The screenplay format – when pointless obsession takes hold

I can’t bear widows. They are the bane of my life. Not the black-clad in-mourning type, but the single-word-on-a-line type. They have the power to ruin an otherwise productive writing session – and induce hours of pointless, seemingly-endless fiddling, taking me from creative eagerness to despair with just one word. One word on a line. On its own. Argh.

Screenplay example
Oh, the horror

I’m not sure if the screenplay format was originally designed to send pedants into a howling rage, but that’s often what happens to me. Time and time again.

Yes, I know it’s insane

For the uninitiated – how I envy you – a widow is a single word on a line at the end of a paragraph. I can’t count the number of times I’ve sat down to write or edit a script, and have found myself sucked into a pointless vortex of trying to get a piece of action all on one line. Once I have widow fever, I can’t rest until I’ve resolved it.

I’m ashamed to admit I’ve even done it with dialogue on occasion. Rather than having a zinging piece of speech in a script, I would often rather it fit neatly in lines with no widows. Ridiculous. Imagine the sparkling lines of All About Eve if I’d got my insanely OCD hands on them when I have widow fever.

A widow in a screenplay

Yes, I know there are bigger things to worry about

I’ve worked extensively as a journalist and copywriter, so part of my background is in preparing copy for print. That means nice, neat columns in a magazine, or online, without any world overhangs. A widow used to mean a sound beating (or near enough) by an irate editor. Now with screenplays, there is no editor. The irate editor is me. Ruthlessly hunting widows and eliminating them.

Widow in screenplay

In my writing workshop group, I find myself judging writers harshly if they have a widow in their script, and for that I can only apologise. I even judge produced scripts on the basis of widows. All of the examples in this post are from garlanded, award-winning scripts. Widows didn’t bother them. No siree.

A perfect paragraph of action in a screenplay.
Ahh, that’s better. Perfect.

As part of my therapy to try and get over this ridiculous obsession, I’ve decided I have to just have to embrace the problem, and run towards widows with open arms. I’m just going to leave a word on a line on its own, and see how long it takes before I

I’ll just leave that there.
*walks away, whistling, pretending it’s not killing me*


The terror of the first 10 script pages

I’ve just started rewriting a thriller – and I’m feeling the pressure of the first 10 pages more than ever.

Perhaps it’s because this script is a taut thriller, there is a lot to set up and accomplish in the first pages – while seeming effortless, stunningly original, gripping, dazzling, recherché etc. (which of course it will be).

The thriller genre seems to have spilled over into my editing, making sitting on a swivel chair in front of a computer seem like a white knuckle car chase with Robert McKee and Syd Field in hot pursuit.

In countless blog posts, in just about every screenwriting book – and on every film-making course worth its salt – I’ve had it drummed into me over and over again how key the first 10 pages of a script are.

Those seemingly unicorn-esque 10 pages have to (in no particular order):

  • Be immediately exciting and engaging
  • Introduce the protagonist
  • Introduce the theme of the story
  • Establish the world (and possibly rules of the world)
  • Introduce the central problem the protagonist faces
  • Set up the dramatic premise
  • Not include too much exposition, or obvious exposition
  • Include the inciting incident
  • Hook the reader so they don’t give up on the script, or you, the writer
  • Make the reader desperate to turn to page 11

All of this in 10 pages. Oh, and don’t forget the golden rule that black ink is bad, and white space is good.

And don’t even dare think about spelling and grammatical errors in the first 10 pages – and don’t even think about thinking about committing a formatting transgression.

Do that and you may as well submit 10 pages of drunken ramblings and inappropriate erotic sketches (been there, done that).

So taking all that into account,  there’s not a huge amount of wriggle-room, but lots of room for script-jeopardising japery.

It’s enough to make anyone lie down in a darkened room with a cold flannel over their face.

So why do it?

This isn’t a facetious question (well not completely). After piling the pressure on myself to get those precious pages right over countless hours,  I’ve decided to skip the first 10 pages and turn straight to page 11.

I’ve done a first draft of my scenes, set out the dramatic turns and how the conflict will work and build, and even outlined my transitions – but the pressure of getting those first pages note-perfect right from the start only serves to drag me into an editing quagmire that distracts from getting the overall script right, so I’m going to leave them till the very end.

Then I’ll make them perfect. You’ll see. And then I’ll worry about the other 80 pages. Again. And again. And again…