Don’t let poor presentation let your script down.

Welcome to 2022! One more New Year, another list of resolutions. And one that is at the top of many lists: decluttering. Your house, your mind, your life — whatever it was that took up too much-unwanted space in the previous year, January is always welcomed as the time to ditch distractions and have a fresh start.

And as we embrace this clearing-out mentality, I thought it might be good to look at how the same can and should apply to screenwriting. By this, I mean keeping scripts clutter-free and considering the importance of a well-thought-out presentation.

As a reader, I can attest that a really gripping story, great characters, or brilliant dialogue will mostly shine through whatever state the script is in. But, if you have that great content, isn’t it a shame to let a few typos or poor formatting spoil it?

Photo by Aman Upadhyay on Unsplash

You wouldn’t go to a job interview in anything other than your smartest, cleanest outfit; so why not put the same effort into really making your script stand out?

We know that screenplays are vastly different in execution from literary works — overly verbose descriptions can be cumbersome, and the kind of florid writing that suits a novel is superfluous in a screenplay. However, even though a script should be a clear, technical blueprint for a movie, that doesn’t mean that it should not also read well as a piece of writing. And here, in finding the sweet spot between literature and functionality, is where the joy of the craft lies.

Something I say often in my reports is that the experience of reading a script should reflect the experience of watching the movie. The reader is your audience and as such the script needs to evoke the same responses in them, the same level of engagement.

First, there’s the obvious stuff: typos, grammar, formatting; they might be minor issues, but have enough of them in your script and you’ve got a frustrated reader stumbling over misspellings or trying to guess what word the typo is meant to be. Proofreading is an absolute minimum requirement, whether it’s a trusted friend or a paid service, a second pair of eyes will always pick up things you’ve missed, as well as inconsistencies or anything that doesn’t make sense in the story. Even if a typo or two slip through, the tidier you can get your script, the better.

Then, there’s the flow and pace to consider. Do the pages look evenly spaced, easy to scan? If there is need for a lot of description in a scene, avoid doing this in large blocks of text. Break it down into smaller chunks, so it doesn’t appear too laden. Gaps between paragraphs can break up tension, allow for some room to breathe. Make smart use of white space and line placement — putting an action in a single line with space before and above it will naturally slow the reader down to match the pace. It’ll also make it stand out as a significant moment if you need it to be.

Consider the use of punctuation, capitalisation, and text formatting: a word or line of dialogue in italics adds a whole different tone to it. Bolding an action or an object immediately draws attention to it. These small adjustments can liven up the script and give your reader a more immersive experience, which is what you’re aiming for.

Don’t be afraid to declutter. Parentheticals are one example of something that can easily become surplus to requirements. I’ve come across entire scenes with a parenthetical direction for every line of dialogue. It’s not necessary. If done well, the dialogue should sound right without needing an explanation. Consistent parentheticals only distract from the flow and the conversations lose impact.

The same can be said for camera directions. Sometimes, indicating a particular shot serves a purpose in the story, like a close-up on a small detail or a sweeping aerial of a landscape; I would say that if it adds to the story or helps place the reader in the setting, it’s fine to do so. But keep it to an absolute minimum, if and only where necessary. The reader is interested in the story and plot, not the technical aspects of producing the film. Don’t lose their attention by dragging them out of the narrative to showcase the clever things you intend to do visually. That’s for the shooting script.

Good presentation will also say a lot about a writer. It will show someone who’s thorough, someone considerate in their approach, who takes the time to shape their craft. Even if your story is not quite there yet, it displays a willingness to put effort into making something the best you can. And that is something worth aspiring to in all our work.

written by Patty Papageorgiou

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We create spaces for screenwriters from all over the world to share their work and get feedback & mentorship from professionals in the industry.

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