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

Thursday, April 20, 2006


So I'm going to start regularly tackling the questions from responses to the last post. Feel free to add any more you think of.

Q: Honestly -- are you nearly so hung up on all the formatting specifics as what many newbies suggest in their advice to fellow newbs on websites and chat boards?

The answer to this is... sort of.

The thing with format is this: I think it's clear that there needs to be a standard format that screenplays should be in. Screenplays are essentially a blueprint, and they are an awkward animal, in that they are really just a transitionary form; they aren't really the art itself, but just a stop on the path to the finished movie. They really aren't meant to be read, and anything that makes it easier -- like standardizing as much as possible -- makes it easier.

So it really becomes a question of where to draw the line.

My advice (honed yesterday, after a conversation I had with industry friend Scoopy) is this --

Learn proper format, learn the rules, and try to stick to them where you can. Then, if you want to bend something here or there, it's fine -- if it honestly improves the script.

And that's a key thing. I think too many aspiring screenwriters just rebel for rebellion's sake; they don't want to be told there are rules.

They go, and search out screenplays by bigtime writers, who break rules, and they use that as an example of how they should be allowed to break rules too.

But the problem with this? There is a difference between a spec script you are peddling, and one written by someone who has already shown their chops, and who probably wrote it having already been paid to do so.

You are trying to show that you are a knowledgeable writer, by any means necessary. And one of those means, for better or for worse, is knowing proper format.

Is it something that readers are obsessed about? I don't think that any reader would honestly say that they would reject a script just because of weird format stuff.

But a lot of times it is subtle. For experienced readers, when you read things with format differences that jump out, it is often enough to take you out of the story a little bit, and make you wonder if the writer really knows what they are doing.

Because, again, so much of the format weirdness just feels pointless -- motivated not by the screenwriter doing it because it improves the script, but because they don't know any better.

And you don't want to be seen as not knowing any better.

Recently, I've seen writers doing things like putting the slugline in bold. It doesn't look bad, it certainly makes the sluglines pop. But does it help your script? Maybe if some lazy reader is reading it.

But are you really writing for the lazy readers?

My advice is to just take formatting out of the equation. By the end, you just want to write a gripping, entertaining story, and format stuff generally won't have anything to do with that.

Today's bad analogy? Formatting is like clothing. Sure, you can dress funky, and if you pull it off, it works. But if you are beautiful enough, it doesn't matter what you wear. While if you dress eccentrically, just realize that there are a lot of toothless old homeless people out there who are wearing the same outfit.

Having said that, of course there is flexibility, if there is a reason for it. Just think about whether there is.

I spent yesterday starting to clean up an old screenplay of mine (my legendary frozen-time script) so that I could submit it to the Nicholl. One of my old habits was to capitalize important words in scene descriptions. Again, it makes them pop during the read, but as Scoopy pointed out, it's also lazy; if you need a trick like this to make descriptions work, then maybe you just haven't written them well.

So I'm going to lowercase most of them. But I still might leave a few in, if they work. If they have a point.

Scoopy's latest script uses italics here and there to emphasize words. It's different, but in moderation it's not a big deal. The script I once read, that was entirely in capital letters? Death.

Otherwise, if anyone has some specific examples of weird format stuff that works, feel free to throw them up here for public debate.


At 4:11 PM, Blogger Abe Burnett said...

I really enjoyed most of the way that Mr. and Mrs. Smith was written. It deviated from standard script format several times, but always for the greatest effect. The result is that the script is as much fun and as much of a rollicking good time (at least to me) as the movie is.

One of the things it did (if I remember correctly) and which I thought was effective was to somewhat visually direct the focus of the script by putting an occasional word in all caps.

Like: Joe's hand slips into his bag and returns with a massive GUN. Jill's eyes FLY open in stunned surprise. It is magnificent--and deadly.

That's possibly an awkward example, but it worked in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. It pulled attention to various elements that might have otherwise been glossed over (lipstick--which we realize later is blood--on John Smith's collar).

It was a technique I hadn't seen used before and really added a lot to that particular script. Of course, it can OBVIOUSLY be abused; so taste and restraint are essential.

Also, one thing I've found drives me nuts when reading a script is restating the time in a slug. I don't know about you, but when I'm reading a script (or writing one) it makes a lot more sense to only put the time (i.e. morning) in the slug when it's changed from the slug previous. This helps the reader know that even though it's a new slug line it's still occuring at the same time, and probably in the same area (i.e. the same house or building, etc.). I realized that when I read the Wedding Crashers script immediately after reading The 40-year Old Virgin script. One of them (I can't remember which) irritated me because the time frame was in EVERY slug--which became distracting; especially in contrast to the other script which used them much more intelligently.

Anyway, that was something I hadn't picked up from any book I've read so I thought I'd mention it. When I'm reading a script I don't typically want to spend much time reading the slugs. I like it when I can pretty much skip them--and only read them if I need clarification. This is possible when the structure of the script and the transitions between one scene and another or masterfully crafted. That said, I think I'd personally find slugs which are bolded pretty annoying. The slug isn't important, what's IN the scene IS.

Then again, I'm an--as yet--unsold screenwriter myself, so this is totally just my aspiring opinion.

At 4:55 PM, Anonymous cwmagee said...

Another thing you need to remember is that the subtext of a format variation is "I couldn't think of a way to say this as well using plain english."

At 9:53 AM, Blogger Brett said...

In a recent effort, I found myself using a variety of slightly oddball or "different" formatting tricks to best convey the pacing and flow of scenes in which key actions happen simultaneously in multiple physical locations. In an aerial dogfight, I needed to be able to cut quickly back and forth between various different cockpits, sometimes to observers on the ground, sometimes between characters speaking different languages, and it needed to "feel" like the movie I could very clearly see running in my mind.

In the end, I wound up using a variety of tricks and techniques -- sometimes even using different tricks to handle similar scenes -- figuring that the STORY is the real point, not the damned FORMATTING.

I've had maybe 10 or 12 really knoiwledgable and informed folks read the piece over the course of teh last 8 months or so, and none of them have complained about the formatting decisions. So I guess I done good. ;-)

Bottom line: if it works, it works. If it doesn't it doesn't. Looking for eternal laws and ironclad rules may seem useful, but it takes you away from the more critical task of finding some way to MAKE it work.


At 10:05 AM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

I think the bottom line is that the reader should read a script and later be surprised to realize that there were formatting tricks, because they were integrated into the script so well -- and served the story -- that they never seemed obvious.

I read Brett's script, and I don't remember ever saying "why is he doing this like that?" So he made it work.


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