How important is format?

The age old debate; it’s the story which counts, surely?

Maybe not. To some people, the way your screenplay looks is everything; to others, it doesn’t really matter. The problem here is you don’t know who’s who before you send your script out.

If you send your poorly formatted script to a Format Nazi, they’ll have you pegged as an amateur straight away. You may be able to win them over, you may not; why take the risk?

If you send a fantastically formatted script to someone who doesn’t care, they won’t notice. No bad points there.

To me the path seems clear, write it in the proper format; you’ve got nothing to lose.

Years ago, I worked in a shop and witnessed the manager going through a huge pile of applications. He threw roughly half into the bin without reading them. When I asked why, he told me:

“They’re written in blue ink. The first line says: USE BLACK INK ONLY.”

As far as he was concerned, anyone who couldn’t understand this basic instruction didn’t deserve a job. This has always stuck with me.

It’s at this point someone usually names a famous (or as famous as they get) scriptwriter who never writes in the expected format. The answer to this is fairly obvious. That person is either:

a) An established scriptwriter. Everyone knows he/she can deliver the goods, they’re prepared to put up with their idiosyncrasies because they get the job done.

or b) They’re a genius. Their writing is so amazing it outshines the poor quality of their presentation and they’re going to be in category a) in the near future.

In the UK, the rules on formatting seem to be much more relaxed. I’ve read a lot of UK scripts which don’t follow the more stringent American standards; they get made into films anyway. So do I relax my standards for the UK market?

No.

Just because I know format over here isn’t quite so important, doesn’t mean the person reading the script does. A lot of script readers are frustrated writers. They’ve done all the courses, they know what a screenplay should look like; if yours doesn’t look like that, God help you.

Still not convinced? Try this: read a lot of screenplays.

Once you get past your twentieth or thirtieth screenplay, you’ll probably notice the ones which are formatted ‘correctly’ are easier to read. If the character names aren’t where you expect them to be, it’s a pain in the arse trying to find them. If the font isn’t Courier New 12; it just looks weird and bugs you throughout. If they all look the same, it’s easier and therefore more enjoyable to read. Isn’t that the goal?

Personally, I want my script to have every advantage I can give it. If that means spending a couple of hours reading a book on formatting, I’ll do it. After all, why give anyone any opportunities to find fault in your work?

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