In working with screenwriters for nearly three decades, I’ve noticed three writing issues that arise over and over again. In each case, a reality check should prove empowering.
1. Appearance is important
After a tweet that touted my book, Two Screenplays, someone tweeted back, "DT sold perfectly formatted scripts that never made a movie, SKing [Stephen King] never cared about formatting and sold stories that made 22 movies." Actually, three were produced; four, if you count one that I didn't receive a credit for. But that's not the point.
The tweeted point is that formatting may not be that important. If it's not that important, how important is it? There are two competing myths out there at opposite ends of the spectrum. First, formatting is not important. Second, formatting is so important that it has to be perfect.
Formatting your script is like dressing it appropriately for a job interview. Naturally, your qualifications (the story) are more important, but a good first impression can open the reader's mind to your wonderful story.
Second, it makes sense to "speak" in the language that readers, producers, and agents most easily understand and expect; and that language is proper format. If a magazine editor asks you to write your idea as a poem, would you hand it to her formatted as an essay?
Some established writers will say that their formatting is not great or they don't worry about it. That works for them because they're pros and have already proven they can write. "Yes, Mr. Stephen King, I'd love to read your script."
There's a third reason to format your script properly. Using screenplay format will help you better present your story as a possible movie. Just as applying principles of meter and rhyme can help a poem, applying principles of formatting can help a screenplay.
Many screenwriters understand the importance of appearance and work overtime making the formatting perfect. As Dr. Format, it’s good for my business that screenwriters believe formatting has to be perfect. Take it from me, it doesn't.
It's hard to find two people in this business who agree exactly on every point of formatting. You hear different things from different people, but virtually everyone responds positively to a script that meets generally accepted formatting guidelines. No one throws out a script because there is not a colon after FADE IN, but when poor formatting becomes a distraction, then you have a problem. Write a script that is clear and readable, but don't get so concerned about your formatting that you buy a hand gun.
REALITY CHECK: Formatting is important to the writing and reading of a script written on spec, but it does not have to be perfect. Just do your best work.
2. It's not going to be shot that way
"But Dave, that's the way I want the scene shot!" I hear this from many writers after I point out in a script evaluation that a scene is loaded with camera directions or there might be a better way to present the material to a reader (who is almost always the first person to read your script and recommend it or not recommend it to producers, agents, and talent).
The scene is not going to be shot that way anyway. At least that's the odds. After your spec script is converted into a shooting script, the production manager or others will try to find locations that fit their budget. The location or set they choose will not likely match exactly what you had in mind, which could result in some changes to the scene. In addition, the director will need to block the scene. Actors may add their two cents. Some dialogue may need to be cut or changed; some lines may need to be added to fill out the scene. The budget may not allow for certain shots or for many set-ups that involve changing camera position and lighting. Keep in mind that it takes many collaborators to make a movie.
Sometimes what is written on paper doesn't translate to the silver screen. The thematic pier scene in Little Miss Sunshine was originally written for Dwayne and Frank to float on the ocean to add the symbolism of a baptism when a wave crashes over them, but it didn’t work when they tried to shoot it that way. Thus, the scene takes place on a pier in the movie. The essence of the scene remains unchanged; it still achieves the purpose the writer intended, but not in the way the writer envisioned.
It's true that many scenes are shot the way they are written, but in reality, the spec script is not a blueprint for the eventual movie, but a guide to it. Its main purpose is to emotionally involve a reader who can recommend it.
REALITY CHECK: Present enough specific detail in your scene that the reader can "see" the action, "feel" the emotion, and "get" the scene, but don’t try to direct the scene with camera directions or through other means. The scene is unlikely to be shot exactly that way anyway.
3. But you're writing a spec
Dances with Wolves was a spec that was well over 120 pages, breaking a "sacred" rule. That's true. Of course, the writer’s friend was Kevin Costner.
We often talk about the differences between a spec script and a shooting script in terms of formatting--yes, a shooting script numbers the scenes and so on. But there are other non-formatting differences. The spec is written to inspire people to see your story the way you do and to want to buy it. The shooting script contains directions for the shoot, at least to some degree. It doesn't have to impress anyone.
Most shooting scripts are the result of development deals where a studio or production company hires and pays a writer to write the script. Most movies that you see in theaters are produced from such development deals. Because the "developed" script is written in-house by an established writer (usually), many conventions for writing a spec become less important and more fluid. For example, sometimes such a script is over 120 pages or contains mentions of many specific songs or the formatting is sketchy or the script contains a lot of camera directions and editing directions. If William Goldman uses a lot of CUT TOs, that’s fine--he has nothing to prove.
The spec writer, however, has a lot to prove. Just because Aaron Sorkin can get away with an opening eight-page "talking heads" scene (in The Social Network) doesn't mean you can. Or maybe you can; that’s the decision you have to make. And you probably should limit your spec to 120 pages or less. Actually, 110 would be even better.
REALITY CHECK: Write a great spec script with due respect to established conventions that are important to readers, producers, and agents.
Having written the above, I hasten to add that it is crucial you apply your creativity to established conventions. If you have the perfect camera direction that has an important dramatic or comedic purpose, maybe you should leave it in. You must decide what you feel you need to keep or omit to sell your spec script (sometimes called the "selling script").
The above "reality checks" are not intended to discourage, but to give you a competitive advantage. I'm rooting for you, so keep writing.