Formatting Flubs: 10 Script Formatting Mistakes to Avoid
Screenwriting software has really made the process of formatting a screenplay a breeze, but guess what — there are still many script formatting mistakes new writers are making when they get to typing.
What are the most common script formatting faux pas that script readers see in scripts submitted to contests, fellowships, studios, production companies, and management companies? We'll tell you!
10 Script Formatting Mistakes to Avoid
Title Page Unnecessaries
Cluttered title pages are some of the most common script formatting issues for a script. Novice screenwriters sometimes feel the need to offer more information. Hollywood doesn't care. Those elements aren't useful to them. And they don't help you, the screenwriter.
While including these elements in the formatting of your title page isn't going to make or break your chances, you can avoid making a bad first impression by looking like an amateur.
What Should the Title Page of a Script Include?
Your title pages should have three elements:
- Written By Credit(s)
- Contact Information (Yours or Your Representation)
What You Don't Need on Your Title Page
- WGA Registration Numbers — There's no use for it to have any presence on any page of your script. The companies don't care. The executives don't care. The readers don't care. It's only meant to be used during any arbitration — and hopefully, you never have to deal with that.
- Copyright Numbers — Again, those numbers are only necessary to share if arbitration or any lawsuits are active. It's a waste of title page space and, again, a clear sign of a newcomer.
- Personal Mailing Address and Multiple Contact Numbers — The only contact information on your title page beyond the title and your name is one email address and maybe one single phone number. If you have representation, your manager and agent contact information should be on the script. That said, in the end, it's perfectly fine to have just the title and your name. The communication for the submission obviously went through some form of email correspondence, so the contact between you (or your reps) and the person reading your script has already been made.
- Logline or Synopsis — They already have the logline, and they don't need a synopsis. Having a synopsis attached can backfire because it gives readers an excuse to either skim or not thoroughly read your script. You want them to experience the screenplay as they would be watching the movie with fresh eyes.
- Character Breakdowns — This is an element clearly adopted from stage plays and is not necessary nor wanted.
Scene numbers are utilized for production purposes only — with the small exception of screenwriters including them in drafts while on professional paid assignments for collaborative reference points.
There's no reason to have any scene numbers present within the script when you're writing on spec (under speculation that someone will acquire and produce it). Having them isn't a deal-breaker, but again, you want to avoid any red flags that you're an amateur.
CUT TO Transitions
There is absolutely no reason to have any CUT TO transitions between scenes. Every time your script moves from one Scene Heading to another, it is assumed that the camera will "cut to" that new location. You will see this transition format element utilized in older screenplays.
During the first few decades of film, screenplay transitions were cues to the editing team that communicated how transitions between shots were to be handled.
CUT TO was a simple direction that stipulated the literal cut from one scene to another — usually, but not always, referring to a location change as well. In older scripts, you would find such a transition between every new scene.
Contemporary screenplay format doesn't utilize this transition anymore because it wastes space. And it's a highly distracting (and annoying) format element for readers, drawing their eyes to the right margins when they want to be able to focus on the left margin scene headings and scene description.
The director and editor will decide when to go to a Medium Shot, Master Shot, Closeup, Dolly Shot, Zoom, etc. It's not the screenwriter's job to dictate where and how the camera moves. Instead, screenwriters are there to give the reader broad strokes of what they are supposed to visualize. Anything more that can ruin the pacing of your screenplay.
The Use of "Continuous" in Scene Headings
Continuous is a legitimate screenwriting format element. However, many screenwriters overuse it. And even more screenwriters don't understand the proper usage. It can be frustrating for a reader.
Including CONTINUOUS in the DAY or NIGHT position of the Scene Heading denotes that two scenes are happening in real-time — as in one character exiting one room and then entering another. Sadly, most novice screenwriters overuse this and also end up directing the action.
The better option is to use SAME, denoting that these actions of the character entering and leaving are happening at the same time. Even then, it's beginning to fall into overwriting or overly-busy script formatting territory.
Avoiding the need to CONTINUOUS (or SAME) is preferable, especially when brief scene description can give the reader the explanation they need.
Simple is always the best option.
That said, if you're writing action that has story-pivotal moments requiring the use of CONTINUOUS in your scene headings, just make sure it's necessary — and you're using it correctly.
Read More: Screenwriting Basics: The Key to Writing Correct Scene Headings!
What Are Master Scene Headings and Secondary Scene Headings?
Master scene headings offer the core location that any given scene is in, be it a house, bar, stadium, car, train, plane, building, etc.
Secondary scene headings showcase secondary locations within that master scene location. Characters may move to kitchens, bathrooms, hallways, and bedrooms located within that master scene location — all within what is intended to be the same scene.
Once a master location has been set by writing a basic master scene heading, you want to write a proper secondary scene heading if the character is still within that master location but has moved into a particular room within that location.
Example of a Master Scene Heading and Secondary Scene Heading
Here is a simple example of a sequence utilizing a master scene headings and secondary scene heading:
The IRISH PUB is the master location and is established within the first scene heading. The very next location is written as a secondary by adding two dashes and showcasing a BATHROOM that is within the IRISH PUB.
After the IRISH PUB has been established, if the next scene heading was INT. BATHROOM - DAY, that BATHROOM could have been in any other location. By writing it as a secondary heading with the inclusion of the already established master location (IRISH PUB) before it, the writer is communicating to the reader that this bathroom is indeed within the location that had already been presented — thus, it offers a more natural visual transition for the reader to envision. It's all about the specification. And this script formatting comes into play during pre-production and production as well, as the script supervisor and line producer (and their respective teams) will need to use the scene headings for proper location designations.
The Overuse of CAPS in Dialogue
Screenwriters often overuse CAPS in their dialogue, which likely means that they don't know how to utilize them properly. Putting words or lines of dialogue in full CAPS should be done sparingly. The usage usually denotes that there should be an exaggerated emphasis on whichever words are in CAPS. Most of the time, dialogue in CAPS is telling the reader that these words should be yelled or screamed, well beyond dialogue lines that use exclamation points.
There are two issues the over-usage of this script formatting element presents:
- The screenwriter is directing the eventual actor's performance.
- The reader assumes that every dialogue piece in CAPS should be screamed or yelled.
If CAPS is being used sparingly, there's no issue. But too many screenwriters use CAPS to put over-emphasis on too many words or lines of dialogue, making the intended effect less impactful.
The Overuse of CAPS in Scene Description
It's a common mistake to put every action movement or motion in CAPS.
Jack MOVES towards the dense treeline, HOLDING a survival knife. He HEARS something within the woods. He quickly KNEELS DOWN and LISTENS.
This practice can actually have a negative effect on the read of your screenplay. When CAPS is used to feature an action or important object, you're telling the reader that this is a vital part of the story that needs to be highlighted. Reader's eyes are trained to recognize essential elements within the scene description.
But when nearly every action is featured in CAPS, it creates a distraction that makes it difficult for the reader to process the overall scene description. They will find themselves wondering what's important and what's not.
You should only feature the most critical actions using CAPS.
Jack MOVES towards the dense treeline, HOLDING a survival knife. He HEARS something within the woods. He quickly KNEELS DOWN and LISTENS.
Jack moves towards the dense treeline, holding a survival knife. He HEARS something within the woods. He quickly kneels down and listens.
By not putting every little action in CAPS, you can also extenuate the action that you do feature a little more.
Jack moves towards the dense treeline, holding a survival knife. He SUDDENLY HEARS SOMETHING WITHIN THE WOODS. He quickly kneels down and listens.
Only use CAPS when you want to point out something significant or special within the story.
Including Special Effects/Sound Effects
Most screenwriters have read scripts that utilize script formatting terms to denote when special effects and sound effects are present.
These elements aren't necessary for spec scripts. They are used for production drafts.
In production drafts, these terms communicate a visual or audio cue that will be created with the need for either practical special effects, sound effects (non-digital), rendered computer graphics (CG), or digital sound effects.
That's not your job to dictate that as a screenwriter. Just tell us what we're supposed to be hearing and seeing. It makes for an easier read.
Read More: Screenwriting Basics: Everything You Need to Know About CAPS!
Overly-Busy Script Formatting
Having an overly-busy screenwriting format is the most common mistake screenwriters make. As we mentioned before, the master scene format is there for a reason.
Stick to the basics to tell your cinematic story in the most effective way.
- Location Heading
- Scene Description
- Character Names
That's all you need. Anytime you're asking yourself (or mentors) how you would write this type of scene or that, chances are you're trying to direct the scene through camera angles, camera movement, and shots. Again, that's not your job. You should be able to tell you're cinematic story using only the master scene format elements.
Sure, there are additional script formatting nuances (see below links) that have story elements requiring additional format elements, but if you can overly-busy script formatting throughout 99%, you're on a good track to creating an amazing read — and every read is vital to your success as a screenwriter.
For some additional format nuances, read the following ScreenCraft posts:
- Screenwriting Basics: How to Write an Effective Montage
- Screenwriting Basics: How to Write Cinematic Phone Conversations
- Screenwriting Basics: How to Write Cinematic Fight Sequences
- Screenwriting Basics: How to Make Dream Sequences and Flashbacks Work
Why is Script Formatting Important?
The purpose of contemporary script formatting is to have a universal aesthetic that everyone can easily navigate through the key phases of cinema — development, pre-production, and production.
That's why the film industry employs the general master scene format.
It offers an easy-to-decipher format to communicate and interpret the audio and visual dynamics of the screenplay. Screenplays are blueprints for movies. They are not like novels, which are literary stories unhindered by collaborative interpretations of the text.
Novels do their best to describe the visuals — often in detail not necessary or acceptable in screenplays — but rely only on the reader's creative mind to conjure the images.
Whereas screenplays exist to tell hundreds of collaborators (producers, executives, distributors, financiers, directors, actors, editors, cinematographers, and crew) what needs to be heard and seen to portray the screenplay's story. They are then tasked with bringing those audio and visual elements to life. It's only after that process (development, pre-production, and production) that audiences get to see the results.
So, yes, the way we format screenplays does matter.
How to Format a Script
The general formatting of a screenplay is actually reasonably simple. We've covered all of the details in our guide: How to Format a Script!
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner, the feature thriller Hunter's Creed, and many produced and distributed Lifetime thrillers. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies