Ten Format Mistakes

I should clarify that this is from one of my TriggerStreet script reviews, and thus, it’s the top ten mistakes one specific writer made in his unproduced spec. (And this is not to embarrass him, either. He’s a good writer with a promising future.)

But my biggest pet peeve in the world is a sloppy spec. For God’s sake, a writer should know how to write and a screenplay ought to look like a damn screenplay. You may not have anything good to say in the story, but at least have the decency to make your script look polished.

Anyway, hope you enjoy it.

(aka – “Format Nazi”)


10) “WE SEE” & “WE HEAR”

This is one of the biggest amateur mistakes anyone can make, that is, to write endlessly in the action lines “we see” or “we hear” or “we look.”

Obviously, “we see,” “we hear,” and “we look” – IT’S A MOVIE. You might say, “well, I’ve seen this done by the pros.” That doesn’t make it right. That doesn’t justify your doing it, and that doesn’t mean we can all rationalize a lowering of standards in screenwriting.

You might say, “well, I’ve seen this done by the pros.”
That doesn’t make it right.

Even as Mystery Man, I interact heavily with a few pro readers from the U.K. and the U.S., as well as two college professors in screenwriting – DON’T DO THIS. Everyone groans and quietly talks trash about the author when the writing is this sloppy.

We have to surpass the pros on every level with our screenplays in order to break in. And that process begins with spotless specs with perfect format & grammar.


PAGE ONE: How does one “FADE IN:” “OVER BLACK”?

When would we know the FADE IN: has occurred if all we’re looking at is blackness?

You should start with “ON BLACK,” then “SUPER:” (not “SUPER IN/OUT:”) and after the super’d words, which should be in quotations, then write “FADE IN:” which should be flushed to the left.


You do realize that when you first introduce a character, the name should be in caps, right?

There are a few cases where you didn’t do that, like Onesto’s Mother or the Man in the White Suit (both on page 17) or the two reporters on page 41 (who they have lines of dialogue). And then there were other cases where you repeatedly put the same character names in caps, like Leland on page 81 and 86 after you’ve already introduced him on page 3 or Amelia Granger whom you put in caps again on page 30 after you already introduced her on page 14. And then there was the bit with the “Scandinavian Woman” and “Son” that started on the bottom of page 3. I’m still not sure how many characters were in that scene.

You have Scandinavian Woman and Son next to a car at the Botanical Gardens with a clamp over the wheel. Okay, fine. The woman addresses an “August” in her dialogue, a bag hits the ground, a “stranger, dressed from head to toe in black, opens the bag and takes out bolt cutters,” the mother “nods her approval,” and then you introduce MAC MEAD, who picks up the bag and winks at the mother; she smiles back, blushing.”

I had to read it ten times before I decided that there were only 3 people in this scene, the mother, the son, and Mac, although what Mac was doing and why he did it and how it’s essential to the story didn’t seem important. But don’t write “stranger” before a proper character introduction, because that’ll make people think there are more characters in a scene than there really are. Introduce Mac Mead in the “stranger” paragraph.


It annoys me when, in the action lines, a character’s name begins every single sentence. “Igor does this.” “Igor does that.” “Igor goes here.” It’s amateurish writing.

It means you don’t have enough confidence in the reader to understand that you’re still talking about Igor if you just write “he.” Believe me, we’ll get it. Just say “Igor” once and then write “he” thereafter.


Briefly, the handling of foreign languages and subtitles was, well, disastrous. I’m not even going to explain the variety of ways you can handle foreign languages in screenplays. Unfortunately, none of those techniques were on display here. I’ll suggest this – parentheticals are probably best for this story.


The following we do not do: “THE FOLLOWING TAKES PLACE IN ONE FLUID, CONTINOUS MOTION -“. That, my friend, is called a camera direction, and we don’t write them – not in the U.K., not in the U.S., not in Tibet, China, or BFE. Get rid of all your transitions, too.

Some transitions are okay if they are truly essential, but I never saw any reason for any of the ones you used. You also had a lot of swooping and flying, such as, “We are skimming the surface of the Tigris River. As we swoop up we fly towards a bridge.” Just describe the location and imply camera directions. In other words, describe the river, the bridge, etc, and imply that we’re skimming and flying but don’t say it.

Also, don’t mention “pulling back” or “the frame.”


Here were a couple of my favorites: “EXT./INT. HIGHWAY/THE VAN/THE TRUCK – DAY” and “INT. EXT. BAGHDAD STREETS/VEHICLES/FACES”. Don’t do that.

Headings need to be simple: “INT. LOCATION – DAY”

Here’s another one: “INT/EXT. BUILDING, SECOND FLOOR” How can you have INT./EXT. for a BUILDING? Did you notice that you have “EXT./INT.” for the highway, “INT. EXT.” for the Baghdad Streets, and “INT/EXT.” for the building? Look, “INT./EXT.” needs to have two periods and a slash and that kind of heading is usually reserved for automobiles.

Headings need to be simple: “INT. LOCATION – DAY”. No commas, no slashes, no “faces,” just ONE LOCATION. If you’re doing a chase sequence, all you need is one heading and a bunch of secondary headings. You might want to look at Mickey Lee’s “Operation: Atomic Blitz” as a reference.

You also do not write “EARLY MORNING” or “LATE AFTERNOON” in your headings. Scenes are shot for “DAY” or for “NIGHT”. Period. Although you can also write “SAME” or “LATER” or “CONTINUOUS” or “FLASHBACK” or some variation.

Scenes are shot for “DAY” or for “NIGHT”. Period.

You had many headings without time switches at the end, too. I’d suggest you always have time switches at the end of every heading to avoid any possible confusion. While it was great to see that you knew to use the Secondary Headings, you were inconsistent with them. Make sure you’re consistent with when, where, and how you use them.


No one has ever really written about this (and I’m not sure how well I can articulate it), but this script is full of what I’d call “bad editing.”

It’s where a set of scenes feels jarring, confusing, disjointed, and erratic, because there wasn’t a lot of care into leading the mind’s eye of the readers to ensure that we are all following a specific train of thought in order to reach certain payoffs.

I’ve resisted saying this for years because it sounds so cliched but I believe this to be true – there is a musical quality to screenwriting.You either hear the music or you don’t.

Because you have to be able to follow along in the story just as you can following along to a tune and there are many forms of music, but you cannot have a bunch of jarring, confusing, disjointed, and erratic chords in your songs. And thus, we have bad editing.

It sounds so cliched but I believe this to be true –
there is a musical quality to screenwriting.

At one point, like in one short sequence from page 9-10, we had these quick, jarring cuts that suddenly took us from Paris to some guy standing over an abyss in Alaska and jumping to a sudden cut in New York. Each sequence of events must have a beginning, middle, and end before cutting back to another sequence, UNLESS one sequence directly AFFECTS another sequence. Otherwise, it’s too confusing.

Robert McKee went so far as to say that each scene must have a beginning, middle, and end. I don’t necessarily agree, because scenes can be part of a sequence that has a beginning, middle, and end.


My notes below are filled with complaints about unfilmmables, which were EVERYWHERE. Here are some favorites: “Where the Buddha, which was taller than the Statue of Liberty, had once stood, there is now only a blasted heap of stone.” How is that filmmable? You have to write in the action lines ONLY what we see on the screen. “He didn’t back down in Afghanistan and he’s sure not gonna back down now.” “Double sixes were the only way Mac could win.”

You cannot write explanations like these in the action lines. These things should be obvious to the story, and if it wouldn’t be obvious to the reader, it’s not going to be obvious to the audience, and you’ll have to re-work this scene so you wouldn’t HAVE to write an explanation in the action lines.

You have to write in the action lines
ONLY what we see on the screen.

Here’s another one, page 53: if we’re just looking at missiles, how are we supposed to know that it has an “internal gyroroscope-based guidance systems?”

Let me say again – You have to write in the action lines ONLY what we see on the screen. Also avoid incidental actions, author’s intrusions, and questions to the reader.


This comes to us from page 27:

Leland spins around and sorts through mail on the counter. He picks up a postcard.

Get the whiskey ready. Bad smelling
offer too tempting to pass up came
my way. Use some floss if you don’t
hear from me in two weeks.
Leland turns over the postcard…

Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s the world’s first TALKING POSTCARD! YEAH, BABY! Let’s give it up for our friend who wrote a character line and dialogue to create the talking postcard.


That’s called an INSERT.

Dude, if I was in a professional reading position, I would’ve put the script down on page 27. You’re not impressing anyone with your lack of knowledge about the craft.

I’d suggest you buy Dave Trottier’s Screenwriter’s Bible and study it as if your life depended on it. This book represents industry standards. Everyone in the biz follows it, and it’s recommended by the WGA. They may not be able to handle contract negotiations very well, but they recommend good books.

– Mystery Man

I’m famous yet anonymous, failed yet accomplished, brilliant yet semi-brilliant. I’m a homebody who jetsets around the world. I’m brash and daring yet chilled with a twist.

I also write for Script Magazine.

3 thoughts on “Ten Format Mistakes”

  1. What’s wrong with “we see” and “we hear” etc? These phrases suggest the writer is sitting in the audience, sharing the movie. In other words, the writer is doing just what he is supposed to be doing – showing the audience exactly what it is seeing and hearing and probably sharing the emotional reaction.

    Many professionals write as if they are in a world of their own, completely divorced from the audience. That is a much worse sin and one you, MM, might like to point out to the pro readers and college professors with whom you “interact heavily”.

  2. Good article, but I disagree with the unfilmmables. Sure, there is definitely a case for keeping a script lean and mean (especially in the thriller genre), but if an unfilmmable or two helps the reader SEE the scene in their mind’s eye, than it should stay in. Clarity trumps all else.

    Anyone looking for a great example of unfilmmables should look no further than Cristo, which was just purchased by Warner Brothers. The complex sci-fi setting benefited from unfilmmables that made the script leaner and more powerful.

    Tip #7 is also debatable in certain situations. Have you read the script, “RED”? An excellent script that does not waste time. It opens with several choppy lines that all read “Frank does push ups. Frank opens the mail.” all in rapid succession. The repetition of his name and the choppiness of the syntax helps insinuate the cuts while keeping the pace brisk. If the opening had read: “Frank does push ups, opens the mail…” in a lackadaisical list, the scene would be nowhere near as powerful.

    But, as they say, you have to know the rules to break them.


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