Rules of the Formatting Game

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The next in my blog entries on screenwriting and film will be about common formatting mistakes I still see people make. I am surprised at some of these, that they are still committed on such a regular basis. But it still happens.


Probably most of you already know these rules. But it never hurts to have a refresher course.


Before I proceed, I want to be clear. Simply because you make these errors doesn’t mean that your screenplay will be thrown into the trash bin (whether a literal one or the one on a computer). Some people seem to think that any little error and a reader will toss it. This is simply not true. I don’t know where some people get this idea, but rest assured, these are not major issues when it comes to getting a screenplay recommended. In the end, the characters and story are the reason for that.


The only time it might get your screenplay rejected is if the formatting is so far off industry standard, or the script is filled with so many errors, it makes it a difficult read or makes it hard to even understand what is  going on. But that rarely happens. I mean, it does happen, but rarely.


So why pay any attention to these formatting rules? For me it’s because it makes the script a smoother read and even more compelling at times. And the main goal of a screenwriter when it comes to putting a screenplay down on paper (or on a computer) is for a smooth read. But in the end, it’s each to their own.


And with that, here are the issues I run across.


Long block paragraphs for narrative, which should be broken up into much smaller ones. I recommend narrative lines be no more than 2 to 2 ½ lines each; 1 to ½ lines each for action scenes. Not everyone agrees. But do realize that if you have long block paragraphs, the longer they are and the more there are, readers for agencies and production companies will quite possibly start skimming them.


After fully capitalizing a character’s name when first introduced, always initial cap after that whether it is a proper name or not (NURSE, Nurse; DOCTOR, Doctor). And with rare exceptions, always use the name when first seeing the character, not when they are called that name.


It is not longer recommended or necessary to list transition shots like CUT TO or DISSOVE TO. It is outdated and only takes up room.


Avoid camera angles like CLOSE UP. I, actually, rarely see this anymore. People seem to be finally getting the hint. But it still shows up.


Many people disagree with this next one. It is no longer necessary or recommended to fully capitalize any word in the narrative other than a character’s name when first introduced. You can do it, but it doesn’t gain you anything. And it can be distracting if overused.


Be careful of putting action in the dialog section. Action like (he throws the paper away) or (he picks up the book) go in the narrative. Only line readings go in the dialog section, as in (Beat), (Sarcastically) and (to someone). They should only be used when there is ambiguity in the reading. Otherwise, let the actors do their job and interpret the line. And these line readings should be centered and on their own line no matter where they appear in the dialog section.


Montages and Series of Scenes don’t require loglines.


Normal rules of grammar for numbers apply in screenplays. It’s three men, not 3 men, or two books, not 2 books, as examples. There are exceptions (ages and dates use Arabic numbers). And not all grammarians always agree when numbers should be spelled out or not, but generally speaking, for smaller numbers write them out.


Don’t put copyright or WGA information on the title page, nor the revision date or number. Only the title, author name and contact information go on the title page. And remember, in the US, the WGA doesn’t offer much protection and your work should be copyrighted.


I will conclude with my most controversial rule. I still say that all pilots should have the appropriate acts with a cold open or teaser. I think this should be done whether it is intended in your mind for network, cable, pay cable or streaming.


There are reasons for this. The first is that you won’t be submitting it directly to the platform, but to a company or producer and you don’t know what platform contacts or first look rights they have. I have heard some people say they can automatically tell whether a pilot is meant for a particular platform, but I don’t see how that is possible. Even if it is filled with four letter words, nudity or sex, a platform, if interested, will request changes to meet their guidelines. And pay cable has a much more lenient attitude toward sex and language than they use to and they have commercials.


One person said on facebook that they were asked by a production company to remove the acts even though they were submitting it to a network, so why put them in at all? For me, if you are requested to remove the acts, you simply go in, highlight them and they are gone. But if the company comes to you and says it needs to divided into acts, you can’t just go and add them. The pilot has to be structured for the act breaks, so it may need revising.


Of course, I suppose if you have structured it properly for act breaks, then you don’t need to include the act headings. But I’m not sure most people who don’t include act breaks have structured their pilot for that.


But again, this is a controversial stance and many people disagree.


Now get to writing.

So tell me what you think.

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