Use Proper Formatting and Grammar to Win a Million Dollars!
Okay, Spoiler Alert: Proper screenplay formatting and grammar can’t really help you ‘win’ anything. I just needed a way to get you to click on a boring blog post about it because ignoring those things can absolutely mean you lose out on script sales or jobs.
Plus - the more professional your script looks, the more likely you are to be taken seriously as a writer, and the more likely you are to sell your script or get hired for a writers’ room or OWAs, which means you get paid for your writing, which means you’ve won! Hooray!
How Much Does This Really Matter?
There are readers who don’t care much about format. As long as you have the basics correct and the script is easy to read, they will overlook a few typos, grammatical issues, or formatting missteps.
However, screenplay formatting is not a mystery, and there are any number of easily available and free resources to learn how to do it correctly. Because of that, there are also many readers who look at formatting or grammatical errors or typos as an indication of laziness or lack of professionalism.
As with anything having to do with your screenplay, EVERY possible reason for a “No” that you can take out of the equation is a good thing. Proper formatting shows a reader 1.) That you are a professional; and 2.) That you respect the value of their time and have done everything in your power to make the read as clear and straightforward as possible.
What Have Proper Format and Grammar Ever Done for Me?
Proper format and grammar assist every step of the script’s journey from first submission to production.
From the very first read it will help the reader determine at a glance approximately how long the finished movie will be. With the proper margins and font, they will know that 1 page is roughly equivalent to 1 minute of screen-time. If you have the wrong margins or font, it will change the number of words on the page and therefore the amount of time each page will take in the finished film.
Make Pre-Production Easier
If the script progresses, proper formatting will help in the script breakdown process, where things like properly-formatted scene headings will drastically reduce the amount of time needed to determine shoot days, locations, and budget. In its final steps, a standardized format will help the actors and director clearly understand your intentions for each scene. Throughout it all, a script with no typos and proper punctuation will be easy to follow, and will make the script a pleasure to read, rather than a chore.
SO – all that to say – things like proper formatting and grammar seem dull, but they can be the difference between a reader taking you seriously and advancing your script to the next-higher-up, or deciding that the typos and format issues show a lack of professionalism or make the script more of a hassle to read, and discarding it. There are always more scripts in line.
The issues I will discuss are very basic, but I encounter them every single day. Even longtime writers can fall prey to the “I ran the spell-check, so I’m sure I’m fine” syndrome.
Also, this is not meant to be a comprehensive list. There are literally hundreds of blog posts and online resources where you can get information about proper screenplay format. These are simply the errors that I have encountered most often in over 20 years reading scripts for production companies, contests, and as a script consultant.
This one is really simple, but hugely important and often incorrect. The scene heading needs to have three pieces of information: INT/EXT, location, DAY/NIGHT. That’s it.* Don’t include years, times, sub-locations or any scene specifics in the header.
Also, you can cut down on a lot of confusion by making sure that your scene headings are standardized – don’t use BRIAN’S ROOM for one heading, and then BRIAN’S BEDROOM for another.
Finally, while it is acceptable to indicate “DAWN” or “EVENING” instead of DAY or NIGHT, those headings will ultimately need to be changed to DAY or NIGHT when the shoot is scheduled, so be as sparing as possible. The more of them you include, the more work you create for someone else, and anything you can do to get the 1st AD on your side is a good thing!
*A caveat: you can also include (FLASHBACK) in a scene heading if needed for clarity.
Using CONTINUOUS in a scene heading means that the last second of action in the previous scene continues on into the first second of the new scene. This is used incorrectly 9 out of 10 times in scripts.
It should be used for things like people walking from one room to the next or inside to outside. It should NOT be used for scenes that are happening simultaneously in different locations, or for scene headings where one scene happens almost immediately after the previous.
Anytime you are at all in doubt about whether to use it, put DAY or NIGHT in the heading instead of CONTINUOUS. Even if the scene is continuous, using day or night in the heading will still be accurate, and it will help re-ground the reader in the specifics of the scene.
A sure giveaway of a new writer is one who consistently includes information in their description paragraphs that isn’t represented visually. Always remember that the ultimate goal is for this script to be translated to film or TV, so the audience needs to be able to see any information you include.
For example: “BRIONNA walks through her house. She’s a Harvard graduate and although she just moved to the area today, she has no interest in meeting her neighbors.” The only piece of that that will be translated to the audience watching the movie is Brionna walking through her house.
However, “BRIONNA stands in her doorway in a Harvard track team sweatshirt and watches the moving van pulling out of the driveway. Her neighbor JUDY is watering her lawn and waves, but Brionna ignores her and goes back inside” lets a watching audience learn the same information, as well as the script reader.
An apostrophe replaces missing letters, so if you want to say “they are”, it’s they’re not “their” or “there” (Which mean, “belonging to them” and “that place”, respectively.)
An apostrophe also shows possession, so if you want to say “It belongs to the kid” it would be the kid’s. You don't need an apostrophe to indicate more than one of something, so if there is a group of kids, there is no apostrophe needed.
*The only exception to the rule is that “its” does not have an apostrophe for the possessive, so it’s always means “it is”
One reason it’s good not to depend on spell-check as a final proofread is because often there are words that are actual words and are spelled correctly, but in fact are typos and aren’t what you meant to say. These errors are found in about 85% of scripts, and are easily missed.
I’ll tell ya, though - when I get a script where someone uses the correct spelling of “peek” or “discreet”, it’s a lovely day. Again, this is not a complete list, but it covers a lot of the usual offenders.
- Your means it “belongs to you.” You’re means “You are”
- You pour a drink, but pore over a manuscript, or clean your pores
- A baron is a low-ranking member of the British nobility, or a VIP (similar to ‘mogul’ or ‘tycoon’ – i.e. “A baron of industry”). Barren means “desolate” or “sterile”
- You peel away from a house in a car, or peel an orange, but you let out a peal of laughter or hear the pealing of bells
- discrete means separate/individual, discreet means “subtle, unobtrusive”
- peek means to peer at, peak means the top of something (literally, in the literal sense of the word “literally”, this word is misspelled in at least half of the scripts I read.)
- too means “also” or “in excess” (i.e. “Franklin arrived, too, but he talks too much.”) In all other cases, you should use to
- She passed him a note, but you walk past someone, and look at pictures of people from the past
- Whose means “who does it belong to?” and who’s means “who is”
- Vain means having an overly high opinion of oneself, or “futile” – (i.e. “His attempt to hide the truth was in vain.” A vein is a thing that carries blood around your body, or a deposit within rock (i.e. “they discovered a massive vein of coal in the mine.”)
- You break a glass, but pull the brake of your car
- You wear a mantle, but put a picture frame on the mantel
Also, I realize it’s a slightly different issue, but you are supposed to do something, not suppose to.
The Fun and Glamorous World of Formatting and Grammar
Ultimately, a properly-formatted and grammatically-correct script without typos is not guaranteed to win, sell, or dazzle. Only your story and characters can do that. However, neglecting format and grammar can absolutely impact the reader’s perception of you as a writer, and can lead to your script being set aside mid-read.
You have put your time and energy into telling a story, and have successfully completed your script. That means you have already done more than most people who sit down to write a screenplay will ever manage. Please give the readers of your script every reason to say “Yes!” You owe it to yourself.
Set yourself up for success! Define your goal, complete your script, format it well, and submit it to the open or upcoming ScreenCraft competitions here.
[This blog series is a once-a-month window into the thoughts of a professional screenplay reader (not necessarily a ScreenCraft reader). While there will often be universal sentiments, screenplay readers come from a variety of backgrounds and, much like other humans, have their own pet peeves and preferences. Our goal is to give writers a look behind the curtain at some of the issues professional readers focus on; and to provide tips to improve your craft that will hopefully give you a leg up when submitting your script for consideration to a production company or competition.]
Merry Grissom is a writer/producer/director/actor/sweater-wearer, originally from outside Philadelphia. She has worked for 20+ years as a script consultant and reader for various individuals, production companies and screenplay competitions