Today’s question isn’t really a question at all, but rather an investigation into how many lines of type should fit on a standard screenwriting page. While this may seem frivolous — a little like “How Many Angels Can Dance on the Head of a Pin” — almost every screenwriter has tweaked and shuffled, nipped and tucked to get a draft a few pages shorter.

Lines-per-page translates into lines-per-script, which is arguably a better metric than page count for how long a script “really” is. So I applaud Jeff trying to figure it out.

questionmarkI have a seemingly simple formatting question that I cannot find the answer to anywhere: How many lines should fit on a page?

I don’t ask for help with out trying to help myself first, but believe me, this one has got me stumped. My research yields vastly different results and even an interesting (disturbing?) modern trend. (I know it’s a long read for an e-mail, but I’ve done the research and I would really like your thoughts.)

I know all about setting margins and screenwriting software, but even following those suggestions, there appears to be a large discrepancy in the actual number of lines per page from script to script. Here’s how I have counted lines per page for purposes of this research:

Open a screenplay up to any page, start at the first line of screenplay on that page (a scene heading, character name, dialogue, action; not white space or a page number) and count that as ONE. Then, count every line after that (including white space) all the way to the last line of screenplay on that page (not including bottom CONTINUEDs if the script has them). The number you end up with is what I call Screenplay Lines per Page.

I have checked dozens of screenwriting books and asked various professionals that I can manage to speak with. Not one book mentioned anything about the number of lines that should fit on a page. One producer told me that there should be 56 lines per page because scripts are broken down into 1/8th’s of a page, each 1/8th being seven lines long. Eight times seven is fifty-six. Sounds logical.

So I checked scripts. While I didn’t count every page of a screenplay, I sampled a few pages to get the general feel for the average lines per page. What I found was interesting:

While I figured that page length would vary within a script, I found that most scripts were pretty consistent, with few pages outside plus/minus one off the average. (That is, a script that usually had 56 lines per page, would mostly have pages with lengths from 55-57 lines.)

Older scripts tend to have more lines per page. A completely random sample: Apocalypse Now has about 57 lines per page. Body Heat, also about 57. Aliens has many pages pushing 60. This corresponds to the info from the producer. Fifty-six lines per page seemed to be a good number to shoot for.

However, more modern scripts tend to have fewer lines per page. Another random sample: Both Big Fish and Go look to be in the 52-53 line range. Bruce Almighty is about 52. Even Saving Private Ryan with its 162 pages and four inch dialogue margins falls about 52 lines per page.

Here’s the issue: The old 120 page average has become the 120 page maximum. The average now looking like 110 pages, some sources even saying 100 pages isn’t too short. But on top of that, we seem to have “lost” about 4 or 5 lines per page. Those five lines account for almost 10 additional pages. So, in reality, a 110 page script of today is really 20 pages shorter than a 120 page script of say, twenty years ago.

Obviously, executives have chopped about 10 pages off the old 120 because they don’t want to read, want the movie to be cheaper (shorter), and want it to have more screenings per day (shorter). But have writers also cut another 10 pages (consciously or subconsciously) by reducing the number of lines per page?

As a side note, doesn’t this say something about the old one minute per page rule? If you really want to mess with that, look at Schindler’s List: 155 pages, a mere 41 lines per page, and a run time of 194 minutes!

With all the strict rules on formatting and the adherence to the ‘one page equals one minute’ concept it seems that having a standard number of lines per page would be a clear way to reinforce appropriate screenplay length. However, just the opposite has occurred — no one talks about lines per page. I realize that no one is going to toss out a script because they notice (which they won’t) that the script has about 56 lines per page rather than 52.

So, the question remains: How many lines should fit on a page? Is there a rule? If not, why does it seem that modern scripts have fewer lines than in the past? Something had to happen to lessen not just the page count but the line count as well.

I only ask because I want to get the most out of my pages while keeping the format correct and in touch with modern trends. This is no small matter: there are 10 pages hidden in the difference between 56 lines per page and 52 lines per page. Any insight is appreciated.

–Jeff
Los Angeles

So what’s the real answer? Obviously, there isn’t any hard and fast rule. I can only offer one more example:

Warner Bros. is the only studio that still has a script processing department. I’ve never met the people who work there, but based on terrible experiences I’ve had, my mind’s eye sees them as four women in their 60′s who smoke, watch soaps, and make fun of these dumb screenwriters and their high-fallutin’ words. True typists who average 80 words per minute, they clack away on vintage IBMs terminals with burnt-in amber monitors, grateful to whatever union keeps them employed despite complete irrelevance.

But I digress.

When you’re hired to write a script for Warner’s, they send along their style guide. I dug mine out for Barbarella. According to it, there should be 60 lines per page. Right above that figure, however, they list the font as being Prestige Pica or Courier (12 point, 10 pitch), which tells you immediately that they really haven’t adjusted for modern times. While point sizes are still used, pitch is a vestige of typewriters.

Incidentally, even if you follow Warner Bros.’ formatting guidelines, they retype your script anyway. This undermines any authority of Warner Bros.’ formatting guidelines: the scripts they produce are without question some of the ugliest and least-readable screenplays I’ve read.