Quirks of Screenplay Formatting and the Logic Behind Them

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by Fin Wheeler

When you first roll your sleeves up and decide to be a screenwriter, every man and his dog is ready to pronounce what you absolutely must do and avoid in terms of formatting. But frustratingly few will tell you why. It’s counter-intuitive for a curious mind to just accept without question all the unwritten and written formatting rules of our profession, yet it’s what’s expected of us.

Font

I can’t quite believe this, but readers swear they regularly receive scripts that aren’t in Courier. I have no idea why a writer would do this. If they’re a professional stepping over into screen for the first time, they know how important it is to always use the industry-standard font. If they’re new to writing, surely they’d have read screenplays, all of which are written in Courier.

Courier and Final Draft Courier are the only acceptable fonts for scripts. We use them out of respect for those generations of screenwriters who came before us.

screenplay-coverageNo Scene Numbers

This one puzzles professional writers from other fields. A decade as a TV writer or playwright teaches you that no meeting is possible without those blessed scene numbers. They are a short hand that’s been used since before Shakespeare. Writing any script without scene numbers seems ridiculous. Removing the scene numbers once your script is complete seems equally absurd, entirely without logic.

What you have to remember is that you aren’t a jobbing writer, not on your spec projects. That’s partly why producers make us remove them: it’s a reminder that this isn’t a commissioned project. The other reason specs have no scene numbers, the main reason, is for producers. There’s a strict hierarchy in studios. Junior readers/staff don’t get to work on numbered scripts. Only senior staff are considered experienced enough.

Adding scene numbers to your spec makes it seem like you are either trying to queue-jump or you don’t respect their hierarchy and the hard yards they logged to get where they are.

If your spec is sold, scene numbers are used in development, then taken out again before its submitted for it’s final yes or no. Once (if)  it’s greenlit, they’re added back in, the pages are locked and it becomes the shooting script.

Final Draft

Professional screenwriters are expected to use this software (or, perhaps, Movie Magic Screenwriter). You don’t have to love it, but you have to know how to use it. If you get work in television, the templates they send you are fdx. You can’t work in any other software. Plus, readers read thousands of scripts. They can tell just by looking whether a script was done using industry-standard software.

Page Count

The current standard is officially 90-120 pages. Unofficially, try not to go too far past 100. Sure, there are Oscar winning screenwriters who get away with submitting much longer scripts, not because a longer script is better. It’s because there aren’t many Academy Award winners and every studio wants a look at their next masterpiece, even if that means they’ll effectively also have to pay for two extra drafts.

If you’re not an Academy Award winning screenwriter, you will not be paid for extra drafts, and you can’t reasonably expect anyone to waste their time reading something unfinished by an unknown screenwriter.

Less than 90 pages, the reader will fear its half-baked. More than 105 pages and your spec risks always remaining on the bottom of their stack. The sweet spot is 90 to 105.

index-cards_write-a-script

If you’ve tried and tried again to get your page count down, it’s best to just ditch that obese draft and start from scratch. Any true gems are always remembered. So, go back to your 40 cards, build your outline from that. Then write each scene as quickly as possible. Doing all the heavy lifting at the card and outline stage allows you to be light and concise with the actual writing of the scenes.

If all that fails, there are a few tricks. Use the Warner Bros template, keeping the “Continued’s” in at both the top and bottom of the page. You can also go into “Header and Footer” and hit return a few times then save. This cuts down the effective writing space of each page as you write, so your mad Must-Boast-About-My-Page-Count-To-Civilians ego is sated, but you also produce something professional.

Once the spec is complete, just go in and take out the extra blank lines. It should drop ten or so pages. Writing in New Courier also builds ten extra pages into your script as that font has larger spacings between each line. Again, you absolutely must revert to Courier once you’re done.

These are only a temporary fix. It’s better to be able to write without resorting to tricks.

And never, ever submit a script which has the wrong margins. The implication, that professionals don’t know what a script should look like, is incredibly insulting.

Orphans

Another way to reduce your page count by two or three pages is to go through your entire script and delete any line that only has one word on it (known as an orphan). Usually, there’s a more concise way to say any sentence, change it and your script slims down by a line. It all adds up to a leaner, tighter script.

Benedict-in-The-Imitation-Game-benedict-cumberbatch-37358719-500-300

Warner Bros Template        

You may have seen this mentioned in many screenwriting manuals, or as a choice in Final Draft templates. Once a spec is bought by a producer, they’ll ask you for the file and run it through this. It’s considered the most accurate way to gauge true page (and time) count. Any re-writes you do will have to be in this template, so you might as well write in it from the get-go.

First Draft

A writers first draft and the industry first draft are two very different things. Once you’ve registered your spec, you should get professional feedback and do another rewrite based on the weaknesses they found. If you know in your gut it needs another round of feedback, do it. Your spec only ever gets one chance at a first impression. Once it’s industry ready, it can make it’s debut. That draft is considered the First Draft.

Happy writing. And submitting.

~

Fin Wheeler began writing for the stage, has a Master’s in Screenwriting from a top film school (VCA), and has a feature in development. Born in Australia, Fin’s lived in several different countries and cultures. This is reflected in the diverse, global screen stories Fin tells.

 

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