A couple months ago I solicited suggestions for blog topics here and on my Twitter feed. My friend Paul Guay suggested I talk about the crucial importance of spelling, grammar, punctuation and format. Paul, a top professional screenwriter (Liar Liar, Heartbreakers, Little Rascals) obviously doesn’t need to be told about format and grammar. I’m sure the suggestion came from his frustration in dealing with students from his classes and consulting business.
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.
Using proper format is important for several reasons. First, it makes you look like a professional. Second, properly formatted screenplays should roughly time out to about one minute of screen time for each page of the screenplay. This helps the studio know if the screenplay is an appropriate length for a movie. Finally, many things about screenplay format are designed to help in the production of a film – for example, slug lines indicate a new location or time of day, which is helpful for scheduling the shoot.
There is a difference between a production formatted screenplay (a script which has been “locked” and is in pre-production) and a development script. Most of the time, writers are dealing with development format.
Here is a format guide for development scripts I’ve prepared with Paul’s help.
Note that format changes subtly over time (this is 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.
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. 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 with any of these, but you’ll get the hang of it quicker than you think and wonder how you ever wrote without them.
Similar to format, you have to use proper spelling, grammar and punctuation in your script. 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, the executives are going to think you’re kind of stupid. Is that the impression you want to give? As a writer, your tool is the English language. You are expected to have mastered that tool!
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. On the other hand, if you confuse "their" and "there" everyone will know it's out of ignorance or sloppiness.
Now, if you read professional scripts you won’t have any trouble finding the occasional spelling, punctuation, format 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 don’t take that a license to be sloppy.
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?
Similarly, 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 (as is done in a locked production script) 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.
Remember, seldom are people in Hollywood obligated to read your work. Especially if you are trying to break in, any indication that you aren’t ready will be an easy excuse for a producer or executive to toss your script aside and move on to the next one.
Of course the thing that will ultimately determine your success or failure is your storytelling ability. The prettiest script in the world won’t sell if the story isn’t compelling. But format, grammar, punctuation, and spelling create an impression on the reader before they even get to the quality of your story. 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.