Screenplay Format Tips for Spec Script Writers
Screenwriting Workshop Lesson: Adapt to a lifestyle that enables creativity.
By Jen B.
If you’re still at the beginning of your screenwriting career, your idea of what a screenplay format looks like can be hazy. You’re only a green hopeful script writer with big scenes and bigger dreams, you’re probably writing your first spec script right about now. You have watched tons of movies and fell in love with cinema, now you feel it’s your turn to write the next best picture! To reach that, you search for screenplays online and pour over every aspect of screenwriting language to become more fluent and skilled. You’ve probably read screenplays of some of the most famous movies ever made. And that’s a great first step: to learn from the best. The only problem with that is what you are reading is a shooting script – a script written and edited and finalized for the director to use during the shooting of the film, not a spec script. You won’t find the spec scripts for Jaws or Goodfellas; only the shooting scripts. This is where it can get tricky.
Spec scripts don’t follow the same screenplay format as shooting scripts. So if you’ve been reading screenplays online and following them to write your spec script, you might be messing up the format. But let’s break it down and see what a spec script is and why it’s so important.
What is a spec script?
The “spec” in spec script comes from speculative – meaning this script is written in the hopes of getting picked up by producer or a studio. It is not a commissioned script, so the script writer is not actually paid for it. Instead, he or she writes it so they can submit it somewhere, like at screenwriting competitions or as part of grant applications. Or maybe they want to pitch it to a production company and eventually sell it. As an aspiring script writer, you will be focused on working on your spec scripts, improving your screenwriting language skills to build a good portfolio over time. That portfolio will be useful when you’re looking for a paid job as a TV writer or when you’re searching for network fellowships. How? Because then you can easily provide a sample screenplay from your portfolio to demonstrate your talent and ability as a script writer.
To prepare your spec script for a professional script reader, you need to know important screenplay format differences between spec and shooting scripts. There are four main things that you should not include in your spec script or else your risk having it dumped.
No Scene Numbers
When production begins on a new film, the shooting script is labelled with scene numbers to make the shooting process more organized. It’s a simple aspect of a screenplay that you get used to. However, for your spec script, no scene numbers are needed since there’s no ongoing production (but soon there will be, fingers crossed!).
The most famous screenwriting software used by script writers in Hollywood is called Final Draft. If you’re using it, you should know that this software is automatically set to include scene numbers as part of your screenplay format. To get rid of them, go to Production>Scene Numbers and deselect Number/Renumber to disable that feature.
No Cast Lists
If you’re writing a TV spec script, you might have looked up sample screenplays online for award-winning shows like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos. When you look at a screenplay like that, you’ll always find a cast list with all of the characters present in this episode and which actors are playing them. Sometimes when there are characters that haven’t been cast yet, instead of an actor’s name, you’ll find “TBD” written across from the character’s name. Do not write a cast list in your TV spec script because no characters have been cast so it’s pointless to include one in your script.
No Production Lists
Shooting scripts usually contain lists of props, sound cues, or sets. These lists are commonly seen in screenplay formats but are strictly used during the production phase, so they definitely do not belong in your spec script. Stuffing your script with these lists can be distracting so avoid them and keep the reader’s attention focused on the actual substance of your spec script.
Now that you have a better idea of what doesn’t belong in your spec script, you can be more confident when you hand it over to a script reader without worrying too much – just the regular amount of worrying, of course!
No Camera Directions
In many screenplays, you can find camera directions like POV or CLOSE-UP. You’re probably familiar with camera directions since they compose a big part of screenwriting language. Camera directions in a screenplay are based on the director’s choices during shooting and are considered part of the screenplay format when the script is in production. Of course the writer has no say in these camera movements and so you, as a script writer, should not include them in your spec script.
What if you have a clear image in mind that you want to convey to the script reader? How can you do that without using these directions? You can paint the same picture by making your character perform specific actions. For example, if there’s a hand mirror on the character’s bedside table and you want to imply that this when the camera would zoom in until the mirror is in close-up, instead of writing these camera directions, you can write: “She notices the glimmer of her mirror, laying on her bedside table, the minute she opens her bedroom door. She walks slowly towards the mirror then sits on the floor next to her bedside table and brings the mirror closer and closer to her face until all she can see are her very own dark pupils.” This way the reader can almost see the mirror filling up the screen with the eye’s reflection through the character’s action instead of through camera directions. The key is to make the action as smooth as possible so the reader takes no breaks and is glued to your script like they will be to the finished product on screen.