Continuing in the Top 5 Mistakes series, I’ll be concentrating on screenplay format today. (I’m assuming your layout, spelling, punctuation and grammar are awesome already – but if not, you can check here: 10 Common Errors In Your Writing You Need To Fix Right Now.)

Ready, then? Let’s go …


1) Overly long sluglines (aka ‘scene headers’)

A slugline or scene header in a spec screenplay is simply to “anchor” the reader, so we know *where* we are. They should be as plain as possible and shouldn’t draw the eye too much. That’s it.

However, lots of sluglines are WAY too detailed, sometimes running for two or more lines. They’ll note things like whose house we’re in; which room; what number the house is; which road — you name it! Nooooo! MORE: All about slugline layout and what you can include

2) Too many fillers, plus parentheticals

Fillers happen when screenwriters realise they need to “break up” a chunk of scene description, or a chain of dialogue. As a result, we end up with dull little moments that are there for the sake of it, as they don’t advance the story. Here’s 10 Of The Worst Screenplay “Fillers”.

I’ve often said parentheticals are useless – and that’s because they can too often become fillers as well. Even worse, writers may mistakenly use parentheticals for action, instead of putting it scene description. Ack!!!

3) Chains of dialogue

NEWSFLASH: Too much dialogue in a scene makes it STATIC. This is the last thing any good spec screenplay wants, not only because “what you see is what you get”, but because great screenwriting is about MOVEMENT. Not just *actual* movement either (though that can help), but the movement of the STORY.

Also, think on this: when was the last time you saw a movie or TV show where characters stood around, just talking, for 7 or 8 MINUTES (or pages)? Yet spec screenplays do this all the time. MORE: Are You Making Any Of These 20 Killer Errors In Your Screenplay’s Scenes?

4) Bad scene description

Anything labelled “bad” in screenwriting is nearly always open to interpretation, but I’d venture “bad” scene description does NOT:

  • Move the story forward
  • Reveal character
  • Both of the above

Spec screenwriters forget screenwriting is a VISUAL medium, first and foremost. This means they will probably need to write more scene description than anything else in the script. But they forget that scene description is SCENE ACTION. MORE: 10 Ways To Revitalise Your Scene Description


In a spec screenplay, capital letters are used on a character’s name when we meet them for the first time.

That’s it.


You do not need them for:

  • Sound effects
  • Random objects
  • Animals (that are not actual characters)
  • or anything else. ANYTHING AT ALL (arf).

Oh and while we’re on the subject, in a spec screenplay, you also don’t need:

  • Scene numbers
  • Italics
  • bold
  • underlining
  • bullet points
  • Different colour text
  • Pictures
  • Diagrams

In other words, as plain as possible, please. Save the reader’s eyes!! MORE: Screenplay Format: The B2W One Stop Shop 

Breaking Into Script Reading – Back For 2017! 

How do IMy sell-out course, BREAKING INTO SCRIPT READING will be back for its THIRD year in 2017! If you’re interested in becoming a script reader, or finding out more how script readers may assess YOUR own writing – or both! – then this is the course for you. The course will run 11th-12th February and early bird tickets are on sale now. GET THEM HERE, or click the pic on the left. See you there!

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11 Responses to Top 5 Screenplay Format Mistakes

  1. Jerome Sullivan says:

    I am sorry to inform you that I will be removing your newsletter from my list of regular screenwriting reads. I find it difficult to adjust my spec scripts to the varying formatting styles out there, yours being one of many (e.g. CAPS or no caps on sounds). When googled, CAPS seems to be the industry standard, spec or not, but is to be used sparingly. I don’t have the time to keep cross checking your choice of formatting with other in the industry.

    • Lucy V Hay says:

      Oh dear Jerome, guess you haven’t been paying attention — “sparingly” is always fine, “just don’t get busted” is the key which if you recall was the very first line of my newsletter today. Pity you won’t be reading anymore, sounds like you need it.

  2. Savyra says:

    Love your articles!

  3. John Harden says:

    Wait – capitalize character names the first time they occur in each scene? Or just the first time they appear in the entire screenplay? I learned the former style years ago, but it seems the fashion now is the latter. (I may not be able to break that habit. And as a director used to breaking down my own scripts, I see the wisdom of doing it my way: quickly ID’s what actors are in each scene.)

  4. Ron says:

    Good sound stuff as always, take note of what this lady says, she knows what she is talking about.

  5. Tad Wojnicki says:

    I’m writing simply to thank you for your work. I find your advice, Lucy, not just ballsy, informed, and down-to-earth, but also delightfully entertaining. In fact, I save time by limiting my info intake to B2W and one other US outlet. Your tips on pitching by email are tops. Again, thanks!

  6. Erik V Wolter says:

    What about bold slug lines? They are quite common now, allowing for an easier read. The Page Awards screenplay guidelines have recommended bold slug lines since at least 2012.

    • Lucy V Hay says:

      Sluglines are not meant to draw the eye, so bold is a bad choice for them as far as I’m concerned — especially when so many sluglines are plain bad.

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