The Top 5 Most Common Script Formatting Errors

B. O'Malley

Script format tips

Script format tipsYour script is finished! And I’m pleased to announce that you are the most talented screenwriter in the world! Huzzah!

Yes, it’s true. The word just came over the wire this morning. Your certificate is on the way, so you can pin it to your chest and wear it on the school bus home.

But first… before mom throws your certificate up on the fridge, you might want to take one last look at your script formatting, before you throw it over the Paramount gates and pick up your briefcase full of cash.

Because it might be the greatest film ever written, but nobody will ever know, if it’s thrown in the trash due to…gasp… … silly script formatting mistakes.

So give your script a quick look to make sure it’s not suffering from these 5 big formatting mistakes that I see every day when screenwriters submit their scripts to my script analysis company, Screenplay Readers.

5) Wrong font, wrong margins

With the advent of modern screenwriting software such as Final Draft, Screenwriter, and Celtx, 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.) Font needs to be Courier, Courier New, 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

4) Lucy, let me over-esplain’

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.

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.

3) Redundant CUT TO’s and CONT’D’s

If your script software enables you to turn these off, please do. They unnecessarily clutter up your page, add to your page count, and are completely redundant / redundant.

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.

2) Directing On Paper

Yes, you may be the next Steven Spielbergenheimer, but let the director direct the film. You just write it. This goes for camera angles, like so:

“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:

MAURY
(very angrily)
It’s midnight!!!!

Bottom line:

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. 9 times out of 10, his words alone will make it clear how he’s delivering them.

1) Wall-To-Wall Text (AKA “Your screenplay hurts my corneas.”)

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.

3 Comments on “The Top 5 Most Common Script Formatting Errors”

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

    1. 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.

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