How important are format and style?

The first step for many aspiring screenwriters is to purchase a piece of pricey screenwriting software.

Some call it retail therapy.

You are not a screenwriter until you have made that sacrifice, until you have invested money in your career, right?

I call it a waste of $250.

Your first draft should be a quick and dirty braindump. “Don’t get it right, get it written,” dixit Art Arthur.

Of course, it has its advantages to write your first draft in some sort of a script format. See it as an exercise in format and style, plus you have a rough idea of the screen time.

However, for this they have invented free MS Word templates, style sheets or even better: Celtx.

Format and style are totally irrelevant.

If you are fiddling to get the wording of your action right, to make your characters sound like ‘real people’, to come up with really cool visuals, you are wasting your time.

If this is your first draft, nobody will ever see it, except your story editor or script consultant. And if the first script feedback is all about format, style, dialogue and scene construction, you haven’t given the editor the right brief.

Or perhaps you should change editors.

You should be working on that story, which currently may not even be a story yet. If McKee’s statistics are right, ninety percent of what you have written will go. Won’t make it to the screen. At least not for this film.

Now, because of my emphasis on story, it may seem as if I think the presentation of the screenplay is less important.

But can you afford to shop around an excellent story but scripted in a way that looks sloppy and rushed?

Of course you can’t.

I was talking about early drafts.

Once you are sending a script for consideration to producers, studios or talent, it has to be immaculate. Nothing must distract from a smooth read.

Your formatting has to be completely in line with the standards of the country (Letter format if you’re based in the US, A4 elsewhere), the company (if it’s a major studio) or even the person (if it’s, say, Spielberg) you are sending the script to.

Why am I so paranoid about this?

Because others are.

Imagine this: a reader or executive has just read an ‘okay’ story. But it was a terrific read: an elegantly flowing script, no typos, great style, a fast read with “lots of white”.

Your script is next.

Your story is on par with the previous one, but by page 10 this reader has found three typos, a couple of “we see”‘s and some awkward sluglines.

Your story may have had the same potential. Yes, it could have been produced for less money and audiences might have loved the movie better.

Still, you’re out.

The other writer might have been equally talented; he was more professional. If you want to play with the pros, you’ll have to be ready to write fast, re-write fast, and keep the same level of professionalism. If you can’t even get that first spec script right – which they know you have laboured over for years – you’re not up for the challenge.

And guess what: in the books of this reader, producer or company, not just your script but even you may be history. They probably have a sufficient amount of fresh offerings every day so they feel perfectly happy to bar you from ever submitting anything ever again.

If you are serious about earning six or seven figure fees in your new career, prove it. Before you send out your script, invest a few hundred dollars in having it read and polished by a pro.


Did you just realise your script has gone out to more than one company? Like… all of them?

Bad format and style can kill your career.

Better start thinking about a cool ‘nom de plume’.

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