On the whole, screenplay format is pretty standardised, and thankfully screenwriters barely have to think about it thanks to the use of modern screenwriting software.
Some of the formatting controversies of the past have been dealt with and become canon: Avoid using parentheticals or transitions unless absolutely, vitally necessary. Simple enough. Two controversies remain though.
For once I’m not talking about the screenwriting software Fade In, but the necessity to begin every screenplay with FADE IN: and end it with FADE OUT. Certain guides will tell you it’s mandatory, some will tell you it’s tradition and you should just do it. Many newer to the industry will say it’s redundant and can be skipped, leaving the choice of fading, cutting etc. to the director like all transitions. There’s pretty much no consensus other than this: Keeping it will seemingly annoy nobody, while removing them could irk some. So we may as well use them, and some of their variations. A word of warning though: There should only ever be one of each in the screenplay.
I don’t refer to line-spacing, but the number of spaces after a full stop in a screenplay. After years of beautifully laid-out treatises, typographers finally convinced us all that putting two spaces after a full stop was redundant, as these days we have typefaces and word-processors that handle the kerning properly. The restrictions of mono-spaced typewriters were a thing of the past. Except, however, when writing a screenplay, where we use a mono-spaced Courier font, to facilitate standardised spacing, partly to assist in judging the minute per page pacing. Again, nobody is going to throw your script in the bin for only using a single space, but apparently it’s easier on the eye of a script reader to use two spaces. And these are the people who’ll make the first decision on whether to pass on your script.
Back in spring of 2012, I took part in a competition called 50 Kisses; to reiterate, the idea behind it was for screenwriters to write a two-minute screenplay involving Valentine’s Day and a kiss. Successful scripts would then be made available to filmmakers, who would then decide from amongst the options and shoot the vignettes. Sadly, I was unsuccessful with my own entry, but I learnt valuable lessons from it. For example:
This is all aside from the fact that, with hindsight, it wasn’t very good or original. As I said, I learnt a lot from the exercise. If you’re going to fail, make sure it’s not wasted.
However, the 50 Kisses juggernaut rolled on; scripts were chosen, filmmakers made films, and Chris Jones and his team picked and assembled and polished and promoted and worked hard. And the result?
Stephen Follows created a database of the 100 highest grossing films for each of the last 20 years to get a dataset of 2,000 films. He crunched this data to determine what genres were popular, whether they were adaptations, remakes or original, etc.
There are plenty of well-known places to download movie scripts online, the best known of which is the Internet Movie Script Database, but there the resources for plays is much more limited, even for those in the public domain.
So, from Shakespeare to George Bernard Shaw to more contemporary playwrights, visit these sites.