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How to Format a Kickass Hollywood (or Indie!) Screenplay

How you format your screenplay could mean the difference between rejection and success. Screenplay experts responsible for choosing what goes into production can often tell at a glance whether it’s written by a professional or an amateur, without even reading it through. According to masters like Syd Field, just looking at the balance of words on the page, the length of paragraphs, the amount of white space and terminology can reveal enough information to get you straight into the ‘no way’ pile.

That’s why formatting your screenplay and understanding what to include and what to leave out is incredibly important. Of course there’s a major caveat here, as always in creative endeavours: you might have a completely original and different way of formatting your screenplay that works just as well as Tarantino’s. However, if you’re an unknown and aspire to make it onto the ‘maybe’ pile when you present your work to a studio in Hollywood or elsewhere, it’s important to be aware that deviating from a professional format is way more likely to scupper than improve your chances before you get a look-in.

Even if you don’t intend to go Hollywood – for instance if you’re going down the indie route or thinking of directing and producing it yourself – the discipline of formatting your screenplay professionally can be a great learning experience.

I’m working on my first screenplay at the moment and after lots of research I believe the best way to unleash my creativity is through the story itself: ensuring that every scene has a clear ‘why’, but equally that the screenplay communicates this very simply through ‘what’ (clear action, snappy dialogue), so that there isn’t a single extraneous scene – every single element must move the story forward or reveal character. When it comes to storyboarding, I can go crazy with camera angles, compositions and lighting effects that support the ‘why’, but the screenplay isn’t the place for all that.

After studying work by masters of story structure like Joseph Campbell and Shawn Coyne (see links to their stuff below), I’m also determined to not to be so ‘creative’ with structure that I omit a vital piece of the puzzle. There are certain ingredients in great stories that are in there for a reason – and although you can use these ingredients to create infinite different recipes, leaving one out entirely or adding in something unnecessary can result in a feeling that something is missing, often manifesting in a damp squib that confuses the audience that lacks emotional engagement.

So all in all I believe the constraints provided by classic screenplay formatting and classic story structuring serve to raise your creative bar, rather than hold you back. I also find they prevent me from going off on some self-indulgent tangent, because I’m thinking more about bringing the audience along with me that just expressing myself in a more solipsistic way. Understanding these underlying patterns and techniques also means I won’t end up like an abstract artist who hasn’t learnt the craft and can’t actually paint. My goal is to make sure that every time I deviate from the ‘rules’, I’m doing so for a specific reason and not from a place of failing to understand the timeless patterns that lie beneath great storytelling.

Constraints are really powerful and although they can be uncomfortable, they push us to achieve near impossible feats. Comfort is the enemy of courage, after all.

When it comes to screenplay formatting, here are 3 common pitfalls I’m determined to avoid:

  • A classic pitfall is going into too much detail about camera angles. Professional screenwriters respect the talents of directors and cinematographers and don’t try to do their job for them. Rather they focus on the story and how it comes to life through dialogue and action. It’s okay to make suggestions, but these should be kept to a minimum.
  • Another common error is going into detail about what a character is thinking. If the character’s dialogue and gestures aren’t sufficient to communicate what’s happening, there’s a bigger problem with the script. The screenplay should concentrate on absolute clarity in terms of what they are doing and saying; and this alone should be enough to communicate the ‘why’.
  • Talented writers who craft delicious prose can easily fall into the trap of writing long, beautifully flowing paragraphs of dialogue and descriptions that just won’t work in film. Although it’s great to describe places and action in rich, evocative terms, beware of long passages of literary text and dialogue, as they can set off alarm bells when someone is reviewing your screenplay. It’s vital to remember that what works in a novel or short story doesn’t always translate well to visual storytelling and dialogue. Always question whether the balance is right and whether your dialogue sounds punchy and natural.

I’ve been gathering some screenplay formatting terminology and examples, many of which should be using sparingly, as mentioned above. Download this screenplay glossary of handy terms & an example screenplay format – and if you’re writing a screenplay I’d love to know whether you find it helpful.

I’d also highly recommend these stupendously helpful resources:

Are you a visual storyteller who loves storyboarding? We’re plotting the launch of the world’s most spanking gorgeous storyboarding notebook, THE STORYBOARD, on Kickstarter soon. If you’re interested in becoming an Insider on the project, you can get involved and help shape the design, give feedback and get sneak peaks by filling in the contact form on our home page.

Our aim is to share super useful stuff and we’re always learning from you guys, so if you have any feedback on this post please leave comments below.

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