Scribbler’s Saga #37 – Format Wars

Posted: June 1, 2017 in Uncategorized

© 2017 G.N. Jacobs

“Do you have any tips about how to format my work?” 

Depending on the asker’s intended medium, trust me, I’m rolling my eyes at you…on the inside. On the outside, I’m smiling and trying to help, to the extent I can, to the limit of my Brussels Sprouts Diplomacy Face. And maybe I send you my Word templates. I seem to have a little sideline in working up templates.

To date, I’ve worked up five comic book script templates, two audio/radio script templates, a film script template, a prose chapter template and an article/post/short fiction template. The point of each is ease of use since I do 90-percent of my writing on a mobile thing-bob, while still looking good on regular computers and coming out of my printer. Hopefully, I’m done with new templates, but we’ll see.

Prose. This part is easy. Pick a 12-point font (Times New Roman, dating me as older in my writing than the changeover to Calibri as the absolute default font). Single space (when writing electronically Double Space doesn’t need to be a thing until just before you send off the manuscript). Default margins. Standard .5-inch tabs. Automatic first sentence indent equal to one tab. A 14-point chapter header. Cut and paste subsequent chapters into a larger document with headers and page numbers. Do any special margin trickery on Big HAL later. The chapter template differs from the short template switching out the chapter header for a title header with a copyright statement (assert it or lose it), but otherwise it’s the same thing.

Obviously, it isn’t novelists who’ve worn out their welcome with the format question. I’m pretty sure the average novelist could figure out his or her version of the above given how much it relies on defaults and presets. Thus, they rarely ask and I thank you for that.

Film and TV. Yeah, here is where I need a slice of that Temperpedic memory foam mattress material placed between my iPad and the edge of the table where I type. I’m thinking a square slice 18 inches on a side and a mandatory 10-14 inches deep. I will bang my head many times as an experiment in materials science to see how long the foam lasts before they send me to the hospital for treatment for concussion. I want those 324 square inches as a large target because I have a feeling I might miss a smaller mat on the tenth head-bang.

My frustration with the format question on the part of fresh off the bus screenwriters stems from the frequency of the ask, but also because the answers are simpler than they think. “Buy or use any of the following five screenwriting programs and trust the software for the basics. Play with the secondary tricks in the software according to your personal taste. Your agent will tell you how to clean up your script before sending it around.”

The five major screenwriting programs/apps that I’m aware of include Final Draft, Movie Magic, Adobe Story, Writer Duet and CELTX, most of which I’ve reviewed buried deep on my mirrored site for archived posts that I started long before the Scribbler’s Saga column. For the basics, these tools functionally do exactly the same things and are, thus, completely indistinguishable.

There are four basic forms in screenwriting: SCENE HEADER (aka Slugline), ACTION, CHARACTER HEADER and DIALOGUE. There are a few secondary tricks included with all of the tools I’ve listed above including PARENTHETICAL, TRANSITIONS, DUAL DIALOGUE and a few others. My experience says that the basic four forms are as required as everyone has ever heard doing their due diligence reading a variety of books by screenwriters who made a living. Luckily, investing in your choice of screenwriting software handles all that for us at the level of Push Button, Keep Writing.

But, it is in the secondary and tertiary tricks where we find the disagreement among screenwriters, the worst of us become that most dreaded animal in writing group, the Format Nazi (a distant third on the odious scale behind Soup Nazis and Real Nazis). The person across the table who gives you shit because your pages don’t have Continued slugs in the top right corner (an option left over from the bad old days when crew had to deal with a shooting script). The person jumping on you with both feet because you didn’t start with Fade In.

Basically, the Format Nazi has recently read a book that might be up to ten years out of date and is therefore certain of everything despite being a member of a critique group tailored for dirt farmers like everybody else. If you’re here you’re not getting paid, therefore your opinion has no more Holy Writ to it than if I told you to write in your most svelte purple underwear while hanging upside down in gravity boots (a recipe for a spiritual awakening, an aneurism or both).

Depending on the writer bringing pages, the debate can be about using too many transitions (Cut To, Dissolve To, Wipe To…). I happen to know that several successful screenwriters have idiosyncratic quirks concerning transitions. I’ll have to look it up to see if I remember if it was William Goldman asserting a liberal usage of Cut Tos in the Transition slot as an intentional way to bump up the pacing of key scenes. So the dirt farmer (proud of the appellation, grease me with beer to hear that story) who has bought Mr. Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade might go into the reading group certain of “William Goldman says so.” Only to be slapped down with “don’t try to direct the script on the page for the director.”

In case you care, my screenwriting quirks run to no Fade In – “why does a movie script always start with Fade In? How about Smash Cut In?” A friend asked that question and I sort of stole the thought. Thus, the top of Page One begins with a slug line.

Similarly, I go light on Transitions. I have been repeatedly instructed that the editorial department treats blank as a cut. So Cut To seems redundant (unless you like Mr. Goldman’s presumed style). I make exceptions for things like “my mental image really says Match Dissolve here.” I also make exceptions for when I conform the writing to a known visual style. For example when fighting through the Arrogant Do It My Way version of Return of the Jedi, I’ll use more Wipe Tos than I will in any ten of my other scripts combined. It’s a Star Wars film grammar rule.

I still love presenting certain sound effects presented in ALL CAPS, even though I do hear things from other writers that their agents keep telling them not to do this. Personally, I’m a forty-nine years young dude still chasing the perfect Speed Racer episode, or a good Batman movie that doesn’t rely on “F-it, it’s Batman, one five automatic opening day draws in our cultural database. Build it, they will come.” Sound effects, especially fight sound effects, in All Caps represent my feeling that fights are much like a pub brawl or a Popeye-Bluto dustup: loud, confusing and dangerous. This quirk stays in the script until my presently fictitious agent tells me to stop; listen to the guy/lady taking 10-percent to sell our work. I love it so much I ported this personal style element into my prose, just saying.

I’ve left at least one screenwriting group meeting in Venice to avoid a specific Format Nazi. When the you shoulds get to be too much, an average of three weeks these days, I’m gone. Push Leave Group and figure out how to fill up the freed up evening time slot. It isn’t hard…you were perhaps paying attention to my coffee post?

One of my screenwriting friends (my primary source for the SFX All Caps debate at the moment) runs one of these groups, a group I would join except for trying to find parking near the Farmers’ Market on Thursday night. Every month at our shared coffee meeting, she relates her frustrations having to repeat “no one here is any kind of expert on screenplay format” before every meeting. I smile, say “I hear you” and wait until the conversation shifts to her travels, her political advocacy or whatever.

I write this section knowing full well, I’m about to try out a group on Sunday night that made a specific point of insisting “thou shalt read the latest edition of Dave Trottier’s Screenwriting Bible.” A homework assignment (review to follow, whenever), that I will gladly undertake if only to see how quickly three years (Sixth Edition pub. 2014) can make any “practical guide to screenwriting” obsolete. I’m hoping for more out of the non-format chapters.

But, getting back to my list of Word templates, the one for Film was titled Emergency for when I just had to write a script. Because Mobile Word decided a long time ago to strip out the macros that most desktop users could do after maybe a week of hard use, there was no point in trying to figure out the weird nearly centered indents for Character and Dialogue. I just left them up against against the left margin assuming I would Cut and Paste the work into Final Draft using Big HAL working from my grooved couch cushions at home. And then Final Draft put out the mobile version, so a template I never used, except to further the rude adventures of Bozo T. Clown (I’ll have to do a little bit of file archeology to remember when Batman became my default template character).

Comic books. I’ve put in more thought work trying to figure out just the right way to put my comic book specific thoughts on paper than anything else. These scripts have had a surprisingly long learning curve for me. Yes, the first thing out of an experienced comic book creator’s mouth is “there is no set template, make it up for yourself.” And then the second thing is “your first artist, if that isn’t you, will tell you what they liked.”

My comic book templates so far represent a progression from a highly detailed form (see pictures) trying things out in both Final Draft and Word to simpler (see pictures). Yes, these early templates represent a bit of nauseating control over the whole look of the comic book where I stated the placement, width and shape of the panel. Similar to screenwriters being told to avoid directing on the page, a non-artist writer has to learn to step back and play nice with an artist. A head out of ass surgery performed by the newly created medical specialty of cranio-proctologist.

Included in this progression is a drive to write shorter so the artist has more latitude for the story. The progression from “bloviate about scene in nauseating detail” to “Batman kicks in a solid door expressing a violently satisfied smirk” follows yet another of many fronts in the eight-decade ongoing trash talk between DC and Marvel. Marvel House Style (give the artist an outline with dialogue) resulted from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s oddly symbiotic relationship.

Stan was the editor managing fifty titles or more. He had to keep it simple to avoid wasting time. Jack knew how to speak to Stan. Magic results. The most famous version of this process came from – “Jack, have the Fantastic Four meet God and get into a knees and elbows rumble with him (quote paraphrased).” So, Jack comes back with pages for what became the first introduction of Galactus and Stan added the dialogue.

By contrast, DC had their own giants, but none every had such a close working relationship. The writers gave the artists scripts of varying complexity and life went on. Presumably, as the comic book business expanded from two major companies that writers have learned to strike a balance, hopefully also represented in my last comic book template (see picture).

Similar to how rookie screenwriters are likely to copy the advice from the latest how to book they read, I freely admit that all of the highly detailed comic book templates early on were a result of Monkey See, Monkey Do. I think some of the scripts printed in books like The DC Guide to Comic Book Writing showed up in how I did things. That and reading a few scripts published from modern giants like Brian Michael Bendis.

Despite pointed comments that I don’t need a cast list from some more experienced writer/artists because only the artist will see the script and character design will already be locked down verbally in conversation, the quirky element survives. Why? The cast list helps me keep panel descriptions to “Batman pulls up short seeing Joker sharing an intimate moment with Harley Quinn.” Otherwise, the first introductory panel would bloviate about what my characters look like. More importantly, as comic books continue becoming more of a huge thing, I want to keep my options open for the script book…always keep options open to make money.

Audio/radio. Similar to my comic book templates, the two audio/radio drama templates I’ve created (see pictures) have a lot of copycat to them. The complex one originally on Final Draft (a laborious process) resembles the preferred format posited by a company trying to make money with audio dramas. Monkey See, Monkey Do. The newer form on Word is a direct copy of Googling audio scripts and seeing a highly simplified format for a Philip Marlowe drama from 1951. Monkey See, Monkey Doo…and don’t shop at just one store.

Now that we’ve some to the end of my thoughts, such as they are, about the many ways I’ve come to be privately annoyed with the format question. More often than not, the answer is some variation of “work it out for yourself.” No, I won’t bite off your head, because I still sort of remember my own copy someone big methodology, but please after a while it is a silly question.

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