Last updated: August 2016
Top 5 Format Mistakes
Wondering what are the FIVE most made mistakes when it comes to screenplay format?? CLICK HERE.
Good Format Is …
Not getting BUSTED! Work experience kids are reading our work and screenplay format is what they understand and latch onto. Whilst any writer can obviously do what they want, there are obvious and basic things a writer can avoid/cut/change to make sure their script is less likely to get thrown aside when it’s plucked out of the spec pile.
On the basis of “reader-proofing” our scripts then, here’s a one stop shop for all your format queries. Check out the linkage in each section for more info, plus you can download The B2W 1 Page Format Ref Guide HERE.
1) Script length
What is the “right” length for a script? USUALLY it’s approx 90- 120 pages for a movie script and roughly 60 pages for a TV pilot. More details on why and other elements relating to page count here in this post. If you feel your script is TOO SHORT however, check out this post. If your script is for television or you want to write a script with “rapid fire” dialogue, then click here for my thoughts on this regarding script length in these cases.
2) Title page
This is for your title, your name, your contact details (your agent’s if you have one). That’s it. Please don’t put a picture on the front of your script or use a funky font or ANYTHING ELSE. Just normal is great, ta. DON’T put your name anywhere else on the script, including page 1 and on headers/footers.
I don’t care if your script is WGA registered or whatever, nor do most readers I’ve spoken to. Writing it on your script then makes you look paranoid. It’s all pointless anyway, since ideas cannot be copyrighted and I’ve never heard of a credible case of a script being stolen in ALL the years I’ve been reading. So why bother? Copyright myths exploded.
You need to use the COURIER font, here’s what it looks like – whilst there are lots of differing templates/formats for PRODUCED TV shows in particular and there will always be guys like the Coen Bros who use whatever you want, it’s advisable to use Standard Spec Script Format to avoid readers and interns chucking your script back in the envelope, unread. Not sure what Standard Spec Script Format looks like? Here’s that free reference guide to download.
5) Titles & Credits
You don’t need to reference credits in a spec script – this is a production decision, not the writer’s. This includes television scripts.
Sometimes you might want to include a quote at the start of your screenplay. Whilst there are no real “rules” or expectations for this, I wrote a short post on this re: placing, check it out here.
7) Sluglines/Scene Headings
These should read INT/EXT. LOCATION – DAY/NIGHT. There’s a little room for variation, especially regarding “time”, ie. MOMENTS LATER, SAME TIME, DAWN, DUSK, etc but don’t go overboard. Sometimes scripts manage to get away with mad or metaphorical locations, ie. UNDER THE OCEAN, INSIDE KATY’S COLON, INSIDE JIM’S IMAGINATION, INSIDE THE INTERNET, etc but again, be careful of this and use sparingly. For more on sluglines/scene headings, check out this post.
Loads of writers use the present continuous tense – the “is” + /ing/, ie. Lucy is reading. This is a longer way of expressing something and a helluva lot less “punchy” or “snappy” than the present SIMPLE, which is the /s/ formation – ie. Lucy reads. The perfective aspect (“have/had”) and past tenses rarely have a place in the screenplay.
9) “We see/look/hear/follow…”
For the record, I couldn’t care less about “we see…” or any of its variations. But a HELLUVA lot of readers do. Worth the risk?
Captions are under the slugline/scene header and should read:
SUPER: [1999/ Last summer / Germany 1941/ etc]
The “super” is short for “super impose”. I have seen CAPTION and TITLE too and I’m never bothered, but *apparently* SUPER is 100% correct, so if you’re a perfectionist there you go.
11) Act Breaks
Recently I’ve seen a significant increase in spec TV scripts with act breaks referenced (ACT ONE, END OF ACT ONE, etc). You don’t *need* to do this in a UK spec script. Just concentrate on telling the story as you would any other script. However, as with anything script-related, there’s always another way of looking at these things and here’s top TV scribe & showrunner Stephen Gallagher’s take:
“In the 90s I worked on a British show made by an independent producer for the BBC, and despite the HBO-style absence of ad breaks he insisted we structure the scripts with crises corresponding to Act Outs. He was right. It raised everyone’s game, imposed a pace and a structure (and I imagine made it easier when he came to sell the show to overseas markets).”
I know contradictory advice can freak people out (and there’s so much relating to scripts!), so if you’re scratching your head now and worrying what to do “for the best”, think of where your script is going… And whether it’s a spec and if it’s got a producer attached already. If NOT, perhaps it’s best to leave Act Breaks out? But as I always stress to Bang2writers, it’s YOUR script!!
12) Ad Breaks
A Bang2writer recently contacted me and said she had feedback from an American screenwriting competition telling her she “should” have included ad breaks in her spec television script; whilst this may be true of our American writer friends, as a UK writer you DON’T need to do this… Why? Because as a spec script, there’s no telling who your script *may* end up with – there’s every chance you’d be sending to an ad-free corporation like The Beeb, especially the BBC Writersroom.
13) Trial scripts
Lots of writers wonder about the various formats of various shows and worry they won’t *know* what to do if they’re offered a trial script on a continuing drama or series. My advice: don’t worry about it. If you get a trial, the show will generally send you various notes, sometimes the Series Bible and will send you a sample script of an episode which has already aired. Just copy the format of that sample script – if that means including stuff like act breaks and ad breaks and using a font other than Courier, etc? – then DO IT. Simples.
14) Prologues & Teasers
I’m seeing more and more TV pilots with teasers – but they’re not really teasers at all. Similarly, lots of prologues in spec feature screenplays aren’t real prologues, but extended intros to characters and/or backstory, before launching into the story. You MUST know the difference between these devices and HOW they work if you want to use them. What’s The Difference Between A Prologue & A Teaser?
15) Grammar & spelling
Good grammar and spelling is a must. If you know your grammar and spelling is poor, you have to sort it out. I can’t stress this enough.
BBC Skillswise is a good start, especially for the error I see most, which is the misused apostrophe. Here is a BRILLIANT site listing various issues, then testing you on them by Bristol University, well worth a bookmark.
If you cannot get to grips with good grammar and spelling, PAY A PROOF READER. It’s money well spent. I can personally recommend the following proof readers, having worked with all of them:
16) Scene numbers
Scene numbers are for SHOOTING SCRIPTS. End of. Some university/writing courses etc ask for scene numbers when discussing work for ease of reference; I’ve had some Bang2writers include them on purpose for this reason when I’M talking to them about their scripts and that’s cool. But DO remember to get rid of them when you send your spec out to agents or prodcos.
17) Use of CAPITALS
There is no need to capitalise SOUNDS. Yes, you will see scripts online with sounds capitalised, but those are invariably shooting scripts. If your script is a spec, the only time you capitalise anything is a character’s name the first time we meet them (and not throughout the spec either, another common mistake I see). Never, ever capitalise random objects — the most frequent I see is DOORBELL. Animals like CATS and DOGS only need introducing as a character if they’re going to play a significant part in the story:
The DOG bites the MAN which leads him to the hospital where he meets the sexy NURSE.
18) Use of bold/italics
Bold is annoying, that’s just the way of it. I read a script full of it recently and it did my head in – you don’t want the reader thinking negatively of your script for something daft like this, do you? So avoid at all costs, I’d say. I actually use italics from time to time in my own scripts and used infrequently, I think it can work – especially for characters’ unspoken reactions, ie:
Sally looks at the bomb. Oh shit.
As with anything though, don’t go overboard as again, guess what – it gets annoying.
19) Underlines (incl. scene headers/sluglines)
Yes, sometimes software comes with this programmed in. So unprogramme it! Don’t take it is red that this is the “norm”, because it isn’t. Check out this post: The 5 Biggest Format Errors Spec Screenplays Make
20) Camera Angles
I cannot believe scribes are still writing camera angles – the biggest issue has to be ANGLE ON which I see over and over again. What the hell does that *really* mean, anyway? And how does it *add* to the story? Answer: it doesn’t, not really. Just get rid!!! ESTABLISHING is for shooting scripts, not a spec script btw. There are exceptions, natch: POV can add to a story really well, but only if used sparingly. Beware of “hidden” camera angles too – ie. “OFF Katherine”, “CLOSE ON the whiskey bottle” or “PUSH INTO William’s burning gaze”. 10 Ways To Revitalise Your Scene Description | Bang2Write
21) CONT’D or CONTINUED
We know the scene continues over the page, there’s about 60 more pages yet. Do you need this? I say it takes up space.
After a short absence, parentheticals seem to be creeping back into spec screenplays – especially features. My recommendation: don’t, with the notable exception of (sarcastic) or any other time a line is otherwise AMBIGUOUS in the story. Otherwise, they feel really obvious, are quite distracting and actually take up a fair bit of space; plus I’m told actors are TAUGHT to ignore them anyway! Top 5 Reasons Parentheticals Are Useless.
Several scripts have come through Bang2write recently using various colour fonts (especially blue) to signify things like flashbacks and other non-linear time thread devices. My advice: don’t. Not only does it look a bit amateur, if you don’t feel confident the writing ITSELF can convey the changes in time, why should the reader? How non-linearity works.
24) Phone calls
Lots of writers have asked me on Twitter in particular about phone calls recently. The two main issues:
1) “How do I format a one-sided telephone conversation?” and
2) “How long should a telephone conversation be in a script?”
As for 1) Just write it as you would normally, but try and make sure the dialogue doesn’t go on for a gigantic block; breaking it up with small actions can help, ie:
JOHN’s on the phone. He waves, exaggerated at FIONA. She stares at him dopy – what?? He mimes “pen”!
Let me… Just. Get. A. Pen…
Fiona runs about like a headless chicken – presents him with an eyeliner. Groans, writes with it anyway.
Uh-huh… Yeah. Thanks. Appreciated.
John puts the phone down.
They want us in at two to discuss our “options”.
Fiona shrieks with joy.
As for 2) the answer is always – AS SHORT AS POSSIBLE.
In the specs I see, writers often use telephone conversations as a crutch for exposition and it’s always really obvious; sometimes phone conversations will crop up every time a writer wants to fill the audience in on something (some scripts have 5, 6, 7 or even 8 instances!).
Other times phone conversations will go on for pages and pages and pages and just be really boring. As always, there’s no reason why long phone conversations CAN’T work, but they need to have *something good* going for them. Here I’m reminded of PULP FICTION and the calls between Travolta and Eric Roth, ending with:
“Wait, are you calling me from a CELL PHONE?? CRANK CALL! CRANK CALL!”.
I see flashback in the slugline and above the slugline all the time and both seem fine to me, but you DO need to tell us when we’re changing time frame. The same goes for stuff like DREAM SEQUENCE – other words can substituted too: I’ve seen stuff like, JOHN’S IMAGINATION, SPACE, LIMBO, INSIDE SARAH’S BODY, THE INTERNET, ON THE COMPUTER SCREEN, THROUGH THE DOG’S EYES, etc. Why not? I think the easiest way to do anyof these is:
EXT/INT. LOCATION – DAY/NIGHT
****insert scene here****
(END OF FLASHBACK)
Lots of people have been asking me the “right” way to format INTERCUT. In short, there doesn’t seem to be a “right” way, I’ve seen it all kinds of ways. I think the easiest is simply:
PC Kelly’s gaze settles on a watch, on the victim’s dressing table.
That same watch, this time on the wrist of DCI Morton.
(END OF INTERCUT)
PC Kelly picks the watch up without gloves, slips it in his pocket without the rest of the team noticing.
Intercut can also used be in two-way, different location phone calls; in which case, probably best to put INTERCUT above the slugline (aka scene header) – but again, don’t forget to tell us when it ends. Good examples of flashback and intercut.
Please stop using montages *just* to pass time, it’s boring. Please ensure they have a dramatic FUNCTION to push the story forward and DON’T use them more than about twice in a feature MAX (once in 60 pages or less I’d say). Also, stop calling them SERIES OF SHOTS or I’ll kill you all! Kthxbye. How to lay out a montage.
I love a good voiceover – but only if it reveals character and/or pushes the story forward. 9/10 voiceovers in the spec pile are purely there to tell us stuff the writer couldn’t figure out visually. Don’t give yourself away!!! All about Voiceover.
29) Static Scenes
Static scenes are scenes that without a sense of narrative momentum, or “pushing the story forward”. If you have lots of pages of people talking, this can make your scenes feel very STATIC and THEATRICAL or “play-like”, which feels STATIC. What Is A Static Scene?, plus 3 Tips For Getting Rid of Static Scenes.
30) Scene Focus
Think about your scenes’ focus: what does this scene ADD to character/story? What do I need from it? How does it REVEAL CHARACTER or PUSH THE STORY FORWARD? Are You Making Any Of These 20 Killer Errors In Your Screenplay’s Scenes?
31) Theatrical or “play-like” dialogue
There’s always too much dialogue in any spec — so ensure you “rein it in” wherever possible, so you can keep your scenes SHORT. What’s more, however good your dialogue is, there will be a good chance you can cut great swathes of it and it will do the same job! Honest guv!! 6 Reasons Dialogue Is Your Enemy
32) Reported character
Another dialogue issue in TV and film: if characters are talking about people we’ve ALREADY SEEN doing *whatever*, cut it. If characters talk about people in general and what they’re ABOUT to do, cut it. If people talk about characters in great detail about stuff they’ve done BEFORE THE STORY STARTS, cut it. (The one exception here is obviously sitcom, which can thrive on reported character). 5 Reasons Dialogue Is Overrated
33) Overwriting Scene Description
Most writers write incredibly dense scene description, sometimes mistakenly believing they have to put every detail to “paint a picture” … But less really IS more!!
Also check out:
So, what are you waiting for?? Clean up those scripts!!
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