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How to Format Your Script Invisibly - Like the Pros Do!

By: Lenore Wright

Screenwriting is a DISCIPLINED form of creative writing.

No doubt imagination plays an important role in the creation of a great movie script, BUT (and that's a BIG but) screenwriting is a DISCIPLINED form of creative writing.

Hey, I know I sound like Nurse Ratchet and in fact I look a bit like her too, but honestly I'm trying to help.

WHY ARE MOVIE SCRIPTS FORMATTED?

In order for your screenplay to be transformed into a motion picture, hundreds of film professionals (often thousands) will read your script so they can do their part to make it a motion picture.

These readers have different talents and varying skills: most are technicians, many are artists, others are accountants or secretaries or production managers or teamsters trying out for a walk-on. The script must be accessible to all these people so they can do their jobs.

So if you believe you will revolutionize filmmaking by starting with film formatting - guess again. You will NEVER revolutionize filmmaking that way. How do I know this? Because I know you will not even get your scripts READ unless they are properly formatted!

So when you're tempted to enhance your title page with artwork or draw attention to the star's character description by using that color laser printer you bought off a dying dot-com, control yourself. Or as they say succinctly in Red Hook, 'Furgeddabouddit!'

Before I show you some properly formatted screenplay pages, here are some practical reasons why there is standard formatting for screenplays:

1. Scheduling

The artists and technicians who break down the screenplay into a schedule of days and nights of filming must have parameters for estimating how long each sequence will take to film. Here's the formula they use: one film script page equals one minute of film. If you triple space your florid descriptions or stretch out your snappy dialogue all the way to the left and right margins, the scene breakdown estimates will be awry, perhaps disastrously so.

2. Rhythm

Movies create their own story-telling rhythm through action, camera techniques, use of music and sound effects, the dialogue and the juxtaposition of scenes. The agents, producers, directors and film executives reading your script - if they are experienced professionals - will have at least a rudimentary ability to sense the rhythm of your movie. If your formatting is unfamiliar they will be mislead and probably frustrated as well.

3. Marketing

Studios market movies as two-hour entertainments. Theatres schedule a certain number of 'seatings' a day - just like restaurants. Screenplays usually run 110-130 pages in format which when filmed puts the running time at somewhere close to two hours. Comedies run shorter - there's probably less action description and though the dialogue might be longer, it is probably spoken quickly or over-lapping for comic effect. Unless scripts are formatted conventionally, it's difficult to tell if the movie will run 3 hours or 30 minutes.

4. Attention Span Deficit

Movie pros love the projects they have in development, yet they don't want to miss out on anything else that might be floating around town. Standardized script formatting lets them wade through a lot more movie projects than they'd be able to read if they were all formatted as thousand page novels.

5. Rewrite Demands

Market ready screenplays are printed on white paper with black ink in a 12-point font. Final Draft Courier (12 point font) or Courier New (12 point font) are the current fonts of choice.

Any of you who have worked on movie sets know one important reason for this. Rewritten pages of movies in production are printed on colored paper - each set of revisions gets pages of a new color so the cast and crew on the movie set don't have to read through the entire script to see what has been revised. They check out the new pages b color.

Once a movie is in production, there is a certain order in which the colors are used. White is used first, then blue, pink, green, yellow, goldenrod, and salmon. Now you know why Joan Didion called her novel about a movie rewriter BLUE PAGES.

I know you're anxious to see some format samples.

SAMPLES PAGES FROM SHOOTING SCRIPTS

To see some stunning examples of properly formatted scenes from recent movies click on the film titles in this list.

Alan Ball's American Beauty: Opening Sequence (Early Draft)

Compare this opening to the one eventually used in the movie. This version delivers shock value and gets our attention; but doesn't have the emotional punch of the opening sequence that was eventually shot.

Alan Ball's American Beauty: Opening Sequence (Final Draft)

This final version offers the same attention-getting shock value of the earlier draft, but it also establishes an emotional connection between Lester, the hero, and Jane, his nemesis. We are hooked after a few pages.

M. Night Shyamalan's Sixth Sense: Final Sequence

This is a text document so there are no page breaks. To get to the final sequence type Control+end then scroll back up about five script pages. The final sequence begins with Malcolm walking back home where he finds his wife asleep in front of the TV; their wedding video plays on the VCR. Note how Shyamalan indicates each camera set up by his paragraphing instead of using camera directions. The rhythm of the images he describes creates suspense and emotional impact.

Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous: Opening Sequence

In the first few pages Cameron Crowe quickly (and adeptly) propels us back to the era of his story. Crowe wrote and directed this movie, so his script has more camera directions than a selling draft would have. Warning: His scenes are numbered for production - do NOT do this.

SCREENPLAY SOFTWARE THE PROS USE

Click on the software program name for more information:

1. Final Draft
2. Movie Magic Screenwriter
3. Dramatica Pro

The Writer's Store in Los Angeles offers great package deals on these software programs as well as books, script supplies and other creative writing software.

Remember: Channel your creativity into the content of your screenplay, not the format. Follow the format guidelines the professionals use.

FREE SCRIPT WARE TO DOWNLOAD

Professional screenplay software is expensive. Here are some FREEWARE (or relatively inexpensive) script writing programs you can download. If you are a beginning screenwriter, experiment with these for a while. You can invest in a professional program later.

Insider Tip: Some agents, script coaches, spec script brokers, and independent producers will re-format your script in a professional format if they are interested in it.

PARTING SHOT

If you follow these suggestions, your script will LOOK like a movie.





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