When you sit down and write a script, who is your audience? Is it the eventual producer? Is it the actors and director? How about the set decorator and cinematographer? Who are you writing for?
In many of my screenwriting classes, most students will say, “All of the above.” That’s only true for a shooting script (prepared for the shoot in preproduction), not for a spec (written on speculation that you will sell it later). A spec script may have the above collaborators in mind, but it is primarily written for a reader (story analyst). You must understand that you write for a reader and not for the shoot. That mindset will actually help you craft a better spec.
When you finish that wonderful script and send it to an agent or producer who requests it, what does that agent or producer do? He or she hands it off to reader to write coverage. In that coverage, if the reader passes on your script, the producer or agent is very unlikely to read it. The reader is the gatekeeper, so what does he or she want as tribute?
What is readability?
Readability consists of many elements. The first of those is the script must be attractive and easy on the eye.
The other day I heard someone say that there is no appreciable difference between a spec script and a shooting script. Wow! The spec should not contain the camera directions, shot descriptions, editing directions (transitions), and other technical intrusions found in a shooting script unless they are essential for the story. And those instances should be rare.
Since words written in all-CAPS are hard on the eyes, do not CAP props, objects, places, and things in your narrative description. That’s for the continuity breakdown that derives from a shooting script. These days, it’s not even necessary to CAP sounds, although it’s perfectly okay to do so. I recommend you CAP important sounds only.
In essence, a reader likes to see precise scene headings, lean narrative description devoid of all the technical stuff I’ve mentioned, and crisp dialogue. And some white space helps, too.
The good news to the developing writer is you don’t have to understand every formatting nuance under the sun. As Dr. Format, I stand to profit if I say you need to use all the many shooting script formatting conventions and must load your script up with formatting tricks that you can learn from little ol’ me. Instead, I recommend that you use correct spec script format that excludes unnecessary devices that may encumber the read.
Can you provide an example?
Here’s an opening from a shooting script:
EXT. HIGHWAY 27 – DAY – AERIAL VIEW WE SEE the lush Florida countryside until WE FIND our subject, a DARK GREEN VAN. SLOW ZOOM ON VAN
What follows is a spec script version, which is more readable and more interesting:
EXT. FLORIDA – DAY From the Atlantic shore, the lush countryside extends for miles. Below, a black two-lane highway meanders through the spring growth. A dark green van scoots down the highway.
Notice that we direct the camera without using camera directions. We open with the same aerial view and then the camera moves down until it’s near the van. That’s all implied. A professional reader will get that immediately.
What are other elements of “readability”?
Rather than using an informative style of writing, a spec writer will generally employ a more entertaining style. The above examples illustrate the difference.
As part of that entertaining style, use specific language and specific, active verbs that help characterize your characters and/or the moment. Which version below do you prefer?
Jim is drinking a beer.
Jim cocks his head and gulps a Bud Light.
A spec is economical. In other words, screenwriting is to some degree the art of saying as much as you can with as few words as you can both in narrative description and dialogue. Of course, that’s not always true. You also want to milk the emotion in certain scenes and dramatize cinematic moments.
Finally, clarity is key. You can’t afford to lose or confuse a reader. That’s not an issue for a shooting script, but specs are read quickly by readers who already have piles of scripts on their desks. Don’t get too tricky or subtle. If the character dies, say so.
If there is any doubt, opt for clarity.
Should you read shooting scripts?
Absolutely! Even though they are usually not as readable as a spec, you can learn so much about story, character development, pacing, dialogue, and so on from professional writers. These are scripts that were deemed good enough to produce.
Spec scripts are hard to find, but they are a joy when you do. For example, I don’t recall a single technical direction or shot in the specs I own of Chinatown and Basic Instinct. Both are readable.
I’ve noticed that some books contain something close to spec versions of scripts. Successful writers read the work of others in any form they can get it. Just remember when you write your own script to make it as readable as you can. And keep writing!
- More articles by Dave Trottier
- Screenwriter's Guidepost: "How do I know when my script is done?"
- Balls of Steel Goes Into the Writing Room and Behind the Lines with DR
Get more of Dave's invaluable advice in his classic book
The Screenwriter's Bible