Sunday, March 11, 2012

Plays, Screenplays, and Novels: How to Format, Submit, and Control Your Material

Ironically, on Oscar weekend, of all weekends, I attended a local conference on screenwriting and playwriting. Since I've spent the majority of my writing career writing novels, I decided I liked the idea of branching out. In the past I've written a play and I'm currently working on a musical, and of course, who doesn't like the possible idea of turning their novel into a screenplay? It was a one day conference and I walked away having learned a thing or two about the writing world and how each medium has its own hangups and rules when it comes to getting your work published. So, if you're not planning on attending a screenwriting/playwriting conference any time soon, then allow me to share some of my insight.


    Aristotle's Poetics
  • Formatting Your Manuscript -- Probably the one medium with the fewest rules when it comes to writing. Yes, you need to follow the three part structure with a beginning, middle, and end, but when it comes to putting your dialogue on paper, ignore those formatting sections you find in playwriting books. And keep in mind that once your play is written, get it copyrighted. Unlike when it comes to novels, plays should have a copyright put on them as soon as you've finished them. Also, keep in mind that you'll need to think spatially during the writing process. You're limited to a stage and not just one type of stage. Keep in mind that plays are produced on the lowest of scales with little stage structure, to outdoors productions, to the big Broadway productions.
  • Submission -- When it comes to getting your play published, you're going to have to make sure your work has been produced at least once for the stage. Once your play goes to be printed, it will be condensed into a format that makes it impossible for a director and actors to work with, so keep in mind that you might want a restructured format when it comes to submitting it for the stage. Playwriting agents are few and far between and most won't take on a new client until he/she has proven that he/she can produce something successful for the stage. A few of the major play publishers are Samuel French, Inc., Dramatist Play Service, Inc., and Brooklyn Publishers.
  • Audience -- When it comes to plays, keep in mind that you're writing mainly for schools and the local playhouses and perhaps local universities and college venues. If you want to get your foot in the door, get involved in your local theaters and especially try to be there when a theater makes play choices. You might be surprised and yours just might get picked!
  • Controlling Your Rights -- Playwriting not only has the fewest rules, but it also gives the writer the most control over his/her manuscript. When you submit a contract with your work, make sure to add the Dramatist Guild of America Authors Bill of Rights. In this, it not only states that you retain your rights to your play, but that any changes made to your work by anyone producing it also become your intellectual property. Pretty nice deal, if you ask me.
A Playwright's Resources:  Poetics by Aristotle, The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations by Georges Polti, Playwriting in Process by Michael Wright, Practical Playwriting by Leroy Clark, Art & Craft of Playwriting by Jeffrey Hatcher, Teach Yourself Writing a Play by Lesley Brown and Ann Gawthorpe, Playwriting for Dummies by Angelo Para.


The Screenwriter's Bible
by David Trottier
  • Formatting Your Manuscript -- Probably the strictest medium when it comes to rules and formatting. As a newbie, you will be able to get away with nil to none when it comes to breaking the rules. If you've never written for the screen before, get yourself a comprehensive guide on following the precise structure and formatting techniques being used in the film world today. Otherwise, your work won't see the light of day, and that's a fact. Again, get your manuscript copyrighted as soon as you've put the final period on the last bit of dialogue. It's not necessarily true that plagiarism abounds in the screenwriting world, but there are plenty of people out there who get sue-happy when it comes to a successful film. Everyone starts believing their idea was stolen!
  • Submission -- The film industry is one of the hardest industries in which a writer can get an agent. With the economy tanking a few years ago, Hollywood has reined in on the amount of money being spent on movies, as well as the number of movies getting produced. Because of this, agents have reined in as well when it comes to new screenwriting voices. What they're really looking for is a writer who is tried and true. But there are a few back doors newbies can try and use. First, if you've never heard of, then I suggest you check it out. If you purchase the pro version of imdb, you'll have all kinds of access to actor's, director's, and producer's profiles, including the agenting information. Popping off a query to an actor's agent, a producer, or a producer's lawyer could be a possibility of getting your foot in the Hollywood door.
  • Audience -- Naturally, this would be any human on the planet willing to shell out $10 to go see your film. But there are ways to check out what's hot and what's not on the silver screen. Getting a subscription to the Daily Variety will provide information on what's showing, what films are making each week at the box office, what's selling to Hollywood, conferences going on around the country, and basically just anything that's going on when it comes to the movies. As a first time screenwriter, start out small, either for television or a lower budget movie idea. You have to prove yourself to be worthy of a big tentpole film before any studio will take on your idea. And keep in mind, in order to make writing for the screen a true career you'll have to eventually live half your life in California.
  • Controlling Your Rights -- When your script is polished and ready to go, it's time to send it out. Your next step is to copyright it at The Writer's Guild and then send it along to Hollywood readers who will do a Coverage for it. This basically lets anyone who's interested know what your screenplay is about and if it's worth spending money on to produce. If a studio, producer, or whoever is interested then they will Option your screenplay for the next year. A set amount of money changes hands and he who optioned your work has the next year to try and get the project going. If nothing happens, then the rights to the screenplay return to the writer who can then re-option the screenplay until something either happens or all roads are exhausted. Once your screenplay is sold you no longer retain the rights to it. That screenplay can have the heck rewritten out of it, but the writer has no say (unless he/she is still along for the rewriting ride) in what happens to the story. In the writing world, the writer ends up with the fewest retained rights when it comes to screenplays.

A Screenwriter's Resources:  Websites --, The Writer's Guild, Writers Guild of America, Screen Actors Guild, Directors Guild of America, Daily Variety, Hollywood Script Express, Books --  Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need by Blake Snyder, The Screenwriter's Bible by Dave Trottier, Screenwriting for Dummies by Laura Schellhardt, Essentials of Screenwriting:  The Art, Craft, and Business of Film and Television Writing by Richard Walter, and The Writers Journey:  Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher E. Vogler.

Jeff Herman's Guide
  • Formatting Your Manuscript -- Yes, there are rules to formatting your manuscript, but I'll tell you, they aren't near as strict as when it comes to a screenplay. If you follow the basics -- 1 in. margins, Times New Roman font, double-spaced paragraphs and an overall clean-looking manuscript with few grammatical errors -- then you should be in good shape. Agents basically want to see that the author knows how to follow the simplest of rules and this can be done when it comes to submitting your work for representation.
  • Submission -- I know it might not seem like it at times, but all you novelists out there have the easy road to take when it comes to landing an agent. Where plays have to at least have been performed for an agent to show the slightest interest, and more or less all Hollywood agents are closed to new screenwriters, novelists have the advantage. There are books and websites with lists of agents to pick and choose from. I think a novelist would be hard pressed not to find an agent who represents that novelist's chosen genre. Just make sure your query is one page in length, has a couple of paragraphs describing the gist of your story, a short paragraph on the author with any other writing experience listed, and somewhere along the line indicate the genre, word count, and overall target audience. Above all, avoid grammatical mistakes on your query. This is the first impression an agent will get when it comes to your writing, so make it count!
  • Audience -- Anyone who reads a book, right? Well, it's not that easy. Know your genre and make sure it's something you want to write. If you force a story on the page in which you take little interest, then it will show. Take time to work on your writing voice, so that when you land that publishing contract your readers will know instantly what your style is all about and will want to continue buying your books. Every genre has a different audience, so above all know the rules to your chosen genre and learn how to write it well.
  • Controlling Your Rights -- When it comes to a novel, you will not get it copyrighted before sending queries off to agents. Copyrighting comes later once your book gets published. Copyrighting an unpublished novel is the mark of an amateur and agents and publishers want to work with those who've taken their time to learn the industry and how it works. You do retain the published rights to your work, but keep in mind that once it gets optioned for a screenplay it's a whole different story. 
A Novelist's Resources:  Websites --, Preditors and Editors, Absolute Write Water Cooler, Books -- Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publisher's, Editors, and Literary Agents by Jeff Herman, Writer's Market by Robert Lee Brewer, The Writers Journey:  Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher E. Vogler, Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass, Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell, and this list could go on and on. The trick is to find what works for you!

Although this is the condensed version of what I learned at the conference, my hope is that in some small way it may help with your journey to getting published, getting your work on the stage, or seeing it flicker on the big screen!

Are you struggling to get your work into any of these markets? If so, do you have any tips, knowledge, or resources you wish to share?


  1. I've heard a number of agents say they don't care what font someone uses when formatting the manuscript, so long as it's not cartoonish, hard to read, or too fancy. I've been typing exclusively in Palatino since the fall of 1993, after switching computers and finding Bookman unavailable, and couldn't imagine typing in anything else. The only other font I use is Edwardian Script, for special stuff like title pages and if something like a wedding invitation is in the manuscript. I'd prefer to go back to the boring, default Helvetica than type anything in the tiny, boring, generic Times New Roman!

    1. Carrie-Anne,
      That's an interesting point you make. I've been in the thick of querying my recent manuscript and I can honestly say that the majority of the agents I've queried don't even state what font they prefer. I think this is because when an author follows the guidelines found in any guidebook like Writer's Market, then it's implied that an agent knows the author has done his/her homework. Having judged in (and participated in) many contests, I know for a fact that the rules are very strict when it comes to formatting a manuscript (I can't even think of one I've entered or judged where the rules didn't explicitly indicate either Times New Roman or Courier). And I understand why. As a judge, it puts every writer on the same playing field and makes it so much easier for the person who has to read so many partials. But then, maybe it depends on the genre and perhaps certain agents aren't as specific as other ones. For writers trying to break into the complex writing world, I think it's good for them to know there's a certain structure most agents prefer. There's nothing wrong with a little caution when a writer doesn't know exactly what the agent expects.

  2. Dear Sister Mary, Mary,
    A very useful post. I also read, like Carrie-Anne, that agents no longer care about fonts. In my day the obligatory font was Arial. Do they still want numbered loose pages, unbound MS (except for a rubber band) and inside a cardboard box?

    1. Unless otherwise stated (i.e. attach in an email as a pdf or Word document or package the MS differently) this is still the general way to send off an MS to an agent. I prefer sticking the box in a mailing envelope just because the agent could get a soggy manuscript if something unforeseen happened and the box got wet.

  3. Thanks for this very useful information, Mary Mary! I've set up Word to utilize the standard novel format so I don't have to think about it anymore. Everything I write is just in that format, from the get-go: saves fiddling.

  4. Wow, I had no idea writers were supposed to copyright plays and scripts before sending them out to agents (it's so frowned upon in publishing!) Or that writers retain all their rights for plays, including modifications (nice!) I did know screenwriting is the toughest business and the less beneficial for the writer (as far as keeping rights or having a say on what happens with the story). This is why so many beloved novels get dramatically changed in the film version (and not in a good way). I met Louis Duncan at a conference and she spoke about "I know what you did last summer" and how when the movie started and the fisherman with the hook showed up, she was like "who's that guy?" Apparently her novels were just suspense. None of the gory horror they produced. She ended up walking out of the theater.

    Thanks for sharing all this information, Sister Mary.

    1. You are all very welcome for the info and I hope that at some point it may help you in discovering another market for your work!


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