The Usual Suspects – Formatting (Part One)
When it comes to writing a screenplay, there are several “formatting rules”. If you are writing (or thinking about writing) a screenplay then it would be wise to learn and follow them. Yeah, I know, you’re a creative and you don’t “play by the rules” etc etc, but in this instance, it doesn’t hurt to toe the line.
Production companies who hire script readers ask them to read thousands of screenplays each year and I know from experience that there is nothing worse than opening the “next” screenplay and seeing terrible formatting – No matter how good the writing, you know you’re in for a tough read.
And there it is – Why would you try and hinder your wonderful writing with terrible formatting?
I am not saying that your screenplay will be thrown out because of poor formatting – Amazing writing will always win through, but my point is why NOT format your screenplay correctly? Why NOT make it easier for the reader? Formatting is EASY. It is the easiest thing you can do when writing a screenplay.
You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. It works. USE the wheel.
Just to be clear, the list below does not delve into the basic formatting of a screenplay – I’m assuming you already know it or you’ve got software that does it for you, for example, Final Draft.
Okay, let’s get down to specifics:
Inconsistent Scene Headings
Every scene in your screenplay needs a heading or “slugline”, which is pretty obvious and, pretty easy. But they need to be consistent. Make sure the reader knows where they are – If the whole story is set in an apartment block we need to know whose apartment we are in. Here’s an example:
Bill and Ted share an apartment on the fifth floor, let’s say, number 505. The heading can be done in several ways:
BILL AND TED’S APARTMENT
FIFTH FLOOR APARTMENT
All perfectly okay (although maybe the last one is a little too generic). Just pick one. But then stick to one. Don’t use all five in the same story, it can cause the reader to get lost and confused and more importantly, it takes them out of the story. I’ve read screenplays where one minute we are in “Bill & Ted’s apartment” and the next its just “Bill’s apartment” – Does Bill have a second apartment we didn’t know about? Or maybe Ted moved out and we missed it… These are the type of questions the reader asks as soon as they see the new heading.
If the location is the same and hasn’t fundamentally altered, then use the same heading. Every. Single. Time.
INT, EXT and the time of day
Every scene heading should start with either INT. (Interior – The scene is inside) or EXT. (Exterior – The scene is outside), or on the odd occasion INT/EXT. (The scene moves from inside to outside). At the end of each scene heading there ought to be a time of day. You might simply state “DAY” or “NIGHT” or, if it is story specific, you could use “DUSK”, “DAWN”, “MORNING” etc.
If the following scene continues immediately afterwards, then “CONTINUOUS” can be used to show this.
Why is it important? Let’s say you have three scenes all set in the same location but you need to make it clear that time has passed between each one – you can use “MORNING”, AFTERNOON” and then finally “NIGHT”. Or, if you want to be less specific, you can use “LATER”.
Using the correct scene heading elements stops the reader from losing track of both the story and the time that has passed, which is sometimes critical to the story.
This one is simple. Remove your scene numbers. They are for shooting scripts only, not for specs sent out to readers/agents etc. I’ll be honest, this doesn’t bother me in the slightest and, in truth, if I review a script with scene numbers on, it makes my life far easier when sending notes back because I can refer to them! Greater minds than mine have decided that scene numbers are a no-no, so take ‘em off!
It really doesn’t matter, but why leave something on your screenplay that might make someone roll their eyes before they start reading?
There will be more on “Roll their eyes” in another blog entitled, “False Movement.”