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How to Turn Microsoft Word into a Terrific Screenwriting Program

Several of you have asked me for instructions on how to set up Microsoft Word “styles” for script writing.  A style is simply a saved bundle of formatting instructions.  If you are familiar with screenwriting software such as Final Draft or Screenwriter, you know that what they basically do is make it easier to write scripts by automatically formatting script elements, fonts, paragraphs, etc.  If you follow the instructions below you will turn Microsoft Word into a simple but effective screenwriting program.  

Several of you have asked me for instructions on how to set up Microsoft Word “styles” for script writing.  A style is simply a saved bundle of formatting instructions.  If you are familiar with screenwriting software such as Final Draft you know that what they basically do is make it easier to write scripts by automatically formatting script elements, fonts, paragraphs, etc.  If you follow the instructions below you will turn Microsoft Word into a simple but effective screenwriting program.  As I noted in an earlier post, I have used Word with styles to write hundreds of scripts and actually find it easier than the top screenwriting software.

I use Word 2007.  I think Word 2010 works the same.  I can’t recall if Word 2003 does, but in any of these versions you should be able to adapt what I’m showing you here.

First of all I am assuming you know the basics of Word.  If not, get familiar with it and then re-read this post.  That said, my instructions are very precise so you shouldn’t have any trouble following them (famous last words).

Let’s get started...

Open a new blank document in Word.  Save it as SCRIPT TEMPLATE.  This is the document you will use when you want to write a new script.  The formatting you create in this document will not appear in other Word documents. 

Starting with this blank document, the first thing to do is turn on “Print Layout” view.  Just click on the left-most icon on the lower-right corner of the Word screen.  Or click on “View” on the menu bar, then click the “Print Layout” icon on the left.  You should now see what looks like a blank white page on a gray background. 

We’re also going to need the ruler, so if you don’t see a ruler above your page click on “View” and then put a check in the box marked “Ruler”.

Microsoft Word Print Layout View

Now you need to set up your margins.  The easiest way to do this is just double-click in the empty gray space to the left of the ruler.  This will bring up the “Page Setup” dialog box and should be on the “Margins” tab.  Set your margins to Top: 1”, Bottom: 1”, Left: 1.5”, and Right: 1”.  (If you prefer different margins go ahead and enter them here.)

Now in your blank document type the following just like you see it here:

Slug
Action
Character
Parenthetical
Dialog
Transition

These are the basic script elements.  (Note that the reason I use the word “action” instead of “description” is because we are going to set up shortcut keys using the first letters of these words, and “description” and “dialog” both starts with the same letter.)

Now highlight the entire document (Ctrl+A) and format it Courier New 12 pt.  It should now look like this:

Slug
Action
Character
Parenthetical
Dialog
Transition

Next you’ll set up the indents so they conform to normal script formatting. 

Leave Slug and Action alone as they are normally left-aligned.  Click anywhere on the word Character so that the insertion bar is in the word.  On the left side of the ruler you’ll see what looks like a little hourglass (see above image).  With your cursor, click and hold the square beneath the hourglass and drag it to the right to the 2½” mark.  The word Character should now be two-and-a-half inches from the left.

Follow the same exact procedure, starting with clicking on the word, for Parenthetical, except you’ll drag the hourglass to 2” this time.  Now do the same thing again for Dialog, but drag the hourglass to 1½”.  You should now see Parenthetical and Dialog in their correct script positions.   

Finally, click on the word Transition.  Now on the upper menu bar click on “Home” then click again on the “Align Text Right” icon.

Your page should now look like this:

Slug
Action
                      Character
                 Parenthetical
            Dialog
                                          Transition

Taking the 1½” left margin into consideration, when you print your script out it should be 2½” from the left side of the page to the dialog, 3” to the parenthetical, and 3½” to the character name. 

Next you’re going to format the paragraph spacing of each of these, plus the Slug, Character and Transition fonts.

Right-click on the word Slug to open up the shortcut menu.  Now click on “Font...”, then put a check in the “All caps” box.  Click OK to accept the change.

Now right-click on Slug again, but this time click on “Paragraph...”  On the “Indents and spacing” tab, in the “Spacing” section change the “After:” box to 12 pts, and change the “Line Spacing:” from Single to Exactly 12pt.  Before you click OK, click on the “Line and Page Breaks” tab and select “Keep with next”.  Then click OK.  (Note: About half the scripts you’ll read have two spaces before slug lines, and half have only one.  If you want one leave it as is.  If you want two then on the “Indents and spacing” tab, in the “Spacing” section, set “Before” to 12 pts.)

Now right-click on Action and then click on “Paragraph...”  On the “Indents and spacing” tab, under “Spacing”, change the “After:” box to 12 pts, and change the “Line Spacing:” from Single to Exactly 12pt.  Then click OK. 

Next, right-click on the word Character and click on “Font...” Put a check in the “All caps” box and click OK.

Now right-click on Character again and click on “Paragraph...”  On the “Indents and spacing” tab, under “Spacing”, change the “Line Spacing:” from Single to Exactly 12pt. On the “Line and Page Breaks” tab select “Keep with next”.  Then click OK. 

Now right-click on Parenthetical and then click on “Paragraph...” On the “Indents and spacing” tab, under “Indentation”, set the Right indent to 2.25”, and change the “Line Spacing:” from Single to Exactly 12pt.  On the “Line and Page Breaks” tab select “Keep with next” and “Keep lines together”.  Then click OK. 

Now right-click on Dialog and click on “Paragraph...”  On the “Indents and spacing” tab, under “Indentation” set the Right indent to 1.25”, and under “Spacing”, change the “After:” box to 12 pts and change the “Line Spacing:” from Single to Exactly 12pt.  Then, select the “Line and Page Breaks” tab and select “Keep lines together”.  Then click OK. 

Next, right-click on the word Transition and click on “Font...” Put a check in the “All caps” box and click OK.

Now right-click on Transition again and click on “Paragraph...”  On the “Indents and spacing” tab, under “Spacing”, change the “After:” box to 12 pts, and change the “Line Spacing:” from Single to Exactly 12pt.  Then click OK. 

Your page should now look like this:

SLUG

Action

                      CHARACTER
                 Parenthetical
            Dialog

                                           TRANSITION

Your margins and formatting are now all set. 

Now you’ll turn your formatted script elements into Styles so that you never have to enter any of the formatting again. 

Here’s how you do it...

Right-click on Slug, and at the bottom of the shortcut menu, click “Save Selection as a New Quick Style...”  In the “Name” box type SLUG.  Then click on "Modify..."  The "Create New Style from Formatting" dialog box opens.  At the lower-left corner click on "Format".  Then click on "Shortcut key".  Your mouse insertion point should already be flashing in the "Press new shortcut key" box; if not, click in this box.  Now hold down your "Alt" key and press your "S" key.  You should see “Alt+S” in the box now.  Next click the "Assign" button at the lower left (if you don’t click “Assign” and just click on “Close” you will not save the shortcut key so BE SURE TO CLICK IT!!!).  After you’ve clicked on the “Assign” key click the "Close" button.  Then click the OK button. 

You’re done setting up the shortcut key for your Slug style.  Repeat the above instructions for the remaining elements using the following names and shortcut keys:

ACTION: Alt+A
CHARACTER: Alt+C
PARENTHETICAL: Alt+P
DIALOG: Alt+D
TRANSITION: Alt+T

You can actually use whatever names and shortcut key combinations you want.  If some letter seems easier to remember go ahead and use it.  Also, if you have already assigned any shortcut keys to other functions you may have a conflict and be forced to choose another key combination.

Now that you have all of the styles and shortcut keys set up you’ll need to go back into each of the styles to set up one last but definitely not least valuable function.  Styles also allow Word to automatically format...

...the paragraph after the Slug style to the Action style,
...the paragraph after the Character style to the Dialog style,
...the paragraph after the Parenthetical style to the Dialog style,
...the paragraph after the Dialog style to another Character style, and
...the paragraph after the Transition style to the Slug style.

Here’s how you do it:

If the “Home” menu isn’t already showing at the top of your screen, double-click the word “Home” at the upper left of your screen (this will “pin” it open).  Click on the word Slug.  You should see an orange highlight box appear around the SLUG style in the Styles section of the Home menu at the top of your screen.  Right-click anywhere inside the orange box, then click on “Modify...”  This opens up the "Modify Style" dialog box. 

Microsoft Word "Modify Style" Dialog Box

Under the "Properties" section you will see a narrow box titled "Style for following paragraph".  Click on the little down arrow at the right side of the box and then click on ACTION.  You should now see the word ACTION in the narrow box.  Click on OK at the lower-right corner.  From now on, anytime you hit the ENTER key after a slug line you will automatically be formatted for Action (i.e. description).

Now follow the same instructions for the remaining elements as follows:

For the Character element set the "Style for following paragraph" to Dialog.
For the Parenthetical element set the "Style for following paragraph" to Dialog.
For the Dialog element set the "Style for following paragraph" to Character.
For the Transition element set the "Style for following paragraph" to Slug.

You don’t have to do anything with the Action element because it is already set up to format the next paragraph as more Action (and if for some odd reason if it isn’t you can always fix it later).

The final thing you need to add to make your script formatting complete is page numbers.  If you don’t already know how to add them, just click “Insert” on the upper menu bar and then click on “Page Number” in the “Header & Footer” section.  Click on “Top of Page”, and in the fly-out click on “Plain Number 3”.  This will insert automatic page numbers at the upper right of each page.  Highlight the number (it should turn blue instead of gray).  Then right-click on it and in the shortcut menu choose Courier New 12 pt.  Finally, put your cursor to the right of the number and add a period.  Now double-click the "Header" tab at the left of the dotted blue line and you're done.

The last thing to do is save this document.  Then delete the text in your document and save it again.  This will give you a blank script template doc.  The reason you saved it twice is so that if anything odd happens and you lose formatting after deleting the text, you still have a Word backup file so you won’t have lost everything.  If your Word isn’t set up to automatically create backup files (.wbk) every time you save then DO IT NOW!  And while you’re at it get Carbonite so you don’t tear your hair out when your computer crashes and you lose your work.  It’s happened to me and it HURTS!!

You are now set up for script writing!

A few notes on usage:

To start writing a script just hit alt+S and type your slug line.  Then hit ENTER and you’ll automatically be in an Action paragraph.  Type your description.  When you hit ENTER again you will automatically be in another Action paragraph.  When you’re ready to write a character name, hit ENTER again.  You’ll still be in Action.  So just press Alt+C and type the name.  Then when you hit ENTER you will automatically be in Dialog style.  If you want to add a parenthetical just hit Alt+P and type your parenthetical.  It will word wrap automatically.  When you next hit ENTER it will take you to Dialog style, which will also word wrap automatically with the proper dialog width.  Hit ENTER again and you’ll be set to add another character name.  When you’re ready for more action just hit ENTER and then Alt+A.  When you need a transition just hit ENTER and Alt+T.  When you’re ready for a new slug just hit ENTER and Alt+S. 

That’s all there is to it.

Wherever you are in your script, if you want to change formatting all you have to do is put your cursor in the area you want to change and hit the shortcut key combination of the style you want to change it to.

You may notice that when you hit ENTER in an attempt to add a second parenthetical in a speech it brings you down two spaces instead of one. The easiest way to add additional parentheticals to a speech is as follows: Rather than hitting ENTER at the end of the dialog, use SHIFT+ENTER. This takes you to a new line in the same formatting. Then hit Ctrl+Tab. Now write your second parenthetical. Then hit SHIFT+ENTER again and continue your dialog.  Repeat as necessary for more parentheticals. If your additional parentheticals require more than one line use the same method.

 Now you might be thinking, “What about the MORE’S and CONTINUED’S?  There are two kinds: those for continued scenes and those for continued dialog.  I don’t use either of them.  Scripts read cleaner without them.  Anyone with half a brain (which, as I’ve noted, is a half a brain more than I have) doesn’t need to be told that what he’s reading is a continuation of what he just read one second before he turned the page.  Same with dialog.  Fred is Fred even though there’s been a line of description between his speeches.  The only value to more’s and continued’s is when speeches are broken over two pages.  It’s certainly nice to have the software automatically break the dialog and add the character’s name.  But I’ve lived without this for hundreds of scripts and would guess you can, too.  The worst you’ll have is some blank space at the bottom of a page.  But if it looks really nasty all you have to do is add in your own MORE and CONTINUED.  This will look like hell if you revise your script and it falls in the middle of a page, so be sure not to do this until your script is final or close to it.  But if you really want this done automatically and don’t mind paying a premium for it, buy Final Draft. It's a terrific program which I use for most of my screenplay writing.

One additional item for pros:  If you’re writing production scripts and want to make it easier to understand producer’s comments, you can add numbering to the dialog.  Just put your cursor in any character name then on the “Home” tab, under the Paragraph section, click on Numbering.  This will put an automatic number before your character name.  Then right-click on the name and in the Styles fly-out click “Update CHARACTER to match selection”.  That’ll number every speech consecutively so you don’t have to tell the producer, “You know that line on page 6, about halfway down, before Fred says...”

That should do it.  This post is too long already.  I’ve tested my instructions and they work for me.  But I may have overlooked something or made an error.  If so, please let me know and I will update the post.

Happy writing!

Jeff

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