Screenwriting : Form vs Craft by Craig D Griffiths

Craig D Griffiths

Form vs Craft

This is a conversation prompt and opinion lightening rod.

I have seen people on here make statements like, “I have perfect formatting, heaps of white space, my characters change, but I still can’t sell my script”.

I would say to them that your craft is lacking. I always encourage story over form when a writer is learning.

I also believe the following:

1) we have to compete with a million terrible scripts, because people think the form is the writing. This encourages mass production of crap.

2) that this will never improve as there is an industry living on these bad scripts.

3) that a writer is better off learning story than anything else. It is the root of all things.

I am hoping for insightful discussions.

Earl Tom Devere

Story trumps character and plot. Character and plot trumps dialogue. Dialogue trumps format. Format trumps white space. And, in that order.

Craig D Griffiths

Earl Tom Devere to quote Homer Simpson “I find your views interesting would like to subscribe to your newsletter”. Actually couldn’t agree more

I think some of the stuff in the middle is an outcome of the others, so it is hard. I see character as a product of dialogue and action. But we are splitting hairs.

Rutger Oosterhoff

I read that 99% of screenplays are describing a 'situation', instaed of 'telling a story'. This is explained with "Fat Tootsie". I have to start reading more screenplays and see if that is through.

Craig D Griffiths

I am so use to writing and reading screenplays that I tried to finish a novel a wrote years, but found it to hard to write in past tense.

Reading screenplays become addictive.

Earl Tom Devere

Craig, dialogue and character truly go together. But character comes first... the motivation, the past, the beliefs, etc. Those all inform the dialogue. Dialogue is the expression of character. And on a more cynical note, the dialogue will get changed in production anyways to accommodate other attached talent. William Goldman stated, to paraphrase, that dialogue was the last thing he worried about.

Earl Tom Devere

Wow. Craig, I noticed that also in my reading. I cannot read novels anymore without forcing myself to do it and certainly not for pleasure. Too long winded. Past tense takes me out of the story. Screenplays are addictive.

Craig D Griffiths

True I need to know the character before I can write them. But I reveal them through their actions. You are correct, this is only possible because the characters already exist in my head.

Having said that. They are not set in stone. Mid story if that character does work, back to page one with a new character. So sometimes action and dialogue works as a discovery tool for me.

CJ Walley

If you read one book on screenwriting, you are ahead of 50% of other screenwriters.

If you read two books on screenwriting, you are ahead of 99% of other screenwriters.

We've got a lot of screenwriters polishing their scripts but very few are honing their craft.

Craig D Griffiths

Craft is everything. Here is an example of Billy Wilder.

Writer gave Billy a 4 page scene between a husband and wife.

Billy came up with this:

Couple get into the elevator, woman is staring straight ahead.

The elevator stops at a floor on it ways down. Pretty girl gets in. The man removes his hat. The woman looks at him angry. The elevator doors close.

The pages were writing, the scene Wilder shot was craft.

Eric Christopherson

Actually Craig my memory is that it was Wilder who wrote the four page scene, early in his career, and then the director, his mentor, Ernst Lubitsch, shot the scene with no dialog, just the angry glance.

Craig D Griffiths

Could be. I heard it in a Youtube interview singing Wilder’s praise.

For me it is a good example of writing bs craft.

Tennyson Stead

Here's the article I wrote for last month's Stage 32 Blog, which details the reason literally 93% of the screenplays I read get an automatic "pass." While the amount of white space on the page may make my job a little easier or harder, it won't get a screenplay rejected (by me, at least) with the same sense of rigid gatekeeping that a structural issue will:

Tennyson Stead

If your craft as a screenwriter is lacking, even if it's because you're more focused on bringing your craft as a novelist or journalist to the big screen, then it's literally my job as a reader to protect producers from your unsupportive writing. If you have issues with the format, then you're just an irritating, time-consuming person to work with.

Mind you, plenty of writers are both!

Craig D Griffiths

I think bad formatting can be a symptom of bad writing not a cause. Great writing is possible with poor format, but unlikely.

But I have never watched a film and thought “I bet this was formatted amazingly”. I know I am just being difficult.

Formatting is a hint at professionalism in that you as a writer wants to make life easy on the reader.

Anthony Moore

Agree with Tennyson. I've read a lot of "first time" screenwriters and they almost always write a script like they are trying to pen a novel. One writer spent a whole page describing how the main character looked, right down to the mismatched socks, followed by over three pages of the description of the enemy army, the various types of troops and their camp on volcanic ground. I rewrote those 5 pages and got it down to one and a half. I suggested that they stop using MS Word, get some Screenwriting software and concentrate on the story, not the unnecessary detail which will never be seen.

Ingrid Goldberg

Anthony Moore: Have you ever read any plays by Eugene O'Neill? You probably would have dumped his script in the trash. Maybe the "readers" and "gatekeepers" need to open their mindsets a little. Just a little.

Craig D Griffiths

Ingrid Goldberg I have to disagree. I think many readers/gate keepers stick to tried and tired things as it is safe.

But we are writers that get to the point quickly and visually. I write unfilmables, but they inform the actors or the reader so they know how it will feel. If that takes me a page I need to find a new art form for my expression.

Jeff Caldwell

Craig - why not rewrite that novel in present tense?

Craig D Griffiths

That’s what I thought as well. I went to my library and looked at every book I own and they are all past tense. So I thought “what would Stephen King do?”. A quick Google search tells me SK says past tense only.

So if I can convince myself to continue, it will be past tense. I will do a page 1 rewrite. I am a much better writer now. I can use far less words. It is a better read.

Doug Nelson

Ah the olde format/story conundrum. Obviously, a script needs to present a compelling story to be worthy - no question. But then too, that script needs to fe formatted in a generally acceptable industry standard in order to proceed through the evaluation process.

There are zillions of scripts floating around out there and every reader may be task with reading ten a day (or more). Obviously the reader does not have adequate time to read each & every script in order to give it a through reading and understanding. So what to do? The first thing a reader is going to do is just to fan through the script. If the scene headers are wacko and there are huge blocks of text, then it goes directly into the 'round file' and is never read at all. I don't know the precise numbers but it's my observation that about 95% fall out right here.

If it passes that 'first glance' test, then a reader will start reading. By page 3, a seasoned reader can quickly determine if further reading is warranted - or not. My observation is that some 95% of those fall by the wayside and are deposited in the trusty ole 'round file'.

Then we get to the third tier This is where the story must shine like a beacon in the night. This is where the truly compelling story shines - or not. Is the story big enough to have broad market appeal? Is it filmable at a reasonable profit/expense ratio? Generally, I'd say that 95% fall out at this level. And that's in spite of having a strong story.

So look at the numbers: 10,000 submitted scripts less 95% = 500 scripts from stage I. Stage II is 500 scripts that lose about 95%, leaving 25 scripts. Of those, 95% more will fall out leaving only 1.25 scripts in stage III.

Tough 'odds' for sure but you see what it takes to get to 3rd base and remember that more than just one reader is involved. So the answer to the question is that format will get you through the first stage but it takes a dynamite story to pass through stage III. Fight with it all you want but Hollywood ain't about to change its evil ways for you.

Jeff Caldwell

Yeah past is definitely most common, but there are some good ones in present. Anyway, hope it works out.

Craig D Griffiths

Doug Nelson a lot of people hold your opinion. But I have heard several readers on podcasts say they are paid to read, so they read. The reason they don’t instantly throw things out is the fear of the question “what about xxx?”.

How do you write coverage without reading it?

It is easy to skim when the crap level is easy to assess.

But I believe bad story is far easier to spot the poor formatting.

CJ Walley

There's a lot of confusion and speculation around script reading.

Many readers are obligated to read a script in full and few producers are.

However, you can have your work tossed in the metaphorical trashcan of a reader's mind part way down the first page and, if you have lost them and they still have to finish the script, they are likely just going to keep doubling down on what they hate. It's really no different to having to sit through a movie you dislike.

Readers often come across as cruel and harsh but they have to plow through a lot of lazy derivative garbage from people who are just playing at this in the hope it makes them rich.

What every artist needs to do is think hard about their relationship with validation and voice. There's a big difference between doing things out of fear and doing things to show professionalism. There's a big difference between being radical and coming across as disrespectful.

Plus, context and subjectivity are just such huge players.

Way too much focus is giving to formatting in screenwriting. Being able to format a screenplay to an acceptable standard is the equivalent of being able to put a pair of pants on for a job interview.

Anthony Moore

Ingrid Goldberg - I see where you were trying to go but Eugene O'Neill was a playwrite, not a screenwriter. Two similar but different types of writing. Of course I would read and/or write a stage play differently than a screenplay for a major motion picture. Just like movies and TVs scripts are similar but they have to handle certain elements differently.

Dan MaxXx

Hollywood (And this post seems to be another back hand slap of American movie making) are looking for new storytellers that can make money. Instead of Form V Craft, ask Job V Career, and what level you're in.

For example the NBA basketball has the D or G League - players on the fringe of breaking into the NBA. I'd say D & G league is equivalent to independent filmmakers/indie films. Small-timers.

"The Industry" (Hollywood) are union members and Corporations. That's the Industry, and their brand and way of making movies go back 100++ years. There are thousands of excellent scripts that never get made. Lots of craft sitting on shelves.

Stephen Floyd

I recently received criticism about my format from a contest judge. She wasn’t wrong, but that was all the criticism she offered. I got the feeling she wanted to avoid discussing the story because the content made her uncomfortable (violent crime thriller). So perhaps format can be used to deflect awkward conversations about story, though story is the real issue.

CJ Walley

Maybe I'm misinterpreting Craig's post but I think the industry he was inferring was the one serving the amateur script market which is too often overly focused on superficial aspects of screenwriting.

Very valid points either way though. Plenty of old friends in drawers waiting to get made.

CJ Walley

Stephen Floyd, what was the nature of how the feedback came about?

Phillip 'Le Docteur de Script' Hardy

I started writing scripts seven years ago. My writing has vastly improved by continuing to write and picking up more tools and techniques along the way. I've always been good at telling a story. But my newer work gets better by trying new things and by treating every page of my script as valuable real estate. In my experience, and I'm having work pitched this week to four well-known outfits, I think a writer will do themselves a disservice by not spending the requisite time formatting and proofreading their work before submitting it for review. I also think tools like the Final Draft Assign Voices that allows you to have a computer voice read your script aloud is a valuable tool. The ability to edit material including superfluous dialogue and overwritten narrative is also an asset.

Early on, I learned how to format a script using MS Word and quickly moved to Final Draft. I taught myself the basic functions and away I went. But as CJ says, reading some books about screenwriting, which should include basic structure and formatting, sure as hell won't do you any harm. My style is economic, and I prefer reading scripts that flow nicely and don't get bogged down with what (I consider) non value-added writing. But value is in the eye of the beholder. The object of the game is to get someone to make your script into a film. However you get there is your business.

Bill Costantini

Ouch. "Mass production of crap?" Seriously?

There have been so many great films/shows released this year - and last year, and every year prior to that. I make a list of the ones that I see every year since I've been a member here, and I only get to see a small fraction of them.

The industry people that I speak with have many great scripts to choose from, too, and I think it's safe to say (and accurate) that there are many more great stories written and in circulation than there are funding opportunities to produce them.

For those producers/execs, the dilemma always boils down to two different choices: which story they feel will give them the best financial return, or which story they truly want to (or can) make, regardless of return potential.

You may have to "compete with a million terrible scripts", but I don't, and I'm sure many other writers don't, either. I wish I did, though - it would make things a lot easier.

Best fortunes in your creative endeavors, Craig!

CJ Walley

Regarding my comment on books, which was admittedly curt and a little ambiguous, the point I'm making is that the vast majority of amateur screenwriters are seemingly putting in the absolute bare minimum and hoping for a miracle. There's an obsession with formatting (and reading produced scripts and getting cheap anonymous feedback) because it's a really lazy way for people to look like they are doing their homework.

How people chose to learn, be it via classes, books, or something else, should be whatever is best suited to them but anyone claiming to be passionate about this art form should be just as passionate about the craft, the history, the business, and everything else. That means constantly consuming vast quantities of the educational resources that are there for the taking.

CJ Walley

I think Craig means the mass production of crap scripts in an attempt to break in but I could be wrong.

Bill Costantini

CJ: After reading Craig's point number 2 ("industry living on these bad scripts."), I could only conclude that he's talking about the entertainment industry (film/TV/streaming content), and not something else.

I know I've said this to you before, but please keep us posted as to the release date of Break Even, and best continuing fortunes in all of your endeavors, CJ!

Jim Boston

I thought form and craft were equally important.

Me, I lucked up by inheriting a computer that already had Final Draft makes things so much easier when it comes to formatting. (If I had to use, say, Trelby, that'd be another story.)

But having FD 6 in that Power Mac I inherited helps me concentrate on telling the best story I that readers can get interested in and excited about that story.

Craig, great question! Thanks for posting (and for all you do for Stage 32)!

CJ Walley

Bill Costantini, I hear you and Dan MaxXx clearly feels he's implying the same. Hopefully Craig D Griffiths can clarify. I certainly agree with both your points that Hollywood itself is overwhelmed by excellent material and routinely produces great content.

CJ Walley

Bill Costantini, regarding your other point. Break Even is premiering at the Berlin International Film Festival next Feb so put on your best lederhosen and come eat some dinkelbrot.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Yeah, like Bill and Dan M, I'm struggling with some of the assertions and cynicism made in this thread. I also think the word "craft" gets thrown around a lot, by myself too, but it clearly has a different meaning to different people. Plus, no one can tell someone else how or what they should be passionate about, really. Right? How to express or voice that passion. Where your interests lie. That's up to the individual, no? There are many roads here, different avenues. And like others, I'm also tired and rather "put off" by the same formatting versus craft argument or debate when personally, I see them as parts of a whole. "Formatting" or form on the page is a part of the craft of screenwriting. Execution. Even if you go against convention in your approach you are still using some kind of form. Music composers use notes. Artists use art materials. However, it's often the intangible quality (voice or resonance) of a writer and the script/story that makes a work stand out above the fray, which is hard to define, hard to put a finger on, certainly in a forum. So, the discussion often devolves into some polarized debate about artistry versus form, but again, the two are intertwined. This debate also seems to sidestep all the other complex, affecting factors and any specific circumstances and is void of any actual context. Nonetheless, I do agree; some do put too much importance on the superficial, on falsity or false notions, and not enough on substance. My two cents, at least what I have learned so far: keep an open mind. Use all the tools and learn from all the resources and generous people available to you. Don't sit back and wait for something to come to you. You gotta get out there. Make connections. This is a relationship business. If you wish not to compete with as Craig stated "a million terrible scripts," then don't. ;) Best to you!

Earl Tom Devere

Bill Costantini I feel the same way. There are definitely crap scripts, but there are far more great stories out there than is imagined. I see high quality scripts almost every day but the funding is not there to make them. Sometimes, I cannot see the profit potential in them due to their high budget or very small niche audience, but there are lots of good stories. I am just a new Producer and doing my first feature, but I already have two dramedies lined up to make should funds become available. "Mass Production of Crap" seems harsh to me as well. There is definitely a problem with the current studio system making too many sequels and reboots and having too many writers on a project and not doing enough risky storytelling in the mid tier budgeted films and putting everything into tentpole films, but there are still lots of great films made every year. I tell that to my friends who wrongly feel music died in the 90s. Still great music being made - you just don't hear it on the radio. Same with film.

Travis Calvert

Great quote CJ Walley ... "Being able to format a screenplay to an acceptable standard is the equivalent of being able to put a pair of pants on for a job interview."

CJ Walley

If you walk into the room claiming screenwriting on a professional level is your big dream, industry members are going to want to see passion pouring from you from your work ethic, to your artistic aspirations, to your career goals, to your willingness to learn.

Travis Calvert

Tennyson Stead That article on "Why I passed"... pure gold.

Bill Costantini

Earl Tom: true to all of dat.

I was at a pitch session in the early 2000's, and there were around 200 writers there like me - aspiring and trying to break into the business. I sat in front of one of the producers, looked at his sign-in sheet of 40 names, and said "looks like I have a lot of competition here today." He matter-of-factly told me "that's not your competition - the 20 scripts on my desk from pro writers are."

GULP! Heh-heh.

I was later beat out a couple times by a couple A-List writers at the time, but at least I made it to the finals.

Regarding your music comment (long-time musician and live music fan here)...whenever people make a statement like that ("music died in the xx's")...I always say "no....YOU died in the 70's - you just don't know it yet!" Or whatever decade they said. Heh-heh again.

But here in 2019....over 10,000 films made globally on an annual basis (give or take a few hundred)....probably 1,000 shows made domestically....more diverse voices than ever before....more subject matters explored than ever before....more avenues/channels for creative content than ever before....more access to production equipment than ever before....there has never been a better time in the history of the world to be a screenwriter or content creator. Ever.

Best fortunes in your creative endeavors, Earl Tom!

Doug Nelson

Interesting thread. Yes there are many great stories out floating around in the screenwriting either. Unfortunately the majority are poorly written, poorly developed, poorly expressed; many are unfilmable, many lack widespread audience appeal, many are preachy...on & on. Every Producer needs to make a buck in order to keep going so he must be very cautious in his approach.

Bad format will stop you at the door. A well formatted script will at least garner a 'look'. Where it goes from there is up to the story. That's just the way it is in the real world.

Tennyson Stead

Travis Calvert Thank you, sir. Glad to be of service.

Earl Tom Devere

Bill Costantini Great quote "No, YOU died in the 70s - you just don't know it yet!" I think I will use that with my friends that say that occasionally.

Yeah, I say the same thing to others when they talk about their amateur competition. It is not the amateurs that are your competition but the professionals. Tough competition. A definite...GULP!

I am sidetracking a few of the professionals and went ahead and am producing some of my own writing first. And it is going gangbusters. We have a lot of hurdles to leap still, but I'm stoked. I even have a few dramedies coming up from other writers if my first is a success like HOTEL FLUGHAFEN (Yes, if you are here Guy, I want to make your movie) and HAULIN' ASH (Yes, Derek, you are on my radar too).

But yes, so much good content now. It makes it hard to find an audience but truly a great time to be a screenwriter! I was just watching THE EXPANSE the other day and wishing I had written it, but I still have hope for my own BYTE THE GODS (Hey, Netflix and SyFy, I have a competitor for THE EXPANSE). haha So much good stuff out there on TV and film now.

Truly. It is a great time to be a screenwriter and filmmaker.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Couldn't agree with you more, Bill. Lots of great work out there—I'm sure enjoying it as an audience member. Lol! The more diverse the better. ;) Lots of possible or growing options/outlets for filmmakers, content creators, showrunners, etc. Lots of projects, of course, vying for funding, distribution, etc.

Earl Tom Devere

The big hurdles are a definite challenge, Beth. Getting the right script. Getting the right cast and crew. Getting the funding. Getting the Distribution. And reaching that niche for your project. Filmmaking is a marathon and not a sprint.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Yes, I totally agree, Earl; it is a lot of hard work. Extremely challenging. No doubt. Yet hurdles are overcome, yes? At least, one can hope. ;) Best to you!

Earl Tom Devere

Yes, one big hurdle has been lept :) More to come and you become stronger and stronger as you run, do you not? Exercise strengthens the runner. Thanks, Beth. :)

Stephen Floyd

CJ Walley The feedback was in-person. Actually it was a room full of people. It was an amateur writing contest and the judge gave her impression of each entry (there weren't many) before announcing the winners.

Craig D Griffiths

Dan MaxXx producers can look at a tweet or a news article and see how to make money from it. So it item at hand which is a vehicle to profit can be in any format.

CJ Walley is correct regarding my motivations. Format and formula are peddled as magic bullets. Do this and a career will come. Yet how many people discuss story building or character development? How many script consultants offer story advice beyond “there should be a turn on page 11?”.

A thread here talked about how writing ruins the film watching experience. Is that because we can see formula?

Format is such a superficial thing. Software does automatically. If you are so bad at writing that you can’t even allow software to do its job, there is no chance you can write a story.

I have asked format questions here when I am stuck on a tricky scene and I need a clever way to explain something to a reader.

But if some flicked through a script I have in production they would see INT: BAR. and 47 pages later INT. BATHROOM. Only two room, a formatting nightmare. Blocks of action. Blocks of dialogue. But I am proud of the story.

On the comment there are great scripts that don’t get made. I believe that much of that is timing. A story compelling today may seem silly tomorrow. Doesn’t make it a bad script.

Beth Fox Heisinger I cannot think of another word for the art of story telling other than craft.

This may be the same conversation we have had in many forms. True boring for some. I look forward to threads to assist in skill development.

Doug Nelson

Craig, you talk about format and formula as 'bullet' points. Format, maybe to a point; if poorly formatted, your script won't even get through the door but if formatted in a generally recognized industry style - it may at least get read (maybe not).

Formula, no. If you adhere to a strict (tried & true) story formula with all the beats, plot points and act structure on the 'correct' pages - your story will fail. It will be predictable and take the reader/viewer nowhere. It will be boring. If it's boring, it will certainly fail.

I give a little credence to format (not much) and negative to formula. I wonder if we're talking about the same thing but just using a little different vocabulary.

Dan MaxXx

Craig, I don't understand your tweet comment.

Simply if people think their craft is "Industry standard", they would be paid Industry wages, work with Industry peers, employed by Corporations.

I think your use of "industry" means Hollywood. So get a job in Hollywood. Show salary people you're ready to work.

Craig D Griffiths

Dan MaxXx the tweet comment was. If a producer reads a tweet and they can see how it would be a movie, they purchase the rights to the underlying story.

CJ Walley

Stephen Floyd, sounds like you made the right call there. I was just concerned you'd received feedback as part of a competition entry as that tend to be notoriously poor.

Craig D Griffiths, thanks for the clarification on your points. You're not wrong and it's a big issue. Craft discussion beyond the very basics is rare to find within screenwriting communities and, when it does crop up, people quickly get defensive and pretentious and the discussion becomes a debate. It's also clear that some words are very charged as people are bringing their own baggage along with them.

That said, the industry profiteering from amateur screenwriters will always serve the market and chase exposure. It's the same in every industry. There's always a massive demand for basic advice that's presented as rulesets, magic formulas, and mistakes to avoid.

I've been trying to instigate change myself. In the past twelve months I've steered Script Revolution away from being focused on competitions and more toward education. In fact, I launched the new Education Section of the site only this month in a partnership with Stage 32 and I'm trying to produce blog posts that encourage learning, active practice, and craft development.

Every amateur screenwriter needs to know that there are far more people within communities willing to share excuses to naval gaze than there are people who will encourage a passionate growth mindset. You can sit at the table with those working together on business plans or you can sit at the table with those picking numbers for their lottery tickets. It's a conscious choice.

Travis Calvert

Craig D Griffiths a single scene that spans 47 pages? Are you serious? And this is a script that is in production? With whom?

Travis Calvert

Thanks Craig D Griffiths. Didn't mean to to doubt you. It just seemed unusual, but then again I guess the Hateful Eight probably didn't change scenes for much longer than that.

Craig D Griffiths

Travis Calvert no problem. Telemarketers ring me about car insurance and I tell them about my IMDB entry’s LOL. Any excuse to share that link. I intend to grow that list.

Dan MaxXx

Craig, My bad. Oh, I get it what you are saying now. You're not talking about the Industry of making movies, but you're talking about the Industry of selling script services...

That's hot button issue. Especially since we are on a website platform dedicated to selling educational pitches and webinars.

Two years ago, I joined a new gym and they offered me a week of free training with a professional Trainer. After a week, the Trainer asked me if I wanted to continue but I had to pay an additional $250 for 4 weeks. I paid it but I didn't feel I got my money's worth. The training and Trainer (I felt) went "through the motions". I realized later I wasn't paying the gym, but I was paying the Trainer who was a freelanced worker.

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