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Monday, April 23, 2007

Format The Write Way...

...Like what I did there? Write? Right? Oh, never mind.

I got an interesting question from the lovely Melissa, a previous Bang2write client, over the weekend: how does one format an intro with a narrator voiceover like one in say, The Dark Crystal?

A cursory look on the internet revealed lacklustre results, as did flicking through my trillions of books on format. As you can see from this transcript of the original screenplay, all we have is dialogue! No scene description or even formatting of ANY kind. Whilst it's pretty accurate (hands up who watched it this weekend!! Ok, me...What??), it's not a lot of use to the aspiring screenwriter...

...And this is where the rub is when it comes to format. Looking at scripts online is great for ideas and sites like Script-O-Rama and Simply Scripts are a godsend for getting different versions of what we see in the cinema, but thinking they can be the authority on how to lay out one's script can be foolhardy. After all, we can have no idea what we're seeing: is it a shooting script, maybe or even a transcript off a DVD or Video? If the script of a film that has not yet come out in theatres, is it the "right" version, or one that was discarded? (The number of times I've done this - read it, then watched a different movie with the same name is uncountable!)

So rather than rely solely on scripts like The Dark Crystal's, interesting only as a transcript, I find it works better to actually ask people who have done what you want to achieve. I had this exact problem myself about eighteen months ago when writing my werewolf project Eclipse. I wanted to start with a narration, but not neccessarily have the SAME pictures in the background - just like The Dark Crystal in fact, when the Narrator talks about "The time of Wonder" and fills the audience in about the backstory re: The Crystal, The Shard, The Skeksis and The Mystics and of course, the importance of The Gelfling Jen.

So I made a nuisance of myself. I wrote lots of crap examples and sent them to people I know: is this right?? I got some profane replies and I got ignored, but a couple got back to me, explaining very patiently that no, what I'd written was a load of tripe and had I thought about doing it "this" way? One problem though: the two people who had been kind enough to get back to me gave me two very different examples. What was I do? Which was the "right" one?

They both were.

Someone once told me that Format isn't about being "right", it's about not getting "caught out". In other words, as long as it's NOT TOTALLY, UNBELIEVABLY ALL OVER THE PLACE, or worse, INCREDIBLY DENSE WITH BLACK ALL OVER THE PAGE, then you should be ok: you won't get crucified for it. So the good news is, if you have a transition in the wrong place or TITLE instead of SUPER and it's one of perhaps three mistakes or typos in the entire script, you should be okay.

For example: I was really surprised recently when a script was returned to me with a favourable report, because for some reason when I had bound it, I had gone quite mad and forgot the number 7 existed. I put all the pages with the number 7 in at the back. No kidding. Quite how this happened I have no idea: I can only imagine that Evil Aliens whose mission in life is to sabotage Human Screenwriters took over my body for the duration it took to print out, arrange and bind my script. There is no other explanation (ok, maybe).

However, rather than ridicule me for my ridiculous page order, The Reader wrote:

"I enjoyed the challenge of reading your script...Not least because it was in the weirdest order I've ever seen in my ten years of reading. However, the story, visuals and dialogue are strong, with an intriguing central premise."

Of course they didn't want to make the bloody thing, but they did want another script, so they can't have thought I was completely barking. Or maybe you don't have to be mad to work there, but it helps (GROAN - couldn't resist).

So what am I saying here? Know Format exists, but don't be constricted by it. It can actually help you. But don't get hung up on it. I went through a PHASE when I could barely let go of a script into the postbox JUST IN CASE something was wrong with it. When they came back with rejection letters, I'd see a format error and go, "Oh God! It's because of that!" Actually, now I know it's 'cos all my early work was the product of those same Evil Sabotaging Aliens who wrote really godawful shite to keep me out of the writing market, but I overcome them most of the time now and people actually sometimes like my specs. Even if they don't make them. Damn their hides.

8 comments:

Dave Anderson said...

Here's how I solved the problem in my last (unproduced) script...

EXT. BRIDEWELL PRISON (1846) - DAY
A grim as hell Victorian jail.
Hands reaching out beseechingly through bars and small windows.
DICKENS (V.O.)
Of what avail is it to send missionaries to the miserable souls condemned to work in this foetid place?
EXT. PRISON EXERCISE YARD - DAY
Women prisoners, heads bowed, backs bent, shuffle around the yard, supervised by male guards.
One of the prisoners is ISABELLA GORDON, a waif-like teenager. She looks unwell.
DICKENS (V.O.)
Where every sense bestowed upon him for health and happiness turns into torment?
INT. PRISON TREADMILL - DAY
A dozen or so miserable women prisoners tread the giant engine of punishment.
DICKENS (V.O.)
Where every month of his life adds to the heap of evils under which he is condemned to exist?
Isabella tries to keep up with the crushing pace of the turning wheel. But she is pale, weak, starved --
-- and collapses --
-- falls through the gaps of the wheel --
-- is snatched away from certain death by a watchful guard.
DICKENS (V.O.) (CONT’D)
He is so surrounded by material filth that his soul cannot rise to the contemplation of the great truths of religion.

Chris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris (ukscriptwriter) said...

The deleted comment was from me posting under the wrong user name. Here it is again:

I haven't seen the film referenced in your post, but War of the Worlds has a VO at the start (and end?) by Morgan Freeman who plays no part in the rest of the film (or I was totally asleep?).

Perhaps that is a good example to look at (same rules apply about scripts you find on the net).

Of course if the writer has a blog, you could pop over there and ask them for an early copy. Sounds stupid and cheeky but that is what I did for a film I saw at the cinema. The film was a spec from a then unsold writer, and I wanted to see the draft where someone said "I'll buy that!".

I sent the email and I got a very nice and kind "No problem" reply with the script attached.

I won't name the writer here in case he/she gets flooded with requests and I get placed at the top of his/her hit list with the note "make sure it's painful" written in the margin :)

Chris

Robin Kelly said...

I used to get very hung up on format but too many producers say they aren't too fussed because their priority is finding a great story with compelling characters. Formatting is easy to teach, screenwriting less so.

One comedy in development at the BBC was sent in handwritten but it was so good they accepted it.

But while I no longer advocate the death penalty for those who want to use VO instead of OS, I do think we should make the read as easy as possible for the reader. Strange formats and typos will throw people out of the story. I want people lost in the world I created.

Here's the Nicholl comp format guide which tells you all you need to know:

http://www.oscars.org/nicholl/format_a.txt

Lucy said...

Dave - thanks for that, always good to see another's insights! ; )

Chris - that's the spirit: if you want something, ask the people who do it already I always say.

Robin - Producers aren't the ones I worry about--as you say, not many are hung up on format--but there are quite a few kids, literal teens, on UNPAID WORK EXPERIENCE reading our scripts! That's how I started...ARGH!!!!!!

Don said...

This is a great article. And it very much needs to be pointed out the difference between a transcript and a properly formatted script. On Simplyscripts, I take pains to indicate if what you are reading is a transcript (copied from listening to the dialog of a movie) or a properly formatted script. There are even a great many transcripts of dialog that have been written in proper screenwriting format, so it can be tricky to tell the difference between the two.

Don
webmaster
simplyscripts.com

Lucy said...

Thanks for dropping by, Don! Good to hear from peeps on the script site front. It's great you point out which are transcripts where you can - I stand corrected! : )

Milli Thornton said...

This blog post is an absolute godsend. The comments, too.

Am writing my first script and I started the process quite mentally healthy. I concentrated on my *story* while using enough formatting to give me the structure I needed, but without trying to finesse the finer points in the first few drafts.

Now I'm at draft X-zillion and trying to put formatting into perspective (aka get my mental health back).

I began reading widely to find out what the experts teach. But, even though there's a book called The Hollywood Standard -- which is claimed to be THE way to do it by the foremost expert -- I've found in truth (stark-raving newbie that I am) that no such "standard" exists. At least, not one that everyone in the industry agrees on.

Not earth-shattering news to anyone else on this blog post, I know. In fact, I feel quite at home now, realizing that most others here have been through this dark night of the formatting soul.

Lucy, your sensible advice was EXACTLY what I needed to hear at this point.

Loved Chris' suggestion to go to the horse's mouth and ask politely to see the script that landed the deal.

I was excited by Robin's link to the Nicholl comp formatting guide, but the link was dead when I tried it. Dug around and came up with this page -- formatting tips and "script problems to avoid" for Nicholl applicants:

http://www.oscars.org/awards/nicholl/apply.html

Thanks again, everyone. Lucy, I LOVE your blog! You're a friendly voice in the wilderness over a cup of tea and a Scotch finger.