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The Basic Layout of a Screenplay

New to screenwriting and don't know how to format yet? Here are the basics to get you started.

So you want to write a screenplay but don't know where to start? Don't let that stop you. Every single screenwriter has been where you are now. A desire, an itch and thought that won't quit. Hold on to it and write it down. Even if at first it's just a massive bunch of jumbled notes. WRITE THEM DOWN.

A screenplay acts as the blueprint for a film (or TV) and it provides the guidelines for the director, actors, and crew to follow while making the movie. The standard format of a screenplay is essential in the film industry and has been developed over time to help readers understand the story, the visuals, the dialogue et all.

If you're seriously considering becoming a screenwriter, you'll want to start working on a script software. If you've no idea what that means, or aren't already working on a software then check out our Script Software Article.

But even with software that cleverly lays out your format, you'll still need to know the purpose and function for each script element.

Here is a basic layout of a screenplay:

Title Page

The first page of the screenplay should include the title, the writer's name, based on original source material and agents details (or writers contact details if not represented). Don't worry if you don't have your title yet. You can call it 'Untitled' or write (Working Title) underneath your title if you've not settled on one.


Sluglines, also known as scene headings, appear at the beginning of each scene and indicate whether the scene is set inside or outside (INT or EXT) the location, day or night, and any other relevant information. Sluglines act as a bullet point type sentence to immediately set the scene before it starts.


Action describes the physical movements and events of the story. It should be written in present tense and in an active voice, with no camera directions. In a rough draft, don't worry too much about having action lines 'perfect'. Just write what your characters need to be doing in the scene. But with revisions, action lines need to be economic and succinct whilst being enjoyable to read. Action lines shouldn't be boring. They make up over half of the screenplay and you need to hook your audience/reader with them.

Character Name

Character names appear above their dialogue. It lets the reader and actors know who is speaking and when. Only main characters and supporting roles need actual names. If you have a character step in for one line, you can call them WOMAN#1 or ANGRY BOY etc.


Dialogue is anything being said by your characters. The dialogue should be indented and left-aligned, underneath the name.


Parentheticals are bracketed descriptions that appear within the character's dialogue and provide information about the tone or delivery of the lines. They are only really needed if there would otherwise be confusion over how the line is read. Or if it's important to stress how the actor should read the line. Use them sparingly or not at all. They can also be used for (pause).


Transitions, such as CUT TO or DISSOLVE TO, indicate the flow of the story from one scene to another. They are often not needed. It is assumed that each scene will naturally cut to the next so you don't have to state it. Transitions are typically used for stylistic choices. Also to end screenplays using 'FADE OUT' or 'FADE TO BLACK'. Alternatively they can be used to hammer home a point, especially in comedy. For example: A character says 'I'd never do that' CUT TO the character doing 'that'.


Montage is a sequence of shots that compress time and convey information in a creative and visual way. It's a way of showing time passing/action playing out in a short space of time. Watch the beginning of Pixar's 'Up' to see a masterful montage.


Intercut is used to show parallel actions or events happening at the same time in different locations. Typically a phone call or some direct communication set in two different locations. It can also be an editing note to illicit the style of the content. These can be messy to a new writer, so use with caution.

Fade Out

We mentioned Fade Out in transitions as that's where it lives in elements. It is used at the end of a scene or act, to indicate the conclusion of a scene or the end of the screenplay. It can also be used to start a screenplay with FADE IN:

Obviously not 'The End'. There is a lot of nuance and style (as well as artistic license) that goes into formatting a screenplay correctly. Below are some visual examples of these elements.

PRISONERS by Aaron Guzikowski


OCEAN'S 11 by Ted Griffin

INSIDE OUT by Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley

When using screenplay software, these elements will align in the right format. However, knowing how, when and why to use screenplay elements is a vital part of mastering screenwriting.

Because a screenplay is a crucial element of filmmaking and should be formatted in a specific way to make it readable and clear for everyone involved in the production process. Adhering to the standard format of a screenplay will help bring your story to life on the big screen.

Make sure you at least master the basics, otherwise people will be reading your script like:



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