Script formatting errors plague every writer at every level. So don’t worry about formatting too much. But if you really want it to give off that professional vibe, make sure your script formatting is as clean and polished as it can be.
So before you send that script out, give it a quick look to make sure it’s not suffering from these very common screenplay formatting mistakes that I see every day when screenwriters submit their scripts to my script analysis company, Screenplay Readers.
Script formatting error: unnecessarily bold and all caps
ALICE and VERA go down to the RAILROAD STATION. ALICE puts down her SUITCASE.
ALICE turns to the CONDUCTOR who is taking TICKETS.
She looks and sees WICKED WIZARD!
We HAVE to GO!
Introduce characters in CAPS. Then only use caps for IMMENSELY BIG THINGS that the reader MUST understand. If you caps everything, nothing stands out.
Thinking of using bold anywhere in your script? Maybe don’t. Again, it’s okay, but maybe save emphasis for big big moments.
Script formatting error: wrong font, wrong margins
With the advent of modern screenwriting software such as Final Draft, Fade In Pro, and other apps, it’s pretty hard to go wrong with your format. The software automatically sets up your margins, tabs, fonts, indentations – you name it.
But like any good software, most of these programs allow you to customize your preferences in many ways. So if you must insist on tweaking the margins, font, font size, or any other settings in order to make your writing experience more pleasurable, you’ve got to make sure you set it all back to the defaults when printing your script or outputting your script to pdf for people to read.
Your best bet? Don’t muck with anything. Leave it alone and your formatting will probably be fine.
If you’re not using screenwriting software to write, you’re not alone. Lots of prolific, talented screenwriters use typewriters, pencils and pads, and maybe even watercolor.
But however you write it, just make sure you’re adhering to the generally-accepted screenplay format, especially when it comes to margins, indentation, and font. Margins are 1″ on all sides of the page. (Some folks say 1.5″ inches on the left, but this varies.) The font should be somewhere adjacent to the Courier family: Courier, Courier New, Courier Prime, or Final Draft Courier, 12-point size.
The general guidelines: scene header: left margin 1 inch, action lines: left margin 1 inch, character name: left margin 3.7 inches, dialogue: left margin 2.5 inches, right margin 2.5 inches, parentheticals: left margin 3.1 inches, right margin 2.9 inches
Script formatting error: using the wrong word
For example, spell check won’t catch this:
“I’d rather drink bleach then have sex with you.”
“I’d rather drink bleach than have sex with you.”
One letter. One huge difference.
Script formatting error: including side notes to the reader
Many screenwriters are tempted to include a blurb at the beginning of the script as sort of a “personal note” from the writer to the reader, with which the writer hopes to tell the reader all about the script he’s about to read.
“Dear whoever is reading this, just so you know, I’m going for a mixture of ‘Godzilla 1985’ and ‘All That Jazz.’ Please read the script with that in mind.”
“This is the story of three bears who transform into humans for one magical evening, and bring happiness and joy to a very special group of children, as you will see as you read the script.”
Meh and double-dog meh.
Your script needs to stand on its own. Don’t include stuff like “I know that the genre of western/sci-fi seems to be a weird mix, but I’m hoping this falls in the same vein as Cowboys and Aliens.”
Or “The script is written in German and English because I intend it to be for both audiences.”
Just leave it alone. The reader can figure out anything that’s worthy of figuring out, simply by reading your script. If they can’t, you need to find out why and fix the script itself; not include a cute, clever note.
Additionally, don’t include a cast list or an overblown description of the setting.
Explaining tells the reader: “This script is too weak to stand on its own. You need this external exposition from the writer in order to understand it.”
Bah! Who wants to work with such a writer? The answer: Eskimos, perhaps.
Script formatting error: making sure you let us know your script is registered WGA
It’s not a dealbreaker, and people do it all the time, so don’t stress about this one too much. I’m throwing this out there because there are camps in the screenwriting / film community that believe including your WGA registration number on the title page is the mark of an amateur. I happen to be one. Keep it lean and mean. We know your stuff is registered. It’s okay. Nobody’s going to steal your script.
Script formatting error: redundant CUT TO’s and CONT’D’s
It’s okay to use MORE’s and CONT’D’s, but I advise turning them off, if your script software enables you to. They unnecessarily clutter up your page, add to your page count, and are completely redundant and also redundant.
Why? Because the reader will figure out it’s a CUT TO simply by reading the new scene header, and, The reader will figure out the character has continued his speech when he sees the character continuing to speak on the next page.
Again though, it’s fine to keep them. Just know your script looks SO much better without them.
Script formatting error: including too many camera angles
This is more of a writing note, but keep the shots/camera moves to a minimum. It’s okay to include them but too many really bog down your read. Yes, you may be the next Steven Spielbergenheimer, but let the director direct the film. You just write it. For example…
“CU – Maury’s face, looking at the clock. ECU – Clock. It’s midnight.”
Replace that with:
Maury looks at the clock: Midnight.
And this also goes for directing ACTORS as well, like so:
Only use parentheticals if any particular line absolutely needs disambiguation in order to be understood. Otherwise, let the reader figure out how Maury’s delivering his line via the context of the script.
And besides, Maury is a great character. So 9 times out of 10, his words alone will make it clear how he’s delivering them.
Script formatting error: too much text, and/or not enough paragraph breaks
And finally, it might sound silly, but your script is far less likely to get picked up or finished by a reader if it’s jam packed with wall-to-wall text.
So break up your big chunks of text, compress long lines into shorter, more impactful ones, say more with less. The idea is to not give a script reader this excuse to not read your script. Make their eyes happy.
Make their eyes dance on the page, leaping gingerly from word to word; not grinding left to right all the way down the page in order to get the beats of the story.
Your screenwriting needs to tell an awesome story, yes. But you also have to consider the physical comfort of the reader if you want your script to have a fighting chance.
Make your script a gift; not a chore, and you’re ahead of the other guy. Maybe not by a mile, but enough to give your better chance than his.
You’re an agent who has three scripts to read this weekend. Which below would you rather read?
INT. SKYSCRAPER -- JANE’S OFFICE -- DAY
Jane walks into the room, closes the door behind her, and pours herself some coffee. She is wearing a beautiful sequined gown and a tiara and her ribbon from the pageant. She looks drunk and weary. The telephone rings but she is unsure about picking it up. She does anyway, and it turns out, it’s Mr. McCoy, her boss.
INT. SKYSCRAPER -- JANE’S OFFICE -- DAY
Jane, drunk and still in her pageant getup, slumps in and pours some coffee.
The phone rings.
It’s her boss.
But on the other hand, whenever I tell a screenwriter they’re writing too much, as in the case above, I invariably run the risk of the screenwriter going completely the other direction in her next draft. Such as:
INT. SKYSCRAPER -- DAY
Jane drunks in.
Phone rings. Boss.
Brief is awesome. So brief that your script sounds like a haiku: not awesome.
Communicate to your reader briefly, but not in morse code.
All that said…
Do people who read scripts even care about script formatting?
A recent client of Screenplay Readers expressed concern over a script formatting issue. In her case, she had a phone conversation scene, a few “V.O.”‘s were missing under some of the characters’ names. So she was a bit worried because she’d already submitted the draft to a script contest. She asked somewhat cautiously: would the contest “ding” her screenplay for something like that?
It’s true that a script contest reader, or any other professional screenplay reader, might probably think less of a spec script that was less pretty or professional looking. But we screenwriters really shouldn’t panic when it comes to forgetting to dot a few i’s and cross a few t’s.
In our recent client’s case, it likely hurt her less that she’d missed a few (V.O.)’s than it did that she used (V.O.) (voice over) in an intercut telephone scene, instead of (O.S.) (off screen), or just using INTERCUT: at the head of the conversation. But even using (V.O.), while technically not the best choice for an intercut conversation, phone or otherwise, probably wouldn’t even register as a problem for most people reading her script.
Why? For two main reasons:
Script readers generally don’t sweat script formatting
1) The screenplay she was worried about the (V.O.)’s for simply flows like butter. That is, her words and scenes are so well-written and gingerly-paced that I’m convinced most readers would simply breeze past the (V.O.)’s, even though said (V.O)’s were used somewhat incorrectly, and even though a few of them were missing.
2) This particular script formatting issue is very, very small. And most script readers know not to sweat the small stuff. If a spec script is overflowing with typos and formatting glitches, using (V.O.) incorrectly might get a mention along with the other errors and offenses, sure. But in a situation where that’s the only thing wrong with the script’s format, and especially if that particular script reads in a breezy way that keeps the reader engaged, you can bet most readers aren’t going even notice, let alone mention such a thing.
Bottom line: A screenplay’s most vital components are its readability and its ability to entertain and engage. If you can do those two things, rest assured, most screenplay readers at contests, agencies, and production companies, will overlook a great deal of bad formatting, and will most certainly overlook minor things like (V.O.)’s in a few wrong places.
That being said, it makes no sense whatsoever to send your spec script out into the world with minor errors. Not with the wide range of free resources on script formatting, script formatting guides, and free and affordable screenwriting apps available to nearly every screenwriter out there on yonder internets.
I’m sure you’ve heard the extremely complex, insightful script formatting maxim: If it looks like a script, it’s a script.
Appearances can be
deceiving actually pretty darn accurate
To illustrate my view on how important screenplay formatting is and isn’t, I’ll go a step further with a maxim that I believe is more important:
If you look like a professional screenwriter, you are a professional screenwriter.
I don’t mean what you wear or what you drive or where you golf or what fauncy island you and your golf carts summer on.
I don’t mean having people point at you with a bony finger and say “Hey, there’s a professional screenwriter.”
I mean your page.
Professional screenwriters make typos. Professional screenwriters sometimes stray from standard script formatting. But what professional screenwriters don’t do, at least the good ones, is fail to engage and entertain.
So what does that mean? What exactly is the formula for engaging and entertaining with a screenplay? Well, in my experience, it’s a witches brew. A panoply of disparate, often-conflicting ingredients.
One… one of those key ingredients is how your script is presented with regards to format and the like.
But there are a million others in that brew that count just as much, if not more, than how your script looks: concept, dialogue, brevity, plot twists, how you introduce characters, originality, voice, pacing, structure, and all sorts of other artistic and technical choices you make with every line of your screenplay.
That is to say, if every single page of your screenplay exudes entertainment and engagement and readability, you’ll be perceived as a professional screenwriter, whether you’ve used (V.O.) wrong in a few phone conversations, or you’ve misspelled a word or two.
So don’t sweat the small stuff!™ Producers, talent, executives – they don’t sweat the small stuff, so you shouldn’t either.
Get your format right, or as close to right as possible, and focus your energy on engaging and entertaining.
The biggest contest isn’t one you enter your script into. It’s you versus yourself.
It’s the you, the screenwriter who worries inordinately about dotting i’s and crossing t’s, and the you who wants to move an audience with your words.
So buy or download some software, or Google “script formatting” (Wikipedia can set you straight, as can many other online script formatting guides), or hire a script formatting service like ours at Screenplay Readers (although that’s probably the most expensive route) …then stop worrying about it! Only then can focus on what’s most important: engaging and entertaining your audience.
3 thoughts on “The Most Common Script Formatting Errors”
All of these are great points. Sadly, many were not taught to me in school. I had to learn them on my own. Don’t get me wrong, school was important, and, in many ways, fun when it came to screenwriting classes. But, they are woefully BAD and INADEQUATE at really preparing a writer for this type of stuff.
I think all of your points are good and valid and helpful, except for the leaving off transitions and such like “CUT TO:” and “Cont’d” – these are perfectly acceptable as well as standards in professional screenwriting.
If the reader of the script can tell you’re cutting to a new scene due to the fact that you’re starting a new scene heading which comes sequentially right after the preceding scene, it’s obvious the script is cutting to a new scene.
Similarly, if the reader can plainly see that the same character is continuing on with her dialogue on a new page or later down the same page, then it’s not necessary to include a CONT’D.
Both of these, used unnecessarily, bloat up your page count and add to the amount of ink on the page. I know they’re used a lot. The problem is that they’re not usually needed.