Skip to content

The 5 Biggest Format Mistakes Spec Screenplays Make

Yeah yeah yeah we all hate Format; nobody knows anything like William Goldman says; if your script’s story is brilliant it doesn’t matter what it looks like, blah blah blah … You done?

Now, here’s the top 5 mistakes I see on a regular basis:

5. Too much scene description. The obvious one. You’re not writing a novel, less is more, a little more action a little less description please and all that jazz. Sometimes writers tell me they *have* to write write lots of description so the reader “gets” it, or that Shane Black/Ron Bass/Tarantino/*insert famous screenwriter here* writes loads of description, or that it’s part of their VOICE and we’re all a bunch of fascists. Deal with it! And by the way, the more description you write, the LESS LIKELY a reader is to “get it” because how do they know which the important bits are?? Don’t overwrite if you want your script to stand its best chances out there with agents and producers. William Martell’s brilliant 16 Steps To Better Scene Description.

4. Too little or utilitarian scene description. Ah, the other end of the scale … Often, when a writer is advised they’re overwriting, they go mad and strip out nearly ALL the scene description, so their scripts are long chains of dialogue OR they start writing description that’s akin to stage directions, with characters “entering” and “exiting” and “pausing”, rather than performing actions that serve the character or plot – and usually, it’s a bit of both. Argh. No reader wants to live in a world without scene description – honestly! As with all things, it’s a question of balance.

3. Overdetailed Sluglines (aka Scene Headers) & Captions. A reader’s eye should never been drawn by the slugline; don’t distract us by putting extraneous detail here. Here’s a post on how to lay out sluglines & even get away with the barest minimum. Oh and while we’re at it – and don’t put the sluglines in bold or underline them! Secondly, try and ensure your captions like SUPER, FLASHBACK and MONTAGE etc are in consistent places and DON’T overdo them. And never, ever ever write camera angles.

2. Centered Dialogue and overuse of parentheticals. Recently, I’ve seen a revival in centered dialogue, usually with the cursed Courier New font, leading me to believe new writers are formatting manually with MS Word again. Check out the margins of Final Draft, CeltX et al – dialogue is NOT centred on a spec script. End of. Also: ARE YOU NUTS? If you can’t afford the likes of Final Draft, then there’s loads of FREE script format software out there, check out this post and/or use use Google. Also: if you’re using parentheticals for anything other than the most ambiguous of lines, FOR SHAME – and here’s 5 Reasons to persuade you.

1. Errant Caps.  And the format mistake that never goes away – random words capped up for no reason, especially sounds but also random objects too. STOP DOING IT MOFOS! In a spec script, you need only cap up a character’s name the first time we see them – THAT’S IT. Capped sounds are for shooting scripts only; you need never cap anything else up – ever. EVER EVER EVER (arf).


The Format 1 Stop Shop

1 Page Format Reference Guide (PDF)

7 Things Readers Can Tell About Your Script On Page 1

More free B2W Resources & Downloads

Share this:

7 thoughts on “The 5 Biggest Format Mistakes Spec Screenplays Make”

    1. Haha! I wouldn’t worry too much; as I always say, good script format is about not being “busted”. I have never discarded any script for *just* doing any of the above and nor should any good reader IMHO.

  1. Pingback: Spec Screenplay Spotlight: Over 35 Screenwriting Resources Focused On Spec Scripts | The Screenwriting Spark

  2. Pingback: The Ultimate Guide To Screenwriting Mistakes | Screenwriting Tips | The Screenwriting Spark

  3. Hi Lucy!

    Thanks again for another excellent, informative article. I think my sluglines are way too long, so I’m going to work on making them more concise. Thanks for the additional article on how to write great sluglines! Keep up the great work! Cheers! 🙂


  4. So if you want a certain word in dialogue emphasized, do you underline instead of upcap? Because I’ve been doing upcap in that instance. Underline just looks wrong. But “is-wrong” is of course worse than “looks-wrong”.

    1. Great Q, but basically don’t do any of it in a spec script. Underlining, bold, capped up … it’s just not worth it. The dominant thinking is, the emphasis should come from your writing, not telling the actor *how* to the deliver the line. For loads more info, plus links and a free PDF download, CLICK HERE.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *