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Spec Screenwriting Format vs Pro Screenwriting Format



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by Script Reader Pro in How To Write A Screenplay
May 3, 2012 2 comments
writing a scene

You may have noticed there can be quite a difference between a spec screenwriting format and a professional screenwriting format. In this post we’re going to take a look at the differences between the two and what to avoid and what to embrace. 

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.

The spec scriptwriting format is generally much more conventional than that of an established writer’s in a professional, produced screenplay, and so let’s start by taking a quick look at some of the common differences between the two.

Pro Screenwriting Format Quirk #1:
The Disappearing Slugline

In spec screenplays, using sluglines is 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.

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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 Screenplay 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. Now this is where we have to put our foot down. None of these are recommended stylistic screenwriting format techniques for a spec screenplay writer.

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 ALL 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 a screenplay, 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.


If you’d like us to check your screenplay’s 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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  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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