The New Spec Style For Tomorrow

by David Trottier

Is there a new spec style out there?  I hear this question all the time.  If one exists, is it different from the old style?  Is it something I have to learn or can I use the old style?

Many established writers including Alan Ball, Jeff Lowell, Scott Frank, and Shane Salerno are using a variation of standard spec formatting style.  It is not an entirely new style, nor does it change any of the basic rules.  It’s more of a stylistic preference, which I will explain in a moment. 

Furthermore, it is not something that you must learn, but it would certainly be easy to learn because the stylistic changes are minimal.  It has been used in the past in some screenplays, but it is not something that has taken over the industry…yet.  So what was the tipping point?

The stir was created when the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards provided a new spec formatting guide for contest participants.  According to Executive Director Kristin Overn, several of the producers and managers who judge for the PAGE Awards had been talking about the fact that “more and more professional screenwriters are using this style, and it’s becoming increasingly accepted in the industry.”  The result was their new guide.

My research also shows some acceptance of this new style, so let’s take a look at what’s new, and then I will make recommendations concerning its use.

The new stylistic changes
Essentially, the new style uses bold and italics.  You may ask, Why haven’t bold and italics been used before? That I can answer in one word—tradition!  In days of old, scripts were typed on typewriters in a PICA type face (same as Courier 12-point) which was not capable of italics or bold.  Italics were indicated by underscoring, which is why you currently underscore important words of dialogue. 

The new style retains the Courier 12-point typeface, but it allows for bolding and underscoring of your master scene headings, secondary scene headings, and special headings (such as the MONTAGE or FLASHBACK).  What follows is a quick example of a master scene heading and a secondary heading using the new style:


DR. FORMAT glides in, pirouettes, and gracefully shuts the door.


sits a pile of screenplays and a Dr. Format bobblehead doll.

You can also bold and underscore a technical direction, like the SUPER. In addition, you can use italics for words of narrative description that you want the movie-going audience to see and read, such as news headlines, names on signs and buildings, and the content of superimpositions. For example:

SUPER: Hollywood, California – 2011

My one quibble with the new style is the option to replace the common technical direction SUPER with the words ONSCREEN TEXT.  Some readers simply won’t recognize it or like it.  Just use the word SUPER for now; everyone knows what it means.

I suppose you could use italics for foreign words (such as “He’s bona fide”) or for important words of dialogue if you wish (rather than underscoring). Keep in mind readers don’t generally balk at slight variations in spec style. For example, the new style allows for a colon after a special heading rather than a dash.


Personally, I still prefer the dash.  However, I suspect that the great majority of readers will simply not care if there is a colon after the word MONTAGE or the traditional dash.   Professional scripts have always varied slightly in formatting style, and yet they all look basically the same.  That trend will continue.

I have shared all of the changes of the new style that I am aware of.  So what should you do now? To be honest, there is nothing you need to change.   The industry will always accept the default settings of Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter.  So you can continue formatting scripts just as you have in the past without concern, unless you hear differently from a specific contest, production company, agent or manager.

Personally, I see no reason to adopt the new style unless you have fallen in love with it. Focus on the content of your script. Although I am okay with the "new style," I've heard a few writers and readers say that they feel the fold and underscoring interrupt the flow of the read.

Now that this new stylistic preference is increasing in popularity, it will be interesting to see if it becomes the norm someday.  As always, I’ll be on the outlook for you.  In the meantime, keep writing.