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Top 5 Screenplay Format Mistakes

How’s your screenplay format?

Screenplay format gets a bad rap and is often conflated with writing craft. Whilst sometimes the two things DO cross over, this post will deal predominantly with **how** your script looks ON THE PAGE.

Continuing in the Top 5 Mistakes series, I’ll be concentrating on screenplay format today. (I’m assuming your layout, spelling, punctuation and grammar are awesome already. If not, you can check here: 10 Common Errors In Your Writing You Need To Fix Right Now.)

Ready, then? Let’s go …


1) Overly long sluglines (aka ‘scene headers’)

A slugline or scene header in a spec screenplay is simply to “anchor” the reader, so we know *where* we are. They should be as plain as possible and shouldn’t draw the eye too much. That’s it.

However, lots of sluglines are WAY too detailed, sometimes running for two or more lines. They’ll note things like whose house we’re in; which room; what number the house is; which road — you name it! Nooooo! MORE: All about slugline layout and what you can include

2) Too many fillers, plus parentheticals

Fillers happen when screenwriters realise they need to “break up” a chunk of scene description, or a chain of dialogue. As a result, we end up with dull little moments that are there for the sake of it, as they don’t advance the story. Here’s 10 Of The Worst Screenplay “Fillers”.

I’ve often said parentheticals are useless – and that’s because they can too often become fillers as well. Even worse, writers may mistakenly use parentheticals for action, instead of putting it scene description. Ack!!!

3) Bad scene description

Anything labelled “bad” in screenwriting is nearly always open to interpretation. That disclaimer aside, I’d venture “bad” scene description does NOT …

  • Move the story forward
  • Reveal character
  • Both of the above

Instead, bad scene description often hyper-focuses on extraneous detail … that dreaded ‘too much black on the page’.

Spec screenwriters forget screenwriting is a VISUAL medium, first and foremost. This means they will probably need to write more scene description than anything else in the script. But they forget that scene description is SCENE ACTION. MORE: 10 Ways To Revitalise Your Scene Description

4) Chains and chains of dialogue

NEWSFLASH: Too much dialogue in a scene makes it STATIC. This is the last thing any good spec screenplay wants.

Obviously good dialogue is a craft issue as well, but it becomes a format issue when writers believe shoving in chains and chains of dialogue is an ‘antidote’ to point 3 on this list.

But think on this … when was the last time you saw a movie or TV show where characters stood around, just talking, for 7 or 8 MINUTES (or pages)?

Yet spec screenplays do this all the time. MORE: Are You Making Any Of These 20 Killer Errors In Your Screenplay’s Scenes?

5) Capital letters ALL OVER THE PLACE!

In a spec screenplay, capital letters are used on a character’s name when we meet them for the first time.

That’s it.


You do not need them for …

  • Sound effects
  • Random objects
  • Animals (that are not actual characters)
  • or anything else. ANYTHING AT ALL (arf).

Oh and while we’re on the subject, in a spec screenplay, you also don’t need …

  • Scene numbers
  • Italics
  • bold
  • underlining
  • bullet points
  • Different colour text
  • Pictures
  • Diagrams

In other words, as plain as possible, please. Save the reader’s eyes!! MORE: Screenplay Format: The B2W One Stop Shop 

Grab More Script Reading Secrets …

How do IMy sell-out course, BREAKING INTO SCRIPT READING is back! If you’re interested in becoming a script reader, or finding out more how script readers may assess YOUR own writing – or both! – then this is the course for you. Check out detail for the next course and by tickets HERE, or click the pic on the left. See you there!

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13 thoughts on “Top 5 Screenplay Format Mistakes”

  1. I am sorry to inform you that I will be removing your newsletter from my list of regular screenwriting reads. I find it difficult to adjust my spec scripts to the varying formatting styles out there, yours being one of many (e.g. CAPS or no caps on sounds). When googled, CAPS seems to be the industry standard, spec or not, but is to be used sparingly. I don’t have the time to keep cross checking your choice of formatting with other in the industry.

    1. Oh dear Jerome, guess you haven’t been paying attention — “sparingly” is always fine, “just don’t get busted” is the key which if you recall was the very first line of my newsletter today. Pity you won’t be reading anymore, sounds like you need it.

      1. Wow. Someone makes a constructive criticism of your piece and you outright abuse them? You don’t deserve to tell people how they should write screenplays.

        1. Not sure how someone ‘deserves’ to be a script editor other than actually working daily with screenplays! You also need to look up what ‘constructive criticism’ means, by the sound of it.

  2. Wait – capitalize character names the first time they occur in each scene? Or just the first time they appear in the entire screenplay? I learned the former style years ago, but it seems the fashion now is the latter. (I may not be able to break that habit. And as a director used to breaking down my own scripts, I see the wisdom of doing it my way: quickly ID’s what actors are in each scene.)

  3. I’m writing simply to thank you for your work. I find your advice, Lucy, not just ballsy, informed, and down-to-earth, but also delightfully entertaining. In fact, I save time by limiting my info intake to B2W and one other US outlet. Your tips on pitching by email are tops. Again, thanks!

  4. What about bold slug lines? They are quite common now, allowing for an easier read. The Page Awards screenplay guidelines have recommended bold slug lines since at least 2012.

    1. Sluglines are not meant to draw the eye, so bold is a bad choice for them as far as I’m concerned — especially when so many sluglines are plain bad.

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