Brain-Storm-It: Spec Script

Posted on September 16th, 2013 by in Advice, Screenplay

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Image by dear miami on Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Welcome to the Brain-Storm-It blog. This blog is designed to help those who want to learn how to write a movie but moreover write a better movie. It will take you through this process in a “paint-by-numbers” approach as well as address specific questions so we can brainstorm them.

Installment #8: Spec Script

In the last installment I went into detail about the essence of format and that format is the biggest problem for new writers and not because format is so illusive but it’s just so difficult to find a consistent standard. Seems that each writing program has a different standard. In actuality, the designers change formats slightly from one another to skate around infringing on each others’ copyrights. Also, some studios only accept a certain format that is synonymous with their brand; i.e., a Warner Brothers script looks different than a Universal Studios script. I know, it’s crazy. But one format is so basic that it saves you from the trouble of having to deal with different format standards. Again, it’s the spec script format.

I am sure you have heard someone say that: “A screenplay is the Blue Print for a movie.” It’s true with a modification: “A shooting script is the blue print for a movie.” What this means is what one reads in a shooting script is more or less what needs to be photographed. Generally, a screenplay is the literal description of action. A spec script is all that but without specific descriptions that cite the medium. If we use the draftsman’s metaphor “blueprint” to describe a shooting script then we can say that a spec script is a “sketch”. For example, with many of the scripts I get the format reflects a studio script which is the format used after a script has been purchased and Broken Down for cost analysis but has not been fully marked for sound or visual FX. I do get scripts submitted in Shooting Script format which have many of the sound and visual FX indicated along with scene separation indicators like CONT’D, camera direction, underlines and capitalizations, italics, bolding and way too many dialogue parentheticals. Some of that is okay if you are writing a Director’s Script or Cinematographer’s Script but not proper for a first-draft spec script.

Writing your screenstory in the spec script format is very important because when a producer or reader covers or reads your Property, a legal term for your screenplay, he or she is not going to read every word, she will skim it. The spec script is designed to be skimmed not read. A more complicated format will bog down the reader and result in her potentially giving you a negatively biased read.

In spec writing the writer has to be a bit of a psychologist in how he designs the page. It has to look familiar to the reader so she can trust it. If it looks odd or like something she is not accustomed to then she will have diminished confidence in what she will read. Also, it has to be easily read so it won’t frustrate the reader and stall her pace. You cannot Rupture The Narrative or pull the reader out of the experience of the read with too many asides, parentheticals or cumbersome indicators that have no business in a spec script. So remember, not too many words unlike the notes in a Mozart composition.

I have been putting off citing specifics page layouts because I want to make sure you understand that there is a lot going on with format. You not only have to offer a great screen story, you have to please first an agent and then a reader and then a gamut of nay-sayers and other gatekeepers in order to get your script developed let alone produced. Remember, bad format is the first indicator which will make the job of those gate keepers easy. Don’t make it easy for those gatekeepers to reject your writing.

The next few installments we will go further into format where I explain and demo, page design.


Garret on Camera
Garret C. Maynard is an educator, Emmy nominated cinematographer, literary agent and has been involved in movie writing and movie making for over twenty years.

If you have questions about this installment or others, please email Garret at: All questions can be answered privately and/or be incorporated into future writings.

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