ON LOCATION, November 19, 2016

How to format a screenplay.

Today we’re lucky enough to have some excellent software packages that make formatting your screenplay so much easier.

So, why do you need to read up on formatting? It’s all taken care of? All the decisions are made. Well, not exactly. There are four things you need to be considering while Final Draft puts everything else where it belongs.

No. 1 — Know what kind of script you’re writing.

There are basically three different kinds of screenplays: there are spec scripts (or pre-production scripts), there are shooting scripts and post-production scripts.

They correspond to the phase of production your film is in. Spec scripts are screenplays designed to sell your story and get you through the development process. The advice I give clients is almost always to writers who have written one, two, three or more scripts. I tend to specialize in those writers who may be inexperienced in the process of writing and I offer marketing advice as well. Because most are new writers, I deal with ‘specs’ A shooting script is a blueprint for exactly what will be shot. New writers, especially those who’d like to direct, frequently get spec scripts and production scripts confused. Don’t. Finally post-production scripts are basically transcriptions of the final film to be used when making censorship edits for later markets and subtitling.

No. 2 — Formatting is style.

As children we’re taught that grammar is concrete, there’s always a right way and a wrong way. As adults we learn that grammar is actually style and if enough people make the same ‘mistake’ it becomes ‘correct’, or rather it becomes the accepted style.

Formatting a screenplay is exactly the same. There are definitely trends and a screenplay written in the 1940s looks very different from a screenplay today. There are certain elements of formatting that do not change. For example the Shot, INT. EXT. is unlikely to change. However the use the (beat) is becoming less popular

But there are formatting rules and if you break them: 1.) Have a good reason, 2.) always be consistent, if you break a rule keep breaking it, 3.) don’t break too many rules—if you break one or two rules a reader could  pick-up that that’s your style; if you break all the rules you’ll just look wrong.

 No. 3 — No camera angles or transitions.

Remember that the goal is to make the reader feel like they’ve seen a film; not slogged their way through a screenplay. If you have camera angles in mind, which you should, then write your description in such a way that makes your reader see a close-up without having to read CLOSE-UP. This rule remains true even if you’re angling to direct your project. No one is going to give you a directing job because you know how to type TRACKING SHOT. You get directing jobs because you’ve conveyed that you have a clear and unique vision.

And, don’t put CUT TO: or FADE TO: or DISSOLVE TO: or anything else at the end of your scenes. If your script is one hundred scenes over one hundred pages that adds several pages of nothing to your script. Just use FADE IN: at the start and FADE OUT when you’re done.

No. 4 — Keep it light.

Your pages should be light and airy. When writing description limit yourself to paragraphs that are no more than four lines.

The first people who will read your script are people who read scripts all day long every day and then more on the weekend. The last thing you want to do is hit them with big huge blocks of text. If you make sure the pages turn quickly they’ll have the idea that your script clips along at a healthy pace.


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To those in America, Happy Thanksgiving.