Update in February 2021: I no longer recommend (or half-recommend) this book. I think screenwriters are much better served by reading scripts of produced films, which you can easily find online. For simple formatting questions, you can visit screenwriting.io.
This site caters largely to aspiring screenwriters new to the profession. That’s by design. My initial ambition in writing the IMDb column, and then in creating the site, was to answer a lot of the questions I had when I was first starting out.
Screenwriting is an odd form: half stageplay and half technical document, somewhere between art and craft. And nowhere is its strangeness more apparent than the formatting. So it’s entirely reasonable that I’ve received many, many questions about margins and sluglines and whether a half-covered stadium is “INT.” or “EXT.”
But I’m done. Or at least, done for the time being. I’m going to cede all formating concerns to a printed book (yes, they still make them) which can answer newbie questions and let me focus on other points of word-pushing.
The book I’ve chosen to give up with is The Hollywood Standard by Christopher Riley. It’s not perfect, but it’s refreshingly straightforward and anticipates most of the situations screenwriters are likely to face.
The author used to work for the Warner Bros. script processing department, which the book’s blurbs highlight as why he’s an expert. Honestly, if I had seen this before I bought it, I would have put it back on the shelf with a shudder.1 David has Goliath; Ahab has the whale; I have the Warner Bros. script processing department. In my head, the department consists of three women in their 50’s who smoke and gossip as they retype scripts on 1980’s computers with amber monitors. For CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, I had the displeasure of reading their “official” version of the script, and realizing that they don’t just spellcheck and change margins — they rewrite things. Just because. Fortunately, we were shooting in London, beyond the reach of their nicotine-stained fingers. We threw their script in the bin.
So I would say despite his background, rather than because of it, I’m still giving Riley’s book a thumbs-up. He admits (on page xvii) that “good writers with long Hollywood careers may find details here with which to quibble. That’s fine.” And I do have minor quibbles.2 But I also have a website with which to note my second opinions, so here they are.
Courier and margins
The term “fixed pitch font” is quaint, but let’s just say 12-pt. Courier. If you have a couple of Couriers on your computer, pick the one that looks best on-screen and printed. It really doesn’t matter that much.
Riley’s margins are fine, but I had to really think back to remember what “position 17” referred to (p. 4).3 Back in the old days, typewriters had mechanical stops to set the left and right margins, with painted (or engraved) markings to line them up. Tabs were set the same way. “Position 17” would be seventeen spaces over from the left edge of the paper.
That’s kind of fascinating in a post-neo-Luddite, technology-as-history Make-magazine way, but without explanation, it’s apt to be confusing to 21st-century readers. So perhaps that will be omitted in the next edition.
Medium shot (p. 12)
I’ve never typed this, and never seen it. Don’t use it. Same with “two shot,” unless it’s crucial for a joke.
Back to scene (p. 17)
Awkward. Better to use the “BACK TO HUCK” format he shows later on the same page.
Flashback (p. 33)
He underlines FLASHBACK and puts it in front of the scene heading. That’s not wrong, but I generally put it in brackets after the time of day. This way, it’s more likely to make it onto the call sheet for production.
INT. BEDROOM – DAY [FLASHBACK]
Capitalizing people (p. 47)
The book tells you to capitalize the first occurrence of only those characters who end up speaking, on the theory that AD’s need to treat these roles differently. I disagree. Capitalizing indicates which scene people are established in, which is a boon to other department heads, such as wardrobe and props. I capitalize the introduction of all roles, speaking or otherwise, including groups like FIVE SCHOOLCHILDREN or ANGRY VILLAGERS.
Parentheticals at the end of a speech (p. 70)
He’s right–a dialogue block shouldn’t end with a parenthetical. The exception is in animation, where this is common. You’ll often see dialogue end with (exasperated grunt) or (sigh).
Song lyrics in dialogue (p. 72)
He puts them in quotes. I suggest italics, in an 11-point sans-serif font. (I use Verdana, which pretty much every computer has.) It looks much, much better, and subtly signals that it’s not true dialogue.
Numbering “A” scenes (p. 95)
The A.D. on Big Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Katterli Frauenfelder) taught me a different scheme which ends up being a lot less confusing for production and post-production. If you need to insert a scene between 121 and 122, you number it A122. That is, lettered scenes go before the normal scenes. The great advantage to this method comes during shooting, when each new setup for a scene is given a letter. If you shoot a master and two close-ups for scene 100, they’re labeled 100, 100A, 100B. For our inserted scene, Riley’s scheme would get confusing: he’d have 121A, 121AA, 121AB. Whereas Katterli’s method would give us A122, A122A, A122B.
If you’re doing A/B pages on a script, there’s very likely an A.D. involved, so consult with him or her about preferred numbering/lettering schemes.
Managing page numbers when a script is revised (p. 103)
Riley makes a heroic effort to explain a confusing topic, but trust me, you should never have a page A5B. If you, the writer, has a hard time understanding it, pity the poor wardrobe PA who has to figure out how to insert pages into her bosses’ scripts.
Once you get into the second revision on a series of pages, you’re almost always better off backing up and releasing a run of pages that uses true numbers. To use Riley’s example:
- Between 5 and 6 comes 5A. (Yes.)
- Between 5A and 6 comes 5B. (Okay.)
- Between 5A and 5B comes A5B. (Never do this. Instead, revise starting at page 5, replacing 5A, 5B and adding 5C and further if need be.)
In general, the writer’s goal with A/B pages should be to release as few sheets of paper as possible, while still making it abundantly clear how it all fits together. In fact, I often attach a memo to colored pages explaining it. (Here are the memos I attached for the blue and pink pages of Charlie.)
Multi-camera (sitcom) script formatting (p. 117)
Here’s where I’m of no use. While I’ve read half-hour scripts, I’ve never written one, so I can’t say how accurate his advice is. But I will point out that every show is likely to have a “house style,” so it’s doubly important to get a real sample script from the show and duplicate it, right down to the punctuation.
And that’s it for my addendum/errata. Riley’s book will be nothing new to most screenwriters, but it’s a helpful and practical guide for newcomers. Note that he deliberately doesn’t teach anything about writing–and his snippet examples aren’t particularly inspiring. This book is strictly about formatting, and on that level, it’s solid enough that I hereby abdicate all common formatting questions to it.