Monday, February 1, 2010


Screenplays have a very specific format (or really several specific formats if you consider sitcom, hour drama and feature film). It should not surprise you that if you want to work as a professional writer you need to use the proper format. It should not surprise you… but for some reason I’ve encountered an amazing number of aspiring writers who moan about learning format.

I’m not going to describe proper format here. You can get it from most basic screenwriting books or probably with a quick search online (I found what looks like a reasonable guide at Script Frenzy). Even better, read recent professional scripts until it’s ingrained in your mind. Here are a couple of good links to get you started:

Simply Scripts

Drew's Script-o-Rama

A couple words of caution about reading scripts for format. Format changes over time so emulate more recent scripts (this is also why it’s risky to use a guide printed in a book from 1988). For example, when I started out it was considered proper format to put “(CONTINUED)” at the bottom of each page. These days few professional writers do that.

Also, be aware that what’s online are often “shooting scripts” as opposed to “selling scripts” and the format is slightly different. Most importantly, you do not number scenes in a selling script. That is done by the production manager once the movie proceeds to pre-production.

Also be cautious of bound book editions of scripts. They are often reformatted to fit the book size. And be aware that some of what you’ll find are transcripts rather than the original scripts. Transcripts are usually in proper format but they may not reflect the content of the script that was originally greenlighted.

Ugh, it’s starting to sound complicated, isn’t it? Well if you read a lot of scripts you’ll figure it out. And if you want to be a professional screenwriter you should read a lot of scripts.

The other thing that will help you is to use screenwriting software. Final Draft is currently the industry standard, though Movie Magic Screenwriter has its adherents. There’s even Celtx, a fairly good freeware product. And since Celtx is free you really have no excuses.

Once you load the proper template for the kind of script you’re writing, the software will take care of most of the formatting for you. There is a small learning curve on any of these, but you’ll get the hang of it quicker than you think and wonder how you ever wrote without them.

The truth is a few formatting errors won’t kill you. If you use a slightly dated format people will still take your script seriously, though if you’re writing in a format used in the ‘40s or if you number your scenes it’s kind of a tip off that you’re not a working professional yet.

If, however, you write in a radically non-standard format people will absolutely not take you seriously. First of all, if you can’t be bothered to learn something as simple as formatting you probably haven’t bothered to learn anything else about the craft of writing either. The moment a producer or executive or movie star sees an improperly formatted script they immediately assume it’s awful. Experience says they’re probably right.

Secondly, there are reasons for the format. A big one is timing. A properly formatted feature screenplay should roughly equate to the length of the movie in a ratio of one page to one minute. The producer can then tell if your script is an acceptable length. If you’re using some bizarre format of your own they’ll have no idea.

Similar to format, you have to use proper spelling and grammar in your script (with allowances made for stylistic effect, of course*). Now if you read professional scripts you won’t have any trouble finding the occasional spelling or grammar error. That isn’t really surprising when you consider that unlike a novel a script isn’t intended as a final product. Studios don’t employ copy editors the way publishing houses do.

But most of the executives and producers in this business have degrees from top universities. They know the difference between “lose” and “loose,” “than” and “then,” “its” and “it’s.” If you don’t know how to use those words they’re going to think you’re kind of stupid. Is that the impression you want to give?

Again, a few errors will never get your script rejected. But if an Ivy League educated producer finds half a dozen spelling and grammar errors on the first page of your script you can bet she won’t bother to read the second page. If you haven’t mastered Basic English what’s the chance you’ve mastered dialogue and plot?

Look, nobody’s perfect. My Achilles heel is double letters – the word “occasionally” drives me nuts! Fortunately we have some good resources available to help with these things. The most obvious is the spelling and grammar checkers on your software – though they don’t catch everything. I’d also recommend getting Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style.” And if you’re unsure of your abilities you can always ask a friend who has a good command of language to proof your script.

Format, grammar and spelling create an impression on the reader before they even get to the quality of your storytelling. You want to create the impression that you are a smart, skilled artist who has spent time learning your craft.

In the end it’s all about being a professional.

*There are two places where you will violate the rules of grammar. One is dialogue. People rarely speak in perfect English and your dialogue should reflect the way people actually speak. The second is for stylistic effect. For example, screenwriters often use sentence fragments to create a sense of pace and tone. But in these instances it will be clear that you are violating the rules intentionally for effect. If on the other hand you confuse "their" and "there" everyone will know it's out of ignorance or sloppiness.

No comments: