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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog


-- 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, July 22, 2005

On Format, continued

My last post, about including character ages, generated a small flurry of comments. There are obviously many potential reasons for this. Perhaps the short length of the post encouraged more people to read and comment on it. Maybe I'm just gaining more loyal readers who feel they should be commenting (and I thank you for that!). Could be a combination of reasons.

But I think at least one major contributing factor is that it was about screenplay formatting. There has been much ink set to paper on the topic of "proper" screenplay format. Perhaps even more pixels have been darkened -- hell, I even commented on it already myself! But I feel this warrants a few more words on the subject.

Yes, format is important. If you submit a screenplay printed in the wrong font, you will look like an amateur. If all of your sluglines use non-standard format, you will look like an amateur. If you never capitalize your character names upon introduction, or alternatively if you capitalize your character names throughout the screenplay -- all together now -- you will look like an amateur!

This is the most important purpose of following the proper screenplay format. So that you don't look like an amateur. Thus it is understandable that neophyte writers (at least those who are somewhat serious about their writing) pay such close attention to "correct" screenplay format. They somewhat rightly realize that if they don't follow the correct format they will... well, you know the rest by now. And they should pay close attention to such things.

That being said, formatting is a tool, and if clarity requires that you break a formatting rule, so be it. If on occasion you can make a point more effectively by breaking a rule, do it. You do not need to be beholden to a specific format, just because the books say you should. In this month's issue of scr(i)pt magazine, Bill Martell mentions that he invented a diagonal split of action on the page. Three (or more) pieces of action, split by ellipses, and indented respectively further across the page. If I could figure out how to format an indent, I'd show you an example (any web geeks out there, let me know). But no script formatting book would ever include such a thing.

You'll notice I said earlier, "If all of your sluglines use non-standard format." This doesn't mean that you can't have a few that are different, for emphasis. Also, remember that screenplay formatting changes gradually over the years. Read some of the top screenplays from the 60s or 70s and you'll be amazed at how many of our "rules" they break. Nowadays, for example, it is relatively common, and certainly acceptable, to have sluglines that are a single word. This might previously have been written as "INSERT" or "ANGLE ON." Now, it is fine if you just have a slugline that reads "THE TIGER."

The bottom line is that producers want to make good films, and readers want to find them. If I get a script that is completely in incorrect format, I'll assume the writer is an amateur, and he or she will be fighting an uphill (though not unwinable) battle to get to RECOMMEND. Not impossible, but highly improbable. If, however, I'm reading a script in overall proper format, with a few rules broken here and there, I will not care one bit.

So learn the proper script format. Follow the rules. But don't obsess so much over it. Focus much more of your time, energy, and effort developing your actual writing skills. Just make sure you have a good reason for breaking a rule when you do so.

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Blogger TN_Dreamer said...

on why more responses on the last post, I think there was more discussion on whether to use specifics or be ambiguous & that generated debate. whereas for more of your posts, the people who completely agree don't feel a need to say it.

on this post (even being an amateur), I completely agree. (he-he-he)

12:26 AM  
Anonymous Norm said...

I agree. I hate reading screenplays. The format is not one that is pleasing for me.

Once I've got my story down, one of things I love to do is go back through it and find ways to make the format more reader friendly: using mini-slugs, or finding ways to strutcture a sentence so that I can make "INT. OF THE BARN" part of it, and just slap a real slugline midsentence (breaking it all up properly, of course, so the slugline falls on the page where it needs to) and now diagonal action line splits...sweet deal.

Thanks, Fun Joel!

2:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

excellent post... that is the one pet peeve I have about my screenwriter's group. They constantly berate me about my formatting (basically they are comparing what they learned from a $20 book or $500 weekend seminar) when to me it is nitpicking. I use Final Draft so it is formatted correctly, it is the 'action' style I use that is my own personal STYLE that throws them for a loop. Shane Black has his 'breaking the third wall-talking directly to the reader' style that makes us shake our heads sometimes, but it is in the proper format (X inches from the left margin, two spaces between.. etc). Don't critique me on my personal style and say it is not done in the proper format. It is the meat and potatoes of the script, so don't go after me about the vegeatables

6:41 PM  
Blogger Matt Reynolds said...

My Screenwriting teacher used to hammer it into us not to include any camera directions in our scripts. He would scold us for including CU, MS or any other camera direction.

At first I thought he was being a pedantic f**k but in time I started to see where he was coming from. He's probably right in saying that directors don't want to to be told how to 'direct' their movie and more importantly technical directions are a turn off for readers. He also stressed how important it was to keep description to a minimum. One of his favorite lines was, "It's a bit to close to prose at the moment Matt." Again, it used to drive me nuts, but in the end I took most of his advice.

7:38 PM  
Blogger Paul said...

I like to hand someone a script with the same two pages printed over and over again... And then when they get pissed off I had them a script with bad formatting, but at least every page is different.

They don't complain.

9:24 PM  
Blogger TN_Dreamer said...

wow, read that prev post & it sounds like I might be complaining about this one & others like it. you should know that I'm not. I check your site every day.

god, now I sound like some suck-up retard. can't win for losing.

10:49 PM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Matt --

I will say that your screenwriting teacher was definitely correct on that front. Camera direction is definitely something that annoys me. But not only does it make you look like an amateur, it also is pointless, and indicative of a larger problem.

Pointless because on the off chance that your script is actually purchased with such camera directions, they will subsequently be ignored (if not purposely disobeyed) by the director. More importantly, however, I think when writers feel the need to include such directions, it is the result of a bigger issue. As screenwriters, we must recognize that film is a collaborative medium. We are not writing novels. Our words are never the final product. We must learn to trust the directors and producers out there. Sure, they screw up our scripts sometimes. But most of them are professionals who do their jobs well. Trust the director. Not only is he unlikely to screw up your work, he very likely has better ideas on how to direct it than you do.

Pauly --
Yeah, I think I read one of your scripts recently. I gave it a RECOMMEND for its audacity and clarity!

5:57 PM  
Blogger Matt Reynolds said...

I agree for the most part. However, I'm reminded of some more sage advice I got at film school: "A film is directed three times. First, in the WRITING, Second -- in the SHOOTING of the film; and third, in the EDITING.

As writers I think that it's important that we 'direct' our screenplays when we write them, as though we were going to make them as a movie director. If you visualise your screenplay as a series of shots in much the same way a director might storyboard, you're telling your story in pictures.

Now, don't get me wrong. That doesn't mean you have to write CLOSE UP, ANGLE ON or anything else. Like my teacher also said, most of the time your descriptions communicate the same meaning whether you type in these directions or not.

12:49 AM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Yes, Matt, I agree. Always good to direct without directing. I simply meant that while we do that, we still must recognize that there are still the two more times it will be directed, as your prof put it. Trust them to do it right!

3:51 AM  

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