Format Matters

I Hear You, I See You

To begin a discussion about why format matters in screenwriting, I’m going to start with an amazing story. In 1977, NASA launched two exploration vehicles into space, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. They were programmed to explore around Jupiter and the outer reaches of our solar system.  Voyager 2 entered interstellar space in November 2018.  Both are still alive; both continue to transmit new data. They represent one of mankind’s most exciting, hopeful, imaginative and scientifically advanced programs ever.

Packed inside both Voyager capsules are copies of The Voyager Golden Records. These are 12″ golden phonographic records that contain information about Planet Earth, life on Earth and about our human existence. If you look at the beautiful graphics etched on them, it is clear they represent much more than the fact of a mere flat disc, even to aliens. We would hope they communicate their import to aliens that find them, and even more ambitious, that the same aliens could access the information on them.

What Are You Talking About?

The problem? Format. Format gives archivists everywhere recurring nightmares, and will continue to do so. If you consider language in terms of a communication format, the mere existence of The Rosetta Stone is a good example of how formatting can be the biggest barrier to communication between societies since man loped out of the forests into the grasslands and decided ‘culture’ was a good idea.

Discovered in The Nile Delta in 1799, the Rosetta Stone has etched on it the same text in Egyptian hieroglyphics, Demotic (later Egyptian script) and Greek. Champollion, a French academic and resident of Paris, was the first to decipher the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and open up this spectacular culture to study in our modern times. He achieved this breakthrough in 1822, although other researchers contributed to the effort and work was done on it prior to his culmination.

I Simply Don’t Understand You

What do the Voyager Golden Discs and The Rosetta Stone have in common? Format matters – that is – accessibility of information. As I said, language is a kind of format, if you look at it in those terms. Watch the movie, ARRIVAL, and you’ll see what I mean. It discusses the nature of language, the mental constructs behind it and most importantly, the symbols and devices we use to communicate those constructs, that we don’t think about when we’re fighting over whose turn it is to do the dishes.

At uni, one module (Databases, I think it was) confronted this very problem. What format should modern archivists use so we can access contemporary valuable data in the future? Floppy discs – remember those? DVDs? Tape? USB Sticks? Do we keep it on servers in the cloud? What about the devices that access those things?  Suppose we lose our Internet? You’re beginning to see the problem. Should we return to good old-fashioned ink on paper? It might not be a bad idea, except that societies are cutting down trees faster than we are replacing them.

What Goes Around, Comes Around

Some formats have come full circle. Everyone thought the vinyl music disc was dead as a doornail when the shiny new CD arrived, and beyond redemption with music downloads and streaming, but it turns out not to be the case. People miss their old vinyl records with the delicious art covers, and they’re back in fashion. This means the revival of the record-player machine too, which brings us back to our exquisitely designed Voyager Golden Records. Will the aliens who find them have available, or work out they should invent the necessary device to access the information in the given format? This is a 64-million dollar question. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have tried, of course not. I’m merely pointing out the essential importance of format. Should we have included the information in books, or tapes, or graphics, too?

Format Matters In Screenwriting

Every now and then, in the writing groups I belong to, a discussion breaks out about the importance of screenwriting format.  Which is more important, story or formatting? Or characters? Okay, they’re all important, but if you want to present your story and characters in the best possible light, format them correctly. This is why format matters in screenwriting.

It’s a kind of ritual. There is a whole sub-text to formatting that you couldn’t imagine if you don’t practice the craft. Off the top of my head, this is why it is important:

It gives the reader confidence, because correct formatting shows them the writer knows the etiquette. I was going to write ‘rules’ here, but there’s a communication to be made more important than rules. You can break screenwriting ‘rules’ within the bounds of formatting, but you risk alienating the reader if you disrespect formatting to break the rules.

The reader is the king on his throne, and reassured the writer knows the etiquette – the ritual, if you like – the king is more likely to grant an audience. Breaking the ‘rules’ is slightly different, in my book. Topic for another post.

Correct formatting helps the story and characters to shine through without distraction.

It helps the reader judge the pacing of the script, its breathing, and where the big moments fall.

It enables the writer to communicate the story in the best possible light, because the reader is not hung up with those formatting issues (same for grammar and spelling).

In Screenwriting, Format Is The Device

Whether your reader reads your script on screen or on paper, faultless formatting is vital.  Screenwriters are fortunate because various screenwriting software packages do the work for them.  In addition, the writer may have to do extra research on how to present certain information within that formatting, but there is plenty of online help for that. Long and short form fiction writers don’t have anything like the ‘default’ templates set out for them that screenwriters have.

This is the experience I have gathered, both as a writer, and when I read screenplays for peers. Respect your formatting, screenwriters. It’s your best communication device.

Screenwriting Software Packages

Final Draft, WriterDuet, MovieMagic Screenwriter, Highland, Fade In, Celtx, Trelby.

I’m not recommending any of these. I’m not telling you my favourites or which ones I use, because it starts one of those useless debates. Microsoft Word also has a screenwriting template. There’s no excuse to say you can’t format correctly, writer.  Finally, this is just my two cents worth and my opinion. I’m no guru, I’m simply trying to master the craft, so you can run with it or not.

Okay, back to it.

Image courtesy of picjumbo.com

3 thoughts on “Format Matters

  1. I have just gone through Formatting Hell with my script-writing software program. My issue was that my movie is an animated/live action musical and the program would screw up the formatting of the songs, mixing it with Dialogue.

    Then there were the Widows and Orphans…. poor things that got left dangling at the end or beginning of a page. I would go over and over it and know that it was correct on the writing of it side, but then, when it was translated into a PDF, it would go kaflooy!

    Luckily this program will communicate with the customer to work out the bugs. It just takes some time to narrow the issues down. I realized that I had been sending out scripts that had formatting errors and I was dismayed.

    All is well now, I hope, and I can send my script, The MicroCosmic Cartoon Show, to companies without them being sent to Formatting Limbo.

  2. You make it sound as if there are hard and fast rules about screenplay format, and there simply aren’t. Apparently you haven’t read some of the greatest screenplays ever produced.

    If you story and characters are excellent, no one cares about formatting.

    Stick to writing articles.

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.