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Friday, April 30, 2010

Screenplay Format: One Stop Shop

With all these blogs and people talking about it, it's hard to believe format is STILL an issue when it comes to the spec pile. Whilst spec scripts do generally *look* better (gone are the days of spiral bound scripts printed on pink paper, it seems), there are still some really basic mistakes getting through. What's more, *correct* screenplay format is still one of the most frequently asked questions I get via email, Twitter, seminars etc.

Basically, good format is about not getting "busted". Whilst any writer can obviously do what they want, there are obvious and basic things a writer can avoid/cut/change to make sure their script is this best it can be when it gets plucked out of the spec pile. On this basis then, here's a one stop shop for all your format queries:
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Script length. What is the "right" length for a script? USUALLY it's approx 90- 120 pages for a movie script and roughly 60 pages for a TV pilot. More details on why and other elements relating to page count here in this post. If you feel your script is TOO SHORT however, check out this post. If your script is for television or you want to write a script with "rapid fire" dialogue, then click here for my thoughts on this regarding script length in these cases.

Title page. This is for your title, your name, your contact details (your agent's if you have one). That's it. Please don't put a picture on the front of your script or use a funky font or ANYTHING ELSE. Just normal is great, ta. DON'T put your name anywhere else on the script, including page 1 and on headers/footers.

Copyright. I don't care if your script is WGA registered or whatever, nor do most readers I've spoken to. Writing it on your script then makes you look paranoid. It's all pointless anyway, since ideas cannot be copyrighted and I've never heard of a credible case of a script being stolen in ALL the years I've been reading. So why bother? Copyright myths exploded.

Font. You need to use the COURIER font, here's what it looks like - whilst there are lots of differing templates/formats for PRODUCED TV shows in particular and there will always be guys like the Coen Bros who use whatever you want, it's advisable to use Standard Spec Script Format to avoid readers and interns chucking your script back in the envelope, unread. Not sure what Standard Spec Script Format looks like? Here's a free download - 1 page Ref Guide (PDF).

Titles & Credits. You don't need to reference credits in a spec script - this is a production decision, not the writer's. This includes television scripts.

Quotations. Sometimes you might want to include a quote at the start of your screenplay. Whilst there are no real "rules" for this, I wrote a short post on this re: placing, check it out here.

Sluglines/Scene Headings. These should read INT/EXT. LOCATION - DAY/NIGHT. There's a little room for variation, especially regarding "time", ie. MOMENTS LATER, SAME TIME, DAWN, DUSK, etc but don't go overboard. Sometimes scripts manage to get away with mad or metaphorical locations, ie. UNDER THE OCEAN, INSIDE KATY'S COLON, INSIDE JIM'S IMAGINATION, INSIDE THE INTERNET, etc but again, be careful of this and use sparingly. For more on sluglines/scene headings, check out this post.

Tense. Loads of writers use the present continuous tense - the "is" + /ing/, ie. Lucy is reading. This is a longer way of expressing something and a helluva lot less "punchy" or "snappy" than the present SIMPLE, which is the /s/ formation - ie. Lucy reads. The perfective aspect ("have/had") and past tenses rarely have a place in the screenplay.

"We see/look/hear/follow..." For the record, I couldn't care less about "we see..." or any of its variations. But a HELLUVA lot of readers do. Worth the risk?

Captions. Captions are under the slugline/scene header and should read

SUPER: [1999/ Last summer / Germany 1941/ whatever]

The "super" is short for "super impose". I have seen CAPTION and TITLE too and I'm never bothered, but *apparently* SUPER is 100% correct, so if you're a perfectionist there you go.

Act Breaks. Recently I've seen a significant increase in spec TV scripts with act breaks referenced (ACT ONE, END OF ACT ONE, etc). You don't *need* to do this in a UK spec script. Just concentrate on telling the story as you would any other script. However, as with anything script-related, there's always another way of looking at these things and here's top TV scribe Stephen Gallagher's take: "In the 90s I worked on a British show made by an independent producer for the BBC, and despite the HBO-style absence of ad breaks he insisted we structure the scripts with crises corresponding to Act Outs. He was right. It raised everyone's game, imposed a pace and a structure (and I imagine made it easier when he came to sell the show to overseas markets)." I know contradictory advice can freak people out (and there's so much relating to scripts!), so if you're scratching your head now and worrying what to do "for the best", think of where your script is going... And whether it's a spec and if it's got a producer attached already. If NOT, perhaps it's best to leave Act Breaks out? But as I always stress to Bang2writers, it's YOUR script!!

Ad Breaks. Bang2writer Lisa Barrass contacted me and said she had feedback from an American screenwriting competition telling her she "should" have included ad breaks in her spec television script; whilst this may be true of our American writer friends, as a UK writer you DON'T need to do this... Why? Because as a spec script, there's no telling who your script *may* end up with - there's every chance you'd be sending to an ad-free corporation like The Beeb, especially the Writersroom or one of Aunty's many initiatives or calls like The Writers' Academy or shadow schemes.

Trial scripts. Lots of writers wonder about the various formats of various shows and worry they won't *know* what to do if they're offered a trial script on a continuing drama or series. My advice: don't worry about it. If you get a trial, the show will generally send you various notes, sometimes the Series Bible and will send you a sample script of an episode which has already aired. Just copy the format of that sample script - if that means including stuff like act breaks and ad breaks and using a font other than Courier, etc? - then DO IT. Simples.

Teasers. I'm seeing more and more spec TV scripts with teasers (that little "bit" before the title sequence). Teasers are quite an American thing - and something lots of TV shows are noted for, so it's not surprising many writers try and mimic this style. And end of the day, why not? It's a spec script, you can do what you like. The two caveats to this I would offer, however: 1) DON'T reference titles after a teaser, there's no point to it story-wise. 2) Make sure your teaser SETS UP what happens in the episode in a very obvious fashion. Most of the teasers I see are really obscure and make the reader guess about what they're for, when in reality I can't think of a single TV show that does this. If you consider the CSI franchise, which is famous for its teasers, the teasers usually happen this way:

1) Shots of the victim - possibly alive first, then definitely dead *in some interesting pose/way*
2) Team arrives - some brief exposition about the cause of death, the neighbour didn't see/hear anything
3) There's *something* about the crime scene that's weird or odd
4) Investigating officer makes some kind of cheesy quip - WHAM, CUE TITLES

HOUSE does something very similar, though usually we see only the patient be *struck down* in some way, cue titles, then the diagnosis team come in with some brief history, etc. Teasers should really be called OPENERS I think: they're there soley to SET UP what comes next in the episode itself, not tease us in a more obscure way as so many writers appear to think.

Grammar & spelling. Good grammar and spelling is a must. If you know your grammar and spelling is poor, you have to sort it out. BBC Skillswise is a good start, especially for the error I see most, which is the misused apostrophe. Here is a BRILLIANT site listing various issues, then testing you on them by Bristol University, well worth a bookmark. If you cannot get to grips with good grammar and spelling, PAY A PROOFREADER. It's money well spent.

Scene numbers. Scene numbers are for SHOOTING SCRIPTS. End of. Some university/writing courses etc ask for scene numbers when discussing work for ease of reference; I've had some Bang2writers include them on purpose for this reason when I'M talking to them about their scripts and that's cool. But DO remember to get rid of them when you send your spec out to agents or prodcos.

Use of CAPITALS.There is no need to capitalise SOUNDS. Yes, you will see scripts online with sounds capitalised, but those are invariably shooting scripts. If your script is a spec, the only time you capitalise anything is a character's name the first time we meet them (and not throughout the spec either, another common mistake I see). Never, ever capitalise random objects -- the most frequent I see is DOORBELL. Animals like CATS and DOGS only need introducing as a character if they're going to play a significant part in the story, ie. the DOG bites the MAN which leads him to the hospital where he meets the sexy NURSE.

Use of bold/italics. Bold is annoying, that's just the way of it. I read a script full of it recently and it did my head in - you don't want the reader thinking negatively of your script for something daft like this, do you? So avoid at all costs, I'd say. I actually use italics from time to time in my own scripts and used infrequently, I think it can work - especially for characters' unspoken reactions, ie:

Sally looks at the bomb. Oh shit.

As with anything though, don't go overboard as again, guess what - it gets annoying.

Underlines (including scene headers/sluglines). Yes, sometimes software comes with this programmed in. So unprogramme it! Don't take it is red that this is the "norm", because it isn't.

Camera Angles. I cannot believe scribes are still writing camera angles - the biggest issue has to be ANGLE ON which I see over and over again. What the hell does that *really* mean, anyway? And how does it *add* to the story? Answer: it doesn't, not really. Just get rid!!! ESTABLISHING is for shooting scripts, not a spec script btw. There are exceptions, natch: POV can add to a story really well, but only if used sparingly. Beware of "hidden" camera angles too - ie. "OFF Katherine", "CLOSE ON the whiskey bottle" or "PUSH INTO William's burning gaze".

CONT'D or CONTINUED. We know the scene continues over the page, there's about 60 more pages yet. Do you need this? I say it takes up space.

Parentheticals. After a short absence, parentheticals seem to be creeping back into spec screenplays - especially features. My recommendation: don't, with the notable exception of (sarcastic) or any other time a line is otherwise AMBIGUOUS in the story. Otherwise, they feel really obvious, are quite distracting and actually take up a fair bit of space; plus I'm told actors are TAUGHT to ignore them anyway! Top 5 Reasons Parentheticals Are Useless.

Colours. Several scripts have come through Bang2write recently using various colour fonts (especially blue) to signify things like flashbacks and other non-linear time thread devices. My advice: don't. Not only does it look a bit amateur, if you don't feel confident the writing ITSELF can convey the changes in time, why should the reader?

Phone calls. Lots of writers have asked me on Twitter in particular about phone calls recently. The two main issues: 1) "How do I format a one-sided telephone conversation?" and 2) "How long should a telephone conversation be in a script?" As for 1) Just write it as you would normally, but try and make sure the dialogue doesn't go on for a gigantic block; breaking it up with small actions can help, ie:
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JOHN picks up the telephone.

JOHN
Hello... Oh, hi! Yes, no problem - what's the address?

He waves, exaggerated at FIONA: she stares at him dopy - what?? He mimes "pen"!

JOHN
Let me... Just. Get. A. Pen...

Fiona runs about like a headless chicken - presents him with an eyeliner. Groans, writes with it anyway.

JOHN
Uh-huh... Yeah. Thanks. Appreciated.

John puts the phone down.

JOHN
They want us in at two to discuss our "options".

Fiona shrieks with joy.
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As for 2) the answer is always - AS SHORT AS POSSIBLE. In the specs I see, writers often use telephone conversations as a crutch for exposition and it's always really obvious; sometimes phone conversations will crop up every time a writer wants to fill the audience in on something (some scripts have 5, 6, 7 or even 8 instances!). Other times phone conversations will go on for pages and pages and pages and just be really boring. [As always, there's no reason why long phone conversations CAN'T work, but they need to have *something good* going for them - here I'm reminded of Pulp Fiction between Travolta and Eric Roth, ending with "Are you calling me from a CELL PHONE?? CRANK CALL! CRANK CALL!" - else they can be a bust].

Flashback/Flashforward/Other. I see flashback in the slugline and above the slugline all the time and both seem fine to me, but you DO need to tell us when we're changing time frame. The same goes for stuff like DREAM SEQUENCE - other words can substituted too: I've seen stuff like, JOHN'S IMAGINATION, SPACE, LIMBO, INSIDE SARAH'S BODY, THE INTERNET, ON THE COMPUTER SCREEN, THROUGH THE DOG'S EYES, etc. Why not? I think the easiest way to do anyof these is:
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FLASHBACK:

EXT/INT. LOCATION - DAY/NIGHT

****insert scene here****

(END OF FLASHBACK)
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Intercut. Lots of people have been asking me the "right" way to format INTERCUT. In short, there doesn't seem to be a "right" way, I've seen it all kinds of ways. I think the easiest is simply:
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PC Kelly's gaze settles on a watch, on the victim's dressing table.

INTERCUT

That same watch, this time on the wrist of DCI Morton.

(END OF INTERCUT)

PC Kelly picks the watch up without gloves, slips it in his pocket without the rest of the team noticing.
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Intercut can also used be in two-way, different location phone calls; in which case, probably best to put INTERCUT above the slugline (aka scene header) - but again, don't forget to tell us when it ends.Good examples of flashback and intercut.

Montage. Please stop using montages *just* to pass time, it's boring. Please ensure they have a dramatic FUNCTION to push the story forward and DON'T use them more than about twice in a feature MAX (once in 60 pages or less I'd say). Also, stop calling them SERIES OF SHOTS or I'll kill you all! Kthxbye. How to lay out a montage.

Voiceover. I love a good voiceover - but only if it reveals character and/or pushes the story forward. 9/10 voiceovers in the spec pile are purely there to tell us stuff the writer couldn't figure out visually. Don't give yourself away!!!

*BY THE WAY*Check out this Free E-book (PDF) which includes articles on Intercut, Montage and Voiceover as well as other screenwriting devices.

Leading dialogue. There's always too much dialogue in any spec -- so ensure you "rein it in" wherever possible and keep your scenes SHORT. If you have three or more pages of people talking, there's a good chance you can cut great swathes of it: just the way it is. Think about your scene focus: what does this scene ADD to character/story? What do I need from it?

Reported character. Another dialogue issue in TV and film: if characters are talking about people we've ALREADY SEEN doing *whatever*, cut it. If characters talk about people in general and what they're ABOUT to do, cut it. If people talk about characters in great detail about stuff they've done BEFORE THE STORY STARTS, cut it. (The one exception here is obviously sitcom, which can thrive on reported character).

Finally:

Overwriting. Most writers write incredibly dense scene description, sometimes mistakenly believing they have to put every detail to "paint a picture", when less really is more. William C Martell has the best article around, "16 Steps" for getting the most out of your scene description, yet still being ECONOMICAL with words. Read it here.

Other times, the writer will believe they are using a certain amount of symbolism in order to evoke a "feeling", when a single sentence that cuts to the chase will be more effective in grabbing a reader's attention. Script Consultant Julie Gray makes an excellent point about what she calls "crafty and skillful" writing over on Danny Stack's blog, here (some good format tips in general too!).

So, what are you waiting for?? Clean up those scripts!

16 comments:

BrettSnelgrove said...

Wow, thanks Lucy - some great reminders and advice in here and love the links. Looks like I've got some reading to do - he said to himself in V/O as he pondered his Series Of Shots! ;)

John said...

Great summary, Lucy! All stuff we know but need to be reminded about Thanks!

Helenolderbutwiser said...

Re WGA, copyright, etc. You have to have this if you want to put your script on Inktip. I made a number up...

Some producers seem convinced that sluglines should go from big to small with hyphens, not commas eg INT. CASTLE - DUNGEON - DAY instead of from the particular, INT. DUNGEON, CASTLE, DAY which is how I've always done them before.

James said...

Woo script Nazi~

Know what I hate? British spelling. "Capitalise." I'm not being sarcastic either. It really pisses me off.

But, it's not going to play into whether or not I like or dislike a script. It's just a pet peeve.

If you're knocking scripts because of usage of ANGLE ON, or because of a few typos, or formatting you don't particularly like, you aren't doing your job.

You're just lucky odds are way in your favor to say no to a screenplay for any reason -- lord forbid, you actually mention story reasons, rather than dwelling on the trivial.

Lucy V said...

Helen - yes I mention the copyright thing in the linked-to post, "Copyrigth Myths Exploded": I would assume it's because Inktip (and similar sites) don't want to get in the middle of any disputes - pretty sensible. As for anyone mentioning such things as being the *wrong way around*, I really wouldn't be too concerned. Certainly I've never mentioned it in a report.

James - I'm just responding to people's queries about format... As I say at the beginning of the post, it's one of the most asked-out areas of screenwriting I get. And as I've argued before on this very blog, I'd be the first to agree that if readers are chucking perfectly good scripts (in terms of story) out the pile because of ANGLE ON or similar, they aren't doing their job properly. Of course writers can do whatever they want, but spec screenwriting is to some degree a beauty contest and there are things a writer can do to avoid being "busted" on something as "trivial" as format. But then, I also said that in the post, too.

Jared said...

Dear James

Love the fact you're criticising a professional READER whilst simultaneously demonstrating to all that you haven't even READ the original post properly.

Brilliant. Capitalise THAT you moron. :)

Most cordially yours, with much eyeball movement,

Jared

Jonathan said...

Terrific blog, Lucy! In my recent script reading, I've been flummoxed by what's right and wrong for a spec screenplay. As John said - this is a great summary.

Joshua James said...

My two cents ...

agree with most everything, just a few things ...

CAPS

Here it's common to cap sounds, especially when it's important ... or important things you want to focus on, like

HIS HAND ...

inches toward the weapon ...

Rather than ANGLE ON.

I'm not saying a person HAS to do this, just that it's a simple convenient way to direct the reader to what's important.

I use MINI-SLUGS a lot, myself, like thus ...

CLOSET

Sue makes out with George.

KITCHEN

Daryl looks for his wife Sue.

When you have one location, using that is much handier and easier on the eye. It's not a shooting script, as you mentioned.

I used to cap important words in dialogue, but got convinced that underline is better by friends ... now I do that all the time.

I bold my slugs (the INT / EXT) ... I like it, it reads better. I only use a single space after (rather than double) since the bold calls attention to the slug (usually the extra space does) it's no longer necessary.

I've read a few other pro scripts who do the same, soon more will. It looks much better.

My opinion on CAPS and underline words in dialogue, when it's best when done sparingly (like the adverb I just used, best to be avoided but there are times when an adverb is the only way to communicate what you're trying to communicate).

The important thing is that format should not be noticed, really ... if it reads fast and clear, no one who matters will really care whether or not you used a WE SEE or a CAP here and there.

Just my experience and opinion, which, like everything, evolves every day ...

Lucy V said...

Agree 100% that format should not be noticed Joshua, defo. And I've even read scripts with very poor format that can be forgiven even the biggest format transgressions cos they're so damn good... Not sure here in the UK we'd ever go for stuff like bold and mega use of CAPs etc; I would argue expectations of "look" on the page is more finnicky (for whatever reason - possibly cos interns/new readers may hang on to format as a handy "marker" cos they lack the experience to describe more problematic narrative issues?). As you rightly say, things are evolving all the time and format does seem to follow fashion.

Joshua James said...

Bolding slugs reads best. I'll defend it to the bone.

I used to stack my action, as that writers I love do the same (Walter Hill) but so many hollered about it I had to let it go.

But bolding slugs is in. As more writers do it, they less readers will be able to complain about it.

At some point I hope it becomes cool to CAP dialogue, too. To my eye, it reads better. I see pro scripts that sometimes do it.

Actually, in the US on TV scripts for half hour shows, the action description is usually ALL CAPS.

Not with an hour long scripts (which follow screenplay format) but most half hour stuff (they also have Scene A, Scene B, Act breaks, etc) ... it's been awhile since I've read some of those, but that was the the norm.

A lot of TV scripts use WE SEE very often. I don't get the hangup folks have with WE SEE, I don't ... but I've had that argument over and over again and nothing that they've said made sense, so now I don't bother.

Of course I've read a bad script with many WE SEE's in it, but removing said WE SEE's would not improve it in the slightest.

Readers get hung up on stuff here as well ... I understand, when you read a LOT of scripts each week, you get cheesed off easy.

But at the same time, I think sometimes they forget that a lot of pros use WE SEE and do many a thing that's deemed a no-no, and make it work, ergo it's not a rule ... it's just something readers don't like.

But hey, it's simply my opinion. No more or no less. I've also improved my writing by listening to what readers have to say and thought hard about how the stuff comes off when read ... so it's important to consider everything, right?

Lucy V said...

The argument I hear most often about "we see..." is that we're supposed "to see" everything and for a while, I even thought that while myself. But as years passed, I started to read more and more pro scripts - online and clients - and started to believe instead that actually, "we see" (or similar) *can* actually ADD a certain "je ne se quois"... Now I not only don't care about "we see", I've even been known to use it in my own scripts - and smile sweetly when readers tell me not to ; ) Speaking of which, I got told off only the other day for using italics, arf

Joshua James said...

I've used italics primarily for words in other languages or terms (like leetspeak, etc) that need to be noted as something other than English, if that makes sense.

Regarding the other stuff, my rule of thumb generally has been, if someone is paying me, they can have it in whatever format they wish (no bolded, etc) but if not, it's my call, so bolded slugs in, italics, etc.

I listen to what is said, sure, and if it's one of my mentors telling me something, than I do what they say ... but with regard to all the reader feedback, every writer I know who I admire eventually decides, at some point, this is how I write well, and I'll put my stake on this, so to speak. And if they're good, it pays off.

Too much focus on the little things (non-story little things) to me is a tell ... the smart people I've known talk almost exclusively about story and nearly not at all about format, as I mentioned, the only time format gets mentioned is if it gets in the way of the story.

IF they read a bad story with bad format, they only talk about how the story doesn't work, not that the format is wrong.

If they read a good story with bad format, they may list one or two format things but still focus exclusively on story, how to make it better.

This is not a criticism, of course, just an observation ... I understand why (after reading a bunch of bad scripts) format is talked about muchly ... it's something that's easier to understand, in a way. It's something one can point to with specificity, if that makes sense.

And I'm glad I had those conversations, because it made me think more about my presentation.

But at the same time, it's really not the thing that makes a script work.

It's like the grooming one does before going to a job interview ... you should be shaved and wear a clean shirt and tie and know how to speak correctly, etc.

But doing that has nothing to do with the skills for the job ... just demonstrates one knows what being business professional is.

You know?

Again, just my bullshit opinion, of course.

Lucy V said...

Yes format is a curious thing - I've used the "job interview" analogy myself on here before... It really is like wearing a suit and tie for "first impressions" and then wearing jeans to work. I rarely give format a second thought in my work, even when various people tell me off. My fave so far has been when a reader chastised me for using flashback and voiceover "because I should know better as a script reader myself"!! haha.

We often hear that the worse a format is, the worse the writing can be. But of course this is never 100% - just like everything in this scriptwriting lark really! There's so many mad assertions about format and one of the purposes of this list is to draw attention to some of the issues and subsequent drawbacks that *can* happen, so writers might make an informed choice. So no arguments here, Joshua! : )

Lucy V said...

PS. By "no arguments here" I mean, "I'm in complete agreement", not the notion you're CAUSING any arguments... Had an ACTUAL argument with an American friend over this very statement once, so thought I'd better specify just in case. ; )

Dave Anderson said...

Hi, Lucy. Just wonderin'. Have you seen the 'new screenplay format' download from the Page Awards site? They recommend setting sluglines in bold and underline. I haven't bothered to follow this style myself yet, as I'm perfectly happy with Final Draft's formatting, but I would like to hear your opinion.

Lucy V said...

Hi David,

The PAGE Awards is American, isn't it? I have seen bold and underlined sluglines in American scripts quite a lot. Certainly if that's what they recommend, why not? But over here I probably wouldn't recommend it. Having said *that*, I doubt it would stand in the way of a GOOD script... It's just whether it gets past the interns. Hope that helps!