Hester Schell, M.F.A. is an award winning director, master teacher, screenwriter and the author of CASTING REVEALED: A Guide for Film Directors, 2nd edition, Focal Press. She’s a member of SAG-AFTRA and Harvard Square Script Writers. Follow Hester on IMDb, Facebook and LinkedIn.
A Bit of History
Screenplay formatting evolved out of play writing formatting: Time, place, setting, character descriptions, act breaks, dialog, stage directions, lights up, blackout or the ever enduring fade to black. (We can thank the invention of controlled electricity and the lighting dimmer for that, and early lighting innovator Jean Rosenthal,)
Between Shakespeare 's time and the modern era, all things formatting evolved. Let's take a look at where modern formatting likely began: Shakespeare’s First Folio, printed in 1623. In 1968, The Folger Library in Washington, D.C. funded the reproduction of the first printing of the Bard’s complete works and can be found in most academic library theatre departments. The printers of this first collection organized all the various categories of information: acts, who speaks, entrances and exits.
For examples of the lengths writers go to to ensure their intentions are not bullied by over indulgent, egoist directors, pick up a copy of any play by British playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), the butt of jokes on how lengthy his stage directors go on… and on. His major works, Major Barbara or Heartbreak House, (not a precursor to Elvis Presley and Heartbreak Hotel,) are both excellent examples. American playwright Eugene O’Neill’s (1888 - 1953) masterpiece Long Day’s Journey into Night is another good place to read specific stage directions. Mid-century American genius, Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) goes so far as to create a character in The Glass Menagerie, Tom, who describes exactly what the scene needs to be in dialog through character. Thornton Wilder (1897-1975 also uses this device in Our Town.
Pre-Production: The devil is in the details.
Script formatting is specific and the rules are there for the benefit of the team that needs to know just exactly what is going on in your head and how it landed on the page.
Script writing software programs have evolved alongside preproduction breakdown software. When you leave out a detail or your scene header is entered as action then the preproduction algorithms can't pick it up. The result is you’ve got a scene missing on the production breakdown. When you have two spellings for the same character and by mistake Jane becomes Jan in several scenes, casting might call in actors to read for both roles. If you leave out a specific bit of action such as “dismounting from his steed,” and some idiot in production design doesn’t know a steed is a horse, then there’s could be a dangerous chain reaction of no budget for a horse, and no horse wrangler.
"If it’s not on the page it’s not on the stage," as they say. So get back on your horse, read the masters, learn formatting and let your characters ride into the sunset. Yee haw! Giddyup! Go write a western.
See you on-set.
Hester Schell is a screenwriter, director, semi-retired professor of theatre and the author of Casting Revealed: a Guide for Film Directors, now in its 2nd edition, from Focal Press, a division of Routledge.