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Talking Common Sense About Format and style

by Charles Deemer

In my teaching experience, the first thing students find confusing about screenwriting is format. No wonder. There is no "Chicago Manual of Style" that brings the rules between one pair of covers, no ultimate reference source for what is right and wrong in format. Instead there are a variety of formatting fashions all existing at the same time -- and few models available for what a good, clean spec script should look like in today's highly competitive marketplace.

Let me put screenplay format in two contexts: first, historical context; and next in practical context. Then I will summarize what I believe are the essential principles of good spec screenplay format today.


Screenplay format has evolved over recent decades but its evolution has moved in two consistent directions: first, to remove special visual directing power from the hands of the writer; and next to encourage a quick easy reading in the increasingly crowded marketplace. Both changes make absolute sense once you understand their context. Therefore, it is silly and self-defeating to fight them.

The first change, removing visual power from the writer, was accomplished by getting rid of all references to the camera. CUT TO:, ANGLE ON, CLOSE ON, THE CAMERA MOVES, and such similar jargon no longer belong in a spec script. Little is lost and much is gained by this change. The writer still can write visually, as indeed s/he should, by giving important images their own paragraphs. If you direct the movie in your head as you're writing, instead of mentioning the camera, just start a new paragraph every time you see a new shot. This will open up your script, isolating the important visual information. Without the jargon, scripts also are much easier to read.

The second change leads to the recent practical context in which scripts must be written today.


Format must make the script easier to read, not more difficult. Format defines how the script looks to the eye: it must look text-light and easy to read. Short crisp simple sluglines. Short paragraphs separated by lots of white space. An invitation to a vertical read, not a text-heavy horizontal one. A blueprint for a movie, not a literary document.

Format contributes to the reader's first impression. When I was a reader and saw a text-heavy script, I groaned inside and the screenwriter began with two strikes against him.

There are principles to follow in order to avoid making this impression.


1. Make sluglines self-sufficient, without reference to prior sluglines for understanding them. If a reader puts a bookmark in a script and returns to read C0NTINUOUS, s/he must read up the script to remember what this means. Don't do this. Put all relevant information in every slugline.

2. Make sluglines consistent and as simple as possible. Don't use DAY, MORNING, AFTERNOON, NOON, EARLY AFTERNOON, etc., when DAY works. Think not when the action is happening but when it will be shot. How often in a movie do you actually know what time it is? Not very often. Only add the details if they are essential to the story and then put them in action when describing the scene. In other words, use DAY and NIGHT almost exclusively. It shows you know how sluglines are used in production. Along the same lines, avoid putting descriptions in sluglines. Don't write EXT. HOUSE IN A CUL DE SAC, write EXT. HOUSE and describe its location, if important, in the action element. Generally speaking, if you use a preposition in a slugline, it's not written simply enough.

3. Write action in very short paragraphs. This is how the writer can direct the reading, if not the movie. When you imagine a new shot, start a new paragraph. No paragraph should be longer than five lines across the page, perferably less. This also gives the script verticality and makes it easier to read.

4. Avoid parentheticals. They seldom add anything essential. Often they smack of directing, which is not your job.

5. Avoid using "we see" and "we hear." Duh. This is a movie, dummy. Using "we" is pure fat and smacks of directing. Also avoid all reference to the camera.

6. Minimize capitalization. You don't have to capitalize sounds any more. Don't. In general, only use capitalization to introduce a new character and for extreme and infrequent emphasis. Scripts look cleaner and are easier to read without them.

7. Write with simple sentences and fragments but also with style. Avoid complex sentence construction and long modifying phrases. Write very simply. You are not here to dazzle anyone with your prose style. Wrong place for that. Tell the story directly, simply. Don't be afraid to use incomplete sentences, especially in fast action sequences. Don't be afraid to add sizzle and style to your writing with an occasional short expletive when appropriate, i.e. No way! or Ka-bang! or Snoring zzzzzzzzzz. Make the script fun to read.

Many experienced readers can tell at a glance, without reading a single word, whether or not a screenplay invites a quick read or not. Make sure yours does.

Finally, don't let your writing get in the way of your story. What a thing to say about any kind of writing! But in screenwriting, it's so true. Write so that your story comes forward. Don't hide it behind over-writing and other rhetorical devices. You are trying to sell your story, first and foremost, and the best writing style to accomplish this is a simple style with touches of economical individuality. Dazzle us with your story, not your writing style.

Charles Deemer teaches graduate and undergraduate screenwriting at Portland State University. He is the author of the electronic screenwriting tutorial, Screenwright: the craft of screenwriting. His book Seven Plays was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. His new book, Practical Screenwriting, is due in 2005. Deemer maintains two websites:

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