Script format: how and WHY (introduction)

There are millions of websites, books, seminars and gobshites telling you how to format a script.

Millions.

Or possibly just thousands.

In this modern age (which will be old fashioned by tomorrow morning) there is no excuse for not knowing how a script is formatted. Even if you don’t know, there are programs which will do it for you.Turning in a badly formatted script is almost harder than turning in a well formatted one … and yet it still happens.

Recently, during my duties on Persona, I’ve received some very odd scripts. To be fair, most of them are perfectly fine; a couple differ from the norm in subtle, but unimportant ways (because a lot of it doesn’t really matter); but there are a few which are so badly formatted as to be unusable.

I was wondering why anyone would turn in a script like that, when I had a thought:

Maybe these people don’t know why scripts are formatted in a specific way.

Perhaps they don’t know why dialogue is left aligned and not centred or why action blocks shouldn’t be longer than four lines at a time or why mini-slugs are great in a spec script but not so wonderful in a shooting script?

Maybe that information isn’t out there?

It is, I’ve fucking seen it; but I thought I’d collate as much as I can into one place so when I get really, really fucking angry after spending four fucking hours retyping and reformatting someone’s jumbled pile of nonsensical words into a script we can actually shoot and schedule from and that person turns in the next draft with ALL THE SAME FUCKING MISTAKES, instead of writing an email full of swear words and threatening to eat his stupid fucking fingers, I can just send them this link.

But before I get into all the specific nuts and bolts, I thought I’d have a general ramble:

WHY IS SCRIPT FORMAT IMPORTANT?

I was at a friend’s house the other day, a director who’d been given a script to read … but had left it sitting on a shelf for nearly a year.

Why?

Rudeness? Laziness? Absentmindedness?

No. Because he knew it was going to be shit, just by looking at it.

How?

Well, because it was 170 pages long, unbound, had the title and ‘written by’ on page one, was covered in copyright symbols, credited other people who’d read it but not written it and had an action block which took up nearly half of the page.

In other words, it was badly formatted.

The script failed the first impressions test and didn’t get read for nearly a year. Eventually, of course, he did get round to reading it (when he’d run out of paint to watch dry) and discovered it was exactly as bad as he suspected it would be,

Don’t get me wrong, he’s not a format Nazi.

He wasn’t measuring margins or complaining because the writer used the wrong separator on the slugline; but at a glance he (and I) could tell the script would be awful because it was obvious the writer didn’t understand format. And when someone doesn’t understand format, there’s a very strong possibility they don’t know how to write.

Some of you now will be screaming something along the lines of DON’T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER.

And you can fuck right off.

You absolutely should judge a book by its cover because there are millions of books and if you don’t whittle them down to a manageable pile, you will have to read an awful lot of shit to find one you like. There are some very clever people paid good money to design book covers which will appeal to the kind of people who will enjoy that kind of book.

True, they sometimes get it wrong. They sometimes lie and clad a book in inappropriate cover to fool people into thinking it’s  as good a book as the last bestseller in the same genre. I get it, it’s a bad analogy; but what is true is this:

FIRST IMPRESSIONS COUNT

Script format is the suit your script wears to its job interview. If the script isn’t wearing its suit, if it’s not formatted properly then it immediately screams one of two things:

  1. The writer doesn’t know how a script is formatted.
  2. The writer doesn’t care how a script is formatted.

Neither of those things is good. Let’s examine them:

  1. The writer doesn’t know how a script is formatted.

I’ve heard people say things in defence of this like: “Maybe it’s the writer’s first script?”

Possibly. But does that make it acceptable?

What you’re actually saying there is the writer, completely new to the game, hasn’t bothered to do the bare minimum of research needed to determine how a script is formatted. They haven’t read any scripts, they haven’t read up on what they’re supposed to be doing or how they’re supposed to be doing it – they’ve just slapped some words down on paper.

Is that a good thing?

Yes, they might be a genius. It’s possible they can write an amazing story right out of the gate.

But it’s unlikely.

Writing is a craft.

Scriptwriting is a very technical craft. You need to understand all the tricks of the normal storytelling trade, plus be able to write a technical document which can be passed around several different departments. Every single person who reads a script is looking for different information to help them do their job … if that information isn’t there, they can’t do their jobs.

Yes, their story could be an amazing piece of genius which can be retrofitted with format by someone with less talent … it could be.

But, statistically, it probably isn’t.

You’ve got to understand the odds here. As close to all as makes no difference of badly formatted scripts are badly written as well. How many times do you think someone has to make the same mistake before they realise it’s just not worth the effort?

Yes, most well formatted scripts  are awful as well; but at least they’re easy to read.

Put it this way – I’m going to give you a hundred books to read. In that pile there may or may not be one good book. There probably won’t be, but there might be. Not great, not amazing, but good.

Some of those books are recognisably books with writing and covers and words in a language you can understand. Some of them have one letter to a page and are nine-hundred thousand words long.

Which ones are more likely to contain the good, but probably not great, story?

And would you actually make the effort to read the one-letter-to-a-page books?

If you said yes, you’re  a liar. Or have too much time on your hands. Or both.

Not knowing how a script should be formatted shows a lack of interest in your own career. You haven’t bothered to do any research for the job so probably aren’t that serious. If it’s your first script, it’s probably shit. Mine was. So was the first of nearly every other working writer I’ve spoken to.

Saying you shouldn’t judge a script on its format because it might be the writer’s first script is like saying you’re wrong to not buy a car with square wheels because it’s the first car the designer drew. Not experienced to format a script = (probably) not experienced enough to write a decent script.

Probably.

2.  The writer doesn’t care how a script is formatted.

The writer’s a renegade! He breaks rules! He knows what you expect of him, he knows what will make your life easier … and he doesn’t give a shit! He’s deliberately throwing out the rule book to make you work harder! Not for him the easily understandable format which has evolved slowly over time to ensure a consistent read. He’s throwing out the old and doing it his own damn way!

In other words, he’s a cunt.

Think about it. This is a writer who’s learnt the rules and decided they’re not for him. He doesn’t want to wear a suit to the interview because FUCK YOU, THAT’S WHY!

Is this a writer you want to work with? Is this someone you want to spend years working alongside to hammer the script into shape? Someone who doesn’t even want to make the script easy for you to read? Is that person likely to take criticism well?

Given everyone you want to read your script also reads a lot of other scripts, surely if you apply the minimum amount of thought you’ll realise you work on the format so they don’t have to. Because when a script’s format is all over the place, when things aren’t on the page in exactly the same places as they were in the past thousand scripts … it’s really fucking difficult to read.

That’s before the reader gets to the actual content – you’re making them struggle with the actual reading.

Fucking knock it off.

Right, I’m going to stop now because this has gone on long enough. Next time I’ll ramble on about the specific elements of a script and why they are like they are.

The key point to remember though, is scripts are not just stories, they are technical documents. Blueprints, if you like, and conform to certain conventions to make it not just easier for everyone to read, but actually possible for a wide range of people to make a film from it.

A writer who doesn’t know, or refuses to stick to, the conventions is like a composer who writes concertos in their own shorthand as opposed to the standard musical notation – how the fuck is anyone supposed to understand it?

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Categories: Industry Musings, Someone Else's Way | 10 Comments

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10 thoughts on “Script format: how and WHY (introduction)

  1. Refreshingly to the point as ever Phill!

  2. bloomin marvellous

  3. Once again, Phill, you have blogged good advice, like gold. Or maybe really shiny brass. But damn good.

  4. Pingback: Script format: how and WHY (title page) « The Jobbing Scriptwriter

  5. This site was… how do I say it? Relevant!
    ! Finally I’ve found something which helped me. Cheers!

  6. Pingback: 2012 « The Jobbing Scriptwriter

  7. Nicole

    I was wondering about the part: “had the title and ‘written by’ on page one”. I get my formatting advice from “The Screenwriter’s Bible” by David Trottier. He advices to use only “by” (not “written by”) do you agree? What information should be on the first page?

    • I wrote a follow up to this https://phillbarron.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/script-format-how-and-why-title-page/ before I got bored talking about format and gave up.

      In a nutshell, I think “by” is better than “written by” because it’s more concise and being concise is the essence of scriptwriting. Having said that, I don’t think it really matters.

      Other than that, all there should be is your name and your contact details for a spec or the producer’s contact details on a commissioned/optioned draft. Nowadays I think you just need email and phone number. Some people still put postal addresses on, I’m not sure that’s needed.

      David Trottier is probably the best advice to follow here!

  8. Nicole

    Thank you very much! I really enjoy reading your blog (haven’t read all posts yet but looking forward to it) 🙂

  9. Pingback: 2012 | The Jobbing Scriptwriter

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