Basic Language Skills
Look, the reality is that basic – and, indeed, excellent – proficiency with the English language is our trade. Knowing whether the comma goes inside or outside the quotation mark isn’t incidental to this craft. It is actually fundamental. If you got a D in your sixth grade English grammar class and didn’t bother to learn the their, there, there’s, they’re rules, there is no shame in going out as an adult and purchasing a grammar book and learning those rules. (There is no shame in having your script professionally proofed, either.) I would actually argue very strongly that a basic, firm understanding of grammar, spelling and formatting is absolutely essential to a career in writing. Let’s live in the real world, shall we? I don’t have an intimate knowledge of all of the qualities of paint, and thus I don’t call myself a painter. I don’t have psychic communication with horses, and so I’d never call myself a horse whisperer. If someone is going to call himself a writer and yet brazenly laugh in the face of our most basic tool – proficiency in grammar and formatting – then I will feel just fine laughing right back. “So, you thought you were going to be a writer? Guess again.” And your baby, your “genius” script over which you’ve slaved now for a year – that has four formatting and three grammatical errors in the first two lines alone – will go straight into the bin.
Please pay attention to expressions as well, and in particular foreign expressions that have been anglicized. I recently read a script wherein one of the main characters was “MADRE DE.” When I did a flip through, I kept wondering, ‘Mother of what, exactly?’ Of course, when I got to that character – who was not a mother and was a man – the writer had meant to say, “Maitre d’,” French for head waiter, but didn’t do enough research. If you’re going to use a colloquialism, “you’ve got to jump in,” don’t misquote it and say, “you got a jump in.” Do the research and find the correct phrasing.
In the competitions I read for, a script can be disqualified at reader discretion if it contains too many typographical errors, including grammar and formatting errors. This isn’t because a bunch of grammar snobs are thumbing their noses at you, who has no basic mastery of your own language (which, sadly, isn’t that uncommon anymore). This is actually a much more practical issue: if an organization is going to pass along your winning script to successful agents and producers, it has to look professional. Not professional as in, with another three passes professional. Professional, as in, ready to go now professional. You can have a couple of errors throughout your script – but more than that, and you’re pushing your luck. But, if you thinks you use to getting way with Or, maybe you’ll just get lucky and your reader’s grammar will be as terrible as yours!
On Final Draft
Go to the Writers Store (www.writersstore.com) and buy yourself a copy of Final Draft screenwriting software. This is the industry standard, and it will save you time and energy trying to format your script properly. It does it for you with the magic wonder of the Tab key. Final Draft is not prohibitively expensive – it’s about $250. If you think you are a good enough writer to be sending material out – i.e., if anyone other than yourself will be reading it – then you really ought to invest in some software. I know, I know – you tell yourself it’s just a hobby, and you don’t want to spend that much on a hobby. Okay, then – it’s a hobby. Never, ever send that script out. To anyone. Otherwise, if anyone other than Aunt Ima May sees that script, you’re going to look a little like an asshole, and that is not putting your best foot forward. Especially in a town where people keep databases.
I actually covered a script the other day that was 130-some pages of unformatted goodness (and when I say unformatted, I literally mean text hanging off the printable page margins) – and when I imported it into Final Draft, it was 188 pages of delicious holy-crap-do-I-really-have-to-read-this pure wonder. Very few people can write 188 pages of cinematic goodness. And, I would be willing to bet my right arm you’re not one of them.
A friend of mine told me it was a little bitchy on my part to look down on those not using Final Draft software – especially when in the competition realm we’re dealing with students. But, yet, I have to be honest: when I pick up that next script, and it’s capped title sings to me in its little Paula Abdul voice, “Straight up, now tell me, is it gonna be you and me together, oh oh oh?” If I turn the page and it’s all kinds of cockamamie crap all over the page, my only response can be, “No. Hit and run.” Next.
Margins and Font
I just had a conversation last night with a friend of mine who’s also a professional reader and she indicated that her biggest peeve is when people adjust the standard page margins (1.5” left, 1” top and bottom, half inch right). Margins are non-negotiable. Margins are yet another way to standardize the material because it is intended to be filmed. Standardization in screenwriting is a good thing. Any time you stray from the norms you become suspect.
Font is 12 point Courier. Always. This is for a few reasons, but namely it standardizes the number of characters that can appear on a page. So, if you use a proportional font, where you can fit more characters on a line, and you also adjust the margins, the only thing the reader will be thinking about you is that you’re a douche for trying to cheat – because it’s obvious the minute they see the first page that you’re trying to keep your page count down. It isn’t the margins that should have been bumped – it’s all those extraneous scenes and beats that you needed to cut out.
The minute you as a writer do something to fudge the standard conventions, the only thing on the reader’s mind will be why. And, we look for the why. It’s our job. Fudged font and margins assume overwriting and indulgent beats – and worse – because if the script had been professionally well written, the writer wouldn’t need to pull that kind of crap to come in at 106 pages.
So, last night when I was talking with my friend, the margin debate opened the door for us to consider page count. My friend thought that within the last ten years, the consensus is that shorter is better. You don’t often see that many scripts that hit 120 pages anymore. In the competitions that I read for, I do see longer scripts, but I just usually assume that these writers haven’t trimmed the fat because they think 120 is still industry standard. It’s not, really. Yesterday I read a horror project I loved, and it was 120 pages, but I really skimmed act 3, and if I am being brutally honest, that writer could easily cut it down by about 15 pages, no problem.
In fact, people who read and work with scripts on a daily basis know how long your script is simply by feeling it in their hand. I used to work for a creative executive at Warner Brothers, and one fine Friday afternoon, as she loaded her weekend read onto a little cart, she launched into an absolute tirade about page count. She picked up one script – one that was clearly closer to 120 pages – and started screaming that those extra ten pages were going to be the death of her, and didn’t writers know that she has a life, and because that script was overwritten, it was going in the bottom of the pile for sure.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, there you have it. A 103 page script would get read first because, well, it’s shorter. A 120 page script would get read last – and be resented at every page turn. Now, it’s true that some genres demand a longer page count, simply because they have more intricate plotting (historical epics, biopics, political thrillers, some psychological thrillers), however, in general, shorter is better. Horrors can come in at 90 pages.