Thursday, January 21, 2010

A few formatting nuances

Jeff writes in with a couple questions:

Mr. Bitter Script Reader,

Please, "Mr. Bitter Script Reader" is my father.

You can call me "Doctor."

Let me start by stating how depressed I was to find you are not repped.

After a joke like the one above, are you still surprised?

If you don't have an agent, well, let's just say it doesn't make a poor amateur like myself feel better. Good goals though.

Is it distracting to the reader to incorporate different screenwriting styles or does it add to the style of the script?

I've been reading a ton of screenplays lately. A move I should have made before I even attempted to actually write one. I noticed how some writers use different tools to convey the same meaning.

Example: when stating the age of a character, some choose (21), while others go with the simple, 21.

I'm sure there's a Formatting Nazi who's even more rigid than I who will cringe at this, but I'm not sure it makes a great deal of difference. I've seen both, though the (21) format is FAR more prevalent in the pro scripts I read. Either one is preferable to not including the age at all, or saying "She's 45, but looks 30" which is a maddening description that leaves me wondering "So who am I supposed to imagine here, Sandra Bullock or Katie Holmes?"

He continues:

Another example: when transitioning, some simply end the sentence. Start a new logline. Others will give the ol' ... at the end ... then use a simple logline like "KITCHEN", bypassing the "INT" and "DAY".

Misha Green uses it a lot in Sunflower.

Goes into the ...


... where Eve is setting the table with plastic utensils.

What do you think? If I give character names or just transition from scene to scene using different techniques, is it too distracting, or is that what people write about when they write about style? I'd hate to think I have to stick with one way throughout the entire script.

Minor point: you're actually talking about sluglines not "loglines."

I tend to favor the full sluglines, and again I see that a lot more in the pro scripts.

I hesitate to bring up secondary sluglines because I've seen instances on other boards were doing so conjures up all sorts of raving madmen who have such raging hard-ons for secondary slugs that they drag you into a fight about style, to the point where just engaging them ends up escalating the debate to such a degree that YOU end up sounding like the crazy one.

Here's my personal rule of secondary slugs: use them only in cases of sub-locations within a larger set. Example:


The wealthy mingle and socialize, as JAMES VANDERMEER (30) makes his way to...


He sits down, then looks across the room at...

SENATOR BIGOT's (pronounced Bee-Go) TABLE

Now, my feeling is that one room in a larger house doesn't count as a sub-heading. So I'd write INT. DINING ROOM, INT. KITCHEN, and so on.

At the end of the day, though, these are really, really minor nuances. Using the wrong font is a much bigger deal than alternating between either of the options you're asking about above.


  1. So what's your take on underlining, bolding, and God forbid, using even a different sized font to accentuate certain words?

    I've seen a LOT of sold and produced scripts recently violate just about every rule out there, which leads me to believe that nobody really gives a shit, if they ever gave shit in the first place.

    It seems that what used to be amateurish, is now THE way to sell a script.

  2. I've gotten the impression that established writer/producer/director types can get away with being less conventional on formatting, whereas newcomers and first-timers should stick to the rules and not try to impress with a purposefully flashy document.

    Would that be about right?

    Random sidebar - my catchpa for this post was 'corrapyr' which sounds a bit like 'crappier.' Oddly appropriate given this blog's typical subject matter ^_^

  3. Wow. You really see BILL(23) a lot? I was just thinking that I almost never see that in pro scripts. Of course I'm probably reading a different class (later drafts of produced films) than the ones that are hitting your desk.

  4. Monster Zero - You're absolutely right. There are exceptions for people like Tarantino, but as far as the audience for this blog (writers who have yet to make a sale or secure representation in many cases) is concerned, those exceptions don't apply.

  5. I feel like the key to all this stuff is that you just want to make the reader have an easy, enjoyable experience while reading your script. You never want them to stop thinking about the story and start thinking about formatting.

  6. A produced screenwriter taught me that the Scene Heading or Slugline is used to convey info to the 1st Assistant Director, Location Manager, Set Decorator, and Lighting Tech.



    This tells each person above what must be secured and prepped (dressed) for that day's shoot, with day / interior lighting equipment.

    When it Short Slugs to the


    the only person needing new info is the Set Decorator, advising the room must be dressed.

    People have debated that this only relevant to shooting scripts, but the example makes perfect sense.

    I agree, most pro scripts I read do not have BILL (23), and I find the practice annoying. Early twenties Bill is easier on my eyes. If MEGAN (21), is twenty-one, how about throwing in some dialogue about college, or just having arrived at drinking age?

  7. Brian - interesting... I knew there was some reason for the slugline rule, but couldn't find an easy explanation online.

    As for the age thing, I think either BILL (21) or BILL, early twenties, is preferable to not having an age at all - or worse, going BILL (20s-30s). I've seen both of those on more than one occasion, though not terribly frequently.

    For newer writers, I think putting the age in the introduction like that is good practice just so the reader gets lost. You're right, though. A good writer would find ways to suggest age via the context. Bad writers forget that stuff and leave you saying on p. 10 "Oh! She's college age?!"

  8. Since you enjoyed that -- my friend also told me that capped SOUNDS came from sound techs wanting it, so they could quickly highlight all the sounds needed without reading the whole script.

    She also said that "pro" scripts are usually put together after shooting because of adlibs and as a guide for editing.

    And that she didn't care where my inciting incident was, that it's 110 pages, or any of the other hotly debated topics -- she said it just mattered if it was a good story, then asked for the first six and last two pages.

    Be aware though, she doesn't have to go through readers, she deals directly with producers who trust her in an old-school network.

  9. Hey Brian thanks for the input. I'd STRONGLY advice everyone not to use his second-to-last paragraph as an excuse to ignore the "rules." Brian's friend is at a level where she's a good enough writer that she probably does half that stuff innately, and the writing is so superlative that it doesn't matter that she "breaks format" on the other half.

    Note "First six and last two pages." I guarantee that if every wannabe who bitched about the screenwriting rules was then invited to submit only their first six and last two, that NONE of them would get an invitation for the full script.

    And as Brian said, she doesn't have to get through readers - she's already done the hard part of convincing people she's a solid writer. When you're nobody, your script is selling me as much on you as it is your writing.

    So until you're to the point where you could trust eight pages to speak for your entire script, adhere to the rules. Your writing will be better for it, I promise you.

  10. I fully agree, especially about those eight pages, because even though she said it wasn't important where the inciting incident is, her wanting the first six tells me her pack runs "within six", lol.

  11. You guys are kidding about the age thing, right? So let me get this straight, it's okay for both noobs and pros to underline, italicize, use different font sizes, and use boldface, but you draw the line at identifying specific ages?

    If ANYTHING, producers WANT TO KNOW THE AGES OF EVERYONE IN THE SCRIPT. They don't want generalities, and they certainly don't want, or need writers to reveal the character's ages via context. This is NOT PROSE. You don't get extra points because you managed to coolly work in the the character's general age.

    We are living in a real Logan's Run world now, people! They nuked Spiderman because he got too old and are rebooting him to serve the tween audience. Hell, some of the kids at McDonald's were joking around and I heard one of them say, "Tell that old man in the corner to leave." (it was close to closing, and I was the only one in the restaurant) I'm 30! I'm not OLD!