Screenwriting : Correlation vs Causality by Craig D Griffiths

Craig D Griffiths

Correlation vs Causality

This is a thought thread. Something to ponder and debate. I hope to get as many meaningful comments as possible.

Great scripts and Crap scripts can both have non-standard formatting.

Great scripts and Craps scripts can both have perfect formatting.

Both these statements are a correct (correlation).

If non- standard formatting is present in both great and crap scripts, it cannot be a contributing factor to quality.

Do you agree or disagree?

Formatting does have a place in the overall process. I but believe many writers see it as a quality indicator, which I don’t think is correct.

Thanks in advance.

Eric Christopherson

I suspect that correct formatting correlates with quality scripts, but I don't know to what extent. (There may not be such a thing as correct formatting though.)

Doug Nelson

I think you're talking two distinct critters here. Script formatting is more of a technical critter and a minor aspect of screenwriting. The story - its audience understanding and appeal - its basic compellingness and development must be gripping from beginning to end. The formatting is how you dress it up. You wouldn't attend the Symphony in your sweats nor would you wear a suit & tie to your kid's little league ball game.

The goal then is a script that presents a compelling story in a recognizable format. I think both are critical but like the chicken-or-egg conundrum; I don't know which comes first.

Craig D Griffiths

Doug Nelson I want to give you a big manly hug about now. I started this thread as a way of getting to this point and you did a Usain Bolt to it.

There has been many a comment (like) “if you can’t do good formatting you can’t write”. Or telling people they are amateurs if they don’t stick to the format rules.

Eric Christopherson I would say the correlation comes from habit and software. But I love Tony Gilroy. You read his stuff and you move through scenes and locations with nearly no scene headings.

I think they co-exist regardless of each other.

Ally Shina

I agree with you Craig, a good script can't be determined by format alone. In fact I believe that if a script reader read a crap script that was perfectly formatted the script would still be crap.

In fact... here's an even scarier thought. Crap scripts that are written in the perfect 3 Act structure, the beginning, middle and end makes the story seem as though the story is good because the story happens in an order it should happen, nothing seems to be missing but essentially the script itself is crap. In fact, I have a theory that perfectly formatted 3 Act structure scripts are one of the main reasons why there are so many boring movies on the shelves. Yes, yes... the story has a beginning, middle and end... yes, the hero had an obstacle and over came it.. but what really just happened? I sat for 2 hours of my life watching the same protagonist overcome an obstacle that could've been resolved with a simple doctor's note for why Jim missed the important meeting. But no... because some screenwriter watched every structure webinar on the internet, I must watch Jim lose his job again...

It's easy to log onto the internet and learn the rules, structure and format and write a convincing enough script to have another boring movie made out of it. I also blame script reader checklists for this phenomenon, some scripts get one too many ticks for technicalities instead of creativity. Those checklists can be brutal.

But yeah, we live, we write and stick to the format so pur scripts are considered crap because they would be considered amateurish if we didn't

Kiril Maksimoski

Here in Europe, formatting doesn't matter much. I've read some Macedonian professional screenwriter's work written much like a prose in Word...However, presenting your work in UK/US is a different thing and I think formatting correlates with first impressions of the script. If your script doesn't have as much as "C" of the Currier font, large are chances it won't even be touched by the industry readers...and it could be the next "Alien" for what they know.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Craig, better define what you mean by “formatting.” Clarify. For example, do you mean “script formatting” as in the technical sense, say, using scene headings? Or are you talking about story structure? “Formatting” is another blanket term that gets thrown around in the forum that seems to mean different things to different people, and often it starts arguments about different things, like “rules.” When I hear “formatting,” I think how it is typed on the page, not about structure nor acts, not about anything of substance nor about the actual writing itself. Doug points it out too. There’s script format and formula and story structure and/or paradigms and/or different approaches and/or writing styles. Much is subjective too. So your question is confusing, certainly without context. Standard? Perfect? Who determines that? What are you referring to? And also, just who is saying “if you can’t do good formatting you can’t write?” Many say this? Huh? No, never hear this. This seems imaginary, like an imaginary evil draconian reader bogeyman. If you are writing a screenplay then you are using script format, of which there are many different ways to do so. Therefore your point or question is rather moot and/or irrelevant, in my opinion.

Ally Shina

Beth, I had no idea there was an ongoing debate about what format means on the forum. I just assumed it meant what it means on all the other industry websites... format as in scene headings and line spacing...

so naturally now I'm just as confused as you are.

Dan Guardino


Formatting are things like12-point Courier font, 1.5 inch left margin, 1 inch right margin (between .5 inches and 1.25 inches), ragged, 1 inch top and bottom margins, dialogue speaker names in all caps 3.7 inches from left side of page, actor parentheticals 3.1 inches from left side of page, dialogue 2.5 inches from left side of page.

The 3 Acts you were talking about is the industry standard for structure. However, that is not considered a rule, just the industry standard, so people can structure their screenplays anyway they want. Personally I sometimes use the 3 Act structure and sometimes the 4 Act structure which is just a variation of the 3 Act structure. However half the time I would just sit down in front of my computer and write the scenes as they pop into my head. That might not be the best way but it seems the more I think about what I am doing the worse my screenplays turn out.

Pierre Langenegger

There has been many a comment (like) “if you can’t do good formatting you can’t write”. - I'm not sure where you go for your comments but I've never seen this.

Louis Tété

Formatting isn't guarantee of good or bad quality in my opinion. Formatting makes the reading much more easier, it's a tool to have a better understanding of the story instead of trying to understand it. Knowing how to properly format a script makes you look more "professional" though. Weird analogy, it's like Mc Donalds ads lol, in appearance it looks amazingly tasty (formatting is on point) but when you actually get the product and tastes it (deep dive in the story) it is pretty bad. And as Beth Fox Heisinger wrote, "formatting" is a pretty wide term.

Ally Shina

Dan... I'm confused why you just gave me a line spacing breakdown. I happen to mention that format is line spacing...

Also, I know the difference... I do state in my opening line about the 3 ACT structure "in fact, has a scarier thought" meaning I was making an example about something that is scarier than what Craig mentions in his post.

I don't understand how my comment is now a grade school definition and basic screenwriting lesson? Or perhaps English is a 2nd or 3rd language for you and you just didn't understand me?

Rutger Oosterhoff

Thanks for this last post CJ. For me it clearefied a lot in a good way. And to go slightly of subject,.I must say I love Simply Scripts. They are mercilessly honest about the short screenplays submitted there. No better way to learn. And if you (generally speaking) are active enough on the forum, they maybe even read more than just the first scene of a feature you submit AND comment on it.. Very generous!

I especially "Dreamscale" on Stage32. Liked his harsh but honest comments on Simply Scripts.

Dan MaxXx

Okay, so who here has worked as an Exec or a Reader? Meaning your job is to read screenplays for a living?

What piles are scripts are you reading, scripts from hobbyists or scripts from employed/repped writers?

No offense but this post theory is just that, a theory. Where are facts?

Perhaps someone from the Paid Services section - a current employed Executive whose job is to read screenplays - should answer this format theory question.

Sam Borowski

So, Craig, please don't take this the wrong way, but you're asking a question that I feel is very silly. Most people on this site, 'really want to make it,' but spend so much time debating things that are foolish in my opinion. If you're not an established screenwriter, not only WGA, but also having sold several scripts that were made into movies, there is no reason to not follow correct formatting. You reference Tony Gilroy, but remember, he is a Pulitzer Prize Winning playwright, hugely successful screenwriter who's penned the Bourne Films and has directed one of them. He CAN break the rules with success like that. You and others can't. To put yourself behind the eight-ball, so to speak is not a helpful 'style.' And some of you miss the point. Just because a 'crap script' is still a 'crap script' when it's formatted correctly, that DOESN'T MEAN you take a great script and stray from correct formatting rules. That's like cutting your nose to spite your face. An acquaintance of mine worked for Bender & Spink years ago and was surprised to learn - this is more than a decade ago - that when they accepted scripts, they wanted a white card stock cover, no designs - no colors. Some places that either accept unsolicited scripts OR scripts that were sent to them by people they deal with, have been known to toss aside scripts that vary from the norm in formatting and other industry standard designs. There is never any reason to stray from the norm of what they want. One thing C.J. said that I agreed with is, why risk alienating anyone? To me, this is like the IMDb debate, which isn't really a debate at all. And, it's no different than if you make a short film. You plan out the shoot, don't film it on a whim in a day and put non-actors in roles. Don't have POPS in the sound and other poor sound quality. That's honestly, not a calling card you would want to show anyone. Again, I meant this to be helpful, so I hope you don't take it the wrong way. I almost didn't respond, because I am honestly NOT trying to bully anyone. But, I read so many things here - IN GENERAL NOT IN THIS THREAD - and often I think they miss the point. One time I sent a name actor a script from a young soon-to-be first-time director and it was correctly formatted. There were a few things that he did a little differently - very few - AND the actor picked them out. He wound up doing the project, but the director did give the script a once-over. It is my very humble opinion, that these forums often worry about the wrong things. Write the BEST SCRIPT you can. Tight. Great dialogue. Show it to industry professionals you trust. Make it the BEST it can be. THE ABSOLUTE BEST. Yes, format it correctly (that's just the bare minimum). Perhaps get some attachments and an experienced producer. Network, Network, Network and BE MORE PROACTIVE! Go out and make that movie! Anyway, that's my story and I'm sticking to it. Here's hoping this helps and is not taken the wrong way. GOD BLESS and STAY FRESH! <3

Beth Fox Heisinger

Ally, you brought up structure and acts and rules above, which is why I asked Craig to better clarify. The only place I’ve ever heard anything slightly similar to “if you can’t do good formatting then you can’t write” is from peers here at Stage 32—that’s it. So, again, this seems imaginary, some bogeyman notion that has been purported and perpetuated to haunt amateur and teaching circles to scare new writers. Never hear it anywhere else from anyone else. Again, this seems like a version of that same debate of “form versus art,” which I find to be unfortunate and often polarizing and damaging. Sure, contests will have a score for format, but it seems such a low obvious baseline that it speaks to the high volume of submissions that a contest may get from folks who have never written a screenplay before. Someone working in a new medium or using a new tool for the first time may need or wish for guidance; here’s what is required for this contest. Personally, I am not on Simply Scripts nor have I ever posted anything there so I am unaware of reviewers on that site, only that I hear tidbits about how other writers impose their opinion upon others. I apologize for jumping up on a soapbox, but I find this compartmentalizing of elements and then combating them against each other only distracts from the craft itself and does not offer anything of substance. Okay, climbing down now. ;)

Ally Shina

I'm with you Beth, I am confused because after your comment, I need some clarification too. And I agree with you completely about scaring new writers with format. I just came back onto Stage32 after I quit writing altogether. I used to write before studying screenwriting. I used software to write my scripts, I learned from as much web based education there was and I thought I had the whole format thing down. Then I enrolled for my course. I was so frustrated... scoring As and sometimes a lousy 82% and the feedback was always something to do with format, or structure or beats or rhythm. I completed the course with merit, could've been with honors but apparently I broke a rule of writing in my final script I got scored below 80% for the first time during the course. I asked my lecturer what I did so horribly wrong 1 assignment out of an entire course's worth dropped my grade so severely and you know what she said... Format. I almost died... like I couldn't believe that after all those years of writing and no film school and the likes, she called me out on format. And there was a reasonable reason why... I had one of those format situations in my script that the industry debates about all the time. SUPERIMPOSE but it's like a Title Page drama that really my lecturer settled it... we use SUPER. That debate needs to end people, the industry must go democratic on that drama, put it to a vote and SUPER will win, and the director will decide when in production whether to black the screen or put the SUPER over the screen. I quit writing for 2 and a half years Beth. I quit because they say if you can't format you can't write but the format is inconclusive so I believed I couldn't write. I obsessed a little after my course, trying to find the right format for everything. But then I quit... started a production company, made 1 documentary and decided, I'm a writer... somebody wrote before me and the ones who wrote before me could write use SUPER. Strangely enough... less than a month after I came back to Stage32, that debate came up again. No more industry. I will format like the Oscar winners, your debates on Stage32, count me out.

Joe Leone

Story is always king - regardless of style, format or platform. Simply put, spin a good yarn and people won't be able to look away. (great question by the way! -- and I'm just paraphrasing Bob McKee)

Beth Fox Heisinger

I’m sorry that happened to you, Ally. Sounds like your teacher wasn’t very supportive and had a severe grading system.

Bill Costantini

Hi Craig,

I think you're referring to Dan Gilroy (not his brother Tony), who wrote Nightcrawler and who had a unique formatting style at times. But it's really not too unconventional - the margins are the same recommended settings. He uses scene headings, but mostly omits time references like "day" or "night" after the scene heading. He also places some words in the script that utilize extremely large fonts.

I really can't recall any other scripts that deviate in that minor way, including Tony Gilroy's scripts. 400 Days of Summer did at times, too, if I recall correctly.

There really isn't much to formatting a script in the conventional and generally-accepted way. That's one of the top pet peeves of script readers, and I always try to follow generally-accepted guidelines.

Best fortunes in your creative endeavors, Craig!

Dan Guardino

Alley. You said, “so naturally now I'm just as confused as you are.” I replied to that statement. I am not trying to give you a grade school definition and basic screenwriting lesson and English is not my second language.

Craig D Griffiths

Pierre Langenegger you probably ignored those comments for the foolishness they are and forgot them immediately.

Craig D Griffiths

Bill Costantini always getting my Gilroys confused.

Ally Shina

Dan, Oh so now I know why you did that... I wrote Beth's name because my response was about Beth's comment. For the record, I hoped English was your 1st language and you just put in some extra effort because it made you seem like an extra caring person and those are rare nowadays...

Craig D Griffiths

My overall point is that we should concentrate on things that impact the eventual product. That isn’t a margin for example. New writers are seduced by the simple such as “what software makes me a professional”.

My opening statement was to prompt debate.

Sam, Craig Mazin & John August both present and past WGA Board members say the things like formatting are arbitrary an unimportant. So, I feel I can’t ignore them either.

So what questions will help us as a group to develop better stories?

Bill Costantini

Craig: I hear you. They certainly have written many produced screenplays between them. I don't know if you saw this article a few years back, but Dan Gilroy addresses "page look" decisions for Nightcrawler.

Best fortunes in your creative endeavors, Craig!

Pierre Langenegger

Umm, no Craig, I'm not forgetful yet. I haven't seen them.

Doug Nelson

Dan M - I was in the past (long ago & far away).

Sam B - don't forget too - scripts were presented on 3 hole paper but could only have 2 #4 brass rivets... otherwise; you were an AMATEUR! The industry could be cruel in those days too.

Sam Borowski

Craig, you missed my point entirely. But, there's no use in debating you here, as it would not be constructive and it would result in hurt feelings. However, if you truly wanted to see what I am talking about, please by all means send me a private message and I will show you my side of it - if you'd like to have a professional conversation. I will say that I don't think these 'provoking' questions off the top of your head are helpful, nor will they help one person sell a script or make a movie. I did not mean that nastily, but rather bluntly. To borrow your phrase, why not concentrate on things that will help you craft a better story, help you find an investor, sell your script and overall make your movie. Not formatting your script properly is not something that will help you achieve any of the above. I also think you are taking Mazin and August a bit out of context here. And, in conclusion, I use FINAL DRAFT and I Am one of their Brand Ambassadors. I think it's the BEST!

Sam Borowski

Doug Nelson : Yes and in those days, all my scripts were on 3-hole punch paper with two Acco Brass Fasteners. ;) GOD BLESS and STAY FRESH!!!

M L.

As long as the information is there, I personally don't care if it's INT. KITCHEN - Night or if it's INT Kitchen, Night

I don't care. But in a program like Final Draft the software actually does. The scene headings have to be proper and consistent in order to auto generate location reports. Same with character names. Spelling is important so that a character report is accurate.

Formatting is about more than discipline if you want to maximize the utility of the software and make the 1st A.D.'s job much easier. Think ahead to production. Write and break up scenes so that the crew will be able to easily get them into a call sheet and put on a slate.

Dan MaxXx

manager’s office. No loglines, no queries - just the script. And this is the good pile; the scripts are printed! Try picking winners out of tall piles and do that living. You’ll come up with your own screenwriting rules fast.

Phillip "Le Raconteur" Hardy

Like it or not, there are script readers that will think less of your work if the formatting isn't per generally accepted industry standards. I've had reader object to me not using 12-point font for my title. So as several others has mentioned, it's a good idea to understand the fundamentals of screenplay formatting. This has little to do with talent. I has to do with a perceived respect for the craft and separating experienced and inexperienced writers. Good topic.

PS, script requests can be hard to come by. So why blow an opportunity by submitting a screenplay loaded with spelling and punctuation errors, omitted words and formatting that is less than professional? Just my humble opinion.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Right. Much is technical and practical production stuff. Script format—much is there for simple clarity, clear communication, and functionality. Yeah, love pictures like that Dan, M! Rather daunting and humbling, yes? Lol! Of course, readers come up with their own system of getting through it all and instinctually know what rises above the fray and what doesn't. Scripts aren't read or are rejected for far more reasons than mere formatting—it's not a good fit, the story is derivative, don't like the topic, etc, etc, etc. I'm no "pro" reader myself, but, hell, I've read hundreds of screenplays, and I can determine whether I wish to read further or not by the first line. What keeps me up at night is the substance, writing effective work. This is a highly competitive, difficult, and subjective field—yes! Still, this notion seems falsely purported and perpetuated. New writers are seduced? I don't see evidence of such phenomena. Lol! It seems like bad cases or bad script examples or personal opinion blogs or articles and/or hard truths all mixed together have blown this out of proportion. Maybe? Dunno? Anyway, thanks for further explaining your post, Craig. Much appreciated. If we wish to elevate the general discussion, then let's focus on the craft as a whole. Move on from the baseline of formatting. ;)

Jacob Buterbaugh

Every industry has standards, protocols, and practices, or, in other words, the way it does whatever it does.... If people who want to become dentists ever start questioning and doubting the standards, protocols, and practices of dentistry, we're all gonna lose our teeth! My teeth are pretty. I like my teeth -- a lot. I really don't want to lose them! Thank goodness aspiring dentists don't question and complain about "rules" (or whatever you want to call them) as much as aspiring screenwriters do.

Seriously, I think we should just do things the way we're expected to do them. I mean, the odds are extraordinarily stacked against us anyway. If we format our scripts correctly, then there's at least one less thing standing in our way. That's kind of how I look at it.

Craig D Griffiths

Phillip "Le Raconteur" Hardy you are correct however “screenplay loaded with spelling and punctuation errors, omitted words and formatting that is less than professional“ many of these things are formatting and are a greater indicator of poor writing skills.

Dan MaxXx I have three letters in response to your historic picture PDF. And yes your own screen writing rules - fast. I had a job advert, I got 400 applicants. I had to cull it to 20 before I could ask for help. They helped me cull it down to 6. They then helped me interview.

Beth Fox Heisinger I don’t read for a living. But I do read work to help people. You can tell in a few sentences of a person can write. It the ramble, there is no order in their thoughts, sentences are crap, they spend two paragraphs describe snow and four word describing the protagonist.

Matthew Barker

I think format must come second to story. Format might make it easier to read, but if the story isn't there, the format is irrelevant. Having said that, I think format can make it very difficult for people to access your story. With industry professionals so busy and under the pump, with there being so many moving parts in this industry that, if poor formatting gets in the way, nobody is going to bother reading your script through. I heard once, and I cannot recall from where but it would have been one of the countless books or podcasts on the craft of screenwriting, that with the piles and piles of scripts on desks, if a reader (whoever they may be) can toss one script aside and shorten that pile, they'll do it. If you've got crap format on page one, it might be enough. If you've got crap story on page one, it'll definitely go.

Dan Guardino

I think both story and formatting are important. Screenplays are formatted a certain way because they have to be used to produce a movie. So formatting is important. Produces want to produce a good movie so they want good stories. Screenwriters want to sell their screenplays or get hired to write them. There is a lot of competition out there so for a spec screenplay to have any realistic chance of success it will have to rise above the competition. That means it would have to be well-written and properly formatted. That is just my own opinion and I really don’t think having one without the other works very well.

Craig D Griffiths

Dan Guardino I agree, they do tend to go hand in hand. But if we look at the pile of papers in the photo posted by Dan Maxx. There are two scripts that jump out.

<<~~~ If you want to play along, go have a look and come back ~~~>>

For me the scripts that jump out are the two with coloured covers. Which many people say is a no no.

Standing out isn’t an indication of quality. You have one chance at a first impression. If you do something that stands out. Like funky format or coloured paper. You will be remembered, either as a complete waste of time or an interesting writer.

You have to be amazing before you step forward and scream “look over here”

Craig D Griffiths

Matthew Barker I heard John August say that he reader for Universal for two years. In that time he only recommended 3 scripts. He got in trouble for all 3 of his recommendations.

For me that is just proof that the low cost of entry has filled our world with crap.

Matthew Barker

Well, that picture is depressing and the narrative doesn't help much, thank you very much Craig D Griffiths! lol. Henceforth, I shall only send my scripts to producers in the same way Billy Porter delivers himself to the Met Gala! How's THAT for standing out?! :-)

Craig D Griffiths

Matthew Barker Seen it all before LOL.

They will get their assist to throw you across the room unread.

Bill Costantini

Craig: I think I heard that before, too.

One of the first movie studios in the U.S. was near my house in Chicago. Some things never change - they were receiving over 10,000 scripts a week back in 1910, when most films were 5-10 minutes long and when they made 2 or 3 a week. They even developed the first "Rejection Letter."

You'll be happy to know that the first "How-To Book on Writing for Film" (called Scenarios, Photo Plays, Moving Plays back then) came out over 100 years ago, too. Some things really never change.

Best fortunes in your creative endeavors, Craig!

Bill Costantini

First "How-To" Book, (dated 1911) which you can find here in its entirety at the link below. It even shows how to write a cover letter, and offered script-doctor/script-coverage services at an additional cost. And you thought Blake Snyder was the first! Heh-heh. (Just kidding, Craig.)

Best fortunes in your creative endeavors, Craig!


Craig D Griffiths

No that was some ancient greek or Volger LOL.

I love that wanted original voices over 100 years ago and we say that now like we just thought of it.

Dan Guardino

Craig. I looked at the picture and that’s only a tiny fraction of the 250,000 or so unsold specs floating around Hollywood on any given day. I agree a screenwriter should try to stand out from the crowed. I didn’t really on flunky fonts or different color covers, but I attached two well-known directors to a few of my screenplays.

Dan MaxXx

Craig, when I was a reader some screenplays came with cardboard covers from the Agencies. I remember stealing CAA or WME covers and putting them on my screenplays.

All the fancy covers and colored paper (that's for production drafts) don't mean jack. It's just the words on the page and your imagination/concept.

You still haven't explained which pile of scripts you read to make your theories.

Craig D Griffiths

Dan MaxXx if we look at that pile and think “from the millions around. That is a small pile”.

I’ll go through my download folder on my Mac and make a list of the scripts I have read. I also have a few hard covers, like Nolan’s batman trilogy. But my family know I am a slow reader. I think I got that present because of the story boards and production notes.

Craig D Griffiths

I wouldn’t go funky fonts either.

But I may use a strange font to display graffiti or make a point in one line.

I will use “ing” words to describe action underway when we come across it. All these are No No’s apparently. But they exist, so I will use as I need them. Not because they exist, but they exist to solve a problem, a problem I may have.

Dan Guardino

Craig. Active voice is preferred in screenplays, but nobody says you can’t use words that end in “ing” if you choose to do so. Also, this has absolutely nothing to do with formatting. I think too many people read how to books and think what they say in them are rules when more often than not they have nothing to do with formatting rules.

Craig D Griffiths

Dan Guardino the formatting definition has drifted wildly in this thread. What I started as a topic has become a ill defined question - my bad.

But I hope I people have got something from parts of it.

I think it is my reoccurring nightmare of being chased by Rule Nazis.

Dan Guardino

Craig. I thought this was a good topic and I hope you keep posting topics about the craft.

Dan MaxXx

Get your hands on the 2019 annual Black List scripts or Tracking board 2019 Hot List scripts. That's what everyone is reading and telling their peers "psst, checkout these new guns for hire!"

Lots of rules breakers :) But I didn't see any wacky formatting/pictures like "A Quiet Place" script.

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