Like many writers, I am naturally anti-authoritarian. Show me a rule and my first question is, “what are the exceptions?” or “how do I break it?” It is, therefore, entirely perverse that I have devoted so much of my creative life to screenwriting, the most rule-bound and prescriptive form of writing in existence. It sometimes feels like writing a film script has more to do obeying the rules than it does with the creative process. Whilst it is true that screenwriting is technically demanding, writers need to understand that the rules aren’t there to make the writer’s job more difficult. The rules are there to make the production team’s job possible. Nowhere is the relationship between writer’s rules and production more apparent than when it comes to script formatting.
Anyone who has to read a lot of scripts for a living will tell you the same thing. 99% of the scripts that hit their desks are almost unreadable. One reason for this is screenwriting is very difficult. However, the main reason many scripts fail is because far too many writers don’t really understand the rules of formatting. Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that people don’t format scripts properly because they don’t understand why the rules exist. So, for example, whilst some screenwriters will introduce a new character using CAPS, they don’t stick to exactly the same character name throughout the script. A character introduced as JAMES SCOTT becomes James or Scotty. This is understandable from the writer’s perspective. It’s drummed into writers, from a very young age, to avoid repetitive use of words. I, for instance, wouldn’t use the word “drummed” again in this sentence, after using it in the previous one. The problem is a script is different from any other form of prose. The script is a technical document. Once the script goes into production it’s going to be someone’s job (the Line Producer) to work out how many actors will be needed to make the film and how many days each actor is needed. To do this, they do a script breakdown. These days, a lot of the heavy lifting is done by the software, and what the software needs is continuity. The software looks for every single time “James Scott” appears in the script and makes a note of which scenes they are. It then spews out a list. Hopefully, you can see how that process gets messed up if the same character is referred to as “James Scott,” then as “James” and then as “Scotty.” As far as the software is concerned, these are three different people needing three different actors. Now, the Line Producer isn’t an idiot, so they can guess that James Scot, James and Scotty are the same person. However, they will have to check. An irate email to the writer requesting clarification will be sent. The more often the Line Producer needs to ask what’s going on, the more irate the emails will be.
As a writer, it’s worth finding out why each formatting rule exists. I can guarantee they all relate to production needs. So, for instance, we always put sounds on a separate line with an SFX: prefix.
SFX: Typing sounds (OS)
We do this because some sound effects are recorded on location by the sound team. They use the script to create lists of what to record. The sound effects are added by the Foley team in post-production. They use the script to identify where story-related sounds must be created. By formatting the script properly we make everyone’s life easier.
Of course, there is another and completely selfish reason for learning how the rules of script formatting relate to production. Script readers, the gatekeepers of the industry, unconsciously equate good script formatting with good writing. I can look at a page of script, without reading it, and immediately get a sense of how experienced the writer is. Newbie scripts ALWAYS contain the same formatting errors. If your job is to filter out bad scripts, the fastest way to get that done is to make a decision in the fewest possible pages. Experience tells most script readers that formatting errors on page one = the script won’t be read past page five. And when I say read, I mean skimmed.
Basically, script formatting matters because you’ll be judged by readers if you get it wrong and also because getting it wrong makes production harder, slower and less enjoyable.