How I Became Dr. Format

By David Trottier

I never set out to become Dr. Format. Oh, no. In the mid to late 80s, I was a responsible young marketing executive and doing good work.

One day, my Muse, Betty (Greek for “get along little dogie”), whispered to me, “Teach. Write.” I whispered back, “Let me think about it.”

So I thought about how much I enjoyed teaching marketing to employees and colleagues. And I recalled how years before, I had made a Super 8 film with friends (just like in the movie entitled Super 8) which won a local film competition. That led to a screenplay with the same friends called Zorro, the Comedy Adventure. I contributed little to that script because I was at my real job being responsible, so I didn’t receive a writing credit when the eventual film was released: Zorro, the Gay Blade.

So Dave, what did you decide?

I followed Muse Betty’s advice, and in my spare time (“Sorry, Boss, I can’t stay late tonight”), I earned an M.A. in 1987 at Goddard College (Vermont) by writing two theses. One thesis was a script and one was a business plan for The Screenwriting Center, later to be named keepwriting.com.

Years later, I surreptitiously got the script into the hands of Richard Walter (UCLA Theater Department chair), who, in exchange for an undisclosed amount of halvah (his favorite treat), referred me to a non-WGA signatory agent who got it into the hands of Disney execs. Readers of The Screenwriter’s Bible will recognize this script as The Secret of Question Mark Cave. Yes, that one.

Four producers wanted to produce it, but Donald “Doggone it” Deline passed on it. Not all was lost, however; I still had a shot at a development deal for the sequel to Honey I Shrunk the Kids. When the title was first mentioned, I responded with unbridled enthusiasm, “Honey, I Faxed the Kids!” They liked it, but I said, “Nah, it’s not visual enough; you’re probably going to have to blow them up” (which is exactly what they ended up doing). And then they mentioned the Muppets. I loved the Muppets.

So I prepared a 20-minute pitch and treatment for a Muppet hockey story. They loved it. Jim Henson, who was in New York, approved it. A few days later Mr. Henson died (September 16, 1990), and so did the deal. In fact, his death effectively dissolved the relationship between Disney and Henson. A huge abyss between the two companies formed and I fell headlong into it…without my agent.

But Dave, you promised to tell us about Dr. Format

I’m getting to that. Okay, to cut to the chase, I’ll tell you that I used “Cave” as a sample script and got a deal writing Igor’s Revenge, which was produced but not distributed. I sold a couple of other scripts as well, including my only farce, Kumquat. Hercules Recycled enjoyed an extremely limited direct-to-video release. And The Penny Promise won some festival awards and was distributed.

When I started teaching screenwriting classes and seminars, a curious thing happened. Nearly half the questions from budding writers were formatting questions, and the only formatting book available at the time (by Cole and Haag) was sometimes difficult to understand and apply to spec writing.

I concocted a plan. To hush all the formatting questions so I could spend more time in class with pure writing issues, I wrote a 36-page formatting guide entitled Correct Format for Screenplays and Teleplays. And I took it to The Writer’s Computer Store on Santa Monica Boulevard.

I parked my Super Beetle and stepped in. They sold gargantuan personal computers which contained a full 8 megabytes of disk space. And you could choose between the white typeface or the fashionable orange typeface. Anyway, due to my previous marketing experience, I saw an opportunity because a lot of screenwriters bought PCs at that store. I asked the kind and gentle people there if they wouldn’t mind taking some copies of my formatting guide on consignment. They did, and the guide was a hit!

So Dave, did you get rich?

Nope, but I learned two things:

Number One: That formatting is an integral part of screenwriting and needs to be understood to be an effective screenwriter. My formatting guide was helping writers understand that and write better screenplays.

Number Two: That my marketing background helped my writing and teaching business. My workshops became more popular. In fact, I traveled to Hawaii 17 times to conduct workshops at the University of Hawaii. I grew to love the “high concept” of “Dave takes business trip to paradise.” Take that, Mr. IRS agent!

In the meantime, ABC TV was about to produce my feature A Window in Time starring Scott Bacula, but got cold feet when the ratings for a time travel TV show dropped. You can buy the Kindle version of that script for a measly amount at Amazon Kindle. At about the same time, I secured a development deal with a small production company in the Valley for The New Musketeers.

Then, on a singular cloudy day, a ray of light pierced through my skull, and an idea formed in mind: “Heck Dave, you read the Bible just about every day. Why don’t you write one?”

So I did.

But I couldn’t find a publisher. I kept hearing, “Dave, a screenwriting book [by Syd Field] has already been written. One book for this market is plenty.”

I retorted, “But mine is not a book. It’s a ‘bible’ consisting of several books, including Correct Format for Screenplays & Teleplays.”

Still no action, so I self-published The Screenwriter’s Bible in 1994. That’s twenty years ago today!

Dave, don’t tell me you took it to you-know-where?

Yup. By this time, The Writer’s Computer Store had become The Writer’s Store.

They agreed to add the “Bible” to their shelves. That helped me convince other independent bookstores and one chain (Borders) to stock it in the L.A. area. I love L.A.! Eventually, Silman-James Press agreed to publish it. To date, over 300,000 copies have been sold. Thank you, oh kind and gentle people at The Writer’s Store!

Sometime later, I was told that The Screenwriter’s Bible was one source used to create ScriptThing, an incredible formatting application. They even sent me a free copy. I no longer needed Muse Betty; I had ScriptThing. Later, ScriptThing was acquired by the Write Brothers, and it became Movie Magic Screenwriter, one of the two major script formatting applications in the industry.

By this time, I was enjoying teaching so much that I began to teach college credit courses for the University of California at Irvine and the University of Phoenix. In the year 2005, I was honored with a distinguished teaching award.

In the meantime, I optioned A Summer with Hemingway’s Twin, but was finding it difficult to find time to write because my teaching had evolved into professional script consulting.

Dave, stop bragging and get on about Dr. Format

Okay, okay.

To be honest, I don’t remember when the concept of Dr. Format first entered my mind, probably while delivering “bibles” to The Writer’s Store, but I can’t prove that. Maybe it was when Muse Betty returned to me. I don’t know. But here is what I remember.

The first screenwriting publication (to my knowledge) was The Freelance Screenwriter’s Forum, published and edited by expert horsewoman and literary genius Shelly Mellott and others. The first issue was available in 1989. I was among the first contributors to the publication and sometimes brainstormed with them about the publication’s direction. They eventually created a new publication (in 1997) and used the name I suggested: Script Magazine—the first magazine devoted to screenwriters. And I was a senior writer without actually being a senior.

Shelly wanted a column on formatting and I decided to call myself Dr. Format. At the time, I thought the column would last two years tops. I mean, how many formatting questions can there be? Somewhat not surprisingly, Dr. Format continues to answer questions right up to the present day. Perhaps you have one you’d like to ask.

Whether you do or don’t, keep writing…and keep living!