by Ann Marie Williams
A script is a written representation of a visual and auditory medium. Because of this, the story on the page should be conveyed to the reader the same way the story on the screen will be conveyed to the audience—the same focus, the same pacing, the same impact. Screenwriting formatting tools are an effective way to help achieve that—to help you effectively, efficiently, and accurately convey your story as it will unfold on the screen.
For example, a certain amount of white space (a mix of description and dialogue) should appear on nearly every page of a script. This standard helps gauge the number of minutes the story will be once filmed (one page of properly formatted script typically equates to one minute of screen time). While this is important for determining a story’s run time, just as importantly (or perhaps more so), this standard is useful way to convey the pacing of the screen story on the page.
Think of it this way, if a script is over-written, so that one second of screen time takes one minute to read, then not only is it difficult to determine what the film’s run time will be, but the story’s pacing is not accurately represented on the page. And that makes it difficult to determine just how engaging, impactful, and captivating the story will be once filmed.
For example: Narrative description should be short and succinct, typically under four lines each. This keeps the script’s focus on the main action or image—which is all the viewing audience will have time to focus on.
Audiences won’t have the time to focus on every detail in a scene (every decoration in the room, every building in the distance, the model and make of every car that passes by), and therefore neither should the reader. A description shouldn’t be in a script unless it’s important to the story, because the descriptive beats should be written to reflect how the beats will play to the audience.
Bottom line, adhering to proper formatting (making sure your script is spelled and punctuated correctly, using the proper indentations, slug lines, character cues, etc.) helps ensure your story is conveyed the way you intended.
So, while it’s important to understand how scripts should be formatted, if you understand why scripts require their unique formatting, then you can start to use the formatting tools to tell your story far more accurately and effectively.
Screenplay Competitions has received endorsements from Dave Trottier (author, The Screenwriter’s Bible, www.keepwriting.com), Professor Richard Walter (former Screenwriting Area Head, Associate and Interim Dean UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television), Matt Dy (former Director of Script Competitions at Austin Film Festival), Professor Harry M. Cheney (Chapman University Dodge College of Film and Media Arts), script editor Lucy V. Hay (www.bang2write.com) and Emmy-wining writer Ken Levine (Hollywood and Levine).