As you might imagine, I get a lot of questions about format - and scribes love to talk about it, whether it's on message boards, e-bulletins, blogs, even in - shock! horror! - real life. Seems to me like the whole format thing is never going to go away: instead it's going to go up and down the scriptwriting mountain like Sisphus' rock. As soon as one discussion is finished, another will start.
It's a tricky beast too, because it takes many guises, such as:
- Should I use capitals for sounds in my scripts?
- Can I capitalise dialogue? Underline it? Italicise it? Put it in bold? What about little symbols *like these* or # these #?
- Should numbers be numbers in dialogue and description, or should they be spelt out with words?
- What about sluglines - can they be underlined or in bold?
- Should I use scene numbers or not?
- Can I use another font instead of courier 12 pt?
... There are many more variations too. The only one in the above list I would recommend 100% is you DO use courier 12 pt. It's the standard. That's why we have Twelve Point - it's synonymous with screenwriting. (I heard the font hails back to the old time of typewriters and the golden age of movie-making when it first began in the studios, but I don't know if that's true).
The rest? Well, here's a question for you:
How much do extra capitals, underlining, italics and whatnot affect your STORY?
Oh, that's right: they don't. Sorted then: do what you like.
But wait -- here's another:
How confident are you that you WON'T get a reader who puts too much stock in format?
I've said before format is about not getting busted - and there's a hell of a lot of work experience kids reading our scripts. Those kids are harsh. But hell, they're going to be: they're not being paid, actually having to do a hell of a lot of work (believe it or not!) and reading a hell of a lot of rubbish, not to mention make the tea and be a general dogsbody. Not exactly a dream job. There's also the point they're often just transient: on work ex at the prodco or agency for anything between two and six weeks usually. The person who opened your script and deemed it good enough for the "in" tray may not be the person who shoves it in the "out" tray.
There's lots said about less experienced/work experience readers, but (when I'm not pissed off with them myself! No one's immune) I think they're much maligned and misunderstood. Often their zeal is in hope of perfection and when they don't receive it, they may look for a convenient hook on which to hang their disappointment. Or perhaps they are so inexperienced they don't have the words to describe HOW they feel the structure doesn't work, or why the character doesn't "feel real". It's bad luck if yours happens to be the very first script they've ever read, but everyone does have to start somewhere. It's all very well too saying they shouldn't be reading if they can't vocalise their issues - and maybe they shouldn't - but they are. So I think that's why format becomes an easy, concrete thing to roll out, time after time - and why we hear so much about it.
So why give them that opportunity? If your format is good, they won't have any opportunity to bust you on it. They have no choice but to look deeper, work harder. That's why I always recommend to my Bang2writers anything they may want to "clean up". But as I'm always at pains to point out in their notes, it's up to them. It's not obligatory. There are no RULES.
But it is worth remembering that though it may feel like it, not all readers are pure evil who are out to get scribes ( even though it feels like it sometimes). We all have our pet peeves in our jobs and should be allowed them. Does everyone do their jobs with 100% good grace, 100% of the time? I think not.
Whilst I couldn't care less about bold, scene numbers, italics, underlining and caps for sounds - I'd BE lying IF I SAID I TOTALLY love it WHEN every OTHER word IS capitalised. Some scripts really do overdo it and it makes the script more difficult to read, because I find myself wondering why that particular word is supposed to have impact. It's distracting and as Sir Daniel says in his link above at the top of this article, ANNOYING. Having said that, if the story is really, really good - am I even going to notice it has too many caps? Of course not.
But how confident are you your story can do that?
I've been lucky to start the year on some super scripts, a run of really good stuff. I've been trying to think of what their formats were like - and you know what? I can't remember. Bad or good it passed me by. I was engaged in the story and the characters. Let's have more of those to go. And will one of you work experience kids make me a coffee before I expire, please? And will it kill you to fetch me some houmous???
Forgot: only I work here. Damn...