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First Draft: Five Criminally Underrated Elements of Successful Screenplays

First Draft: Five Criminally Underrated Elements of Successful Screenplays

First Draft

5. Simple Format

The fifth and final underrated element is by far the most basic—simple format.

You’ve been told endlessly not to direct your screenplays within the scene description by using camera angles and transitions—these are wise words to live and write by—but screenwriters still make the mistakes of over-formatting their scripts.

While we could easily go example-by-example of what not to do, let’s focus on what you should stick to 99 percent of the time when it comes to formatting.


That’s all that readers need. Tell us where the characters are and what time of the day it is. Then use the description to briefly give us the broad strokes of what we need to envision. That’s it.

Anything more on a regular basis throughout the screenplay is overkill.

When you keep it simple and direct, the reading experience is much more easily applicable to our mind’s eye. We can process the visuals quickly as our brain registers that simple formula of INT or EXT, LOCATION, and DAY or NIGHT. When you start to add more formatting, our brains are forced to stop, review, interpret, and then envision before we move on. When we see that simple formula, we can scan past in a millisecond and get to the good stuff. The cinematic visuals will play easier in our mind’s eye, as opposed to having to stop with every irregular formatting element.

Imagine sitting in a screening room while watching a movie and every time the film switches to a new location, we’re forced to cut to black to read a title card—that is what it is like reading unnecessary format when the writer could just pare it down to INT. PRISON – NIGHT.

If you need to convey anything more (dusk or dawn, same, later, flashback, date, etc.), do it very sparingly.

The best screenplays are those that lack clutter in the format.

Utilizing these five underrated elements in your screenplays can be simple but effective difference-makers. They can be the X-factors that take a good script and transform it into a truly successful screenplay. MM

This post originally appeared on the blog ScreenCraftScreenCraft is dedicated to helping screenwriters and filmmakers succeed through educational events, screenwriting competitions and the annual ScreenCraft Screenwriting Fellowship program, connecting screenwriters with agents, managers and Hollywood producers. Follow ScreenCraft on TwitterFacebook, and YouTube.

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