Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Dr. Format: The Industry Standard

I hear constant references to the industry standard for formatting. Does it actually exist, and, if so, where was it last spotted? And why is there so much confusion around it? I’ll explain and explode a couple of myths along the way just for fun. This should relax you to the point that you’ll not only feel encouraged to write (in correct format), but you’ll get a positive bounce in your immune system as well.

Myth #1There is only one specific standard that all writers, producers, readers, and agents adhere to

Screenwriters craft two types of scripts -- spec scripts and shooting scripts -- and each has its own standard. Unless you are being paid in advance to write, you are writing a spec script. Thus, the vast majority of writers write specs. The industry standard for spec writing is explained in The Screenwriter’s Bible. Shooting script style is found in The Hollywood Standard by Christopher Riley. Both major software applications, Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter, are defaulted for spec writing conventions, so you can feel safe with the tabs and margins they preset for you. In addition, both software programs allow you to select shooting script conventions (such as scene numbering) if needed.

Have you noticed that just about everyone has their own idea of correct spec format? The good news is there is one generally accepted industry standard for spec scripts. However, you may see slight variations on the same theme. Let me explain with an example.

One maxim is that dialogue should be indented 10 spaces (one inch) -- that’s the standard -- but I’ve seen scripts written for a particular production company indented 12 spaces. In my view, and in the view of most professionals, the specific number is not crucial in this case. And that leads us to our next myth.

Myth #2 – Your script must be perfectly formatted or it will be thrown out

Virtually all producers, readers, and agents are fine with occasional errors, but when those errors become distractions, the reader may lose patience. Does that mean you can get lax about formatting your script? After all, isn’t the content more important? The story is more important, but its presentation can enhance its chances in the marketplace. May I illustrate with an example?

Suppose I offer you a piece of delicious chocolate cake. You say, “Yes, yummy.” So I grab a chunk with my hand and slap it down on the table. You say, “That’s not very appealing.” And I reply, “Isn’t the content more important than the presentation?”

It’s true that many professionals don’t care much about formatting specifics as long as you are close and the script “looks basically okay,” but others are sticklers. So it is in your best interest to adhere to the industry standard for spec writing as best you can. On the other hand, don’t drive yourself nuts trying to make the script perfect. As I like to tell my students and clients, “The goal is excellence, not perfection.”

The bedrock of spec writing

You want to sell your script. The path to a sale is through the reader. In terms of formatting and spec writing, the reader wants three things -- clarity, readability and uniformity.

CLARITY. You cannot afford to lose or confuse a reader that usually reads quickly. Lately, I’ve seen some sloppy writing. I occasionally stop reading and wonder where I am or whether or not a particular scene is a flashback, or what happened, or whether or not JIM the same as the MAN back on page 7. When in doubt about what to do, err on the side of clarity.

READABILITY. The essence of spec screenwriting is to say as much with as few words as possible. The current trend is towards "lean and clean" screenwriting: shorter screenplays, shorter paragraphs, shorter speeches, and more white space. Your script needs to flow like a river into the mind of the reader. Make your script an “easy read” of a compelling story.

UNIFORMITY. A reader wants your script to be formatted more or less like other scripts he or she has read. And that means adherence to the industry standard for spec writing.

Now relax, have fun, and keep writing.

Dave Trottier (Dr. Format) is the author of The Screenwriter’s Bible and a produced screenwriter with 10 scripts sold or optioned. As a script consultant he provides absolute honesty at reasonable rates, and evaluates screenplays in 14 key screenwriting areas. Hundreds of his clients and students have sold their work or advanced their writing careers. For a free newsletter and information, visit Keepwriting.com.


  1. Prof. Trottier, I've tried accessing your site, but I keep getting a very troubling "Reported Attack Site" warning. It seems as if someone might have hijacked it:


  2. Hi Dave - Mr. Trottier was made aware of the problem and the site has now been certified as safe by Google. Thanks for your concern -- you can now browse safely to keepwriting.com!

  3. Mr. Trottier,

    You are truly the last word on format. Thanks!

    Would it make sense to say reading scripts and shooting scripts? It seems to me that in a development deal, the format is the same as a spec script.


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