Part One of “Your Script is a Snitch” explained how your script is snitching on you before the reader opens or scrolls to page one. Now, let’s examine what your script says to readers as they skim the pages of your screen gem. The message might not be the one you hoped the script would convey.
A reader doesn’t have to read much to make some educated assumptions. With dozens, or even hundreds, of scripts to read, any hint from your script that its writer wasn’t serious and professional can doom the script to the trash can, real or virtual.
“Read me, trust me, I’m from a professional.” That’s what you want your script to say.
Did you use the appropriate template?
Page One (1.) screams loudly about your ability to follow the rules for screenwriting. Assuming you properly bound the script and the fly sheet stuck to the basics, the first page is going to tell the reader if you understand how to format a script.
“Hello. I’m a well-formatted, properly written script,” the page should tell readers.
The easiest way to ensure a script is formatted properly is to use Final Draft or Screenwriter and the appropriate template for the screenplay. Both writing programs include basic templates for theatrical spec scripts, specific studios, cable networks, and broadcast series. The formatting is not the same for all screenplays! TV scripts, in particular, should be based on the right template for the desired production company or network.
If your script doesn’t look like other scripts for the same type of film or series, it tells the reader you didn’t bother to read samples or look at the available templates. And if you thought you had a “better way” to format the script, the script just revealed what a fool you are. There are sample scripts galore online. Search for them. Download the samples for Final Draft and Screenwriter. Study the standards and replicate them.
If you don’t have Final Draft of Screenwriter, you can still search for and follow example scripts. You might have to work a bit harder to match the formatting, but you don’t want your script to tell readers you didn’t know about Google.
Again, this blog post isn’t a detailed formatting guide. But, I can look at the running header of a script and often determine the writer didn’t use the correct template. TV show scripts for most production companies include the show name and episode in the header, with variations in formatting. TV shows also have teaser and act headings, indicating when commercial breaks occur in the script.
Page One is often as far as a reader gets, especially if the script says, “My writer was too lazy to do some basic research on formatting.”
Did you submit a spec script or a production script?
A spec script with scene numbers and camera angels? That script is saying, “My writer has no idea what a spec script is.” Look up the difference in The Screenwriter’s Bible or any other formatting guide. A spec script is “clean” without any numbering. The numbering is used to plan filming, and that’s a long way from the first reader’s desk.
Spec scripts also haven’t had “(CONTINUED)” on each page for some time.
Did you write a story or try to direct?
A script with camera angles, cuts, and other choices a director should make tells the reader, “My writer really dreams of directing.” That’s nice, but a script that reveals you’re more interested in directing isn’t going to be greeted warmly. If you want to direct, get behind a camera for a while. Don’t use your script to prove you have a vision.
Avoid the “WE SEE…” and “WE HEAR…” not-so-subtle attempts at directing. Sometimes this might work. One example I’ve read that made sense was, “WE SEE feet splashing in a fountain.” That narrative worked because of what came next. It really did set up a surprise, which was effectively written. But don’t write something like, “WE HEAR a PHONE RING.” No, just write, “A PHONE RINGS.”
Generally, the only camera directions are “FADE IN” and “FADE OUT” in a spec script. Respect the director and let him or her interpret the script. If a story is well written, it comes close to directing itself with shots a director knows have to be in the film.
Does the script have “curves” or is it poles, Ts, blocks, and other regular (potentially boring) shapes?
Pages of dialogue or pages of narrative tell a reader, “My writer doesn’t understand pacing.” You might believe you have a great three-page conversation, with no action. The script is saying, “This writer isn’t thinking about the visuals.” This is a screenplay, not an audio drama. Something should be happening.
A script can also have too much action without any dialogue. That’s a rare problem (very rare), because most writers do like dialogue. Why should you have dialogue during a chase scene or a tense standoff? Think about great films. They often have those memorable lines spoken in isolation, with no response from another character.
Readers look for scripts with variations in the blocks of text. There’s a mix of dialogue and action, with neither filling page after page. A script has a “shape” that’s interesting. It isn’t a “pole” (dialogue ending with narrative) or a “T” (narrative followed by dialogue). Look at your pages from a distance. Is variation obvious? You don’t need to read to see a script has a good balance.
What font did you use?
Believe it or not, this is a problem. I’ve seen scripts set in Helvetica, Arial, Times New Roman, and various monospaced typefaces such as DIN and Andale Mono. Those typefaces are wrong. Always. A script is in 12-point Courier. Not a “close enough” font that looks something like a typewriter. Come to think of it, American Typewriter was the worst face I’ve seen used for a script. You might as well use Dymo (named for the plastic impression lettering tape).
Don’t play with 11-point, 11.5-point, 12.5-point or any other point size. A script is 12-point Courier. You don’t get to cheat to reach a page count. A reader can tell something isn’t quite right with a smaller or a larger font.
Okay, I’ll pretend that every aspiring screenwriter knows to use Courier, but did you know which Courier matters to some people with good eyes for detail? Final Draft and Screenwriter include their own customized versions of Courier that are not Courier New. If you can use Courier or one of the custom Courier faces that isn’t Courier New, do so. Why? Because, and I’m not kidding, the other Courier typefaces scan and copy better.
Yes, there are differences. The screenwriting applications ship with Courier fonts that are remarkably close to the typewriter face Courier from the IBM Selectric type ball. The spacing is perfect at 12 points.
Nobody is going to reject a Courier New screenplay. But, your script should say, “I’m easy to copy, easy to share!” because if someone likes your script, copies will be made. Simply printing more from the laser printer isn’t an option because reader, directors, agents, actors, and executives make notes and comments on scripts, which they then photocopy. I’ve even had someone write on a script, scan the pages, and email those to me. Sure, that reveals a lack of tech know-how, but I’m not going to tell someone she should learn how to make comments in Adobe Acrobat. Maybe the notes were made over dinner. Whatever. Just use a nice, dark, Courier typeface.
Did you get the margins and tabs right?
As silly as using the wrong font, setting the wrong margins and tabs screams, “My writer is entirely clueless!” Once again, allow me to suggest screenwriting software. Buy Screenwriter or Final Draft. If you’re cashflow negative, at least download a template for Word, Pages, or your favorite word processor. You can type a script in almost any good word processor, but you have to get the settings correct.
No screenwriter should be without The Screenwriter’s Bible. Not consulting a good guide to formatting is the surest way to submit a script that tells every reader, “This screenplay is by a careless amateur.”
Once your script snitches on you, it’s hard to win over any reader.