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Formatting Scripts to Sell: Advanced format and style tips that can turn a good script into a great read

By Christopher Riley

Before a film or television script can fulfill its destiny in front of cameras and on screens around the world, it must first succeed as a piece of literature, a document that captivates the reader before it delights the viewer. Since film and television are collaborative media, the first job of a script is to attract collaborators: producers, agents, executives, directors, actors. These readers are a script's primary audience. How to captivate them? A fresh story driven by compelling characters doesn't hurt. But neither does a style of screenwriting that gets itself out of the way and allows the story to spring to life in the reader's imagination. That style is possible when a writer has mastered the tools of script formatting.

First things first

Before we can become true masters of script format and style, we have to make sure we've got the fundamentals right. Because the last thing we want to convey to our readers is that the writer is an amateur. That means we must use:

  • The right font: 12 point Courier, Courier New or Courier Final Draft.
  • The right paper: White 8 ½ x 11", three-hole punched 20 lb. bond.
  • The right brads: Acco number 5 brass round-head fasteners, one in the top hole and one in the bottom.
  • The right capping: All shot headings, scene transitions and characters names over dialogue typed in all capitals, plus all sound effects, camera directions and the names of speaking characters when they are first introduced.
  • The right margins: Software like Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter can help you here.
  • The right page count: For screenplays, no one wants to read more than 120 pages (105 is better); TV scripts for one-hour dramas should run about 60 pages, for sitcoms between 40 and 45 pages.

Learn the simple rules of industry standard formatting. Then you'll be ready to move to the next stage: harnessing these rules to suck the reader's eye down the page, and after that to keep the pages turning.

Too many words

Writing for the screen requires great economy of style. That means choosing the fewest words possible to suggest a screen filled with images, actions and emotions - and then getting rid of all the other words. Almost universally, we writers for the screen use too many words. They slow the reader, clog the page and distract from the real meat of what we mean to say. So the first, simplest and most painful secret to developing a crisp, powerful and professional style is to cut, cut, cut. Here's an example of how it works, beginning with an overwritten passage.

EXT. A FARILY ROCKY SHORELINE - ANGLE ON OLIVER - DAY

SCREAMING like demons from hell, a great cloud of SEA GULLS circles a young boy named OLIVER, perhaps 9 years old. He looks terrified of the SCREAMING GULLS. He's only a wisp of a boy, probably not much heavier than one of the birds. He's eating a small scrap of dry bread and apparently the birds have decided that they want it. To save himself, the boy finally stuffs this small, dry piece of bread into his mouth and bends, searches, and picks up two or three hefty stones to use as weapons. He shouts at the birds in a Cockney accent.

OLIVER
(shouting in a Cockney accent)
You birds stay back or I'll
throw these stones and brain ya!

Altogether unimpressed, the ravenous birds continue circling the terrified boy by the hundreds. Oliver shouts one more time.

OLIVER
Stay back, I say!

Now we cut, cut, cut, and here's what remains:

EXT. ROCKY SHORE - DAY

SCREAMING GULLS circle OLIVER, 9, a terrified wisp. He's eating a scrap of bread and the birds want it. He stuffs it in his mouth and picks up stones.

OLIVER
(Cockney)
Stay back or I'll brain you!

The birds circle by the hundreds.

OLIVER
Back!

The second version is a fraction of the length of the first, contains everything essential, and is greatly strengthened by being concentrated in fewer words. Hack away the redundant and nonessential and the read instantly improves.

Use sentence length to control pace

Short sentences convey a sense of speed. Long sentences slow the pace. If you're writing an action sequence and you want to create a feel of events cascading rapidly one upon another, use a series of short, simple sentences:

The birds circle closer. Oliver panics. Throws the first stone. A fat gull swoops toward his head. Pecks his scalp. Oliver cries out. Throws a second stone. Reaches for more. Like attacking hornets, the birds swarm the boy.

You can slow things down with longer, more complex sentences:

Oliver awakes from the nightmare in his beach chair, his mother beside him smearing on fresh suntan oil, his father reading, a single gull stationary on the sand, appearing to stare back at him.

Use paragraphing to control pace

Paragraph length is another way to control the reader's sense of pace. Long paragraphs read slowly. Shorter paragraphs read more quickly. An action sequence written as a single fat block of description doesn't convey the appropriate sense of action. However, a series of short paragraphs, each one suggesting a shot or image, propels the reader through the scene:

EXT. FROZEN WATERFALL - DAY

Malcolm clings to the icy spire, a half-mile above the rocks. He swings his ice ax.

The point barely chips at the ice before bouncing off.

Malcolm's foot slips.

He lunges upward.

His fingers probe for purchase. Find none.

Malcolm slides.

Does something unexpected. He pushes off.

Tumbles through the air.

He grasps a handle that protrudes from his backpack. Pulls.

A bright blue canopy blossoms over his head.

Malcolm drifts in the frigid air, smiling like a loon.

Construct sentences to conjure images

When you're writing descriptive passages, you're describing the images you hope to create in the mind of the reader. These images consist of characters taking action or feeling emotion, settings, animals and props, among other concrete items that can be photographed or otherwise put onto the screen:

Oliver dances across the hot sand and cools his toes in the water.

In order to suggest an image immediately, the sentence begins with a noun, the thing we're seeing, the subject of the shot, followed by the verb, the action the subject of our shot is taking. When we read the sentence above, we can immediately picture Oliver, then imagine him dancing across the sand to the cool ocean water. But let's say we wanted to get creative with our sentence construction and we wrote the following instead:

After dancing across the hot sand, Oliver cools his toes in the water.

Can you see the problem? The entire time we're reading the first clause, "After dancing across the hot sand," we're forced to suspend our visual imagining, because we don't yet know who is doing the dancing. The screen goes blank while the reader waits for the subject of the shot to be presented. Avoid this problem by constructing sentences in simple subject-verb-object order.

Make parenthetical character direction work for you

Writers often hear that they should never use those little bits of character direction enclosed in parentheses and embedded in a speech:

MALCOLM
Yeeee-hawww!
(hitting the ground)
I gotta go again!

It's true that parenthetical character direction can be misused or overused. For example, writers often indicate the emotion with which a line is spoken (e.g. "angry" or "surprised") when context makes the emotion obvious. However, parenthetical direction can be used to positive effect in three important instances.

First, use parenthetical direction to clarify a line reading that would otherwise confuse or elude the reader:

OLIVER
(lying)
Of course I'm not afraid of
birds.

Second, use parenthetical direction to create white space by breaking up long speeches:

MALCOLM
I want to thank all of you
for coming. As you must
know by now, federal
agents will arrive within
minutes to take me into
custody for base jumping
in a national park without
a permit.
(tiny smile)
My attorney tells me I
could have avoided
prosecution and would in
fact not have been in
violation of the statute
if I'd simply neglected
to pull my rip cord.

And third, use parenthetical direction to control the pace of a speech or to create a sense of poetic rhythm:

MALCOLM
Did I have a permit to climb
today in the park? Yes.
(then)
Did I have a permit to base
jump in the park? No.
(then)
Did I slip and fall? Yes.
(then)
Was I supposed to die to
avoid breaking the law?
(finally)
Give me a break.

An important caveat: While it isn't true to say that parenthetical character direction should never be used, it is true that it should be used in moderation and only when it's performing an important job.

And don't forget the story

We write, and read, and watch the screen because we love great stories. Great formatting will never make up for a lousy story. But a mastery of formatting - and the professional style that results - can absolutely help a great script become a faster, more enticing, more enjoyable read. And in a town like Hollywood awash in scripts, that's got to be a good thing.

Meet the Author: Christopher Riley

Christopher Riley ran the acclaimed script processing department at Warner Bros. He is a professional screenwriter working in Hollywood with his wife and writing partner, Kathleen Riley. Together they wrote the 1999 theatrical feature After the Truth, a multiple-award-winning German language courtroom thriller. In addition to writing, the Rileys train aspiring screenwriters and have taught throughout the world.