Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Importance of Screenplay Formats

When I posted Judging Script Contests - New Criteria (a.k.a. Laughing Nun with a Ruler) I realized I was stepping on some sacred ground without taking off my shoes. The catalyst was some well-meaning criticism over a script draft I had submitted to a contest. (Something I rarely do.) What were my violations: (a) I used the word "we" in dialogue, and (b) later a few lines, where a character is yelling, were capitalized. The script was also criticized (c) because the opening dialogue didn't give any clear indication of the relationship between characters. [Duh! It was VO of the co-protagonist, from the end of the movie -- foreshadowing the end.]

The emphasis of the previous post was a call-out for contests to do what many studio and agency heads do... they don't ask to see the script first, but rather ask for hooks, log lines, and a one page snyopsis. THEN, if the STORY has some merit at that level, they'll take a look at the script. In addition to those two or three standard items I suggest that those "reading" or looking for stories, add two other very short items to their submission request list: a Conflict of Values and/or the Moral Premise Statement. In other words: what the movie is REALLY about. The log line and often the synopsis will only tell you what's going on physically or visibly. But what REALLY connects with audiences are the character's value motivations that drive the action. (Do I need to say it again, read The Moral Premise.) THEN, if all that seems like there's potential to the story, ASK FOR THE SCRIPT.


And when the script arrives in a reader's hands, standard formatting rules are really, very important. (See my P.S. as there is really, no standard.) As a writer (and reader) I need them desperately. Over the deacades the standards have developed to the point where anyone with some experience can understand a great deal about a script at a glance, or a scan. And when reading, the various margins, capitalization, and white space, helps us "see" the story, at least in terms of pacing, length, and budget. There's more below from two of my friends.

What tools do I use? In order of importance they are:

1. FINAL DRAFT software (I'm on a Mac). While you can change the format and use different templates for the type of media you're writing (or for whom), the program does come pretty well set up and ready to go. I think I've made only slight adjustments.

2. THE HOLLYWOOD STANDARD (book by Christopher Riley, Michael Wise Books). Chris's book is sandwiched between my Random House dictionary and well-worn Rodale Synonym Finder, just above my computer. I have the pages edge indexed with ink tabs, and I refer to it often. I still find things I want to do that Chris doesn't discuss, so that's when I go to No. 3.

3. Screenplay and script drafts from studio projects I've working on. 

There are half-a-dozen other format reference guides on my shelves, but I essentially ignore them.

Now, for some choice quotes from two friends who wanted to make sure I wrote THIS post; Douglas Lloyd Mcintosh, and Barbara Nicolosi (both credited WGA writers).

From Doug:
Purchase and use Final Draft, the least expensive and most intuitive screenwriting program available. Simply by using the default settings the writer can create a professionally formatted script that will be acceptable almost anywhere. Another thing I like about Final Draft is that it includes a PDF creator so you can turn your formatted script into a file that anyone can read or print out.

As someone who has read literally hundreds of scripts, I can feel a little more sympathy toward judges, readers or producers who don't want to struggle through a script in a format not considered professional by current standards.

I can also sympathize with Mickey Rooney, who has probably read far, far more scripts than you and I put together over his busy professional lifetime. You're absolutely right that three pages is not enough to reach any meaningful story point, but I tell you, on a certain level I have to agree with him. I want a story that grabs you right from the first moment. If a screenwriter has any skill, professionalism, talent and/or the absolutely crucial ability to get you interested in a story and concerned about the fate of the characters, you probably are going to be able to see it within three pages. My experience is that if I'm bored on the first three pages the rest of the script is almost certainly going to be drudgery to read as well. If a reader wants to keep reading after the first three pages, chances are the audience will want to keep watching the film or TV show.

Story structure is extremely important as you well know, but the first test of any film is whether the reader or later the audience wants to find out what's going to happen next. And they should want to find out what's going to happen next every step of the way. It's vital to tell the story in such a way as to keep people turning those pages.
From Barbara:
I wanted to express a brief defense on behalf of those of us who are sticklers about screenwriting grammar, aka formatting.  Considered under a professional lens, formatting is not irrelevant.  In the vast majority of projects, a correctly formatted page equals one minute of time on the screen.  The margins for dialogue are shorter and allow for the actors to add expression.  The longer margins allow the audience to get a good enough look at whatever is being described.  Beyond timing, capitalizations are signposts to casting agents, line producers, directors and DP's for all their respective tasks. 

The best way to consider a screenplay is like unto an architectural drawing.  People outside the profession do not appreciate all the industry standard norms for drawing, and would probably dismiss them.  But they have their uses.  Essential uses from a professional standpoint. 

People who haven't learned the industry standard for formatting are better off writing their story in a straight narrative fashion, as in a treatment.  There are some expectations for a treatment, but few people in the business will quibble over them. 

Thank you both.

I hope this post makes my suggestion in the previous post more clear. I agree with everything you've said. Great feedback.

And now for my


I think the differences between these two posts on script format comes down to this: "Get it close, avoid the gross." Be consistent and follow some sort of logic.  In other words, the general rules apply and the script needs to be close in terms of spacing, font size, and appearance on the page. But, I continue to get scripts from credited filmmakers and A listers that would be rejected at a moments notice by the so call "contests." And people I work with in L.A. say EVERY studio or group has their own format that is different from everyone else in some way that is obvious.

For instance there is no "precise" and "absolute" standard regarding:

-- The Order. General to specific, or specific to general.
-- Separators: hypens, spaces, or periods. I've seen them all.
-- FLASHBACK at front or rear or on line by itself.
-- Scene numbers. Yes or No, depending on your preference. Scripts are easier to critique WITH scene numbers.
-- Never put action description in the slug line. I've seen it, but it's stupid.

-- I've seen everything from 3.5 in wide dialogue to 4.75 inches.
-- Page margins are consistent from 1" on top, bottom, and right, and 1.5 on left, with 1/4" variations

-- I see many gerunds and adverbs. MANY of them.
-- I see many paragraphs that are 8 to 12 lines or more in length.
-- I see descriptions that when broken down will take pages to describe accurately, but in a screenplay they read fine and make sense. They tell the story.

In the end, the script must be formatted exactly, shot for shot, to give the studio an idea of the budget. An independent filmmaker sent me a script recently that she intends to shoot. No one else is involve. Not sure she has the budget, but in such cases a proper format will tell her and her production manager what it will cost to shoot and how many days. But there were scene descriptions of action that rather than taking up the 1/8 of a page that was written, would take 3 pages to shoot.

So, in the end format matters. But the standard is in the reader's head.

Sequel Post: The Importance of Screenplay Formats - Part 2

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