It Depends – The Business Side of Script Formatting

It Depends – The Business Side of Script Formatting

From Script Magazine:

It Depends – The Business Side of Script Formatting

Screenplays have evolved their own unique, quirky format that from an outside the industry viewpoint might seem very odd and nonsensical. But, there are some things that still have meaning within the screenplay life that, if done wrong or forgotten about, can make it unnecessarily harder for the screenwriter’s career to succeed.

Through over a hundred years of development, screenplays have evolved their own unique, quirky format that from an outside the industry viewpoint (and even from many inside the industry eyes) might seem very odd and nonsensical. It raises great debate among screenwriters and their reader consultants as to what bits of formatting are necessary, optional or should now be avoided.

As with many things in our industry, script formatting has changed over time, but, there are some things that still have meaning within the screenplay life that, if done wrong or forgotten about, can make it unnecessarily harder for the screenwriter’s career to succeed.

The non-creative elements of a script

Now we’re not talking about writing style choices here. Those we leave for others to discuss how a writer can establish a unique voice or how to create a compelling story. What we’re going to focus on are the non-creative elements of a script. It is those seemingly esoteric elements that a film production relies on to be there and properly used to make the transition from a written work into a finished film that much smoother. Get them wrong and you look amateurish at best, difficult to work with or just not worth the time at worst. So it’s a good idea for a writer to familiarize themselves with what these format elements really do and why they are essential to a producible script.

Signals to the heads of departments

You may have heard the expression that a script is the blueprint for a film to be made from. That’s an apt analogy. Just like a good blueprint, a good script has a lot of the same minutia in detail and shorthand that department heads initially turn to to know how to prepare to do their jobs. So getting these right will keep those processes on track and make you look like a professional ready for the next stages of your career.

12 point Courier font is standard for a reason, a business reason

It may seem archaic, but, there is a very good reason the long in the tooth font choice of 12 Point Courier is still used on scripts. Long ago, when scripts were only written on typewriters, it was assessed that using that font (common standard for most typewriters) and keeping to the tab structure and indentations adopted for each element you could quite accurately predict a “one minute per page” script count to determine the resulting movie length.

It was key in helping to determine the budget and production time. This allowed for efficient productions, incredibly important in the studio factory days and still vitally important today. Alterations that interfere with those assumptions and measures could greatly impact the bottom line negatively.

Font choice and the indentations and spacing of the script elements serve utilitarian purposes. Acknowledging this means you’re allowing professionalism to win out over aesthetic preferences.

CAPITALIZATION signals to pre-production, production and post-production crew

CAPITALIZATION seems like it could just be an old-school way of emphasizing something. It is, but, in this school, they have very specific purposes, and misusing or misunderstanding when to use it can cause lots of headaches and look unprofessional.

The first time, and only the first time a character appears in a script you are to capitalize their name in the description of the character. This is a quick signal to casting and scheduling concerns of when an actor is first needed. This will allow a quick pre-production breakdown of scenes with and without this actor, signaling to costuming and makeup when to be prepared for them and the budget and schedule can reflect the minimum time the actor needs to be accommodated for in the flow of things.

This also applies to groups’ first appearances and why a group should always have a number – TEN BUSINESSMEN around the table, instead of A GROUP OF BUSINESSMEN around the table – the number will allow casting to know exactly how many day players to hire.

There are a few other times that capitalization signals to crew-specific attention. SOUNDS that are out of the ordinary or would take special preparation for the sound department (explosions or cell phone ring tones are examples) would be necessary. Normally occurring sounds that are expected in the environment in the scene would not need to be capitalized.

Same goes for visual effects or special effects that might not be apparent (explosions, again, or gunfire or squib hits of significance would be noteworthy). Again, things that are obvious (e.g. spaceship landings) might not need to be noted.

Capitalizing anything else that doesn’t serve a production purpose, even to emphasize its importance, would just confuse the production process and look less professional.

More than just differences in style

Other aspects of the business side of the script formatting are less obvious than capitalization, font or indents, but no less specifically geared to convey production instruction and intent. Recognizing their utility and using them correctly will make the transition to production smoother and shine your reputation as a writer who knows what’s really going on.

Descriptions versus descriptions

Every writer knows that the action block is where you describe the action and setting, in essence, the important things happening on camera while the dialog is going on. Many people feel that this is where the writer’s voice can really shine. But you should be very careful in how you express yourself in describing the action. One can easily misstep, overstep or completely trample the egos of other artists when veering from what’s expected from those reading the script later on.

A guiding rule of thumb is to restrict your action description to just the barest necessity to convey what’s necessary. Flowery descriptions and non-essential detail can quickly bog down a production reader with superfluousness and may even cross the dreaded “directing from the page” no-no.

Describe the actions or settings that are absolutely necessary for clarity or dramatic reasons. Or state things that are non-obvious but become important later (the gun is casually placed in the drawer here to be discovered three scenes later). Inform, don’t overwhelm, and allow for multiple approaches to doing the thing, and everyone can do their jobs efficiently.

But you can also use the action description to indicate pacing or build tension during the read to reflect what the finished film would feel like. Short sentences convey quick actions. Short paragraphs quicken the read. And white space can give a less dense feeling to a page’s- and scene’s- content. Just make sure the timing aspects of the page count are still taken into account and you can help the reader and production crew get a sense of the pace and dramatic intent needed.

Other elements of how you approach action description sections can help with blocking, noting the bigger movements between the characters but allowing the obvious – how they got there – moments to go as read. This is especially true if the dialog would have to be broken to throw in the “he stands” description.

Especially helpful in breaking things out, when the focus of the action description changes character or the focus of the scene shifts, give a paragraph break. It’ll help in the breakdown of set-ups that will be done on the production day and likely trigger a scene number change (as discussed in the next section.)

Versions change as needs change

The format of a screenplay changes over the course of a production. Knowing what stage the script is in and delivering the correct version of the script in that format will again prove that you are a professional, aware of more than just the turn of a good phrase as a writer.

The first version of a script that a writer shows people is usually referred to as a reader’s script. This script version’s audience is trying to gauge whether the story is producible in a broad sense. This is the most “writerly” of the script’s versions, but, you can still keep all of the above suggestions in there to prepare for the next rounds.

Once the script is bought the format quickly changes as it is prepared for production. This is referred to as a production script and here is where the scenes are broken down and numbered (so you should not have scene numbers in a reader’s script!).

The production personnel (often an AD or Production Manager does the bulk of this breakout) may take a single scene in the reader script and break it out into several different scene numbers because the shot setups would require it. (A single string of dialog back and forth that goes from kitchen to bedroom may have half a dozen individual scene numbers for each specific setup required to get it on film.) Here, if you have given the initial script the attention such as giving a new paragraph when the scene perspective changes, you can greatly assist the process of breaking the scene down into distinct, numbered sAs the production gets closer to shoot days (and often continuing through shooting) revisions will be made that are very limited in span and scope. You’ll have different color coded versions of the revisions at this stage. The colored pages are specifically ordered so you can always tell which new pages are the latest and which scenes are still in a previous form. The colors are specific and run through an expected order.

If the production is successful and becomes a film, there may be a version of the script produced that reflects the actual scenes and dialog shot written up after the fact and cleaned so that it looks like a reader’s script. These published scripts are often in publications as the “script” of the successful film. Unfortunately, though they are the most readily accessible examples, they reflect very little of what a real script is and how to get it into a producible form.

Some peoples’ rules are others’ exceptions

Of course, there are some format rules that have less utility than they once did and their continued use is hotly debated in some arenas. Some, like page end MORE and top of next page CONT’D when dialog continues across page breaks are still useful to a degree, but the scene break indicator of (CONTINUED) to top of next page CONTINUED: are much less in vogue nowadays.

Controversy still brews over things like breaking a character’s dialog on a single page with a description section and continuing the character dialog with adding (cont’d) after the character name or not. I have seen it help actors in cold reads to realize they’re still the ones speaking, but many people think it’s not necessary and gets in the way of flow.

Same to be said with using “beat” to indicate pauses. Here, the best path is to learn what the reader is expecting and give them that, or at least be consistent in use throughout a script with your choice. You might say, it depends.

Others are thought to be interchangeable but aren’t

But there are also debates about things that still have very specific production utility and the debaters have no clue there is production value in the distinctions. Case in point, the difference between V.O. and O.S. use in a character dialog. There is a physically distinct difference in production between Voice Over and Off Screen though they both describe a voice from someone not seen on camera.

For Voice Over the actor is typically not on set at the time of shooting the visual. It is also distinct stylistically because it indicates the actors on set don’t hear what’s being said in the V.O. The recording used is likely done later in a sound booth during post.

When dialog is marked O.S. or Off Screen, the actor is paid to stand outside of shot to deliver lines as “in the room”. The audio is definitely heard by the other actors in the room. Usually, O.S. is done prior to the actor’s appearance in a future shot, (e.g. the character sneaks up behind their scene mate while they are concentrating on something else and startles them by announcing their presence before the other turns around and sees them in the next shot).

Variations within subsets of the industry

Of course, there isn’t just one format for all purposes. That would be too easy. Depending on what kind of screenplay you’re writing there could be variations of expectations for that purpose. Genre screenplays may have ways of indicating typical production elements, (like blood bursts from gaping wounds) that need either more or less description than other screenplay types.

And writing for television takes into account the breaks for commercials, usually indicated as act breaks, but variations could be used by the specific production teams in question. Scripts from an actual episode of the show you are writing for are how they expect to see it done, regardless of how you are used to or were taught.

Learning the specific examples needed for what’s expected from your target production audience will help to show you are there to smooth the transitions from script to screen the way they expect.

Final credits

In an industry that makes a big deal between ‘and’ and ‘&’ when it comes to screenwriter credits, (indicates the difference between separate writers and writer teams) you know specifics in how things are written are always important. Learn what’s expected and give it to them and you can expect your professional writer reputation to grow.

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