As discussed in a previous post, how to format your script can be something of a minefield. Especially when writers are constantly told to read professional scripts which have all kinds of screenplay formatting “errors” in them.
The format for a spec script is more conventional from that of an established writer’s, and it’s worth remembering this when reading scripts downloaded from the web.
An established writer is already just that — established. They have a name, and therefore the luxury of turning in scripts that may not adhere to all the formatting “rules and regulations” that a spec script has to.
Charlie Kaufman often writes his description in big chunky paragraphs. The opening to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is 16 lines deep. Not, of course, recommended for the aspiring writer.
The Coen Brothers don’t bother with writing proper sluglines. Hey, that’s okay if you’ve got a resume that includes writing Fargo, The Big Lebowski and Barton Fink. For everyone else trying to get a script made, we suggest sticking to convention.
The bottom line is — if you want to get some interest in your script, don’t try to copy the pros and break the rules when it comes to formatting it. Why give someone reading your script any reason at all to think you don’t know what you’re doing?
Screenplay formatting can be a bit of minefield to get right. There are so many rules, so many do’s and don’ts it can all start to bewilder even the most accomplished of writers.
Getting it right can often be difficult because there seems to be so much contradictory information out there on the web and in books.
Take something as deceptively simple as the cover page, for example. In David Trottier’s Screenwriter’s Bible, it tells you to place contact info in the bottom right hand corner. But in The Hollywood Standard by Christopher Riley, it tells you to place it in the left.
The bottom line is that small script formatting errors are never going to be the deal breaker in whether your script gets picked up or not. BUT consistent and obvious errors flag your script up as the work of an amateur writer right off the bat. It’s extremely rare that a script riddled with formatting mistakes turns out to be a masterpiece.
It’s all about making your script as easy to read and as professional as possible. Why deduct points from it before they’ve even read the story?
Below are five script formatting mistakes we commonly encounter. The great thing about them, though, is that they are easily remedied once you’re aware of them. Unlike, character problems, or a lagging second act!
- SLUGLINES. Keep them short. Instead of writing INT. APARTMENT BLOCK – APARTMENT 123 – BEDROOM – DAY just write INT. JULIE’S BEDROOM – DAY
- CONTINUOUS and SAME. These should only be used at the end of the slug-line when we follow a character from one location to another. For example, literally through a door. Not from morning to night, or sitting on a plane to jumping in a cab.
- LATER. Only employ this as a slug to show a passage of time in the same location. Every scene in a script is “later” but only write this when, for instance, showing two people meet in a restaurant and then finishing their meal. And only write LATER as the slug. Not INT. RESTAURANT – LATER
- FADE IN / FADE OUT. It’s amazing how many scripts we receive fail to include these two phrases at the beginning and end. FADE IN should be the first line in your screenplay and FADE OUT the last.
- PARENTHETICALS. Keep them to a minimum. Many writers seem to want to direct every action a character a makes while speaking. Leave it to the actor.
- TELEPHONE CONVERSATIONS. Under one slug, simply have a character pull a phone out of their pocket and say something. Then, under a new slug, have a different character reply. Then put INTERCUT — TELEPHONE CONVERSATION and then go back and forth between the two without any further slug-lines.
- FADE TO / CUT TO / DISSOLVE. These are directorial decisions so you can leave them all out.
We’ll be back with more script formatting issues in another post!