Stories that Sell

An email exchange brought some­thing into focus that I want to stress to all screen­writ­ers and nov­el­ists hop­ing to pitch a film, series, or nov­el. A sto­ry needs to be unusu­al, yet obvi­ous. The audi­ence should antic­i­pate some, but not all, of the con­flicts and the out­line of the sto­ry from the basic ele­ments you intend to bring togeth­er.

Here is one pos­si­ble equa­tion explain­ing my ide­al sto­ry:

  • nat­u­ral­ly “dif­fer­ent” char­ac­ters + unusu­al chal­lenge + good set­ting = a pitch that writes itself.

1) If you have char­ac­ters that are, by their natures, going to be in con­flict at times, that’s inter­est­ing to watch. Don’t think about “good v evil” or “pro/ant” yet. Ask your­self, if I put these peo­ple in a room, on an island, side-by-side at work, et cetera, would there be a nat­ur­al con­flict? Think The Odd Couple sure, but also think about it in more depth.

The new show Limitless is doing a good job with this “fish out of water” con­flict. Chuck was based on this, as are most sit­coms.

Consider the shows and films you enjoy. How far apart are some of the char­ac­ters? You should find some oppo­sites in good scripts. They don’t sound alike, act alike, or share the same val­ues.

I had a showrun­ner tell me that for every three char­ac­ters, at least one has to be the “fish out of water.” Two against one is appar­ent­ly inter­est­ing. Pairings can also work (think Will and Grace side­kicks or Cheers with Cliff and Norm play­ing off Sam… or Diane… or every­one else). In film, dif­fer­ences have to be obvi­ous from the char­ac­ter intro­duc­tions. You don’t have episodes to reveal how far apart peo­ple are.

2) Unusual chal­lenges are as unique and shock­ing as pos­si­ble. The chal­lenge has to be a sit­u­a­tion that increas­es the like­li­hood of con­flict. How does the chal­lenge bring out the dif­fer­ences among char­ac­ters even more? How does it place two char­ac­ters in oppo­si­tion? Again, avoid “good v. evil” because inter­est­ing “evil” is often sure it is “good” and mere­ly has anoth­er per­spec­tive of what is best. (Not that pure evil is bor­ing, either, but try to imag­ine the per­spec­tives involved.)

If your log­line is a basic chal­lenge, one we’ve all read and seen, it won’t rise above the sta­t­ic. Catch the real killer? Blah. Defeat the evil dic­ta­tor? Yawn. Expose the greedy, inhu­man cor­po­rate exec­u­tive? Double yawn.

Wait. Don’t those films and shows with pre­dictable chal­lenges get pro­duced? Sure, but by estab­lished writ­ers and direc­tors. To break into the mar­ket, you need to be sub­mit­ting some­thing that stands above the muck that’s being made.

3) Give us a set­ting that is inter­est­ing, in place and time. TV takes the lazy way out and imag­ines big cities are inher­ent­ly inter­est­ing to every­one. I love M*A*S*H for its use of set­ting on TV. Setting is prob­a­bly the tough­est of these to devel­op and make stand apart from what exists. (Bonus if you pull off the set­ting. Few do.)

Setting can dri­ve the action. If the set­ting is the Titanic, we know what some part of the sto­ry will be. Put peo­ple in a closed, con­fined space, and you have an obvi­ous con­flict. That’s why space sta­tions, under­sea labs, and oth­er iso­lat­ed set­tings work so well for sto­ries. Don’t select a “bor­ing” or famil­iar set­ting unless there’s no oth­er choice.

New York is not com­pelling by itself. Neither is a gener­ic small town. The set­ting becomes inter­est­ing when you place peo­ple and events in the set­ting that doesn’t suit them. Trap a spy in a small vil­lage, where she falls in love. Put the coun­try farmer in the big city, search­ing for some­thing that is lost.

Now put these togeth­er and test how com­pelling your con­cept is.

Writing Coaches are Mean People

Recently, I met with screen­writ­ing coach Jim Mercurio to dis­cuss some ideas and screen­plays I was try­ing to pitch.

Jim is a won­der­ful, high­ly ranked writ­ing coach and for­mer colum­nist for Creative Screenwriting. He knows writ­ing and he knows Hollywood. He told me right up front, this is going to be chal­leng­ing. It was weird because he said to me every warn­ing I offer my own clients.

Being a writ­ing coach means telling peo­ple what they need to fix. Most writ­ers don’t want to hear what isn’t work­ing in a man­u­script or screen­play. Having spent months or years on a work, the writer has invest­ed seri­ous emo­tion­al ener­gy in the work.

And this hor­ri­ble, mean coach, is about to tell the client that the work isn’t fin­ished. It isn’t as good as it must be. It’s just okay, if that, and needs to be refined. You hire a writ­ing coach like you hire a per­son­al train­er: expect­ing to be pushed hard­er and being told you can be a lot bet­ter than you are at this moment.

When a writ­ing coach push­es you, and cer­tain­ly Jim push­es his clients, it’s because you real­ly do have to be 10×, 100×, maybe 1000× bet­ter than what’s already in Hollywood. Your script has to be bet­ter, from for­mat­ting to the struc­ture. You don’t get to bend or break any rules. Your query let­ter, pitch, treat­ment, and logline(s) have to be bet­ter. Way bet­ter than what you might imag­ine.

During my last meet­ing with Jim, he destroyed every log­line, every con­cept, every treat­ment I offered, shoot­ing them down like he was play­ing the old Atari 2600 Shooting Gallery. And if I tried to defend my idea, the answer was quick: you aren’t big enough to rely on being okay or good or even slight­ly bet­ter than most.

There’s a rea­son I don’t charge (and sel­dom work with) new writ­ers. They aren’t used to how the sys­tem works and how much is expect­ed of a spec script. They don’t have a clue how hard the film, stage, and pub­lish­ing mar­kets are in this econ­o­my (media mar­kets have nev­er been easy to enter) and many writ­ers don’t want to hear any­thing but how great their ideas are or how easy it will be to tweak the ideas.

It’s not easy for a spec writer. Statistically, it’s near­ly impos­si­ble. You have to be writ­ing, and writ­ing, and writ­ing. You get reject­ed, you revise. You get reject­ed again, you revise.

If you pay for cov­er­age, some­times they’ll tell you how close you are, or even how great you are. That’s usu­al­ly not the truth. Sorry, but the truth is your work like­ly isn’t that close to per­fec­tion. These ana­lysts and con­tests want your mon­ey. Have you seen the lists of scripts mak­ing quar­ter­fi­nals or finals in these con­tests? Pages of scripts, 98 per­cent of which won’t be optioned, and 70 or more per­cent of those optioned will col­lect dust.

Pay some­one like Jim or David Trottier (“Dr. Format”) if you want unvar­nished, bru­tal truth. If you don’t want to pay, and are okay with strong opin­ions based on my expe­ri­ence, that’s fine — but lis­ten and take the advice seri­ous­ly. Jim, Dave, and even I WANT you to suc­ceed. We WANT you to sell a script or man­u­script. But we also know how awe­some the pack­age has to be. It’s not per­son­al when we point to weak­ness­es in a sto­ry or in some oth­er aspect of a client’s work. It’s not try­ing to show that we are mean or picky. It’s to help you sell the thing you’ve cre­at­ed to some­one, to some pub­lish­er or pro­duc­er.

I am not a famous script con­sul­tant. I’m not a major name. I have taught at uni­ver­si­ties and I’ve worked with a hand­ful of clients. So, if you don’t want to lis­ten to me, that’s under­stand­able. Yet, my stu­dents seem to have done okay and my clients have had some small suc­cess.

None of us, from the big name con­sul­tants to the (cur­rent­ly inac­tive) uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sors like myself, want you to fail. We want to help oth­er writ­ers be the best they can be. That’s why we point out for­mat­ting errors, gram­mar errors, and prob­lems with sto­ry struc­ture. We’re not being picky to demon­strate our exper­tise: we are teach­ing you what not to do, so your sto­ry will be read and treat­ed with respect by a stu­dio, pro­duc­er, pub­lish­er, or edi­tor.

And if you don’t believe that, fine. Whatever. But I want every stu­dent I’ve had, every client stu­dio, every friend I’ve tried to help to SELL some­thing each writer can feel was a great effort and rep­re­sent the best pos­si­ble prod­uct hand­ed off to a stu­dio, pub­lish­er, or media house.

Yes, I take this very, very per­son­al­ly. You want help, I’ll ask ques­tions and hope you lis­ten to what I’m ask­ing. If you want guid­ance, that’s what I can offer. It might not be per­fect and it might not be what you want to hear. If you don’t want my expe­ri­ence, research, or plain opin­ion, don’t ask for guid­ance or tips or ideas to help pol­ish and sell your writ­ing.

Look into a mir­ror, and tell your­self how mag­i­cal you are and how stu­pid Hollywood is. You’ll feel much bet­ter than I’ve ever made any­one feel about their works.

If you want to self-pro­duce, do it. That’s the best way to get movies made. It’s like the­ater today: self-pro­duce, and you’ll have a show. Self-pub­lish, you can sell a few copies of a book. If your work is so great, then you go make it hap­pen if nobody else wants it. It has worked for a few dozen film­mak­ers and play­wrights, and even a few authors have sold mil­lions of self-pub­lished books.

You want affir­ma­tion? Find anoth­er career, because screen­writ­ing is about get­ting fired and replaced by the sec­ond or third writ­ing team. You SELL the script, you let go, or you get hired to replace some­one you know and like. Writers end up replac­ing each oth­er, and try­ing to laugh it off over cof­fee or drinks.

Professionals all know that writ­ing is hard work, espe­cial­ly writ­ing for hire in the media. There are a lot of writ­ers, all try­ing for the few jobs and try­ing to sell one of the few works that a media com­pa­ny will buy and pro­duce or pub­lish. It’s not an easy career choice, and a good coach or teacher reminds you that it is dif­fi­cult.

Photo by jugarsan

Writers and Silly Media Biases: Stories are Flexible

This sto­ry is a movie. That oth­er sto­ry needs to be a nov­el.”

One of my pet peeves is the com­mon assump­tion among writ­ers that par­tic­u­lar types of sto­ries are best suit­ed to a sin­gle medi­um. This assump­tion belies either a lack of skill or a lack of under­stand­ing and appre­ci­a­tion for var­i­ous media.

Cinderella can be a pic­ture book, a nov­el, a short sto­ry, an ani­mat­ed short, a full-length fea­ture, a musi­cal, a play…. The pos­si­bil­i­ties for telling any sto­ry are lim­it­ed only by the writer’s knowl­edge of a par­tic­u­lar form and audi­ence expec­ta­tions. It is pos­si­ble to tell the sto­ry of Cinderella with­out words. In fact, silent films, ani­ma­tions, and bal­lets exist with­out dia­logue and yet audi­ences under­stand the sto­ry being told.

The basic sto­ry of Cinderella is well known in our cul­ture. A young woman is raised by her self­ish step­moth­er along­side two equal­ly nar­cis­sis­tic sis­ters. A grand ball is announced, dur­ing which the Prince is expect­ed to find a suit­able wife from the nobil­i­ty. The mag­ic of a fairy god­moth­er trans­forms Cinderella from a house­hold ser­vant into a beau­ti­ful lady, com­plete with fine glass slip­pers. For the rest of the sto­ry, I encour­age you to read, watch, and lis­ten to as many vari­a­tions as pos­si­ble.

A short sto­ry of Cinderella might not explain how the step­moth­er came to mary Cinderella’s father. A full-length nov­el or motion pic­ture might explore the com­plex back sto­ry. A bal­let would rely on the music and motion to con­vey thoughts, emo­tions, and the gen­er­al plot. The orig­i­nal fairy­tale fea­tures some star­tling­ly grotesque imagery, which con­tem­po­rary children’s books and ani­mat­ed fea­tures have removed.

My point is that a well-known fairy­tale such as Cinderella can be adapt­ed to any media by a tal­ent­ed writer. However, not every writer is a mas­ter of all forms and gen­res. I cer­tain­ly could not score an opera or bal­let based on Cinderella. Nor could I illus­trate a word free pic­ture book of the sto­ry. My lim­i­ta­tions as a writer are not the lim­i­ta­tions of the sto­ry.

Most ear­ly movies were adap­ta­tions of famous plays. Yet, I fre­quent­ly hear screen­writ­ers claim that a sto­ry is a “good play, bad movie.” Instead, a screen­writer should be con­sid­er­ing how to tell the sto­ry max­i­miz­ing the strengths of cin­e­ma.

A col­league post­ed the fol­low­ing to Facebook:

  • If your pro­tag­o­nist is a THINKER you have a BOOK.
  • If your pro­tag­o­nist is a TALKER you have a PLAY.
  • If your pro­tag­o­nist is a DOER you have a MOVIE.

The prob­lem with the pre­ced­ing sim­ple check­list is that a main char­ac­ter can be adapt­ed to doing, talk­ing, or think­ing based on the medi­um des­ti­na­tion for the sto­ry. Sometimes, you must add a char­ac­ter or oth­er device to allow thoughts to become dia­logue. Sometimes, voiceover works well in a film and can reveal thoughts. Great direc­tors can reveal thoughts with quick cuts and sug­ges­tive images. Never lim­it your­self by assert­ing any char­ac­ter is only one aspect of the above list.

We are all thinkers, talk­ers, and doers. Choosing which to empha­size is a choice made based on the form and genre select­ed by or for the sto­ry­teller.

As an aside, I also dis­like the empha­sis on the pro­tag­o­nist in the above list. Main char­ac­ters may or may not be “pro­tag­o­nists” in the tra­di­tion­al sense of good ver­sus evil. Equally impor­tant, oppos­ing char­ac­ters (antag­o­nist, oppo­si­tion, impact, muse, et al) can be adapt­ed to any form and genre. Evil thoughts can be expressed in dia­logue, or sug­gest­ed through action, lim­it­ed only by the skill of the writer.

When some­one states that a movie was not as good as the book this can reflect either a bad movie or unusu­al expec­ta­tions. The audi­ences for full-length nov­els might not be the same as the audi­ences for two-hour movies. However, it seems more like­ly that the adap­ta­tion is to blame for audi­ence dis­sat­is­fac­tion. Nobody would try to com­pare the short sto­ry of Cinderella to a full-length fea­ture film. Each medi­um must stand apart even when telling the same sto­ry.

Lose your media bias­es. Stories them­selves are flex­i­ble, ready to be told in any medi­um by a tal­ent­ed sto­ry­teller, some­one aware of that medium’s strengths and weak­ness­es. If you can­not see a sto­ry in a par­tic­u­lar medi­um, maybe you aren’t the right choice for writ­ing that adap­ta­tion. That is not an insult or a crit­i­cism. As I men­tion above, I’m not the best choice for any num­ber of forms and gen­res. Know your strengths and tell the sto­ries you want to tell in the medi­um or media you pre­fer.

Just don’t tell anoth­er writer that his or her sto­ry must be told in a par­tic­u­lar medi­um, accord­ing to your bias­es.

Photo by Internet Archive Book Images

WE SEE… Why Screenwriters Started Using WE

As a play­wright, I am accus­tomed to “direct­ing” the action. One of the attrac­tions of writ­ing for the stage is the pri­ma­cy of the script, as sub­mit­ted by the writer to a direc­tor. Changes require the approval of the play­wright, and well-known play­wrights have chal­lenged direc­tors who felt the need to “improve” plays (and the writ­ers win these chal­lenges).

By com­par­i­son, the direc­tor is in charge of screen pro­duc­tions. Always. The writer pro­duces a work-for-hire owned by the pro­duc­tion com­pa­ny, with cre­ative con­trol falling to the direc­tor, except in the rarest of cas­es. Short of being a writer-direc­tor, the screenwriter’s “vision” of the work is noth­ing more than a sug­ges­tion.

In the ear­ly years, direc­tors of films were like the­ater direc­tors. They adhered to the script because a lot of movies were made quick­ly. Changes hap­pened, but the ear­ly indus­try was focused on releas­ing works to meet a high demand.

Over time, direc­tors start­ed to exert greater con­trol.

Up through the 1970s, spec scripts (spec­u­la­tive, mean­ing writ­ten with the hope of sell­ing the work) and ini­tial drafts includ­ed some cam­era direc­tion, and a good deal of nar­ra­tive direc­tion. The direc­tor might change these direc­tions, but they were includ­ed by the screen­writer to sug­gest a vision.

Though there had been pow­er­ful direc­tors since the start of film and tele­vi­sion, things changed dra­mat­i­cal­ly dur­ing the 1970s. Theatrical fea­ture direc­tors told writ­ers to stop direct­ing in the spec script or ini­tial draft. Television direc­tors start­ed to adopt the same pol­i­cy. (It should be not­ed that in series tele­vi­sion, many pro­duc­ers are writ­ers, so the ten­sions are lit­tle dif­fer­ent.)

Told not to direct on the page, writ­ers have con­tin­ued to bend this com­mand­ment from the film gods by writ­ing nar­ra­tive and action that attempts to direct. You often spot these non-direct­ing direc­tions with WE SEE and WE HEAR in con­tem­po­rary scripts. You also spot the direc­tion with objects, sounds, and oth­er ele­ments types in ALL CAPS, as if scream­ing to the direc­tor that “This must be so!”

Consider Lynne Pembroke’s reac­tion to these non-direct­ing tricks of screen­writ­ers:

COVERSCRIPT TIPS — A Heated Disagreement

https://pembrokely.wordpress.com/2015/07/21/coverscript-tips-a-heated-disagreement/

July 21, 2015, Lynne Pembroke

A heat­ed dis­agree­ment. In this case, about two tee­ny, tiny, itsy bit­sy phras­es. And a per­son­al much-detest­ed pet peeve. Contained wrath is the imme­di­ate reac­tion when I run across them….

Using these two phras­es is a writ­ing cop-out. Because it’s easy; with­out them a screen­writer is forced to Show not Tell.

Besides, “we” are in the the­ater seats watch­ing, or in our office chairs read­ing, not in the &%#$@% sto­ry! I don’t dis­agree in prin­ci­ple, but direc­tors set the stan­dards no mat­ter what any­one else argues. I swapped to WE SEE, but only for very spe­cif­ic cam­era changes.

TOURISTS mill about a foun­tain.

(No need for WE SEE.)

WE SEE the feet of tourists, splash­ing in water. (Very spe­cif­ic visu­al want­ed.) Could WE SEE be omit­ted?

BARE FEET splash in the foun­tain.

It would then be up to a direc­tor if this is a close up or not. The old days, when spec writ­ers includ­ed more shots, before direc­tors told writ­ers not to direct:

CLOSE UP:

Feet splash in the foun­tain.

Personally, I would rather have “CLOSE UP:” in the spec script, instead of “WE SEE” or or “BARE FEET” cap­i­tal­ized. I sup­pose there’s no per­fect approach to try­ing to direct, with­out being the direc­tor, short of get­ting rewrite and shoot­ing script duties in your script deal. If you are hired for the shoot­ing script, the SFX and shot slugs can replace WE SEE and WE HEAR.

As a play­wright, I am the all-mighty last and final word on the direc­tion. As a screen­writer, I have to accept my posi­tion and do my best to cajole a direc­tor to accept my ideas. Some direc­tors will recoil at any sug­gest shot, WE SEE stunts, or oth­er direc­tion. Other direc­tors rec­og­nize that the writer had a vision or there wouldn’t be a screen­play.

My sug­ges­tion: avoid WE SEE and WE HEAR and all the cap­i­tal­iza­tion stunts unless you lack a bet­ter way to con­vey an absolute­ly essen­tial visu­al or sound in the script.

Photo by Carl Mikoy

Your Script is a Snitch, Part Two

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.

Remember…

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.