Every year or so, what I call ‘The Great Screenplay Format Debate’ pops up. Some years it’s just once, others it’s multiple times. It never gets more heated than on Twitter, where produced screenwriters will insist over and over it’s about ‘great writing’, NOT ‘great format’. Mic drop. Debate over.
So, are these guys right? Of course. B2W also bangs on about this, after all. As far as I’m concerned, the notion of great writing ultimately comes down to just three things (that’s concept, characters and structure, for anyone wondering).
OF COURSE there’s a bunch of other stuff that comes into it (not least visual writing, or the writer’s voice), but in real terms screenplay format is the very bottom of the pile. That’s why this B2W infographic has it at the very bottom of this inverted triangle, below.
So, The Official B2W Line on The Great Format Debate is I literally don’t care about screenplay format. Sure, there can be annoying niggly things that interrupt the flow of the read … That’s why I created The B2W Screenplay Format One Stop Shop and its accompanying One Page Reference Guide. But ultimately, my script reading POV comes down to this …
- If a script’s story and characters are great, I put it through.
- If a script’s story and characters are NOT great, I don’t. (Yes, even if its formatting looks brilliant! True story).
Boom. That’s it. Debate really is over this time, right??
One reason the debate on formatting gets so heated is because lines get drawn in the sand between produced screenwriters and those writing on spec. This usually gets carved into something resembling the following …
- PRODUCED WRITERS: Don’t sweat the small stuff like format. Worry instead about stuff like concept, character, structure. This is what ‘it’s about the writing’ means.
- SPEC WRITERS / NEW WRITERS: That’s fine for you to say, you have already got through the door. There are harsher standards applied to us in launching out the pile.
So, who is right in this debate? NEWSFLASH – both camps are.
The produced writers are totally right when they say writing craft trumps format. Obviously. As a script reader, I have put screenplays through that look or even read like crap … Just as I have rejected screenplays that look fantastic, but the craft is not.
But just as importantly, spec and new writers DO have harsher standards applied to them. On many screenplay coverage reports, new writers’ scripts are literally scored on stuff like screenplay format, or even how the read ‘flows’. This is not applicable to produced writers.
This is why I always think it’s worth ‘reader-proofing’ spec screenplays. I advocate this in the video below, which was filmed at London Screenwriters’ Festival. Obviously format alone will not carry your screenplay, but it may mean you don’t get BUSTED by some over-zealous script reader … Which leads me on to my last point, after the jump.
What No One Is Talking About
So, I’ve outlined the produced ‘screenwriters versus spec writers’ element in this debate. But what if there was a THIRD one, which no one has mentioned thus far? It’s this …
… Work experience kids and new script READERS *are* reading our work.
This is the thing. Script reading is an entry-level job. This means most readers are doing it on the way ‘up’ the ladder and probably under sufferance. Sure, some of them end up loving it, or creating a career out of it like I did with B2W. But for just as many (if not more), it’s something they HAVE to do to get to where they really want to be in the industry.
Even more problematic, these guys probably know NOTHING about concept, character or structure. At best, their foundation is shaky. They may have screenwriting MAs and good for them, but ultimately they are learning on the job here. It was the position I started from, ‘back in the day’, just like everyone else. I’ve noticed similar in the hundreds of script readers I have trained myself, now.
Why is this an issue, in this debate? It’s very simple really. If a new script reader doesn’t know enough about concept, character or structure, then GUESS what element of a screenplay they focus on??
That’s right! FORMAT
Eek. Obviously I tell *B2W’s* new script readers not to focus too much on screenplay format, but I am just one woman. Also, writers LOVE to talk screenplay format since they believe it’s one of the few elements of screenwriting they can get straight answers on. Well, this is not true. Maybe one day this message will spread industry-wide, but I am not going to hold my breath.
So really, it doesn’t matter what anyone, produced or unproduced, says in this debate. The harsh reality of this industry is the very first gatekeepers many of us come up against don’t know what they’re doing. As a result, these script readers are getting hung up on screenplay format, rightly or wrongly.
This is why B2W always says to new writers, ‘Don’t get busted on screenplay format’ and ‘reader-proof your screenplay‘. Not because it is a golden ticket, but because at least it means your script won’t fall at that first hurdle for wholly avoidable, or even plain stupid format ‘reasons’.
Good Luck Out There!
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