How important is screenplay format?

March 8, 2012 § 9 Comments



Format? Pffft, hello is this on? Screenplay format? It’s extremely important.  It’s what separates the professional screenwriter from the amateur. Any professional in the film business will be able to recognize if you’re an amateur by your title page or page one of your screenplay—just by the way it’s presented.

Mastering format shows that you know what you are doing and you’ve actually taken the time to study and learn the craft of screenwriting. The craft is an art form, but also you are creating a blueprint for a movie and every blueprint, even for a house, has industry agreed specifics and requirements. It seems now with the proliferation of screenwriting manuals, seminars and gurus that everyone feels entitled to take a crack at a screenplay, just because it would be fun and everyone’s doing it!  It’s like a rite of passage when arriving in Los Angeles. Most people I come across have taken a crack at writing a screenplay at some time during their stay in Los Angeles or they know someone who is writing a script.  Or should I say, tried to write a script and got lost on page 45 for the past two years. Some never finish because they hit a wall and it’s difficult. You have to love the craft of writing, because you are the person up at 2 AM trying to figure out the problems and it’s a long haul to reach any level of success.

When I consult on a screenplay, I can tell just from the title page if the screenwriter knows proper format—and so can producers, directors, agents, managers and actors. You immediately give yourself away as an amateur or aspirant if your script is riddled with format issues, typos or structure problems. Your script will live or die by a thousand issues and it’s vital that you get past a first great read. A professional will read your script and every format issue or overwritten paragraph will leap off the page and be a major distraction. Take a lighter touch and don’t micromanage every scene with heavy description for fear the reader won’t understand what you are trying to do. Trust me, great actors and directors make your scene better and neither like to be told what to do by the screenwriter. Your job is to tell the story visually, not to tell actors to blink, smile, breath, shrug, roll their eyes or fold their arms. You also shouldn’t include camera angles or camera directions because you are not directing the film—the director is. If you know your very important place in the process, the producer will keep you around.  You might have a great story hidden behind all of the crap, but it’s all about execution and you get just one shot to make a first great impression. Make it count.

Some people approach me with, “I have a great idea for a script…” They go ahead and pitch it and I stop them and say, “sure, that’s great. You should go ahead and write it.” Ah, that’s where it usually ends, because writing is difficult to do at best and it takes years of honing your craft to really find your own distinctive voice. Usually their great movie idea ends up being a premise with no middle or end—and that’s okay. Great ideas take time to craft properly, but if you are going to spend your time writing a movie script and you expect someone in the industry to actually read it, you must follow proper format to show that you’re professional.

fade inI’m a real stickler for details and screenplay format. After I finish a draft, I embark upon a typo and widow word hunt, as I continually try to make my script read better. I expect other writers to do the same, but when I read a script and it’s obvious the writer does not know proper format, it shows me they don’t really seem to care about the craft. I feel their work ethic with regards to writing is: “Who cares, it’s only a screenplay. I have a great movie here and that is enough.” It’s not enough—in fact, it shows me a blatant disrespect for the craft and shows they don’t believe they have to study writing to write a script— hell, anyone can do it, just take a class or read a book. Yes, anyone can do it, but the key is doing it well enough so producers and executives take you seriously.

If format is an afterthought, it tells me that the writer feels they don’t need to learn the standard way to write a screenplay in today’s world. Be a professional in every aspect of your screenwriting discipline — from showing up early to meetings, delivering your drafts on schedule, and writing in proper screenplay format.  Industry professionals read so many scripts they can instantly spot an amateur from a professional and your script will suffer as a result from ignoring this important fact.

written byIt really starts with your cover page. Here’s one standard to always follow: bind your script with only two brads and leave the center hole empty. Never use three brads. It’s the little details that will show if you know what you are doing or not.  If any of these hard and fast rules are not followed your script will likely have a much harder time getting through the pipeline and will end up as a doorstop or in the recycling bin without a read. Trust me. I had a good friend in film school who always made his cover pages a work of art. He would use 72-point type and his title would be in some font other than courier. He’d use bright-colored cardboard for his covers and his title page resembled something close to the marquee of a Broadway show. If that wasn’t enough, his scripts were always north of 200 pages and I would joke, “The damn thing is the size of the L.A. phonebook. Cut it in half and you’ll have two scripts.”  When that behemoth was dropped on a producer’s desk, where do you think it was going to end up? And the sad part of the story was that no one could talk to him out of it because his mantra was “the rules are meant to be broken.

Sure, Shane Black did it back in the late 1980s when he would address the reader in his script by writing, “this is for you studio executive” or something to that extent. His writing style was one word bursts of action.  Tarantino followed this with his own very distinctive writing style, but I’d always tell friends, “Do not follow their lead.  They have a proven name and they can do this… you are unknown and your antics will kill your script from being read.”  

I also must stress being careful when you read the nominated scripts for the Academy Awards as most were either written by the director, or they were in a protected bubble of development and not specs new to the marketplace. I’ve read many of them and they do not follow conventional format and include camera angles and other micromanaging that a new writer must avoid with a spec. You can’t say, “Oh, Spike Jonze wrote his script that way, so I can too. Look where it got him.” He is a known director and the script isn’t a spec from an unknown writer trying to show they are working at a professional level. My point, do not use these scripts as examples of format or how to write a script. Read them to study the craft of storytelling, but not as a guide to follow.

These days you have about five pages to dazzle the reader and show them you can write or it ends up in the dumpster of broken dreams. I remember when the industry standard was “hook ‘em by page 15” —and then as time passed, you had a shorter and shorter time to hook ’em with every passing year.

Always follow proper screenplay format, tell a compelling story, write the truth, and write material that a director will want to shoot. Always write visually, never include camera directions, and always give your characters something to do. Film is a visual medium and it started by telling a story visually, so start from this idea and only write dialogue when necessary.  Allow your scenes to breathe and give some room on the page for other creative types to bring your material to another level.  After all, filmmaking is a collaborative art form and if you want to keep every word from being touched switch to writing novels.  But always stay the hell out-of-the-way of your script.

script oddsI see more people writing scripts than novels these days because I believe they feel there’s fame and fortune in writing a movie. Trust me, as the writer you’ll always be the lower person on the Hollywood food chain. Sure, you’re “above the line,” but if the lead actor makes $20 million and you make $200,000, whose trailer do you think will be bigger? Well, as a writer you don’t usually get a trailer, but you get the metaphor. Money is power and size does matter for bragging rights in Hollywood.  No one really cares who wrote the damn movie at the end of the day. The average movie going person doesn’t even know exactly what we do anyway. I had a friend once ask, “So, you just write the dialogue, right?” as my eyes narrowed at his ignorance. And again, while watching one of my movies someone asked, “So, when Duke falls from the bridge, did you write that?” How do you even begin to explain what we do as screenwriters?

Screenplay format is extremely important and it continues to evolve every year. Yes, there are not “rules” but you still have to know how to write a screenplay in the professionally accepted “format.” The old rule said to use two spaces after a period and now many writers are using only one space. I don’t think it’s a deal breaker, but it’s good to know the evolution of the craft. It’s the little details that matter and separates the amateur from the serious professional. Always treat your writing career with the utmost respect and professionalism. Study up on the current screenplay format by reading books and loads of scripts.Watch out using the Academy nominated screenplays as examples of how to write. They are usually either written by the director and are most likely shooting script—all developed under the protected bubble of screenplay development.

I suggest buying a terrific book called The Hollywood Standard by Christopher Riley or David Trottier’s book The Screenwriter’s Bible.  It answers every question about proper screenplay format and is a fantastic guide to have around as you write the next great Hollywood screenplay.

“The professional respects his craft. He does not consider himself superior to it.  He recognizes the contributions of those who have gone before him. He apprentices himself to them.” —Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”

Scriptcat out!

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When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.”—Stephen King

“Not only do you attack each scene as late as is possible, you attack the entire story the same way.”—William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade.

“Just tell the story, physically and visually. Don’t censor. Let the final form come last.”—director Carol Reed

“Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things.”—Ray Bradbury

“I don’t think of it as an art. When it works it’s skill & craft & some unconscious ability”—Ernest Lehman

Not a wasted word. This has been a main point to my literary thinking all my life.”—Hunter S. Thompson


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