There are plenty of screenplay format mistakes, but there are 5 common mistakes made by aspiring writers. Studying the craft of screenwriting goes beyond understanding plot & execution, characters, dialogue and scenes.
Becoming a Professional Screenwriter involves mastering format by learning to use it as part of the story to create pacing, suspense, enhance visuals and evoke emotions.
Here are the Top 5 Mistakes and How to Fix Them:
When a screenplay moves to principle photography (production), it’s filmed out of order, depending on what locations are available, weather, permits, etc. A scene on page 87 might be filmed first. When a writer starts a new scene with a PRONOUN (He, She, They….), it makes it more difficult to determine what actors are supposed to be in the scene. And at the reader level, it can cause major confusion. I once read a scene that started with ‘He’ and assumed it was the hero who was in the previous scene, only to discover after several pages that ‘He’ was the villain. NEVER open a new scene with a pronoun. Treat it like a whole new world and identify the characters by name. This includes CONTINUOUS scenes.
I don’t know if writers are lazy or if they’ve been instructed incorrectly, but I keep seeing secondary slugs used when there should be a primary slug indicator. And writers often don’t seem to know the difference between the two types of slugs.
A primary slug indicator is the master shot, like INT. ED’S HOUSE – NIGHT. If we start in the living room of Ed’s house and go to the BEDROOM, it’s okay to use a secondary slug indicator because it’s a SHOT WITHIN A PRIMARY LOCATION.
INT. ED’S HOUSE – NIGHT (PRIMARY SLUG INDICTOR) Ed walks through the living room yawning. BEDROOM (SECONDARY SLUG INDICATOR)
Ed gets into bed.
Don’t open a new scene with a secondary slug. If we just left INT. ED’S HOUSE- NIGHT and now we’re EXT. LIBRARY – DAY, don’t just write LIBRARY. That’s incorrect.
Extra Tidbit: Always slug from larger to smaller. For example, don’t write INT. LIVING ROOM, ED’S HOUSE – DAY. We can’t enter the living room until we’re in Ed’s house. Start with the larger location, then slug to the smaller location within the master shot. Should be:
INT. ED’S HOUSE – LIVING ROOM – DAY
OFF STAGE AND VOICE OVER MIX-UPS
Off Stage (O.S.) and Voice Over (V.O.) are misused more often than any other format. Here’s the difference:
(O.S.) means the character is physically in the scene off stage and can only be heard by the camera, but not seen. If the character IS NOT physically in the scene and his voice is being heard via a device, then use (V.O.).
(V.O.) can be used for several things; 1) character’s voice is being heard over the film like a narrator 2) widely accepted for phone calls for the character we can’t see on screen 3) widely accepted for voices we’re hearing via a device, like a walkie-talkie, radio, TV, etc.
One of the easiest ways for a producer to spot an amateur is if the script’s format is inconsistent. For example, if the writer starts off using (O.S.) then switches to (O.C.) = Off camera, an acceptable variation of (O.S.). Or the writer uses (V.O.) for one phone call, then uses (FILTERED) for the next phone call. Pick one style and stick with it.
LACK OF TRANSITIONS
All scenes should have some type of transition to the next scene. It’s the number #1 way a producer can spot an amateur. Pros use transitions. Amateurs don’t know what they are or don’t know how to properly use them. A transition is added to provide flow between scenes. An example if a character at the end of a scene picks up the phone, then the next scene opens with the phone ringing. That’s a VISUAL TO SOUND transition.
There are many different types of transitions; Visual to Visual, Sound to Sound, Visual to Sound, Sound to Visual, Dialogue to Visual, Visual to Dialogue, Overlapping, Location, Reverse Transition, and more. If the writer isn’t familiar with transitions or how they work, pick up my book on Amazon Extreme Screenwriting: Screenplay Writing Simplified. There’s a whole chapter on transitions and the book teaches writers how to use format to create suspense, emotion and pacing. It’s available on Kindle or Paperback.
The main reason so many aspiring screenwriters make format mistakes is outdated material. Producers set the rules for screenplay formats and those rules change yearly. A screenwriter might be referencing a book that was published a year ago, five years ago or even a decade ago. While the book might offer a chapter on formatting, it’s most likely outdated. Only screenwriters who work in the biz on a daily basis would know the new formatting rules. So, how does an aspiring screenwriter keep up with the changes. Fade In Magazine On-line offers a Spec Format Guide (thin, purple pamphlet), that’s updated yearly with the most current industry standards. The link provided above also included the magazine’s books: Writer’s Guide to Hollywood Producers and the Writer’s Guide to Hollywood Agents that gives contact information and submission guidelines.
Don’t take format for granted. It’s the #1 way producers use to weed out amateurs. When a producer picks up a screenplay and sees that the writer knows how to use format correctly and as an intricate part of the story, the producer knows the writer is a professional. The Extreme Screenwriting Blog will cover How to Use Format to Enhance a Story in an upcoming blog.