I'm a story guy. I format screenplays out of necessity. "Structure" (a type of format) is far more important. Yet getting screenplays read by gatekeepers (especially at competitions) seems to be about format and style, and not the story, not the structure—legalism encroaches on art — flat boxes disguised as 3-dimentional curves.
Last year my post "Importance of Screenplay Formats" garnered some pushback. My original intent was to suggest that the story was more important than the format, and yet how some gurus and experts will tell you how utterly important correct format is if anyone is going to read anything you wrote. And there is truth in their assertion. I just question if anyone OF WORTH will read it.
I realize that some folks take pride in measuring indentations and circling in red the use of gerunds, adverbs, scene numbers, and SOUND EFFECTS that are not capitalized. But the sign on my bully pulpit still says: FORGET FORMATTING, just write a good story.
This mantra reminds me of Elmore "Dutch" Leonard, the prolific novelist (and source for a handful of movies, e.g. GET SHORTY) who famous said, (channeling a character from GET SHORTY):
Write the story, then get somebody to add the commas and shit.Such elegance... and truth.
Yes, a properly formatted script will tell the studio, or any knowledgeable production manager, how long and how much money a script will take to produce. But do you think the delicacies of schedule and budget should effect your story, unless you're writing to a particularly small budget?
I work on enough scripts that get made by studios, and I have not seen one yet that closely follows the "so called standards." Yes, they roughly follow. But depending on who you talk to the standards are different. I've seen students criticize the format rules in Christopher Riley's The Hollywood Standard because they weren't like their USC Extension instructor's hand out.
Another thing I hear is this:
When you're famous and have mastered the art of the craft, you can break the rules.Yes, that too is true. But young artists would be wise to copy the masters -- and that applies to screenwriting as well.
Is it possible for writers trying to break into Hollywood to be minutely concerned with formatting that the story suffers and doesn't rise to the bar? That's an interesting Catch-22.
Write a good story, let someone else format it.To test the structure of my bully pulpit, since I jump up and down on it from time to time, I picked a Hollywood script that I did not work on and one that was successful at the theaters. While reading it I made a list of formatting or writing constructions that would typically cause a reader to stop by page five and throw it into the trash. What follows are 13 of the kind of problems that gurus and contest readers warn will get you rejected immediately. But yet...well, look at this list, first:
- Describing what music should play in the background of the movie and listing it by artist and song.
- Repeated use of the phrase, "we hear...." or "we see..." in action description.
- Repeated use of pedantic verbs in the action description like "he looks," and "she walks."
- Describing camera movement, and then doing so in lower case.
- Use of a voice over narrator to tell the story. (Show, don't tell.)
- Use of bad grammar, (e.g. use of masculine pronoun with a female antecedent.)
- Numbering scenes. (Never do this, we're told, even if it helps annotate feedback.)
- No visual scene description when entering a new space.
- Repeated and frequent use of gerunds (ing) and adverbs (ly) in action description.
- Not formatting "INTERCUTS."
- Not formatting "MONTAGES."
- A character does not "begin" to do anything, especially "watch" a "sound".
- SOUND EFFECTS are not capitalized.
And what is the script that would be instantly rejected by so called value readers? STRANGER THAN FICTION (Newmarket Press), by Zach Helm. It was this early version of the script that producer Lindsay Doran initially passed around town, instantly garnering interest from multiple directors and studios begging for the right to participate. Marc Forster and Columbia won. It stars a few names you may have heard of: Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, Emma Thompson, Tony Hale, Tom Hulce, and Linda Hunt.
Do you think these attachments cared about the bad style and formatting? Evidently not.
And how did Zach and Lindsay do it?
A GREAT STORY. The script, even in its early form, is a wonderful read.
Copy the masters.