Making your spec scripts reader-friendly

When it's time to send out your script, you want it as clean as possible — you never know who's going to read it. Well, okay, mainly readers...but it's not unknown for producers and even actors to take a look. It has happened.

You want your script to be one of those documents that pulls the reader in and carries them along on a smooth and fascinating ride. And that means you don't want any speedbumps along the way.

There's nothing like an amateur mistake in formatting or approach to really kick the reader out of the experience. Red flag! I'm dealing with an amateur! Yes, it's not unknown for scripts to be bought even if they look like crap...but why roll the dice?

This handy guide to avoiding the most common amateur mistakes will give your script all the best advantages — and help keep it out of that metaphorical overfull dumpster behind every agency in town.

Long-winded novelistic description

The Comanches issue forth from every bush, gopher hole and gully in
the long orange sunset, their shadows reaching out toward Sloane like
fingers from some skeletal witch -- Sloane drops back, his fingers
edging toward his holster and closing on nothing but empty air...his
gun is missing!

There are many things wrong with this passage. The first: the word "like". There's just no room for similes or other literary language in your description. Nothing that's not filmable should ever appear in description. Leave out the editorial and concentrate only on what can be communicated visually. You must find a visual way to get your point across.

Another problem: it's long. Blocks of description should never  be longer than three lines, and rarely that many. Break up your descriptions into small, bite-sized chunks. More on that below.

Another flaw: it's all one long sentence! This will test the patience of any potential reader. Description should be short, punchy, concise. Use brief description judiciously to control pacing and punctuate your action. Be free, be light, even humorous — but just as "brevity is the soul of wit", it's also the key to a readable screenplay.

Across the plain, Comanches break cover. They're everywhere. They
slowly creep toward Sloane.

Petrified, Sloane reaches for his gun -- it's gone!

By the way, watch that you don't swing to the other end of the spectrum. You can drop articles and use fragments, but don't drop all the articles and make every sentence a fragment. "Priest gets book from shelf"? No. "The priest gets the book from the shelf."

When readers see long prosy sentences of description loaded with similes, metaphors and other purple touches, the reaction is, "This kid oughta be writing novels." And they will help you along on that road by tossing your work.

Long speeches

How long does a block of dialogue need to be before it's a long speech? Anything more than a few inches is a long speech. A few of those here and there in a script is fine, but too many, and you're askin' for it.

A page long speech is death — a multi-page long speech, and your script will be sleeping with the coffee grounds and banana peels in the city dump by nightfall.

A long block of dialogue tells the reader that you tell and don't show. Where the absolute rule of screenwriting is: show, don't tell. Let your visuals carry more information, so that your dialogue can carry less. You want dialogue that's brief, economical, and to the point. Just like your description!

If you must have a character deliver a lot of dialogue (a closing argument at a trial, for example), then break it up with description, asides, responses — anything to keep it from standing alone on the page like some monolith of text.

Camera angles

What are those capitals doing in your description? What's with the "we see" and the "CLOSE UP" and "PULL BACK"? Are you a director? No, you're a screenwriter...so what are you doing directing?

If you feel strongly that your story must be seen in a certain way, and you feel you need to convey this with lots of camera angles and direction, then maybe  you should be a director. But if you want to be a screenwriter, an effective screenwriter, you've got to let that go. For several good reasons, and here are three:

1.You want your audience to visualize it in any number of different ways, to allow for their imagination to kick in.

2.Your reader might be a director, and might have ideas on how to frame and stage it — and might not care for your particular approach.

3.You want the reader to get the full impact of the story, and not trip over all kinds of elaborate visuals.

Now, you're thinking "Hey, show, don't tell, right? Don't I need all those angles to preserve the integrity of my presentation?"

Actually, no. We know you want to tell it visually. We all have these visions in our minds we're trying to bring forth. Camera angles and a lot of obtrusive scenecraft, however, will work against you because they don't enhance readability.

To direct without seeming to direct, write your description in small, shot-sized chunks — write camera angles without specifying them explicitly. Any kind of shot can be described in such a way to make it clear what you're after, while leaving specific shot choice to the director:

The marble drops to the floor and rolls to the door.

The ship fires a cannonball which screams over the harbor and smashes
into the fortress on the far jetty.

Also, this saves time — you won't have to fool around hunting up the specific shot to express what you want to express. Having shots all blocked out doesn't demonstrate professionalism, it just muddles the presentation and annoys the reader.

Funky fonts


There should be nothing in your script but Courier 12. If you get to be James Cameron or John August, then you can switch to whatever font your heart desires — until then stick to Courier 12.

Funky fonts and flourishes are the surest mark of an amateur, and only increase clutter on the written page. They stick out like a sore thumb in the fan test (which as you should know from your reading is where the reader fans your script, checking out its look in order to gauge your level of professionalism).

The only embellishment you should use: underlining. And don't even do that. (Okay, you can do it a little.)

White space

This is all about making your script inviting to a reader, making it a breezy read. And the key here is white space.

All these tips, taken together, focus and streamline your presentation, and increase the white space. An abundance of white space is the sign of a writer who knows what they're doing.

You may feel that a blank line is a wasted line, and you've got to cram as much as possible in those 110 pages of yours. You might even cheat it to get it down to a decent page count and shrink those blank lines — good move, right?

No. Hell no. Readers don't want to see a page black with text. Nobody wants that. They want to see an airy page with a lot of white space. A page that breathes. An inviting page. A page that pulls them in and delivers a smooth and enjoyable reading experience.

A script that's easy to read...gets read.

* Write description (and dialogue) that's short, punchy, concise. Break it up into small, bite-sized pieces, with lots of white space. And avoid the clutter of funky fonts.

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