I’m “Mad as Hell” and here’s why: The other day I had a script to read and I started pulling out my hair after a few pages because the writer clearly had no idea what a feature film script formatting was supposed to look like. Half the sluglines were missing, the dialogue was all over the place, and the long-winded action lines seem to be an homage to William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury.” It was so painful to read I had to take the hard copy to a bleak coffee shop with zero distraction because there was no way I could have trudged through it otherwise.
I steamed my way through the script because I was being paid to analyze it, and surprisingly, this one turned out to be a fantastic story. But do you really think I’d have made the effort if I had been reading it with my other cap on, as a development executive at Frenzy Films? Do you really think any producer or agent would have made the effort when they don’t have to? NO.
So I can’t say it enough: Learn and adhere to script formatting rules! It just makes scripts difficult to read and script doctors, execs and competition judges mad as hell. Here are 3 reasons why you need to get your formatting straight:
1. Poor script formatting signals an amateur writer:
Unless people are getting paid to read because they are hired consultants, they only read what looks professional. And poor script formatting is the first red flag that they’re reading the work of an amateur, even if they have a good story to tell. Poor formatting is all the reason they need to throw your script into the trashcan.
And rightly so: because if the writer hasn’t taken the time to learn simple formatting rules, it’s highly likely they don’t know other aspects of the craft. Aspects such as subtextual dialogue, “Show Don’t Tell”. And know to only write what a reader can see or hear. If people aren’t reading your story in order to be able to give sound advice, then they’re reading it to see if they want to buy, option, act in, direct, etc. Why would they get past page one if your script looks like a dog’s dinner? Even readers in some competitions are allowed to stop reading after ten pages if they feel the screenwriters don’t have the required level of craft necessary to be a professional, which is, after all, what you are aspiring to be.
***Download and use the script format guide here. Or look at a very detailed BBC script format guide here***
2. From a poorly formatted script blueprint, your investor or producer can’t visualize – let alone build – a successful movie:
Script formatting is simple and easy to learn, and has evolved in a certain way over a hundred years of cinema, for a reason. And that reason is that a screenplay is basically a blueprint, a technical document from which to make a movie, in the same way that architectural drawings are plans for engineers, builders, etc. to construct the building according to the diagram the architect drew up. Sad but true.
Inevitably, some of the cleverest clogs amongst you are going to tell me that they’ve checked famous scripts on line, that hot shot writer/directors format their work the way they want, that the Coen Brothers don’t write proper sluglines, etc. You know why? Because the Coen Brothers can do whatever they please. Period. But until you are a writer in demand, play it safe and stick to the formatting rules. It’s a bit like when you’re supposed to bring cheese to a potluck picnic. Would you go for your favorite stinky blue cheese, or would you rather bring cheddar everyone loves? Well, you get my point. Same for screenwriting. So, from a formatting-your-screenplay perspective, give them cheddar! (Save the bold, exotic cheese for the actual content and approach to telling your story)
3. A mad reader is a bad reader:
Poorly formatted scripts piss off your reader on page one – do you really want to do that?
Formatting recommendations might slightly vary from one book to another when it comes to details such as hyphen versus comma in sluglines, but they all agree on two things:
1) CONSISTENT formatting makes scripts EASIER to read
2) Incorrect script formatting takes readers, producers, actors, etc. out of the story and makes them mad as hell.
If you don’t have Final Draft or Movie Magic, then I recommend that you download a free screenwriting software called Celtx. Celtx works pretty much like Final Draft and it will make your work look professional. Also, get yourself a formatting book such as The Complete and Authoritative Guide to Script Format and Style by Christopher Riley and stick to it.
Read as many Award Winning screenplays as you can. Screenwriting is a craft. Too many aspiring screenwriters out there start writing screenplays without having ever read a script, which always baffles me. Would you consider playing guitar without having ever listened to Jimi Hendrix, or another master of their craft, whether contemporary or from the old days? Watching tons of movies isn’t enough to get an education in screenwriting alone. So, read scripts, study screenplays, make a point of reading one a day or one a week at least.
Write on… but watch your script formatting because I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore !