a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Learn Format, Then Move On

Okay, I'm back. No more whining.

The other day there was an eye-rolling post in the forums of The Artful Writer, from someone who pretends to know what they are talking about, but who nevertheless was surprised that scripts by known writers might still actually have to go through readers. Or as he put it --

"The idea of something like "Kill Bill" going through a reader for approval to get filmed is quite a surprise to me. For that matter the idea that Black would wriite a million dollar script for somebody but have to worry having it shredded by some reader because it didn't have enough white space... blows my mind. "

So here, for not the first, and probably not the last time, let me post this here:


Now don't take this as a blanket permission to go crazy with your screenplay. There are general rules about format that you should follow, and most make a lot of sense. Obviously page after page of 10-line blocks of dense text not being broken up by anything is hard to read. I'm a firm believer in the fact that you should avoid camera directions unless it is absolutely necessary (and if there is any doubt, it probably isn't). CUT TOs are pretty passe, as are CONTINUEDS. You should put the proper spaces between each aspect of your script.

But you know what? This is SCREENWRITING 101 stuff. You learn it, and then you move on to the hard stuff. Like character, and story, and pace, and dialogue.

99% of the scripts I read have the right format, in terms of nothing jumping out when you flip through it. Once you get past "newbie", everyone knows how to format. And as long as you don't do something obviously amateur, no one cares.

But I have never "shredded" a script because it didn't have enough white space, or because it had CUT TOs, or a few ANGLE ONs, or a "We see BOB as he comes out of his house". It doesn't really matter if you like to capitilize sounds, or important words, or you don't.

It's all about telling your story in the best way you can.

Some people like to believe that format is really important, because it's something concrete that they can hold in their hands. They figure if they master how to write, the nuts and bolts of "page design", then that is half the battle right there, and they need to believe that somehow it is a big part of their grade.

Baloney. Learn format, figure out what works best for you, understand why certain things are good or not, and then move on and write. Don't get caught up in debates with people who think that it actually matters whether or not you drop in a cool SMASH CUT or two.

I have no idea what percentage of the things I read contain this or that. Because when I'm reading the script, I'm focused on the characters and the story. And at the end of the day, that's all that matters.


At 6:12 PM, Anonymous BK said...


Welcome back. Thanks for the great post. I caught that thread over at AW... I'm amazed at all the people who, with little screenwriting knowledge, think they know their shit.

Thanks for putting things into perspective.

- DDog

At 6:44 PM, Blogger Bill Cunningham said...

My whole philosophy has been the following:

If the reader is constantly aware that he/she is reading a screenplay and not diggig the situation my hero's caught in, then I've failed miserably.

If they can't "see" the film as I've laid it out for them on the page, then I've failed miserably.

If they look at what page they're on, then I've failed miserably.

However, if they read and read (chuckling and gasping at the appropriate moments), then get to the last page without realizing it - I'm gold.

(Or at least a polished bronze)

At 7:13 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Rodio said...

Rock on, Scott, and you are 1000% correct. Glad you're back in bloggin' land.

At 7:46 PM, Blogger Brett said...

Ooooo, BE CAREFUL, man-- there are a thousand active board posters ready to tell you how it's all about format, or adverbs, or something technical and simplistic, and not nearly so much a function the ability to tell a good story well.

[eye roll]

Glad to see you back in the saddle.

At 10:15 PM, Blogger Dave Olden said...

Welcome back, Scott.

Thanks for reminding us to keep a bead on story; our sights on target.


At 11:21 AM, Blogger Scoopy said...

Glad to see you back, smacking down the format obsessives.

The idea that any one reader decides the fate of a known writer's script is silly. I hear a lot of folks trying to determine such absolute laws of the development universe -- but there are no absolute laws.

You'll hear different rules about what you can and can't do or what you should or shouldn't do, but like any other field, some of these laws are obsolete, some you can bend and some you can break.

At 3:46 PM, Blogger Grubber said...

Welcome back Scott, and as always, thank you for your insight!

At 7:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

yep, I quickly learned to stop listening to the 'experts' and just get the hell on with the writing...sure I come across the odd format issue like phonecalls, insertions of posters and signage, but really, as long as my point is made they aren't going to toss me in the trash for that....good post

At 10:12 AM, Blogger Fun Joel said...

Right on Scott. I, of course, concur. And it's good to know that my experiences as a reader are not much different than others' (yours specifically). In fact, I made very similar comments to these in my Expo seminars yesterday. :-)

At 2:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, I agree for the most part.

Long-winded response coming up.

I'm a reader at a big five agency. I knock scripts for bad formatting if it's egregious because as bill cunningham writes, it's the screenwriter's duty to seduce the reader into the script.

The more a writer tries to force his own camera POV and editing, or the more he tries to EMPHASIZE certain ACTIONS or PROPS, the more difficult it is for the reader to imagine the movie for himself.

Writing all caps, for example, is distracting and cluttered looking, and since there are no parameters for what you should or shouldn't capitalize, you really shouldn't do it at all.

Writing all caps to emphasize action or props is a vestige of the way-olden days when you were supposed to capitalize props that figure prominently in a scene, to indicate to the property master what needed to be on set that day.

This practice morphed into capitalizing anything you want to emphasize it for the reader. The reality is, people who read lots of scripts know this isn't necessary.

Careful formatting is also important because it's not just me (the reader) the writer is trying to impress. It's talent, too. Actors, directors, plus producers and studios.

For example, John August writes about how some actors go through the script and cross off every dialogue parenthetical.

They do this because it's not the writer's job to direct the movie from the page. The tone and implication of the dialogue should be apparent in the writing, without having to puppeteer the actor with little prompts and suggestions. So unless it'll be confusing for the reader, avoid parentheticals.

If a script is ridden with parentheticals, an actor/director/ producer/studio could infer that the writer is an obstinate prick who's trying to make sure each scene is performed exactly to his specifications. If any of these people get an inkling that the writer has a 'tude, they could pass.

Bad formatting can also indicate inexperience, which also tends to scare people off. And if it's really bad, it could mean an extra step for the writer, who'll have to go back and clean it all up, which can cost time and/or money.

At the end of the day, if you have the basics down, it's not going to make the difference between a yes and a no.

But the object is to make the best impression you possibly can. Bad formatting can result in a less than optimal experience for the reader, and in this town, you have to do everything in your power to make that experience optimal.

So yeah, I guess you can make up your own formatting rules (bolded slug lines, etc.) but if you stray too far, or if you indulge yourself too much, you do it at your peril.


At 3:43 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

Well, I'm not advocating bad formatting. I'm saying that if your format is B+, there are more more important things to obsess over than worrying about making it an "A".

At 9:35 AM, Anonymous Brad Cook said...

RE all caps: While I agree that the use of caps can be pretty distracting, I see it still used often, even by pros. For example, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio's Pirates of the Caribbean script, which is available on Wordplay, uses all caps to highlight objects, actions, etc.

I'm not advocating doing it because they do it. I'm just saying that here are two well-established pros doing it, so I don't know that "people who read lots of scripts know this isn't necessary."

As always, of course, YMMV.

Great post, Scott. I've been popping by this blog off and on for a while. I've been a regular at Wordplay for several years.

At 3:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To Brad Cook,

Regarding all caps, it's not so much of a formatting error as it is just 'less than optimal' writing.

So it doesn't matter if Rossio and Elliot use all caps in their description. It still looks cluttered, and it still doesn't help or impress the reader the way they think it does. But R & E don't have to impress anyone. They could write in Arabic and no studio would ever make a peep about it.

I read scripts all day long by major pros, and they do s*** like this all the time. Underlining, italicizing, capitalizing, parentheticals, CUT TO's, CONTINUED's, POV this and that, 'We move down the hallway', 'we dissolve to an MCU of...'. It's all bad technique.

But the major pros don't have to get by me.

You do.

So don't use their bad technique as an excuse for doing it yourself. Or dismiss me by saying, 'Who put you in charge?' That's a cop out. The reality is, you have to mind your P's and Q's more than the big pros do.

Your work has to be as close to perfect as you can get it. Like I said in my prior post, bad formatting isn't likely to make a difference between a yes and a no. But you nonetheless have to do everything in your power to make the best impression you possibly can because some readers, like me, are formatting sticklers.

It's not just me saying this, by the way. There's a great book that, I think, should be the last word on formatting. It's called HOW NOT TO WRITE A SCREENPLAY: 101 MISTAKES SCREENWRITERS MAKE by Denny Martin Flynn. Read it and you'll be 100% in agreement with me, even if you start off in complete disagreement with me.

Not only does he list 101 mistakes, he explains WHY they're mistakes, and then he corrects the mistakes by re-writing them properly.

Every screenwriter, wannabe and pro, should read it.


At 4:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Further to your post where you said, "...if your format is B+, there are more more important things to obsess over than worrying about making it an "A".

To this I would say, there's no excuse for B+ formatting. A writer's formatting should always be A+ because it's the easiest part of screenwriting to understand, and it should be the first thing you learn.

Again, the Denny Martin Flynn book says it all.


At 7:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Scott,

Thanks for the informative post.

I'm having a hard time finding the answer to this question, and I was hoping you might know.

What about when the character talks in an accent? Do you write the character's accent in the script, or mention it in a note and continue on.

Thank you.

At 8:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi again Scott,

Wouldn't you know, I went into the archives over at Wordplay and found enough old posts on the subject to form an opinion.
Bottom line, engage the reader.

Would like to hear your reply though.

Happy Holiday. (Oops, Falwell gonna be mad at me...!)

At 10:25 AM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

Regarding accents, I think it's better to mention it and move on, rather than to try to write a lot of dialogue in pidgen English.

Though obviously, if the accent itself is the focus of scenes (like someone misunderstanding what the character says, and questioning them about it) you may have to reflect it more in the dialogue.

So... depends on the script, but if in doubt, mention it once and move on.

At 10:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Scott,

I've been a big fan of your posts on Artful Writer and Wordplay; great that you're blogging!

I have a specific question on format that I hope you could help me with. (And anyone else for that matter. :))

Re: Pauses in screenplays. Do you find that using (Beat) takes you out of the story?

Are ellipses less intrusive? What about moving the dialogue down to the left?

I would really appreciate your/anyone's thoughts on this.

Thank you.


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