If there is one thing I believe about screenwriting it is that dogma is the enemy of creativity. I believe in process rather than rules. However, there is one area where screenwriting has rules and those rules exist for very good reasons. That area is script-formatting.
As a script-editor I hate it when someone sends me a badly formatted script. I’m not the only person in the business who feels this way. I hear this from pretty much every script reader I talk to. So, given that most readers see this as an all too common problem, I’d like to persuade screenwriters to do two things. I’d like them to learn the basics of script formatting before they do anything else. I’d also like writers to understand the relationship between what goes onto the page and how that information is used in production.
Perhaps hate is the wrong word. More accurately, badly formatted scripts fill me with foreboding. I experience a palpable sense of dread. If the first scene heading of a script is a hot-mess, experience tells me the script is also going to be a hot-mess. Badly formatted scripts are always bad scripts. I wish this wasn’t the case, but it’s an absolute, 100% of the time, rock-solid, take-it-to-the-bank truth. If a screenwriter doesn’t understand how to format a script you can bet they also don’t know how to write cinematic-drama.
Despite the fact that most readers hate badly formatted scripts, there are a lot a screenwriters out there who act as if script formatting isn’t important. They sincerely believe that story is more important than how a script is laid out on the page. They’re wrong.
A script is not a product. The product is the film. A film that will only exist if other people are inspired to make it. This is important. It’s important because it highlights one of the main functions of being a screenwriter. My job is to inspire and service the creative needs of other people. To inspire someone you have to do more than tell a good story, you also have to give them the information they need in the format they need it.
Telling a good story, writing cinematic-drama and writing a readable script is one half of the job of being a screenwriter. The other half of the job is servicing the information needs of the production team. For this reason, it’s not enough for screenwriters to know the rules, they need to understand why they exist.
Let’s look at a simple example. When we first meet a character we put their name in CAPS, then we put their age in brackets (47), then we describe them. Any other time in the script the character must use exactly the same name. Basically, if we introduce a character as NURSE WALTERS we can’t call her Marie later in the script.
Most screenwriters know this rule. But it’s not enough to know it. We don’t follow this because we’ve been told it’s a rule. We do this because we understand both the Line Producer and the 1st AD need to know which actors are needed for each scene. If we give a character two names how will the Line Producer and the 1st AD know whether they are paying for/scheduling one actor or two?
Every single script formatting rule originates from the need of someone on the production team. This means part of being a screenwriter is understanding how what we write serves the needs of the creatives who will make the film happen.
Some screenwriters say they don’t care about the production team. They claim their only task is to get their story past the gatekeepers. They argue they don’t need to know the rules of script formatting. But there’s a problem with this approach to screenwriting. Cinema has a language. Film production is a collaborative creative process where we all work together to make the final product. If a screenwriter chooses to wilfully not understand the process of filmmaking, what they’re really saying is they don’t want to be a screenwriter… they just want to be a writer. That’s OK. If the only thing you’re interested in is telling stories write a novel. And, when it gets optioned to be turned into a film leave the adaptation of your story to someone who genuinely cares about making movies.
For More Screenwriting Techniques
For more techniques to improve your screenwriting Clive has written a ground-breaking book called The Process of Screenwriting.