What are the primary criteria that will ensure your script stands out from the rest?
Steven Fernandez reveals some essential secrets to getting read.
In my 4½ months in LA, one of the most important screenwriting lessons I learned is that there are simple principles to follow to ensure Hollywood screenplay readers will accept the way you have formatted your screenplay.
All too many unsold screenwriters submit screenplays that contain avoidable mistakes. Mistakes that annoy readers to the point that they want to toss the whole thing in the bin. For example, readers have zero tolerance for spelling and grammar errors.
While it is tempting to think that readers must be ‘anal’ creatures, consider life from their point of view: a typical script reader is an overworked freelancer who gets paid little or nothing to read five scripts a day. And each script requires a write up of a 2,000-word report (called coverage in the industry) that not only summarises the plot, but also comments on matters such as dialogue, characterisation, and originality of concept. All this takes valuable chunks of a reader’s time. So what a reader really wants is for your screenplay to be easy to read. In fact, ideally, a joy to read!
“A typical script reader is an overworked freelancer who gets paid little or nothing to read five scripts a day.”
Making a screenplay easy to read necessarily means following set conventions on script format. For example, three pages of dense, margin-to-margin, prose is annoying to the reader, as it slows down the read.
You need to have a generous amount of white space on every page. Which means, in practice, a page dominated by dialogue. Or, at least, where there are blank lines between short action paragraphs. In saying that much, I don’t mean to endorse the use of dialogue lines merely for the sake of filling a page. Dialogue – as with everything else in your screenplay – should be tight, relevant, and (above all) engaging!
“Dense, margin-to-margin, prose is annoying.”
Another way to make life easier on your reader is to be both visually evocative yet brutally economic with your use of words. One teacher I met states that in a screenplay you get nouns and verbs – not adjectives.
Bill does not run “quickly”, he just runs. In fact, better still, use a more evocative verb such as shoots, darts, or sprints. Another example: Sally does not carry the dinner tray to the table with “great trepidation”, she balances it as she walks or maybe even cradles it.
In a similar vein, I have learned that you should write a sentence per shot and a paragraph per point of view. And that the words used in your action sentences should imply the type of shot being made. For example, a panning shot would be implied by simply describing what it reveals without explicitly stating that it’s a pan (e.g. faded wallpaper, an empty chair, broken window, a stopped clock). Simple, visually clear, and short!
Most importantly, every page of your screenplay should emulate the viewing experience. The reader should be spending no more than a minute per page, just like the viewer of the finished work. If it is a chase sequence, the reader must be swept along with the hot pursuit. Whereas a tender love scene would be more languid. Your writing must convey those feelings you experience as you sit watching a great movie in a dark cinema. For example, the way you air-punch the bad guy when the hero finally catches up with the villain. Or the way your eyes water when your best friend dies. Or how you laugh out loud when the comedic punch line is delivered.
“Your screenplay should emulate the viewing experience.”
A sure-fire way to break the spell your story has cast over the reader is to try to micro-manage the actors. This will truly annoy your reader as she is broken out of her engagement with your story to read over words that try to dictate how an actor must raise his right eyebrow just so, or to impart a particular inflection over three specific words in the dialogue line. Allow the actor to do what they’re paid to do. Namely, act!
On the point about spelling and grammar, I am not joking when I say keep the errors at zero across the whole screenplay. One of the top annoyances readers have is to constantly cringe as they read mistake after mistake. This may seem a pedantic bent on their part until you remember that they are required to read many screenplays in a week.
“Keep the errors at zero across the whole screenplay.”
Mistakes due to lack of quality checking so loudly telegraphs ‘amateur’ to their seasoned eyes that they forget the rest of your screenplay and just write a bad coverage of it. Not the response you want from them!
In summary, then, you want to do everything you can to make the reader’s experience of reading your screenplay easy, rather than annoying. And to achieve that outcome requires you to be conscious of standards and conventions used in the industry in Hollywood.
Conventions such as one sentence per shot and keeping words evocative yet short. To not play by these rules will only invite the reader’s ire. Which will do no favours for your writing career.
I hope these findings are as illuminating to you as they were to me.
Steven Fernandez is a writer-director of short films and theatrical shows in Sydney, Australia.
He is currently writing Human Liberation – an epic novel and screenplay package set in mythic ancient Greece.
I studied acting for three years and hold a graduate diploma in writing from Sydney’s UTS. My interest in film and writing was solidified through interning at The Story Department and gave me the opportunity to fine tune my skills. I’ve been involved with several film projects, the most recent of which was shortlisted for Tropfest.
With the knowledge gained from university and my experience at The Story Department, I’m now specialising in professional feedback on short films and documentaries.
4 thoughts on “How to Write a Readable Script”
A clear headed account of some dos and don’ts; looking forward to your next installment
Thanks for the great insights, Steven! Just wondering, if one is writing in a mockumentary/documentary form and wishes to have quick cutting between the ‘talking heads’ interview subjects, such as in the first Act of District 9, should proper formatting involve simply listing the character name, as opposed to INT. INTERVIEW ROOM. DAY, whenever you want to distinguish interview scenes from the standard narrative scenes? Or should a sequence of interview-grabs begin with only an introduction that informs the script reader that different characters will be speaking in different interview locations, but that these do not warrant an introduction for each? Hope this makes sense – any feedback would be much appreciated! Cheers again.
Hey Steven, nice article. Though I think you must have meant one *paragraph* per shot (not one *sentence*) right? Sometimes that may mean one sentence. Sometimes not. The key thing is to begin a new paragraph whenever the shot, or focus, changes.
Steve, I’ll take a crack at answering your question. You’re obviously familiar with the “Talking Head” approach that The Office uses. That tells me you’re probably qualified to make the right call. It all boils down to clarity. Are the characters in your movie all being interviewed in the same room (at different times), and under the same conditions? If so, you may be able to establish a shorthand slugline, or utilize a one-time reader’s note. What’s important is that the reader is able to form a clear image of the interview room. Hope that helps!