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Format 1 Stop – Updated

I’ve been emailed, Facebooked and Tweeted a LOT of format queries in recent weeks, so I thought I’d add them to The Format One Stop Shop. Enjoy!

Parentheticals. After a short absence, parentheticals seem to be creeping back into spec screenplays – especially features. My recommendation: don’t, with the notable exception of (sarcastic) or any other time a line is otherwise AMBIGUOUS in the story. Otherwise, parentheticals feel really obvious, are quite distracting and actually take up a fair bit of space; plus I’m told actors are TAUGHT to ignore them anyway!

Act Breaks. Recently I’ve seen a significant increase in spec TV scripts with act breaks referenced (ACT ONE, END OF ACT ONE, etc). You don’t need to do this in a UK spec script. Just concentrate on telling the story as you would any other script.

Ad Breaks. Lisa Barrass contacted me and said she had feedback from an American screenwriting competition telling her she “should” have included ad breaks in her spec television script; whilst this may be true of our American writer friends, as a UK writer you DON’T need to do this… Why? Because as a spec script, there’s no telling who your script *may* end up with – there’s every chance you’d be sending to an ad-free corporation like The Beeb, especially the Writersroom or one of Aunty’s many initiatives or calls like The Writers’ Academy or shadow schemes.

Trial scripts. Lots of writers wonder about the various formats of various shows and worry they won’t *know* what to do if they’re offered a trial script on a continuing drama or series. My advice: don’t worry about it. If you get a trial, the show will generally send you various notes, sometimes the Series Bible and will send you a sample script of an episode which has already aired. Just copy the format of that sample script – if that means including stuff like act breaks and ad breaks and using a font other than Courier, etc? – then DO IT. Simples.

Teasers. I’m seeing more and more spec TV scripts with teasers (that little “bit” before the title sequence). Teasers are quite an American thing – and something lots of TV shows are noted for, so it’s not surprising many writers try and mimic this style. And end of the day, why not? It’s a spec script, you can do what you like. The two caveats to this I would offer, however: 1) DON’T reference titles after a teaser, there’s no point to it story-wise. 2) Make sure your teaser SETS UP what happens in the episode in a very obvious fashion. Most of the teasers I see are really obscure and make the reader guess about what they’re for, when in reality I can’t think of a single TV show that does this. If you consider the CSI franchise, which is famous for its teasers, the teasers usually happen this way:

1) Shots of the victim – possibly alive first, then definitely dead *in some interesting pose/way*
2) Team arrives – some brief exposition about the cause of death, the neighbour didn’t see/hear anything
3) There’s *something* about the crime scene that’s weird or odd
4) Investigating officer makes some kind of cheesy quip – WHAM, CUE TITLES

House does something very similar, though usually we see only the patient be *struck down* in some way, cue titles, then the diagnosis team come in with some brief history, etc. Teasers should really be called OPENERS I think: they’re there soley to SET UP what comes next in the episode itself, not tease us in a more obscure way as so many writers appear to think.

Colours. Several scripts have come through Bang2write recently using various colour fonts (especially blue) to signify things like flashbacks and other nonlinear time thread devices. My advice: don’t. Not only does it look a bit amateur, if you don’t feel confident the writing ITSELF can convey the changes in time, why should the reader?

Phone calls. Lots of writers have asked me on Twitter in particular about phone calls recently. The two main issues: 1) “How do I format a one-sided telephone conversation?” and 2) “How long should a telephone conversation be in a script?” As for 1) Just write it as you would normally, but try and make sure the dialogue doesn’t go on for a gigantic block; breaking it up with small actions can help, ie:

JOHN picks up the telephone.

Hello… Oh, hi! Yes, no problem – what’s the address?

He waves, exaggerated at FIONA: she stares at him dopy – what?? He mimes “pen”!

Let me… Just. Get. A. Pen…

Fiona runs about like a headless chicken – presents him with an eyeliner. Groans, writes with it anyway.

Uh-huh… Yeah. Thanks. Appreciated.

John puts the phone down.

They want us in at two to discuss our “options”.

Fiona shrieks with joy.

As for 2) the answer is always – AS SHORT AS POSSIBLE. In the specs I see, writers often use telephone conversations as a crutch for exposition and it’s always really obvious; sometimes phone conversations will crop up every time a writer wants to fill the audience in on something (some scripts have 5, 6, 7 or even 8 instances!). Other times phone conversations will go on for pages and pages and pages and just be really boring. [As always, there’s no reason why long phone conversations CAN’T work, but they need to have *something good* going for them – here I’m reminded of Pulp Fiction between Travolta and Eric Roth, ending with “Are you calling me from a CELL PHONE?? CRANK CALL! CRANK CALL!” – else they can be a bust].

Flashback/Flashforward/Other. I see flashback in the slugline and above the slugline all the time and both seem fine to me, but you DO need to tell us when we’re changing time frame. The same goes for stuff like DREAM SEQUENCE – other words can substituted too: I’ve seen stuff like, JOHN’S IMAGINATION, SPACE, LIMBO, INSIDE SARAH’S BODY, THE INTERNET, ON THE COMPUTER SCREEN, THROUGH THE DOG’S EYES, etc. Why not? I think the easiest way to do anyof these is:



****insert scene here****


Intercut. Lots of people have been asking me the “right” way to format INTERCUT. In short, there doesn’t seem to be a “right” way, I’ve seen it all kinds of ways. I think the easiest is simply:

PC Kelly’s gaze settles on a watch, on the victim’s dressing table.


That same watch, this time on the wrist of DCI Morton.


PC Kelly picks the watch up without gloves, slips it in his pocket without the rest of the team noticing.

Intercut can also used be in two-way, different location phone calls; in which case, probably best to put INTERCUT above the slugline (aka scene header) – but again, don’t forget to tell us when it ends.
If you click on The Format One Stop Shop, you will find these updates there now. Can you think of any format issues I’ve not tackled? Then let me know and I’ll add it to the list.

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