Format curiosity

I was reading a friend’s script recently, and one of the comments I made was it was difficult to read the scene headings because a lot of the locations were in the same building, a hotel.

Not in itself a problem, but the scene headings were formatted like this:




Obviously, the name of the hotel has been changed to protect the innocent.

The reason I found it difficult to read was because I tend to skim quickly over the scene headings in my hurry to get on with the story. Once you know a batch of scenes are in the hotel, there’s no need to keep reading HOTEL RICHARDSON at the beginning of every line and so my eye was searching for the pertinent information: LOBBY, BAR, BEDROOM. Obviously, this doesn’t take long, but it does slow down the read ever so slightly. With a lot of scene changes, this becomes quite annoying.

My reasoning was, if the smaller location came first, it would be easier to find, hence easier to read. My friend agreed and we were all happy.

A few days later I opened one of my older screenplays, one written when I was really, really paying attention to every little piece of format advice I could find. Lo and behold:


I’d done exactly the same thing. Big location, small location.

Hmm, maybe that was right after all? I now vaguely remember reading something about this format being easier for some production department (art, location, catering?); but if the other way round is easier to read, then which is the best way to go?

I know in the grand scheme of things, this really doesn’t matter and the amount of annoyance caused anyone is small enough for them to just lump it.

But I’m an anal old soul and these things pique my curiosity. I soon forget them (as I obviously did last time) but I do like to know things.

A quick check of the net showed a lot of format examples went large to small. Annoyingly, my friend checked the net too and came up with the opposite opinion: small to large.

So which one’s ‘correct’? Like I say, I know it doesn’t really matter. I’ve sold and optioned scripts and not once has anyone complained about any aspect of the format; but this is just pure curiosity. Which version do you use?

a) Large to small.

b) Small to large.

c) Something completely different.

d) Stop thinking about insignificant details and do some writing, you retarded freak.

Don’t be shy now.

Categories: Industry Musings, Sad Bastard | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “Format curiosity

  1. Moviequill

    Large to small for me… although I have seen it done both ways I stick to what I started using first

  2. It appears you’re the only person with an opinion. Oh well, none the wiser.

  3. Seems to me it should be small to large so you don’t end up with something like this:


    Interior of San Francisco?

    Then again, this doesn’t look right either:


  4. Now I’m totally confused. I think I’m just going to mix and match.

  5. TonyB

    Hi Phil, a somewhat belated answer to your format query but I felt it was a good point you raised and one which I wish more writers would think about, rather than adopting the ‘sod formatting, I’m an artist’ approach, which frankly just makes them look like a wanker.

    I’m unusual in that I’m expanding from production into writing, rather than the other way round, but I’ve worked in production for over twenty years (gulp!) including being a First AD for nine years, so I have a fair idea of what production staff want from the layout of a script.

    First of all I think a script has two journeys to make – one as a selling script to engage interest, excite people and attract finance, the other as a functional and technical reference document for those involved in the process of actually making the movie or TV drama.

    The stage your friend’s script is at is presumably the selling stage. Here I think it’s permissible to use *occasional* license with regard to how the script is expressed – not the overall formatting but occasionally the words used, simply in order to make it a smoother, punchier read, more easily ‘skim-able’ for the hard pressed reader and less overtly functional.

    NB I would never advocate deviating from established formatting rules, that’s playing with fire (and makes you look like an amateur), but perhaps using a little bit of ellipsis here and there can make the script a better read by aiding overall flow.

    Your friend has laid his script out in the ‘phase two’ production stage and he’s done it totally correctly – he’s detailed the master location each time and then the sub location. It’s vital for logistical and design staff to know where the scenes are set and by extension where they’re being shot, so that they can schedule, budget and plan accordingly.

    The production staff would use this script format as a blueprint and number each sub scene separately so that none get omitted from the shoot schedule.

    By reading your friend’s script in the way he’s laid it out they would be able to quickly assess how many hotel scenes there were (because that’s mentioned first in the scene headings) and from there assess how many days would be needed to shoot at that location (they would all be done together).

    Whether the scenes are in the lobby, kitchen or bedrooms is neither here nor there at that stage. This is assuming that the sub locations are actually being shot at the hotel of course, but even if they’re not it’s always good practice for the writer to assume that they are and lay out his production script accordingly. It’s neater and more logical: big – then small.

    This would go for any composite location where the action is set in a number of sub locations within it, be it a ship, prison, hospital or police station, you would always reference the master location first and then the sub locations within it for each scene that you write.

    Going back to your point about his script being a difficult read, given that he’s still at the selling stage perhaps he could compress the scene descriptions for the hotel scenes a little? If there are many scenes one after another in the hotel, he could do this:


    Scene action

    Scene action

    Scene action

    Etc etc. Perhaps a time plot would help too in order to show the flow of the scenes ie. the time is detailed after the scene’s location in the scene heading. This is normal practice in UK TV serial drama.

    This type of layout would certainly speed up the read and reduce repetition.

    However, once the script gets commissioned it’s *vital* that the writer goes back to the standard production layout – int/ext. master location – sub location – day/night, repeated each time so that NOTHING is assumed!

    By the way, if you’re in London this Tuesday there’s an evening seminar hosted by the New Producers’ Alliance (NPA) which deals with precisely this issue – the journey your script takes through the production process. I’ve been to a few of their seminars and even though they’re only a couple of hours you do learn a lot, and many people stay for a drink afterwards!

    20 March 2007 19:00 -20:45

    Script to Shoot.
    The nitty gritty of how a script will be shot, how the writers script will change through pre-production, production and editing. The script is a blue print for several different departments with a multitude of needs. How do you make your script suitable for a movie shoot?
    The Panel; Writer, Director, Script Editor, Line Producer

    Free For NPA Members, Non Members Price: £10
    Venue: NPA Film Centre, 1.07 The Tea Building, 56 Shoreditch High Street, London, E1 6JJ

    Good luck,

  6. Tony, thank you for that incredibly detailed response. It’s great to have a concise opinion with a solid explanation behind it.

    Of course, now I’ve got to go back through all my scripts and make sure they’re right.

    I am in London on Tuesday, but I’m on a shoot so I can’t make that meeting. Unless I manage to slip off early.

    Thanks again, I’ll make sure the guy in question sees your response.

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