So, you have an idea that is about something and you’ve outlined it so you know (basically) what is going to happen and when. Now you get to write it. Sounds easy enough, right? It’s actually a little bit trickier than that.
Imagine for a moment that you are a young writer living in Paris. You find out that a French literary group is holding a competition through all of France to find a young writer who best exemplifies the traditions of French literature. You decide to enter this competition and find your best story and begin editing and rewriting it. For months you work on it, hone it, and craft it until it you have the most thoughtful, brilliantly moving, and insightful story ever written. Then you submit it. Oh, but it’s in English.
Do you think you’re going to win the competition?
You might. Your story might be so brilliant and the judge might be able to read it and recognize your genius, but you are starting out in a pretty deep hole.
What does this have to do with screenwriting? Because the only type of writing that has a more strict and rigid formatting is the Haiku. And while not having the formatting down won’t immediately disqualify you it can make it as difficult to read as a foreign language. Not following the format makes it look like you have no knowledge or respect for the craft of screenwriting, and that isn’t going to do you any favors.
I understand that format can be tricky sometimes. It’s tricky enough that there are books, websites, and magazine columns completely dedicated to it. I’m not talking about screwing up the difficult things. Yeah, writing a scene that moves around a multi-room office building is hard. But the difficulty in writing it is understood by the person reading it, so there is some understanding if you maybe aren’t 100% by the book on a tricky scene or two.
There is a problem if you evidently aren’t familiar with the basics. I’m talking about things like where to put a scene heading (boldfontjustified to the left margin), what scene descriptions look like (regular font, justified to left margin, not indented), or where the dialogue goes (character name ALL CAPS tab key in four times, dialogue underneath tab key in three times). It sounds hard until you realize that there are programs ranging from Final Draft ($249) to Celtx (FREE) that will do this for you.
Simply put, anything that makes it harder for the reader to understand your story, or forces your reader to go back and reread things just to clarify basic points is going to hurt you.
Did this person enter before, after, or with the other person? Oh, you haven’t formatted the action description properly so I have to dig through your writing to find out.
A simpler example, unless gender ambiguity is a plot device, I should know if “Chris” is male or female IMMEDIATELY! This shouldn’t be a surprise.
Oh, and while we’re on this topic, movies are a visual art form. IF you do not see or hear it, it doesn’t exist. Chris the boy/girl doesn’t “Look at the bus driver and wonder if he is someone he/she went to high school with.” Look at the picture to see what this would look like.
While things like formatting and spelling are not formal judging criteria they can still hurt you. The strict and rigid format of a screenplay exist so that a writer can organize and communicate the visual and auditory aspects of the movie in a simple and universal way that can be easily understood by anyone who knows what a screenplay is. Not doing this makes you look like you don’t know how to write very well. This may not be the case, but it definitely takes away much of the benefit of the doubt and could turn a “maybe” into a “no.”