Who's Afraid of Formatting? Part Two

Part One | Part Two

"How To Structure", more like. Story structure, now that’s a beast. And necessary for sure, and there’s a tried-and-true form you’d be wise to use as a guideline. Of course, Hollywood haters will scream “formula” and apologists will apologize for the poor execs who just need a little help understanding but I say the traditional three-act form can be a creative asset, done organically - it can keep the story energized, focused and interesting. So here’s the basic three-act structure, guidelines to be considered, not rules to be followed:

Act 1 pages 1 - 15
Set up the characters and main story by page 10. Cause the main story to kick off on page 10. Cause the story to have a major reversal on page 15.

Act 2 pages 16 - 60
Complexify the story, add subplots, reveal new information. Cause the story to have a major reversal on page 40, and another on page 60.

Act 3 pages 61 - 90
Resolve the story. Bring all the complex threads to a climactic moment on page 90. Fade the story out by page 100.

"Guidelines" is the operative word here - don’t go crazy trying to exactly meet the form. I’ve been told Raiders of the Lost Ark has seven acts. Whatever. Certainly most movies don’t follow three-acts slavishly. But, as a loose template within which to work, three-acts is very useful, an invisible guiding hand. So have fun with it and let’s move on to formatting...

...but first, a note about Le Language du Cinéma. Contrary to popular misconceptions Le Language du Cinéma does not consist of CU, WIDE, EST. etc. Those are film-making decisions that the director gets to make. You’re the writer. Keep them out of your script. What Le Language du Cinéma mostly boils down to is “show, don’t tell”, ie:

"There’s a plate of cheeses on the table. Jen licks her lips."


"Jen thinks that plate of cheeses looks delicious."

The former is vivid, the latter unfilmable. And here’s a note about white space - use lots of it. It’s easier to read. Allow lots of white space by using less words and short paragraphs.

And a note about scenes - always come into them as late as possible. Cut out the boring stuff before the scene hots up.

A sneaky little note here, about action. Write action in detail so it more accurately represents real running time. That way your 100 pages are less likely to balloon to 225 when the studio standard-formats them. And express the urgency. Staccato sentences. Short paragraphs. Generally no longer than two lines. Maximum four.

Ha! More notes. Two actually - voice and hyping. Voice means the lens through which you write your screenplay. I like to write in the lead character’s voice, meaning the whole script is described through his or her lens. Straight screen-writing, the objective kind, is boring to read. If you can find a voice for your script (snarky, enthusiastic, comic, dark, smug, portentous, irreverent, whatever) you can communicate the tone of the movie more clearly, make the script fun to read, and have more fun writing it. But don’t hype. That means don’t be cutesy, ie:

"Silence descends. The kind of silence you’d get if a virus wiped out the whole world and Eddie was the last man standing."

That’s a particularly pernicious example from my most recent script. Fun to write but deeply annoying to read, especially for directors. Hype for fun in your rough first draft then cut it all out when you polish. Here’s the final version:

"Silence descends."

So, finally, to formatting.... ah, formatting. But no, not yet. Let’s recap:

Stuff formatting.
Respect the three-act structure as a starting template.
Take page count seriously. Aim for 100 pages.
Express the story as viscerally as possible.
Remember, the technical stuff comes later, once you’ve got a deal.
Don’t worry about character arcs, let them happen organically, if at all.
Show, don’t tell.
Leave lots of white space.
Come into scenes as late as possible.
Write action to reflect real running time. Use. Short. Paragraphs.
Choose a voice for your whole script.
Delete your hypes when you polish.

Right, here’s a raw script page I wrote in the past tense, because I was writing it as a story:

...that moment - direct hit! The rocket plunged into the jet fighter’s viscera. Obliteration. The fighter detonated into a million pieces, over and over again, explosions within explosions.
Eddie took his hands off the wheel, laughed in euphoric astonishment. Debris rained down across the lake bed. The truck skidded to a wild juddering halt. The sky was filled with falling wreckage. Burning shards scattered as far as the eye can see.
“Did I hit it?” asked Ellen, opening her eyes, squeezed shut since she pulled the trigger.
“I’d say so.”
The black rain rattered on the truck’s hood. Larger pieces crumped and thumped fifty yards distant. A particularly large piece whammed down nearby, toppled over, sizzling.
“So now what?”
Eddie looked at her. She looked back.
“Let’s get out of here.”

- The End -

And here’s the same page, lightly formatted as a first draft screenplay, put into the present tense:

(View as a PDF.)

So there you have it - same thing, different font, different tab settings. Here’s my specs:

Font Courier New, 12 point
Top margin 1.00"
Bottom margin 1.00"
Right margin 1.00"
Left margin 1.44"
Character indent 3.40"
Parentheticals indent 3.00" (double indented)
Dialog indent 2.50" (double indented)

But these are just rough guides (although the Courier font is set in industry stone - don’t deviate). And you can see I didn’t bother with Int. / Ext. slug lines or scene descriptions. And I only use CUT TO: when the story jumps in time. And I use Wordperfect 8 circa 1996 running on Windows ME. Go figure. It’s how I roll.

So there you go. All you really need to know about formatting. In my experience 40 pages of prose lightly-formats to about 100 pages of first-draft screenplay. Later, when you’ve banked the check, some script department somewhere will format your baby so it can be read by automated budgeting and scheduling software and turned into a piece of abject corporate product. Joke. But you don’t need to worry about that, not today. Your first draft is the story, not the shooting script. It’s the story. And, with luck, it will eventually make it to the silver screen.

Best of luck.

Winner: Script Frenzy 2008.
Writer: “Speeder”, “Small Magic”, “Silver Surfer”.
Writer/Director: “Death Machine”, “The Last Minute”.
Director: “Blade”, “League of Extraordinary
Gentlemen”, “Clash of the Titans” (fired).
Currently about to write and direct “The Crow”.

Stephen Norrington