Question: How much does screenplay format really matter?
The first thing most of us learn when it comes to the actual writing of screenplays is that the format on the page is essential to our looking like a professional.
Unfortunately, our first instinct is often to fear format. We either become slaves to it or we rebel and abuse it with style over substance just to look different. Either way, it frustrates the writing process — a hindrance to the prose on the page.
Fortunately, this very same screenplay format has the potential to become another tool at the craftsman’s disposal.
At the dawn of talking pictures, Hollywood found itself needing dramatic storytellers that could write dialogue. They imported playwrights from the East Coast and those playwrights brought some of their stage play format with them.
In this same era, typists working for the major studios discovered a way to format the various elements (action, dialogue, setting, etc.) so that each page, on average, represented one minute of screen time.
This helped with production scheduling needs. It also allowed studios to gauge the length of a motion picture for exhibition purposes before the picture was even shot (hence the old 120 page rule, which evolved to 110, and is moving toward 108); the shorter the movie, the more times they can play it in one day and the more box office they can potentially rake.
While the rise of the spec market led to a shift from shooting scripts (production drafts) to less technical reading drafts, for the most part, these format principles have held up for close to a hundred years. Writers (and typists) have been trying to maximize screenplay format’s potential the entire time.
The goals have stayed the same:
- Keep the reader interested.
- Evoke the image of the picture in the reader’s mind.
- Do it at a pace that resembles how it would play on screen.
- Be clear so that everyone from the actors to the set designer can have a springboard for inspiration on how to fill out the countless details.
What should I CAP? Should I use italics or an underline to add emphasis to a word in dialogue? Can I bold or underline scenes headings? Can I use subheadings? How do I format foreign languages? What’s the difference between an ellipsis and a dash? How do I paginate those tricky action scenes?
If making the wrong choice doesn’t risk killing your script’s chances, it certainly feels that way.
Some of the nitpicking of screenplay format is related to a reader’s experience level reading scripts and their position within their current company. The readers on the lower levels of a production company are newer to the industry; therefore, they’ve often read many less screenplays than those in the positions above them.
These younger readers are usually the first line of defense. As David Mamet describes in his book Bambi Vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business, they live in a culture of fear where recommending a script that wastes their bosses’ time could cost them their job — so they will take any reason to turn down a script. “It looks different” is one of the easiest reasons.
Eventually, readers’ palates become more sophisticated. They read so many scripts (thousands and tens of thousands), they grow to know that bold and italics don’t necessarily diminish a script’s value (although they may not add anything either). More and more, they know that a good read matters more than anything else. This knowledge increases after every script. (Other readers choose to remain sticklers for the standard format guidelines they were taught–that’s their right. When we veer off standard, we’re committing an act of faith and hoping it works.)
It seems the higher-up the executive, the less picky they are about format. I’ve asked several VPs and EPs how strict they are about format, and they’ve told me they don’t care. They just want a good story well-told that delivers an emotional experience. (That can be profitable.)
A veteran VP at a major production company told me about 160-page Western formatted in Times New Roman and written in dense block paragraphs.* Although the reader’s first instinct had been to toss it out, she ended up reading the entire script and recommended it to her bosses. The script became a sensation around their office; the writer was the first one brought up whenever a possible assignment came across their slate. It wasn’t the font that made the script a great read. It just was. And the reader felt the need to push it up the ladder. (*This is not an endorsement of writing 160-page scripts in Times New Roman–or anything in Times New Roman, for that matter.)
The more scripts you read, the more possibilities and nuances you’ll recognize.
You can find inspiration in the scripts of everyone from Billy Wilder and his various writing partners to William Goldman to Walter Hill to J.J. Abrams to Will Beall to countless others.
For example: Eric Roth (Munich, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) uses ellipses to replace periods, John Logan (The Aviator, The Last Samurai) and Tony Gilroy (The Devil’s Advocate, Michael Clayton) often do the same with dashes. Laeta Kalogridis (Alexander, Shutter Island) uses selective capping. Diablo Cody (Jennifer’s Body) has used italics to make voice over look different than regular dialogue. Tony Gilroy has done the same with Italics for flashbacks in his Jason Bourne scripts.
Some can argue that these writers get away with it because they are A-listers. But if we look back on their earlier scripts, we’ll find they each already had their own voice on the page, even if some choices evolved script to script. So again it comes down to telling good stories.
Eventually, the heart of it gets less complicated:
Where are we? What time of day is it? What action and dialogue is needed to accomplish the purpose of this scene? How might it be paced? How can I stay out of the way?
You get crafty and learn to use:
The white on the page.
And the spacing of paragraphs.
And how to lead the reader’s eyes down the page —
— without them realizing it, so that —
They’re burning through sentences, compelled to know what happens next.
So when looking at what to CAP and how to format dreams and flashbacks — or whether to use subheadings and virtual close-ups — the key is to understand why you’re making the choices.
You can’t let format get in the way of the story, only serve to enhance it.
To see some options and understand some of the guidelines, look at The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier or The Hollywood Standard by Christopher Riley. You can also read the chapter on description in Karl Iglesia’s seminal Writing for Emotional Impact or check out The Visual Mindscape of the Screenplay by Bill Boyle.
Whatever aesthetic you choose for each script:
Know the trade-offs.
And know that less is very often more.