I hear constant references
to the industry standard for formatting. Does it actually exist, and,
if so, where was it last spotted? And why is there so much confusion around
it? I’ll explain and explode a couple of myths along the way just for fun.
This should relax you to the point that you’ll not only feel encouraged to
write (in correct format), but you’ll get a positive bounce in your immune
system as well.
Myth #1 – There is only one specific
standard that all writers, producers, readers, and agents adhere to
Screenwriters craft two types of scripts—spec
scripts and shooting scripts—and each has its own standard.
Unless you are being paid in advance to write, you are writing a spec
script. Thus, the vast majority of writers write specs. The industry
standard for spec writing is explained in The Screenwriter’s Bible. Both major software applications, Final Draft and
Movie Magic Screenwriter, are defaulted for spec writing conventions,
so you can feel safe with the tabs and margins they pre-set for you. In
addition, both software programs allow you to select shooting script
conventions (such as scene numbering) if needed.
Have you noticed that just about everyone has their own idea of correct spec
format? The good news is there is one generally accepted industry standard
for spec scripts. However, you may see slight variations on the same theme.
Let me explain with an example.
One maxim is that dialogue should be indented 10 spaces (one inch)—that’s
the standard—but I’ve seen scripts written for a particular production
company indented 12 spaces. In my view, and in the view of most
professionals, the specific number is not crucial in this case. And that
leads us to our next myth.
Myth #2 – Your script must be perfectly formatted
or it will be thrown out
Virtually all producers, readers, and agents are fine
with occasional errors, but when those errors become distractions, the
reader may lose patience. Does that mean you can get lax about formatting
your script? After all, isn’t the story more important? The content is
more important, but its presentation can enhance its chances in the
marketplace. May I illustrate with an example?
Suppose I offer you a piece of delicious chocolate cake. You say, “Yes,
yummy.” So I grab a chunk with my hand and slap it down on the table. You
say, “That’s not very appealing.” And I reply, “Isn’t the content more
important than the presentation?”
It’s true that many professionals don’t care much about formatting specifics
as long as you are close and the script “looks basically okay,” but others
are sticklers. So it is in your best interest to adhere to the industry
standard for spec writing as best you can. On the other hand, don’t drive
yourself nuts trying to make the script perfect. As I like to tell my
students and clients, “The goal is excellence, not perfection.”
The bedrock of spec writing
You want to sell your script. The path to a sale is
through the reader. In terms of formatting and spec writing, the reader
wants three things—clarity, readability, and uniformity.
CLARITY. You cannot afford to lose or confuse a reader that usually reads
quickly. Lately, I’ve seen some sloppy writing. I occasionally stop reading
and wonder where I am or whether or not a particular scene is a flashback,
or what happened, or whether or not JIM the same as the MAN back on page 7?
When in doubt about what to do, err on the side of clarity.
READABILITY. The essence of spec screenwriting is to say as much with as few
words as possible. The current trend is towards "lean and clean"
screenwriting: shorter screenplays, shorter paragraphs, shorter speeches,
and more white space. Your script needs to flow like a river into the mind
of the reader. Make your script an “easy read” of a compelling story.
UNIFORMITY. A reader wants your script to be formatted more or less like
other scripts he or she has read. And that means adherence to the industry
standard for spec writing.