HOW TO FORMAT YOUR SCRIPT CORRECTLY IN YOUR FIRST DRAFT — The Tip Series
Or The Art Of Ensuring A Smooth Read Of Your First Draft
It was George Bernard Shaw who wrote that those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.
The above line has been a source of irritation for teachers for decades. It is also a mantra chanted by disgruntled students who seek comfort in it each time they receive stinging criticism from well-meaning teachers.
Bernard Shaw’s adage, unfortunately, applies to the teaching of screenwriting and directing. Not so much when it comes to the teaching of technical skills of handling a camera or editing. It is nigh impossible to teach someone how to shoot when you have never handled a camera. The same goes for teaching editing workflow and protocols if you have not edited anything before.
When it comes to writing, however, it seems like anyone who is able to wield a pen is deemed a suitable candidate for giving instruction.
When it comes to writing, I am perplexed how those who have never labored over a sentence, or put together a screenplay of any length, can still be deemed capable of delivering instruction and guidance to a novice writer.
In my previous life as a screenwriting lecturer, I have always regarded myself as someone who has carved out a path through a story jungle, with nothing but a compass, a machete, and a dollop of luck. In the process of navigation, I encountered impasses, pits, and swamps, and when I finally worked out a path from start to end, I noted down all the potential pitfalls on a map.
I return to civilization, and the classroom, with the map in hand. I share with my students, what I have learned. And what they should be looking out for should they decide to embark on the same journey I did. They are of course free to embark on a different path, to a different part of the island. If they ask me about dangerous spots in areas I have yet to explore, I will be honest and tell them I don’t know. Honesty is an important trait for a teacher. The one thing that all teachers should learn is the humility of ignorance, and that what we know as adults on a particular aspect of our specialty is but a well-defined tip, a small promontory behind which lies a vast landscape of further knowledge yet to be learned. The less one knows the more one should be eager to seek more enlightenment.
But if any student wishes to know what it is like to format a script, I can offer my tips. You can, of course, plow through any dozens of books on screenwriting to sift out nuggets of wisdom and I would encourage all students of the writing craft to do so, but why not listen to ONE who has traveled the path before. What you would gather would be practical advice as tips you can apply in your work are the best kind of tips.
Formatting your Screenplay
A script is a peculiar document. It doesn’t read like a novel. Or a short story. Its more immediate cousin would be the stage play. Yet it would be a mistake to think that a playwright could easily switch to the rhythms of writing for television or a movie script. There are some differences that a playwright would have to get used to. A play is driven by dialogue, and ALL THE ACTION takes place within one single master shot of the entire stage. It does not have the tools of film. Like…
The power of the CLOSEUP.
The camera aids the screenwriter in the telling of his tale. A closeup of an actor’s eyes reveals all the pain and anguish and joy that would render any dialogue redundant. You don’t need a monologue from the actor to convey his feelings to an audience. One simple closeup will do. Knowing what a camera can do for you, as a screenwriter, would make you realize that you can be sparing in your dialogue.
And sparing as well in your descriptions of any room.
Walter Hill, one of the writers of Alien, is famous for his terse descriptors. ALIEN opened with a description of corridors as LONG, DARK, and EMPTY. Engine rooms are EMPTY and CAVERNOUS. That’s it. No long and detailed descriptions. He chooses words that are enough to prick the imagination of a production designer. It is enough to let the production designer do his job.
A screenplay makes sense when you think of it as a document for various departments to come together and bring the story to life. If you ever have a chance to sit in on a table reading of your script, you’d be able to see all the heads of every department gather around a table, armed with a highlighter pen. They would be highlighting portions of your script that are relevant to them. The production designer would note the sets described. The cinematographer would note the different times of the scenes. The director would take note of the pauses and the beats written into the scene that would affect the acting. An actor would highlight his or her dialogue and write notes.
So a screenwriter who writes a script has to ensure that it is written in a simple format that everyone can recognize.
And this is your first step in ensuring professionalism. Ensuring that your first draft is correctly formatted and provides a smooth, reading experience. It has been my experience that many students and beginning writers make simple formatting errors and it is a pity because a screenwriter is often judged on his or her ability to get basic formatting correct. A failure to do so, puts the writer in a bad light, making the reader or the producer see pimples and defects where there are none.
Here is my tip to avoid those errors. Apply them after you have finished your first draft. Checklist these items to tick off when you do your rewrite.
My tip follows a simple easy-to-remember word.
S — stands for Space. The space between blocks of text in your script. Ensure there is sufficient white between black. It improves the reading experience.
P — for Present tense. A screenplay tells a story that is unfolding in the present, inside your head, regardless of whether the story you are telling takes place in the past or the future. So make sure that your first draft has no words in the past tense. This is a common mistake amongst many beginner writers. It is a sure sign that you are a beginner writer.
A — for ACTIVE voice. In a screenplay, the story must not just run, it must gallop like a stallion. To get the blood pumping in the veins of your reader, write in an ACTIVE voice, meaning that you use strong action verbs to convey movement and describe any action. You are never running. You run.
C. — Stands for Capitalize. A screenplay would have many characters, both supporting and main, populating your story. To keep the reader on track as to who is appearing for the first time and who is a recurring character, the rule is always to CAPITALIZE the name of the character who is appearing for the FIRST TIME in your story. And then you follow up with a short pithy description of the character to hammer him into the consciousness of your reader. At this point, you would also notice your casting director highlighting those names as well.
E — Stands for Economy. Unless you are someone like Aaron Sorkin, who has acquired a reputation for writing long speeches, and rapid-fire dialogue that can run for pages, you would do well to heed this mandate. Less is more when it comes to screenwriting. When you do a rewrite for your first draft, the thing you must do is immediately snip and prune away ALL excessive wordage. A common beginner mistake is to describe every twitch and every eye movement of your characters as they react. Avoid that. Cut down on stage description. Unless you are writing a eulogy, trim your dialogue. A good rule is — 3 dialogue lines for each character — before you have to cut to something else.
And there you have it. One simple tip to ensure you are presenting your screenplay properly and professionally. Keep doing this until it becomes a part of you, until you can do this subconsciously as you write. Until then, just remember –
As for Shaw’s insidious saying, I would like to substitute it with another saying and this one comes from a Greek Wise Man.
THOSE WHO KNOW DO, THOSE WHO UNDERSTAND, TEACH — Aristotle