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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog

(OR EL DUDERINO IF YOU'RE NOT INTO THE WHOLE BREVITY THING)

-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Friday, June 10, 2005

On Format

So there have been a few posts and comments floating around the screenwriting 'hood of the blogosphere in the last day, discussing formatting rules. Since most of us are particularly concerned with "format rules" because of how they will affect a reader's perception of our scripts, and because I've read a lot of scripts over the years as a professional reader, I figured I'd throw my hat in the discussion ring (yes, I know that's something of a cliché).

First off, I must say that I can't guarantee that I am the typical example of a Hollywood script reader, but I also have no reason to believe that I'm not. I've read for many major companies, and have always been told that I "write good coverage." Thus, I'm going to assume that my reactions here are not that different from many other script readers.

You often hear horror stories of a script reader tossing a script away after 10 pages or something, but in my experience this is impossible at most major companies. At a small company, with an independent producer or something, this is certainly possible since the reader has limited time and is merely looking for that one solid script to pass up the food chain to his boss. But at a larger (or even medium-sized) company, with paid freelance readers (as opposed to in-house slaves), the reader must write coverage on every script he or she receives from the development department. Thus, the script might be the worst piece of garbage I've ever read, but I still must complete it. And how will they know that I've completed it? Every coverage I write has a synopsis of the entire screenplay, in addition to my comments. Sure, if it is terrible I can skim a bit more, but I pretty much have to read the whole thing.

That being said, there are still things which may predispose me to think about a script in a certain way. Of course, I still try to read the script with an open mind, and there have been a few rare occasions when my initial impression was wrong, but being a human being (I am, trust me) I can't help but be somewhat influenced by my first impression of the screenplay. Still, many of the so-called rules of script formatting do not affect my perception in the least. For example, I don't care too much whether a writer uses transitions or Cont'd for split dialogue (see my comments on each of the aforementioned blog posts). I've read plenty of professional and technically solid screenplays that go either way on those issues, so seeing the "wrong" thing done does not make me expect a bad script. On the flip side, certain things do negatively cloud my judgment. When I see a script in Arial instead of Courier, I know that it usually sucks. When I see a script that is 140 pages long, I'm predisposed against it (and may ask my boss for more money to cover it).

I think the main point, however, is not that I judge these scripts because they've broken rules. Rather, I've read so many bad scripts that have broken the rules in these ways before, that I tend to associate those specific broken rules with bad writing. Whereas the others don't bother me because I've read plenty of good scripts that have broken those "rules." I'm basically predicting future outcome from past experience. I don't mind a flashback in the first 10 pages, if it is done well, because I've seen it done well previously. So I'll give it a chance to convince me.

Two more quick things on this point. Firstly, as I mentioned, I become apprehensive when I see a very long script. This is because I know my job has just become more difficult. Thus, when I write scripts, I do whatever possible to make the reading experience more pleasurable and easy for the reader. It is for this reason that I use (Cont'd) when I break dialogue -- I think it makes for a smoother read, and I frankly trust that a good quality reader will not care if I'm out of step with contemporary screenwriting customs, looking instead at my sparkling writing quality.

Second, a tip for the beginning writers out there. If I ever get a script to read that was submitted by the author, I know there's a pretty good chance it will be terrible. Again, this is merely based on my past experience. What I mean is this. Generally, you can't get a script into a production company without it being submitted by an agent or manager or somebody like that. Occasionally, however, a writer "knows someone" at the company and is able to get their script read this way. In my experience, 99 times out of 100 there was a reason these people didn't have agents. This does not mean that there are no good writers without agents. Rather it means they likely just haven't gotten an agent yet. So my tip is this: if you do use a personal connection to get your script read by a ProdCo, politely ask if there's any way they can say it was submitted anonymously, or via a pseudonym, rather than "by Author." Again, we can hope your script would be read with an open mind anyway, but why not at least try to avoid predisposing a reader against your script, if possible?

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