“But I’m an artiste,” you say, “I can’t be bothered with all those mundane details!” Then have fun living in that garret for the rest of your life where the only people to ever see your stories are your friends and even they cringe at reading your epic one more time. Never forget that this is Hollywood and appearance is everything. Is it wrong that the way your script looks can affect whether it’s made or not? Maybe, but the development executives who sort through hundreds of scripts a week looking for the next sellable script are the most under appreciated, overworked folks in the business. The same goes for readers. They just don’t have the time to see the diamond in the rough and even if they did, they know they won’t be able to sell it up the ladder to their bosses. And make no mistake, scripts are commodities to be sold, not pieces of art to be put on a wall and admired. That’s the reality. This is the entertainment BUSINESS after all.
This goes double for entering your script into contests. If you aren’t going to make sure that your script is as professionally written as it can be then I suggest you hand the entry fee to the guy at the freeway on ramp with the cardboard house. You’ll gain more in karma points then you have any hope of benefiting from the contest.
You can’t control whether you’re the next Diablo Cody or not but you can eliminate some really simple reasons for your script to automatically go to the slush pile, domain of the intern and underpaid assistants.
- Do not put pictures on your title page. Nothing says, “this script sucks” like a photo, painting or drawing on the title page. In all the years I’ve been doing this only once did a picture on the title page work and that was for a campy horror script about a giant prehistoric crocodile. The writer put a close up of - you guessed it – a crocodile head with a yellowed out eye and all. It was ridiculous and silly but absolutely matched the tone of the script. But even then it was only because a friend gave it to me an assured me it was worth the read. Don’t take that kind of chance, just stick with the title, your name and, for the love of God, your contact info.
- Use 2 heavy-duty brads to bind your script. That’s it, nothing fancy. Spirals, metal clips and cheap flimsy brads tend to fall apart, catch on clothing and all around make the reader cranky. The cardinal rule of getting your script read is thou shall not annoy your reader.
- Here’s another hot tip – the fact that spell check doesn’t catch everything is no excuse for you not to. About the third time the wrong “your” is used, you’re screwed. Proofread your script the old-fashioned way, one page at a time. If you’re lousy at it then get a friend to do it. Better yet, get two; two sets of eyes are better than one. Yes, it’s a small detail but one that says so much about you. If you aren’t careful enough to catch typos then why should I trust you to be careful enough to seed in great subtext or character arcs?
- Keep your script between 100 – 115 pages. Roughly speaking, one script page is equal to a minute of screen time. Even more if it’s chock full of action. (The phrase “and then they fight” takes very little space but about fifteen minutes of movie.) If it’s longer than that, unless you happen to be Peter Jackson you need to go back and edit. You’ll be surprised how much better your script is anyway without the extraneous scenes you thought you couldn’t live without. And by the way, you aren’t fooling anyone when you jimmy with the margins; people who read scripts for a living know just by looking at it that you’ve played around with them. Chances are they’ll disregard the script and you as not only a hack but also a cheater without getting past page 1.
- Writers write, directors direct: Leave out all direction unless it’s absolutely vital to telling your story. Putting in the description “CU of John’s eyes are he weeps” isn’t vital to the story, it’s directing and a sign of an amateur, not to mention annoying to a potential director and you’re going to need them to get your movie made. Getting the script made into a movie is the goal so check your ego at the door.
- Formatting: Absolutely, positively have your script properly formatted with the correct margins. Every script-writing program will do it automatically but if you don’t have one of those, most screenwriting books will tell you the proper format. This format is not meant to squash your artistic whim; it’s there partially to help the director, producer and artists who will hopefully make it into a movie. Part of formatting is using Courier 12 pt., the current industry standard font. Writing in another font doesn’t say, “I have a unique voice, read me.” It mostly says, “I think I’m too special for the rules and will probably be a pain in the ass to work with.”
- More formatting tips: Beyond the proper margins, there are common practices that professionals follow that make a script easier to read and are sure signs of an experienced writer. DO NOT WRITE EVERYTHING IN CAPITALS. IT FEELS LIKE THE SCRIPT IS YELLING AT YOU AND IS VERY ANNOYING. Remember your cardinal rule – do not annoy your reader. Aside from sluglines, the only time you use capitals is denoting the first time a character is introduced. As a reader, it helps you keep track of characters. If you capitalize them every time, we may not be sure if we’ve met them a few scenes ago or if this is the first time. Sometime readers have to put a script down and pick it up a day later so don’t make it any harder by confusing them about characters, locations or dayparts.
- Let the actors act: Parentheticals are one of the most over used writing devices around. You don’t to put (annoyed) (sad) (tenderly) with dialog to let the actor know how to deliver the lines. Hopefully your work will speak for itself. There are exceptions but if a scene is truly well written and a character well established, those times are few and far between.
- Remember your Schoolhouse Rock: Avoid common grammatical errors, especially gerunds. For instance, “John runs” instead of “John is running.” It’s minor but the continued use of the passive voice weakens your story. Always make sure your write your script in the present tense. If grammar isn’t your strong suit, then have a friend or a professional proofreader go over it.
- It’s a script, not a novel: Nothing makes a reader groan more than opening a script and seeing the entire first page is all description. There’s no point in going into such details as “John, a fan of the band Air Supply since the 1980’s, took his Border Collie out for a walk down his magnolia lined street, thinking to himself that he should get a haircut.” The viewing audience will never know any of this so why should the reader have to suffer through it all? Put in only the visual details that are important and break it up with dialog. It’s easier to read and shows you know how to write drama as well as description.
Remember, no one in Hollywood ever lost their job for saying “no.” You owe it to yourself and your script to make them at least work for the “no” rather than passing on your script with barely a glance.