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Screenwriting Format: The Differences Between Spec & Pro Screenplay Formatting

A Quick Guide To Formatting A Script For Today's Spec Market

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by Script Reader Pro in How To Write A Screenplay
May 3, 2012 2 comments
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When it comes to the screenwriting format found in spec screenplays and that found in professional screenplays, you may have noticed quite a difference between the two.

(This post is partly taken from our book “Master Screenplay Formatting: A Clear Guide On How To Format A Screenplay For The Spec Market.”)

We are always telling our clients to read professional screenplays as it’s one of the very best ways of learning how to write. The problem is, while an aspiring writer can cultivate a fantastic writing style from reading pro screenplays, they sometimes have all kinds of screenwriting format “errors” in them.

Take this scene from the screenplay to Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Note the odd margins and lines broken up into separate paragraphs:

screenwriting format

The thing is, there are so many movie script format quirks out there in professional screenplays we’d be here all week if we tried to list them. But here’s the rub: James Cameron doesn’t write screenplays for the spec market.

The formatting for scripts written on spec is generally much more conventional than that found professionally produced screenplays by established writers. An established writer is just that: established.

They have a name and a reputation, and therefore the luxury of turning in scripts that may not adhere to all the formatting “rules and regulations” of the spec market. Even if, as we’ve already noted, these so-called “rules” are themselves somewhat nebulous.

Pro Screenwriting Format Quirk #1:
The Disappearing Slugline

In spec screenplays, using sluglines is often considered as close as you’re going to get to a “screenwriting format rule.” In pro screenplays, not so much.

Some professional screenwriters such as Woody Allen, the Coen Brothers and Dan Gilroy don’t bother with sluglines at all. Instead, they’ll use “mini-slugs,” the kind we all use occasionally when we want to speed up the read.

Here’s a slug-less scene in Nightcrawler by Dan Gilroy:

script format

Proceed with caution if you’re thinking of adopting this style, as many script readers will no doubt have a bone to pick with you.

Then again, if you’ve got the writing chops to back up such an audacious move as ditching sluglines (which are, let’s be honest, a pain in the ass) then why not? It’ll certainly make your spec screenplay stand out.

Screenwriting Format

Pro Screenwriting Format Quirk #2:
The “Three Lines Or Less” Rule

Aspiring screenwriters of spec screenplays are often told to stick to “three lines or less” when writing description. In pro scripts, however, you’ll sometimes find yourself reading big long paragraphs, like the opening to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by Charlie Kaufman:

screenplay format

While this is not a recommended script format choice for the aspiring writer, we at Script Reader Pro are not “three lines or less” Nazis either. If the writing in a paragraph is of such a high standard that it pulls you into the story despite being eight lines deep, then good on you.

New screenwriters are advised to stick to three lines or less; a lot of “black on the page” is generally viewed as a tell-tale sign that the writer doesn’t know how to write succinctly.

So feel free to write more than three lines a paragraph, but only if you’re damn sure your writing’s going to blow the reader away regardless of the initial first impression an overblown paragraph leaves.

Pro Screenwriting Format Quirk #3:
Extremely Sparse Description

Writers of spec scripts are told to make their writing style as descriptive and evocative in as few words as possible. However, the writers of pro screenplays sometimes also direct their movies, so it’s up to them whether they want to describe the action in an evocative way on the page, or from behind the camera.

Woody Allen, for example, doesn’t bother with much scene description as you can see from this page in Bullets Over Broadway:

screenwriting format

Allen will also often write things like “To be decided later…” “Depending on the location…” and sometimes even write in two different punchlines to the same joke. None of these are recommended stylistic screenwriting format techniques for a spec screenplay writer but, again, if you can pull it off, kudos to you.

Pro Screenwriting Format vs. Spec Scriptwriting Format: Conclusion

There are many other screenwriting format quirks out there favored by professional screenwriters—such as David O. Russell’s fondness for writing his description in caps—but, overall, if you’re an aspiring screenwriter it’s best to avoid them.

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.

So while we hate to tell aspiring screenwriters there are a number of set “script format rules” you must follow when writing and learning how to format a script why give a script reader any reason at all to criticize it? On the balance of things, it’s probably best to stick to using sluglines, the “three lines or less” rule and evocative description.

screenplay formatIn our book, “Master Screenplay Formatting: A Clear Guide On How To Format A Screenplay For The Spec Market” we don’t recommend you make up your own format for sluglines as you go along. Or write description that goes on for sixteen lines. Or that you break dialogue up into paragraphs.

On the other hand, we don’t preach a dogmatic set of rules when it comes to your screenwriting format, to be followed no matter what, either.

If your description is of such a high standard that it pulls the reader into the scene despite being sixteen lines deep, then good on you.

The reason why aspiring writers are advised to, say, stick to four lines or less, is because to do otherwise is generally viewed as a tell-tale sign they don’t know how to write succinctly.

Feel free to break the screenwriting format “rules” and do what you want, just like a professional writer. But only if you’re 100% sure your story’s going to blow the reader away, regardless of any poor first impression some irregular formatting may have on them.

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If you’d like us to check your spec screenwriting format for errors, check out our Professional Proofread and Formatting service. And you can see a full range of our services by clicking the banner below.

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2 Comments
  1. dejan10 says:

    Yep, amazing how many rules the pros break. Can still learn a ton from reading pro scripts though.

  2. Carlton says:

    So true. i love reading scripts online but just have to be careful what you take from it.

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