

    Hey there! Thank you very much for all the info shared in this page. I just have one question: do we use INT or EXT to describe a closed room with an actual open square in the roof through which you could see the sky? I’d go with INT if you could (only) enter it via inside doors, am I right?
    Thank you again

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Great question, Raul. As a general rule, it’s an EXT if you can see the sky – like on a boat or open courtyard. But it sounds like your scene takes place in a room with an open skylight – in which case, it’s still an INT.

  5. Civil rock star says:

    Some points are understand to me

  6. oscar julian lopez rincon says:

    great-job, guys!!!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Oscar!

  7. Brightness says:

    You have no idea how you’ve lifted this burden off me regarding text and phone call formats. Thanks so much
    Now I do have a problem with abiding with the one minute per page rule. Sometimes if I do try to follow it, my scenes feel incomplete; I honestly dunno.
    Help me please

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      A scene should generally last around two pages/two minutes but there are, of course, longer scenes at major turning points and shorter ones too.

  8. Jackie says:

    I’m still confused by script format but this helped 🙂

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Glad to hear you’re getting there. Feel free to email us directly with any screenplay formatting questions you may have.

  9. Prandip says:

    This post is very good, will help my movie script format all lot. Thank you.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      That’s great, thanks for reaching out.

  10. Danny says:

    What i did not realize is that formatting was such a b*tch! Might not have started writing in the first place lol.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Grab yourself some professional software and it’s really not that hard at all 🙂

  11. Mercy says:

    Thank you for this. It was helpful.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Glad to hear it, Mercy!

  12. Nitin Ankush Pardhi says:

    Script writing my help please

  13. Lisa says:

    But a character who`s voice is talking via voiceover can also be in the scene right? Like when he`s thinking

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Yes that’s right. Voice Over is for all thoughts in characters’ heads too.

  14. Christina says:

    Wouldn’t it still be V.O. But intertwined scenes of both characters are on screen speaking?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      If you’re referring to the scene with Miranda and Uneek, no because one character is visible in the scene and the other character is only “talking” via text. We’re not hearing her voice so it’s not Voice Over.

  15. Seshu says:

    Good thing…………

  16. Seshu says:

    Good thing……………….Thank you…. I will try my best

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Seshu.

  17. Tony says:

    I’ve been looking for a book on movie script format like this for some time. Good work guys!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Tony!

  18. Roberta Griffin says:

    Great post. I’ve always tried to avoid writing phone conversations because I was never really clear on the proper formatting. Thank you for the help.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks Roberta – glad it helped.

  19. Billie Urabazo says:

    Great info, as always! You listed all of my recent AMATEUR-HOUR mistakes! Thanks, Alex, and all!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You’re welcome Billie!

  20. Smithy says:

    Thanks for takin the myth out of it 🙂

  21. Johnny says:

    Good post, thanks. How do I get a job with you guys as a reader?

  22. David says:

    Good information script. Would love to get more tips like this!

  23. Ryan says:

    Wow. This really opened my eyes. Format rules seems to have evolved over the last 10 to 20 years or so. Though I could be wrong. Thank you, Script Reader Pro.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Glad you enjoyed the read, Ryan.

  24. Spaceman Dan says:

    V.O. vs O.C. Wouldn’t O.C. be better for a telephone conversation where V.O. seems more like narration?

    1. Hey Dan. With phone calls V.O. makes more sense to production when a script gets made. O.C. means “off camera” so technically the character on the other end of the phone would be in the same scene, but out of sight. V.O. means the character’s not present anywhere in the scene, but we can hear their voice.

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