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Ask Dr. Format by Dave Trottier


Dr. FormatOCTOBER 2017

DO I HAVE THE RIGHT APARTMENT?

QUESTION

About scene headings, if the movie starts in an apartment, but the apartment belongs to the main character, do I write:

INT. JACK'S APARTMENT – DAY

...or...

INT. APARTMENT – DAY

...since no one knows his name yet?

ANSWER

It's okay to refer to the apartment as JACK'S APARTMENT, since Jack will be introduced in the next paragraph. It's also okay to simply refer to it as an APARTMENT. I prefer JACK’S APARTMENT because locations in scene headings should be referred to in exactly the same way throughout the script, and it will be easier for the reader to see JACK’S APARTMENT throughout the script and instantly know the exact location.

NUMBER RULES

QUESTION

From your Dr. Format column, I know that numbers must be written out as words in dialogue, but what about narrative description? For example, if a customer hands a cashier $12.50, would I write it with the Arabic numerals or spell it out in word form as I would in dialogue?

ANSWER

You may use Arabic numerals (just as you do in your question above) when writing narrative description (action).

Concerning numbers in dialogue, the exception is years and names that contain numbers. For example:

                              LUKE
          It was early in 2012 when I realized
          my computer sounded a lot like R2D2.
          Was it talking to me?

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SEPTEMBER 2017

GEORGE AXELROD'S READABLE SCRIPT

QUESTION

Can you provide an example of "readability"?

ANSWER

Yes, but first a quick review of what I mean by "readable."

As you know, you write a spec script primarily for a reader who either recommends it or not. The reader wants a readable script, which means it should be clearly written, attractive (correct format, generally short paragraphs and speeches), specific (uses active voice and specific language), lean (says a lot with as few words as possible, except dramatic and emotional moments), and entertaining (as opposed to informative).

That last qualifier refers to an entertaining style. Recently, a client sent me an unproduced George Axelrod script. Axelrod wrote Breakfast at Tiffany's, The Manchurian Candidate, The Seven Year Itch, Goodbye Charlie, and others. I was delighted reading his 1966 early draft of a screenplay he apparently didn't finish. I'll provide you with just a sampling.

GLORIA BIRDLAND -- she of the sequined eyebrows and neon lips, the personification of the American Sex Dream, the "tiger in your tank."

I guess I like the specific and original words "sequined eyebrows and neon lips." Now there's a visual.

In the excerpt below, notice the description of business men on a New York street. Axelrod uses a metaphor without confusing the reader. These guys are not really knights, but the metaphor provides a sense of how they might see themselves. And then there is the contrast or twist at the end of the first paragraph.

Speaking of contrasts; there's a doozey in the second paragraph below.

Knights in wrinkle-proof, summer-weight armor, attache cases held firmly, move northward in search of dragons to slay. There is something touching and rather sweet about all these poor, happy, simple-minded idiots.

Enter MARVE, 30. Unlike the others, Marve does not carry an attache case. Also, he is stark naked. Except for an oversized daisy that he wears hip-hugger fashion, decently below the navel.

Here are a couple of paragraphs from a scene set in a New York apartment. Marve, who is about to shave, sees a girlfriend across the way through her bathroom window taking a shower.

He takes his pressure-foam shaving can and sky-writes on his picture window the word "Hi."

She notices, and with an acid look in his direction, she pulls her draw-curtain closed.

Marve is genuinely baffled. He shrugs, shaving can in hand. He presses the button but only the sad sound of an empty pressure can responds.

There's no POV shot of Marve seeing her "acid look." And notice how the pressure-foam can comments on Marve's emotions. It's a nice "punch line."

Later, Marve gets on a train. Notice the specific words "lurches" and "bounces," and the lovely phrase "of epic proportions."

The train lurches and Marve bounces quite violently against a female person of epic proportions.

Michael Douglas, commenting on his first read of the spec Romancing the Stone, said he could tell the writer had fun writing it, and that came through to him in the read. That's style.

On the other hand, the spec for Chinatown is not written in a particularly entertaining style, but it is clear, lean, attractive, and uses specific language.

The main point is to make your script as "readable" as you can to increase your chances of selling it so you can keep writing.

 


AUGUST 2017

ONE ANSWER TO TEN COMMON QUESTIONS

FIRST THE ANSWER

Here is the answer to all ten common questions below.

The screenplay(s) you refer to was developed in the studio system or by a production company, and/or was written by an established writer or were written by a writer who is also the director of the production, and/or is the shooting script version of the original spec.

You, on the other hand, are a spec writer trying to break in with a spec script (not a shooting script). Thus, you should do everything you can to make a positive first impression on your audience, and your primary audience is the reader (story analyst), who is almost always the first person to read your script and recommend or not recommend it.

QUESTION 1

You say to use editing directions (transitions) judiciously, but I just read a produced script by William Goldman that had tons of CUT TOs.

QUESTION 2

You recommend limiting spec scripts to 120 pages or less, but I've seen dozens of produced scripts that were over 120 pages.

QUESTION 3

You often caution against a lot of voice-over narration, particularly long narration speeches on page 1, but what about Shawshank Redemption?

[I should add to my answer above that most narration that I read by developing screenwriters amounts to obvious exposition. Narration should add an extra layer of drama, comedy, or meaning to the story without repeating what we already see on the movie screen.]

QUESTION 4

Dave, have you read a Woody Allen script? He doesn't follow standard format, so why should I?

QUESTION 5

You say that it is not necessary to bold and/or underscore slug lines [scene headings], but I've seen both styles in a couple of scripts by pros.

QUESTION 6

You caution against writing long "talking heads" scenes, especially as a first scene, so what about The Social Network, which opens with an eight-minute talking-heads scene?

[I can't resist adding the following: when you can write as well as Aaron Sorkin, forge ahead with that 8-page talking-heads scene.]

QUESTION 7

Most of the scripts I read have camera directions in them. What gives?

[One spec writing skill is directing the camera without using camera directions.]

QUESTION 8

Dave, you emphasize readability, but I've read some produced scripts that were actually difficult to read. How did they get produced?

QUESTION 9

You tell us to be careful about early flashbacks in a script, but I saw a couple of early flashbacks in a recent successful movie.

[As a general guideline, don't tell your audience about the past until they care about the present. Naturally, there can be exceptions. Also, make sure your flashback isn't just obvious exposition, but that it moves the story forward. And, finally, if you use an early flashback, make it as short as possible.]

QUESTION 10

Every once in a while, I see a writer who breaks one of your "17 Commandments." Why is that? ["The 17 Commandments" can be found on page 160 of the new 6th Edition of The Screenwriter's Bible.]

THREE FINAL COMMENTS

  1. Think of all my recommendations as guidelines, not rules.
  2. Remember that formatting does not have to be perfect, but you should still show your best work.
  3. Keep writing!

 


JULY 2017

THE STORYTELLER

QUESTION

My story begins in a therapist's office after everything that is going to happen in the screenplay happens. Basically, the entire screenplay is going to be a flashback. The first scene is in the therapist's office and then cuts to the past. And then, in the last scene, we'll cut back to the therapist's office. Should I label this a FLASHBACK?

ANSWER

No. You are using the storyteller device, which was used in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.

Open in the therapist's office, and then cut to the past; that is, cut to a new scene heading, followed by a bit of narrative description, followed by a SUPER. The SUPER (short for superimpose) will look something like this:

SUPER: "Six Months Earlier"

ASPIRING TO DIRECT

QUESTION

I'm looking to use my writing abilities to help launch a directing career. When sending out a query letter (with script), is it appropriate to mention this at all.

ANSWER

No. And don't send your script with your query. The purpose of your query should be to get the agent or producer to request your script. Wait until that agent or producer is in love with your script before pushing your directing skills. At such a time, you will need a reel (video or DVD) of footage that you directed.

DOUBLE AGENTS

QUESTION

What if more than one agent requests my script, should I send the script out to both?

ANSWER

You should be so lucky. The answer is "yes." If both end up loving your script, then you will simply make a choice between the two. I had a client with this very "problem." She found a producer who loved her script and he referred her to several agents, whom she interviewed until she found the one she wanted. I wish the same success for you.


JUNE 2017

UNDERWATER CAMERA

QUESTION

There's a scene where we're standing by a lake. Then we're under the water looking up through the water at some children standing by the lake. How the heck should I slug that?

ANSWER

Since EXT. and INT. refer to where the camera is, and not to where the objects or people being shot are, I would think something like EXT. UNDERWATER would work. Then describe the action. How about something like this?

EXT. LAKE SHORE – DAY

The children form a circle by the lake.

EXT. UNDERWATER – SAME

While the others dance, Pam peers down into the lake.

If you're thinking of a point-of-view situation, such as a monster watching the children from deep below the water's surface, just handle the second scene above as follows:

EXT. UNDERWATER – SAME

An unseen lake monster watches the dancing children. Pam peers down into the lake.

SPACING AFTER INT., EXT., AND A PERIOD

QUESTION

What is the proper number of spaces after a period at the end of a sentence—one or two?

ANSWER

Both are correct, but my personal preference is for two, and I have two reasons. As spec screenwriters, we use a Courier font that imitates the PICA typewriter font of years gone by when the rule was two spaces. In addition, the extra space emphasizes that the sentence has ended. In other words, it makes paragraphs a little easier to read. However, you can't go wrong with either method.

The same logic holds true for INT. and EXT. In years gone by, screenwriters spaced twice after INT. and EXT. Now, the choice is yours: one space or two spaces. The main thing is to keep writing.


MAY 2017

IF HIPPOS COULD FLY

QUESTION

I am writing a script that needs to have a certain person's POV [point of view]. Think along the lines of The Sixth Sense where the character sees "things." My question is, whenever my character sees these "things," should I put:

JOE BLOW'S POV – A flying hippo.

ANSWER

Avoid technical intrusions in a spec script. Try to direct the camera without using camera directions. In this case, just write:

Joe Blow sees a flying hippo.

 

THE CAMERA AS A CHARACTER

QUESTION

I'm writing a fictional documentary in the style of Waiting For Guffman, Bob Roberts, Man Bites Dog, etc., and I am wondering how to write scenes where the "cameraman" is an actual participant in the scene. Specifically, let's say the cameraman is interviewing someone, when suddenly an explosion occurs and everyone, including the cameraman, runs in terror. If I write "Cameraman flees the area like a scared rabbit," that implies that we actually SEE him running, but in reality I want him running with the camera still rolling. What's the best way to do this?

ANSWER

There are many ways to handle this situation. Here's just one. Let's cross-cut between what is happening and what the camera sees. Let's say Nancy Cameraperson is filming teen sensation Rock Jock, who is being interviewed at the moment of the explosion.

A nearby explosion rocks the area.

Pandemonium. People run every direction.

THROUGH NANCY'S CAMERA

Rock Jock's plastic smile withers into a white mask of horror. He flees.

Images of people fly by at awkward angles. There is no up or down.

BACK TO SCENE

Nancy runs, her camera bouncing awkwardly from her hand. Debris begins to fall from the sky.

THROUGH NANCY'S CAMERA

A man trips and falls hard on the sidewalk. The image blurs from sidewalk to sky. A black and white plume of smoke billows into the blue.

A uniformed man falls from somewhere right on us. Blackness.

BACK TO SCENE

Nancy is on the ground looking up. The uniformed man has fallen on her and on the camera. A siren wails. Nancy struggles to her feet.

And then, keep cutting back and forth until the scene ends, and keep writing!

 


APRIL 2017

WHAT'S YOUR POV?

QUESTION

I have in mind a scene whereby what is envisioned by the reader (and viewed by the cinema audience) would be Black & White video feed (live or recorded) from a covert security camera.

For example:

INT. BASEMENT – NIGHT
               
Black and white POV of the secret agent dialing the safe's combination..

he movie seems completely driven by Will's need to love himself before he can be close to others. And the opposition is his own character flaws. Where's the goal and opposition?

ANSWER

Sometimes a POV can be used, but usually you can avoid it. For example, rather than...

JOHN'S POV – The monster licks his chops.

You can write:

John sees the monster lick his chops.

That has to be a POV shot, and it's a bit more readable. In the original Raiders of the Lost Arc script, the writer uses the following device:

What Indy sees: A snake crawls towards him.

That's a POV shot. In addition, keep in mind that CAPS are a little hard on the eyes of readers that read tons of scripts. However, if you use POV once or twice in your screenplay, no one is going to scream or slit their wrists. Relax.

Concerning your specific example, it seems to me that it could be handled as a separate scene.

INT. FBI OFFICE - DAY

John plays the video.

ON THE MONITOR – BLACK & WHITE

In a basement, the secret agent dials the safe's combination.

BACK TO FBI OFFICE

If you want that to be a live video stream, you could write, "John watches the live video stream." Here's another method for handling this.

INT. FBI OFFICE - DAY

John plays the video.

INT. BASEMENT – NIGHT – BLACK & WHITE

The secret agent dials the safe's combination.

Then keyboard in another master scene heading and keep writing!

 

FEBRUARY 2017

GOOD WILL TO ALL

QUESTION

Conventional wisdom suggests that there must be a clear goal and an antagonist, but I don't buy it. I've seen many movies where there appears to be neither a concrete goal nor an antagonist. Take GOOD WILL HUNTING. The movie seems completely driven by Will's need to love himself before he can be close to others. And the opposition is his own character flaws. Where's the goal and opposition?

ANSWER

That is a great question. In character-driven stories, the need always supersedes the goal. There are many movies where the goal is very thin or practically non-existent. In STAND BY ME, the goal is to find the body.

In the case of GOODWILL HUNTING, the overall goal is to avoid action or change, and maintain the status quo; but Will has several small action goals, intentions, or desires throughout the movie. For example, he wants to put the arrogant college dude in his place and get Minnie Driver's phone number. That scene is driven by a goal that reveals something of his character.

Also, notice that there are at least two opposition characters. Robin Williams--and to a lesser degree, Minnie Drive--oppose his goal/desire/intention to remain undiscovered and closed off from others and his own goodness (thus, maintain the status quo).

In addition, Robin Williams is opposed by a colleague. And then, in individual scenes, you have the arrogant college dude, the university professor, and Will's best friend as opposition characters. In other words, virtually everyone has an intention, desire, need, or goal of some sort, providing plenty of conflict. But you’re right, at the core of the story is Will's need.

Your need (and goal) is to write a great story and gain the good will of an agent or producer.

NO ONE IS COUNTING

QUESTION

How many lines per page are there in a screenplay?

ANSWER

About 55. If you are using Movie Magic Screenwriter, you don’t have to worry about margins, tabs, or lines per page. Relax and write.

CHEATERS NEVER PROSPER

QUESTION

Can you cheat on the spacing between the lines to add lines to a page?

ANSWER

Do not alter the line spacing so that you can cram another line or two onto the page. Any professional reader will immediately recognize your deception, and he/she won't be happy about it. On the other hand, you can cheat a little in some respects. In Movie Magic Screenwriter, click on “Format” and then “Cheat.” Good luck and keep writing!

 


JANUARY 2017

JUST MY STYLE

QUESTION

Recently, I came across something regarding screenplays that talked about style and tone. Can you give me a brief explanation of these terms?

ANSWER

Style is the way your writing is dressed up (or down) to reach your audience or achieve your purpose. All writers develop, usually subconsciously, an individual style of writing. For example, Shane Black often begins sentences with verbs. Here’s an example from a football game from his screenplay The Last Boy Scout:

He takes the ball on the run. Tucks it under his arm. Turns the corner. Picks up a blocker.

Style influences tone, which is the mood of the piece. In fact, the tone of a particular scene may imply a certain musical mood to the eventual composer of the musical soundtrack.

When famous cartoon character Snoopy writes “It’s a dark and stormy night,” he’s trying to create a mood.

Often, writers adopt different styles for different scripts they are writing to influence the tone or mood of those scripts; and yet, everything they write will carry their imprint, something of their personal writing style.

DUAL IDENTITIES

QUESTION

I have a character (let’s call him Joe) who at times takes on the persona of a new character (Wayne). There is no other Wayne in the script. When Joe is pretending to be Wayne, should I still use his original name Joe when writing his dialogue, or should I use Wayne?

ANSWER

I think the clearest and most effective way to handle this is to treat the two as separate characters:

                    CHARACTER CUE
                (parenthetical)
          Dialogue or spoken words.

In screenplay writing, you should refer to a character in the character cue section by using the exact same name each time. In your particular instance, I suggest you refer to your character as JOE/WAYNE or JOE AS WAYNE when he is posing as Wayne. Thus, the name JOE is always in the character cue.

The character cue is where you must be consistent. There are some exceptions, and we have just discussed one of those, although I would refer to it as a variation rather than an exception.

There is one other area where you should be consistent, and that is in the quality of the writing itself. So...keep writing.


DECEMBER 2016Dr. Format

WHERE IS THE CAMERA?

QUESTION

There’s a scene where we’re standing by a lake. Then we’re under the water looking up through the water at some children standing by the lake. How the heck should I slug that?

ANSWER

Since EXT. and INT. refer to where the camera is, and not to where the objects or people being shot are, I would think something like EXT. UNDERWATER would work. Then describe the action. How about something like this?

EXT. LAKE SHORE – DAY

The children form a circle by the lake.

EXT. UNDERWATER – SAME

While the others dance, Pam peers down into the lake.

If you’re thinking of a point-of-view situation, such as a monster watching the children from deep below the water’s surface, just handle the second scene as follows:

EXT. UNDERWATER – SAME

An unseen lake monster watches the dancing children. Pam peers down into the lake.

 

THROWING VOICES

QUESTION

What is the proper format for dialogue involving a ventriloquist and his dummy?

ANSWER

I think the clearest and most effective way to handle this is to treat the two as separate characters:

                    VENTRILOQUIST
          You’re looking stiff today.

                    DUMMY
          I forgot to moisturize.

Here is a second correct method. In this case, we’ll have a little boy speak for his plush cat he has named Baba:

                    JIMMY
          Do you want to cuddle?

                    JIMMY AS BABA
          Only if you pet me, too.

 


NOVEMBER 2016

WRITING LEAN & DRAMATIC ACTION

QUESTION

On one hand, you say to dramatize important actions, while on the other hand, you say to "write lean." Can you provide an example of something that is both sparse and dramatic?

ANSWER

I have seen many writers translate the word "lean" into "vague" or "no details." Actually, the opposite is true. "Writing lean" is choosing your details carefully and using specific, concrete words (especially verbs and nouns) to describe them. It's providing the reader with only what's necessary to see and understand clearly what's happening in the scene.

I would like to provide you with a "spec script" version of a scene from MISERY by William Goldman. In this scene, Annie is about to chop off Paul's foot with an axe:

PAUL

shrieks as there is a terrible thudding sound -- and then his body jackknifes. He is beyond agony as blood splashes over his neck, his face, and

ANNIE

her face splashed with blood and

THE SHEET

turning red and

ANNIE

eyes dull, getting into position again.

                              ANNIE
              Once more and we're all done.

PAUL

as again there is the thudding sound, and he's incoherent. Animal sounds come from him as

ANNIE

takes a match, lights the propane torch with the match, and there's a sound as the yellow flame appears.

                              ANNIE
              No time to suture, got to cauterize.

She brings the flame closer. Paul shrieks even louder.

                              ANNIE
              God, I love you....

I know many novice writers that would simply write:

She chops off his foot. He screams madly. She lights the torch and cauterizes the wound.

And there are others who might describe every detail over four pages. That, of course, would be overdoing it, or overwriting.

I'd like to make one last comment about that last line of dialogue. Try to end your scenes with something that is strong, or something that moves us into the next scene or a future scene. In the above scene, we have a very strong punch line in Annie's declaration of "love."

ACTION STACKING

QUESTION

Lately I've been hearing about a popular way to write action called action stacking. I was wondering if you could give me an example of what this looks like. I don't think I have read a screenplay that shows this type of format.

ANSWER

Action stacking is a style of writing that literally stacks a series of short actions in a scene. Here's an example:

EXT. BALLPARK - DAY

Duke sneers at the catcher.
Taps the bat twice on his cleats.
Spits a brown wad that splatters on home plate.
Allows himself a self-satisfied grin.

Notice that these are short sentences stacked one on top of the other; thus, action stacking. Only use this technique if you are going to use it as a pattern throughout your screenplay.

 


 

OCTOBER 2016

GOING SOUTH

QUESTION

The majority of my story takes place in a small, Southern, U.S. town.  It appears as SOUTHERN TOWN in all my master scene headings. It could be anywhere in the South:  Virginia, Alabama, South Carolina, doesn't matter. Should I give this town a fictitious name? It's starting to look bad with page after page of SOUTHERN TOWN.

Also, when my character goes from EXT. SOUTHERN TOWN – GRAVEYARD – DAY, for example, to, INT.  SOUTHERN TOWN – LIBRARY – DAY, do I have to keep repeating SOUTHERN TOWN? I suspect you address this in your book but if you do it is not clear to me.

ANSWER

SOUTHERN TOWN is fine, but consider a fictitious name that sounds Southern.  Andy Griffith use Mayberry when faced with the same situation.

In response to your second question, you don't need to keep repeating SOUTHERN TOWN.  Unless that's the main location, use this:

EXT. GRAVEYARD – DAY

Or

EXT. MAYBERRY GRAVEYARD – DAY

I filled in with "Mayberry" just to illustrate.  And then:

INT. LIBRARY – DAY

If everything takes place in this town, then you only need to mention it once in a scene heading, and then only when it is the main location, such as:

EXT. MAYBERRY – DAY

A quaint Southern town.

 

SPACES AFTER THE PERIOD

QUESTION

I see that in a screenplay you are supposed to double space after a period. Is that also the case in a spec script?

ANSWER

It no longer matters whether you space once or twice after a period. It's up to you.

 


SEPTEMBER 2016

MORNING HAS BROKEN

QUESTION

I am taking a screenwriting course at my local junior college. I have the opening scene heading stating time of day as MORNING. My teacher scratched this out and replaced it with DAY, citing that the time of morning is assumed. She said that attaching so many different times of day to your scene headings will drive a producer crazy. What is the correct way? If my scene starts in the morning, should I put MORNING?

ANSWER

Your teacher makes a good point. As a general rule, use DAY or NIGHT at the end of your master scene headings. For one thing, DAY and NIGHT are easier to shoot than MORNING and TWILIGHT. However, there are story situations when you need to emphasize the time of day (or night) and, in those cases, you should emphasize the time of day. So use your discretion.

LOST IN SPACE

QUESTION

What should a writer indicate for the time of day in the slug line [scene heading] when the time of day is not relevant? For example, if a scene takes place in space, such as on a spaceship, then the normal concepts of night and day do not apply. Similarly, a scene might take place in a subterranean cavern so deep that the time of day isn't relevant, since no sunlight can reach it.

ANSWER

There are two schools of thought on this. One is that the time of day is, as you say, irrelevant. Thus, a scene heading might be written as follows:

EXT. SPACE

And certainly, that is all you need for that scene heading.

Another school of thought holds that since people behave as if it is night or day (sleeping or working, for example), those terms should be used in INTERIOR scenes, such as inside the spaceship or cave. However, usually that "assumed" time of day would already be obvious to the reader, so I lean towards the first school of thought.

As a separate issue, I don't see a problem writing DAY or NIGHT, where doing so would clarify the situation.

MAY I INTRODUCE...?

QUESTION

I am unclear about how to introduce a character's name. I have read several books that state a character's name should not be revealed to the reader until that character speaks. Yet there are several other books that state you can introduce a character's name with the character's description. Should main character names be introduced when they appear and minor character names introduced when they speak, or should the format remain consistent in some way?

ANSWER

One of the hallmarks of effective spec writing is the ability to be clear and not confuse the reader. The last thing you want is for an executive or agent to stop reading your script because they are confused. Thus, I usually favor simplicity and consistency over complexity and inconsistency. As a reader, I want to know the character's name at the moment that character first appears. Naturally, there will be exceptions, but there should be a good dramatic or comedic reason for those exceptions.

Good luck and keep writing!


AUGUST 2016

THE TELEPHONE VOICE

QUESTION

I was once told that the use of (O.S.) for a character on the phone is incorrect when writing a spec script. I was told to use this instead:

                      MITCH (on phone)
        What are you doing?

                      JANICE (O.S., ON PHONE)
        Oh...just painting my toe nails.

ANSWER

You’ve been misinformed. The use of (O.S.) is incorrect because (O.S.) stands for OFF SCREEN, meaning that the character is in the scene (at the scene location), but cannot be seen on the silver screen. When a character is not at the scene location, then use (V.O.) for VOICE OVER, and that's the case for a voice coming through a phone.

In the case of your example, I assume that we can see Mitch, but that Janice is at some other location and that we hear her voice but don't see her. In that case, this would be correct:

Mitch holds the phone with one hand while the other hand clips his toenails.

                      MITCH
        What are you doing?

                      JANICE (V.O.)
        Oh...just painting my toe nails.

Concerning the phrase "on phone," it would work fine if we knew for sure what it meant. To some it means that the character is holding a phone to her ear. To others it means that the character's speech is voiced over. Since there can be confusion, I don't recommend you use it.

THIS STUFFING MAKES YOU A TURKEY

QUESTION

I have a question about the "script cardstock cover" and "title page" when sending a script to agents and producers. I have heard conflicting issues that the cardstock cover should remain blank, followed by the one-page synopsis, followed by the title page. What is the correct format for professional presentation?

ANSWER

Blank cover stock, followed by the title page, followed by the script, followed by blank cover stock. That’s it, unless an agent or producer specifically requests something else. Of course, these days, most scripts are sent as PDF files electronically.

May I mention a pet peeve while we’re on the subject? Please, please, pretty please, do not package your script with a padded envelope filled with stuffing that flies all over Kingdom Come when the envelope is opened. Sending your script in one of those will knock the stuffing out of that good first impression you want to make. If you want to use a padded envelope, use a bubble pack…and keep writing.


JULY 2016

SEQUENCES

QUESTION

What is a sequence in a screenplay? How many sequences will there be in a screenplay?

ANSWER

A sequence is a dramatic unit made up of more than one scene. It is usually about 10-15 pages in length (but can be more or less) and has its own beginning, middle, and end. You can think of car-chase sequences from movies as examples.

Movies are composed of acts, which are composed of sequences, which are composed of scenes. Well, not always…but generally that's true. There is no magic number as to how many sequences should be in a movie. Some movies, by their nature, will have more or fewer sequences than other movies.

SCENES

FOLLOW-UP QUESTION

So what's a scene?

ANSWER

A scene is a much shorter dramatic unit than a sequence. Technically, a scene changes when one of three scene elements change: camera placement (INTERIOR or EXTERIOR), location, or time (usually DAY or NIGHT). Those three scene elements can be seen in a master scene heading:

INT. CLASSROOM - DAY

Most often, people use the term scene casually and seldom refer to a "technical” scene, but to a short dramatic unit that may consist of a scene or several scenes, but not long enough to be a sequence.

CROSS-CUTTING

QUESTION

What is cross-cutting?

ANSWER

Cross-cutting is an editing technique when the editor cuts back-and-forth between action happening at two different locations. Thus, it is possible to cut back-and-forth between two sequences.

* * *

One reason I recommend that screenwriters read a lot of screenplays is so they can gain a true sense of how screenplays, acts, sequences, and scenes work. Good luck and keep writing!


 

JUNE 2016

STARTING THE SCENE BEFORE THE SCENE

QUESTION

I am at the end of a scene and have a character from the upcoming scene who says something before we cut to that scene the character is in. How do I format that?

ANSWER

There are two ways, and I'll illustrate with two examples. In the first, use a voice over:

                                 DARA (V.O.)
                    You look like Bozo the Clown.

INT. ALFONSO'S ROOM – DAY

Alfonso frowns at Dara, long red hair streaming from the sides of his head and bald on top, kind of like... well, Bozo the Clown.

As you can see, Dara's line is actually said in Alfonso's room, but for effect, we hear it before we cut to the room. It's a sound transition from one scene to the next and it's perfectly "legal" in a spec script.

The second method is exactly the same, except you replace the V.O. with the term PRE-LAP.

If the sound is not dialogue, you can use the PRE-LAP as follows:

PRE-LAP - A dog BARKS followed by a SCREAM and a CRASH.

INT. ALFONSO'S KITCHEN – DAY

Alfonso lies on his back -- a St. Bernard licking his face. Grocery bags are scattered across the floor.

FOR CHYRON OUT LOUD

QUESTION

What is a chyron? [Pronounced ki¯rän.]

ANSWER

It's the caption superimposed anywhere on a television or movie screen. Thus, it's handled much like a superimposition (SUPER):

CHYRON: "Did I just say that?"

You could also format it as you would a text message, if you prefer.

The term also refers to the text-based graphics that appear at the bottom of your TV during a news broadcast.

WHERE HAVE ALL THE COURSES GONE?

QUESTION

Where can I take an online course to learn how to write scripts. [Author's note: Yes, this was a real question asked by a real person. It's not an advertisement.]

ANSWER

Online screenwriting classes abound. Here are just a few places you can go:

Keep writing!


MAY 2016

WHERE TO PUT THE ACTION

QUESTION

I just finished an existing TV drama script and noticed something about my style for the first time. Sometimes I write a character's action on the action line [as narrative description], and sometimes I do it under the character's name itself [as a parenthetical, or actor's instruction]. Which is correct and, if they both are, can you have examples of both throughout your script, or should you just stick to one style?

ANSWER

If the action only takes a few words to describe, it's okay to write it either way--as action, or as a parenthetical:

                                 ALBERT
                          (tipping his hat)
                    It's been a long time.

Loretta slaps his face.

                                 LORETTA
                    Not long enough.

As you can see, it is okay to use both styles in your screenplay, as I did in the example above. However, any action that takes more than a few words to describe should be written as narrative description only:

Loretta sucker punches Albert, then pushes him into a mud puddle.

                                 LORETTA
                    How low can you get?

THE WRYLY FACTOR

QUESTION

At a recent conference, I heard so many contradictory "rules" about formatting that my head is spinning. Some say all of the action should be written in parentheticals [often referred to as wrylies] since producers only read the dialogue, and some say that there should be no parentheticals at all. Could you help?

ANSWER

It's true there are producers in town who only read dialogue, but that does not mean that they read the wrylies too, nor does it mean that all producers only read dialogue. Keep in mind that before a producer reads your script, a professional reader reads it from beginning to end. Finally, when a production company gets serious about a script, then several people in the company may end up reading it. So don't be unduly concerned about how much of your script will get read. You cannot control that. What you can control is what you write.

Use wrylies sparingly. If there are too many, then a reader is likely not to take them too seriously. Their main purpose is to clarify the subtext when the subtext is not already apparent. For example, if a character says "I love you" in a sarcastic way, and it is not otherwise apparent that he would be sarcastic, then that's the time to use the parenthetical (wryly). Too often, I see something like the following in a screenplay:

Kip is fighting mad.

                                 KIP
                          (angrily shouting)
                    I hate you!!!!

The above example says the same thing in three different ways. In this case, all that you need is the speech itself. Also, lose the exclamation points. Your speech should not look like a want ad.

Use a wryly to indicate action that can be described in a few words. I provided an example of that in the "Where to put the action" section above.

Use a wryly to indicate who the character is speaking to when that is not otherwise clear:

                                 MOE
                          (to Curly)
                    Not you, ya knucklehead.

If you follow this column, you already know that I discourage the use of the lifeless term "beat" to indicate a pause. I much prefer an adverbial, facial expression, or action that comments on either the story or the character while still implying a pause. It's an unbeatable approach.


April 2016

LOOK WHO'S PRAYING

QUESTION

How do I write one dialogue speech for three characters to say at the same time? For example, I have a scene where three characters say the same prayer at the same time.

ANSWER

I can best answer this with an example:

                              LARRY, MOE & CURLY
                          (together)
                    Now I lay me down to sleep/ Pray
                    the Lord my soul to keep.

Naturally, in the above example, I could have written “at the same time" as my parenthetical, or "in unison." You may not need the parenthetical at all. Now if someone starts saying something, and the other begins before the first has finished, then that overlapping dialogue is written as follows:

                              CURLY
                    Now I roll down my covers --

                              MOE
                          (overlapping)
                    -- Not until you say your prayers,
                    ya knucklehead.

POETIC LICENSE

QUESTION

How do I separate lines in a stanza of a poem?

ANSWER

Use a slash. See the example above of the Three Stooges praying in unison. And keep writing!

 


March 2016

DAY, NIGHT, AND CONTINUOUS

QUESTION

There is one contest that states emphatically, "DAY and NIGHT are the only acceptable options!" But then I see you with examples such as TWILIGHT, MORNING, LATER, or even leaving it off entirely. I'd prefer to use these more descriptive examples, as I think they lend color to a script, but am a bit scared I'll tick off a contest judge or two.

ANSWER

Use DAY or NIGHT. Only use something else, such as TWILIGHT or MORNING, when there is an overriding dramatic purpose for it.

LATER is a secondary scene heading that is perfectly okay to use whenever it's called for. For example:

EXT. HOUSE – DAY

John knocks on the door.

LATER

He's still waiting. He looks at his watch.

Beyond the above response, just follow what the contest wants you to do. The same goes for producers or agents who make specific requests.

Use no extension only when it's already clearly obvious that it is DAY or NIGHT. :

FOLLOW-UP QUESTION

Another site even frowns on using CONTINUOUS.

ANSWER

Use CONTINUOUS when it is not otherwise obvious that the scene is CONTINUOUS. If it is already obvious, don't use it.

PRE-LAP AND V.O.

QUESTION

I want the dialogue of a scene to begin in the previous scene. How do I do that?

ANSWER

You can use one of two methods. Here's the first.:

               JOHN (V.O.)
     
Be sure to put the poison...

INT. KITCHEN – DAY

John hands Alice a small unmarked bottle of liquid.

               JOHN
     ... in the tea, and pour only
     for your husband.

The second method is to replace the V.O. in the first example with PRE-LAP or PRELAP.

Good luck and keep writing!


FEBRUARY 2016

GEOGRAPHY AND PARENTHESES

QUESTION

The locales for most of my script are two cities. I've designated them appropriately, such as the following:

EXT. CITY STREET - DAY (BOSTON)

And

INT. THEATER - DAY (LOS ANGELES)

Is it necessary to label each scene following the initial designation as either Boston or Los Angeles with these parentheticals: (BOSTON) / (LOS ANGELES)? Or is it assumed that the following scenes are still in the designated city until it switches to the other city?

ANSWER

It’s not necessary to label every scene.

Just establish Boston and Los Angeles. You don't need to continually remind the reader. The exception is at those moments or scenes where you think the reader could get lost.

In your first example above, you have an exterior location, so you could write this:

EXT. BOSTON – CITY STREET – DAY

You don't need the parenthetical because Boston is an exterior location. Here's another way to write the same scene heading:

EXT. BOSTON STREETS – DAY

The second example should be written like this:

INT. THEATER (LOS ANGELES) – DAY

Keep the location in the location section of the scene heading.

As an alternative, you could establish the city before going to a smaller location. For example:

EXT. LOS ANGELES – DAY

The City of Angles glistens in the sun.

INT. THEATER - DAY

That’s an "establishing shot," and it’s not necessary to write ESTABLISHING as part of the scene heading. Good luck and keep writing!


JANUARY 2016

A FLASHBACK WITHIN A FLASHBACK

QUESTION

I am stumped and cannot find a solution on the world wide web or anywhere else. I don't want to confuse the reader by signifying a flashback within a flashback. So my script starts with current time/space which is Act 1. During that first act, there is a flashback that takes up most of the story until the Climax. Within that flashback, at the Midpoint of Act 2, there is another flashback, which lasts 1 to 2 pages, and comes back to the more current flashback. How can I not confuse the reader?

ANSWER

You are using the storyteller device, which was also used in "Saving Private Ryan." That's where a character or a series of scenes introduces the main story that takes place in the past. Since most of the movie takes place in the past, use a SUPER (short for "superimpose") rather than a FLASHBACK. In other words, don't call the first flashback a flashback. Thus, you will label your first flashback as follows:

SUPER: "20 Years Earlier"

And then refer to the second flashback as a FLASHBACK. In other words, format the second FLASHBACK like you would any other FLASHBACK. No reader will get lost.

However, what if you have a FLASHBACK within a FLASHBACK where both are relatively short (that is, not using the storyteller device)? The solution is to be clear in your labeling and description. I'll illustrate with a brief example:

EXT. JUNGLE – DAY

Doris and Danny trudge through the jungle swinging their machetes. Doris swings at a tree branch and liberates it in one skillful swing.

BEGIN FLASHBACK SEQUENCE

EXT. FOREST – DAY

TEEN DORIS swings her axe at a tree limb, severing it.

EXT. GIRLS CAMP – NIGHT

Teen Doris drops her tree limbs next to a campfire.

FLASHBACK – DORIS IN HER CHILDHOOD BACKYARD

CHILD DORIS, wearing a safari helmet, swings a plastic sword at the bushes, trying to cut her way through. She proudly picks up a small branch.

BACK TO GIRLS CAMP

Teen Doris proudly throws some tree limbs on the campfire.

END FLASHBACK SEQUENCE

EXT. JUNGLE – NIGHT – BACK TO PRESENT DAY

Doris tosses a tree limb onto a campfire. Danny stands behind her and puts his arms around her waist.

                       DANNY

          It's like you've been doing this
          all your life.

Doris smiles contentedly.

Good luck and keep writing!

 

NOTICE: The new, 4th edition of Dr. Format Tells All is now available. Check it out at http://www.keepwriting.com/drformat/index.htm.


DECEMBER 2015

FIVE MORE QUESTIONS

QUESTION

Please answer the following formatting questions, if you'd be so kind.

ANSWER

I'll list them below for you, first your numbered questions in Italics, followed by my answers. (Reader, how many of these do you already know the answer to?)

Question 1. What is the format for a split-screen.?

Handle it like an INTERCUT::

SPLIT SCREEN – HELIPAD/RESTAURANT

And then keep the reader oriented as to where we are as you describe the action. If this is a phone conversation, write::

SPLIT SCREEN – JO AT HELIPAD/SUE AT RESTAURANT

And then write out the dialogue.:

Question 2. Even though crosscutting or parallel action cutting is an editing term, it should be visualized and written in the screenplay itself right?

Right; don't use the term CROSS-CUTTING. Just use master scene headings and describe what we see. Here's a quick example:

EXT. HELIPAD

Jo jumps in the helicopter.

EXT. RESTAURANT

Sue looks up into the sky.

And then keep going back and forth, or consider using the INTERCUT.

Describe what we see.

Question 3. Is it okay to format a montage where there is a voiceover along with it?

Yes, you can do that in any kind of scene whether it's a montage, dream, flashback, or what-have-you.

Question 4. In some movies, we see the date, time or location on screen. How do I format this in the screenplay?

Use a SUPER (for superimpose) as follows:

SUPER: "8 a.m., September 11, 2001"

Question 5. Do I write OK or okay?

Okay. And keep writing.

 

NOTICE: The new, 4th edition of Dr. Format Tells All is now available. Check it out at http://www.keepwriting.com/drformat/index.htm.


NOVEMBER 2015

FIVE QUESTIONS

QUESTION

Please answer the following formatting questions, if you'd be so kind.

ANSWER

I'll list them below for you, first your numbered questions in Italics, followed by my answers. (Reader, how many of these do you already know the answer to?)

Question 1. How do I format a scene where the characters talk, but we don't hear it (muted conversation as background music is playing)? Do I just write, A and B in a heated argument etc.?

Use MOS. MOS means "without sound." So you could write something like this:

Andrea and Roberto argue MOS.

Question 2. a) Can I have 2 consecutive montages? b) If yes, can I have 2 consecutive montages in the same location but during different time like night and the next morning?

Yes, but it seems odd that you would need two, but there's no rule against it. With your Question #b, just have one montage with a change in time. In other words, separate the first montage from the second with a secondary scene heading indicating the time change:

NEXT MORNING

Question 3. How do I format a scene where the conversation is heard in very low volume like we just hear, ok, hmm etc.,? Do I just write the dialogues or should I mention that the conversation is heard feebly on screen?

Just describe what we hear, and if the audience hears the words, then write them out as dialogue. For example:

Skinny speaks so softly, the words can be barely heard.

                    SKINNY
          There's a g-ghost behind you.

Question 4. When describing action, I have seen in many scripts, 3 hyphens "---" is that correct?

For a dash in narrative description or dialogue, use a space, followed by two hyphens, followed by a space -- like that. Don't use three.

Question 5. Can I use the word "some" in scene heading like "SOME HELIPAD", "SOME RESTAURANT" where it is not absolutely essential to mention the exact town or city name?

Mention the exact town or place if that's important. Otherwise, just write helipad or restaurant; for example:

EXT. HELIPAD – DAY

NOTICE: The new, 4th edition of Dr. Format Tells All is now available. Check it out at http://www.keepwriting.com/drformat/index.htm.


OCTOBER 2015

WHERE IN THE WORLD IS CARMEN?

QUESTION

If someone is writing a script that takes place in two separate geographical locations; e.g., Cabin on Cape Code and Tundra of Southern Chile, what is the best way to show the reader that the scene has not just changed minor locations but entire continents? Also, with regard to the last question, this is the kind of thing I have been doing with my headings.

INT. CHILE – HUAREZ – HOTEL – CARMEN’S ROOM – EVENING

ANSWER

A scene heading should indicate the specific location of the scene, not everything you know about that location. Also, unless absolutely necessary, use DAY or NIGHT. Thus, I would revise your above example to the following:

INT. CARMEN'S HOTEL ROOM – DAY

Carmen's hotel room is the specific location of the scene. All the other information should come out in narrative description or previous scene headings. Here's an example of what I mean:

EXT. CHILEAN TUNDRA – DAY

The vast Southern Chilean tundra extends for miles.

SUPER: "Southern Chile."

The city of Huarez is visible in the distance.

EXT. HUAREZ HOTEL – SAME

A five-story red-brick monolith dominates the smaller shops that surround it.

INT. CARMEN'S HOTEL ROOM – SAME

You could replace SAME with CONTINUOUS if you wish. It's your choice.

SOUNDS ARE SOUNDS, WORDS ARE WORDS

QUESTION

In my script, I have characters who make a lot of sounds, and sometimes I have written something like the following:

                         BOB
                 (gasps)

                         LINDA
                 (groans loudly)

So my question is, may I write parentheticals without any actual dialogue?

ANSWER

No. Dialogue consists of the actual words spoken by the character. Any other utterances are just sounds and should be written as narrative description, as follows:

Bob gasps.

Linda groans loudly.

The same is true of the sounds made by animals. Even though they may be communicating, write their barks and meows as sounds. If the sounds are crucial, and you want to emphasize them, it's okay to place them in CAPS, but it's not necessary that you do so.

NOTICE: The new, 4th edition of Dr. Format Tells All is now available. Check it out at http://www.keepwriting.com/drformat/index.htm.


SEPTEMBER 2015

TIME LAPSES

QUESTION

I'm stumped. I want to show a time lapse from day to night for a story reason. A character, Jimmy, parks a Chevy automobile next to a building; someone is locked in the trunk (established in an earlier scene). I want to focus on the Chevy while everything around it changes. Jimmy will stand by the car and then disappear. The sequence will end in a light rain for the next scene. How do I format that?

ANSWER

The fact that you have a "story reason" for this time lapse is what prompted me to respond. I would use a format that is similar to the MONTAGE. How about something like this?

TIME LAPSE

The Chevy stays in the same place as everything around it changes.

-- Jimmy disappears.

-- The day evolves into night as lights go on, then out, in the building behind the car.

-- Two teenagers gather around the Chevy, then disappear.

-- A light rain drizzles.

EXT. STREET - MORNING

The only sound is the rain on the Chevy. And then the usual sounds of morning become apparent.

HOW MUCH DETAIL?

QUESTION

After watching movies like The Ring and Identity, I was wondering how much of the script actually turns into the visuals we see on the screen. Does the writer simply provide his/her version with dialogue and minor details and the director creates his/her own vision for the screen? My main question is when writing, how much description of key actions can the writer use throughout the script if it is relevant to the story?

ANSWER

If an action moves the story forward or adds to character, then write it. A spec script should contain specific details, but only those details that are important to the story or which reveal character.

For example, here is a small detail from a script.

Selma picks up her cup of coffee.

Normally, this incidental detail is unnecessary. It's not important enough to keep. On the other hand, if there is poison in that cup of coffee, then it is a key detail that should be in the script.

If there is a fight scene, describe the scene so that the reader can visualize it. You don't have to choreograph the fight, but you need to describe blows and tumbles. What the director chooses to use or not use is up to him/her.

Remember, your job is to give the script reader goose bumps, tense up her muscles, make her laugh, or bring tears to his eyes. You can't do that with general or vague details such as "They fight," or "they make love." At the same time, don't add unnecessary details. Remember, the more you write, the more you will get a sense of how much detail to add. So keep writing.


AUGUST 2015

SOUNDING OFF

QUESTION

I understand that SOUNDS are sometimes written in CAPS, but I have also seen characters (after their initial introduction), places, and actions put in all-CAPS. For example:

1. The door swings open and BILL saunters into the room with a handful of QUARTERS.

2. The CAR dims its lights and turns into the CONVENIENCE STORE LOT.

3. The boy STRIKES his father and FLEES on a bike.

What is your opinion on CAPS being used in this manner? I see it all the time, yet I've never read anything about it in formatting books or the like.

ANSWER

The reason you see it a lot is because you are (likely) reading shooting scripts. The reason you seldom see it in screenwriting books is because they generally provide instruction for spec scripts. A spec script is one written to sell; a shooting script is written for the shoot. In a shooting script, sounds and props are CAPPED so that the production manager can easily break down the script (prepare a shooting schedule, make lists of props and sound effects, and so on). On occasion, you may find a shooting script where all character names are CAPPED so that they can be tracked in the breakdown.

Unfortunately, many developing writers use these shooting script conventions in their spec scripts, or they want to emphasize a word by CAPPING it. The use of all-CAPS is hard on the eyes. Let's review your three examples in view of generally accepted spec writing conventions.

1. If this is not Bill's first appearance in the screenplay, his name should not appear in CAPS. The QUARTERS are a prop and should not be CAPPED in a spec script. In fact, as a general rule, nouns are not placed in CAPS, and that includes props, objects, places, and things. (The exception is the name of a character when he or she first appears in the screenplay.) Thus, this sentence should be written as follows:

The door swings open and Bill saunters into the room with a handful of quarters.

2. The word "car" should not appear in CAPS. It's a noun. The CONVENIENCE STORE LOT appears to be a new location. If so, it should be written as a scene heading (slug line). If the convenience store lot is a secondary location that is part of the master scene location, then this sentence would be written as follows:

The car dims its lights and turns into the

CONVENIENCE STORE LOT

where it slows to a stop.

If the convenience store lot is a new master scene location, then the sentence should be revised as follows.

The car dims its lights and turns.

EXT. CONVENIENCE STORE LOT - CONTINUOUS

The car slows to a stop in the parking lot.

What's the difference between a master scene heading and a secondary scene heading? The master scene heading presents a master location. A secondary scene heading presents a location that is part of the master location. Here's an example.

INT. CONVENIENCE STORE - NIGHT

A man wearing a werewolf Halloween mask enters.

AT THE COUNTER

the clerk freezes in fear.

IN THE AISLE

a young couple faint together.

AT THE COUNTER

the masked man opens a large paper sack.

                  MASKED MAN
       
Trick or treat.

In the above example, you can clearly see that the counter and aisle are secondary locations that are part of the primary or master location (the store). Even though the above example is in correct format, the scene doesn't have to be written that way. What follows would also be correct and probably preferred.

INT. CONVENIENCE STORE - NIGHT

A man wearing a werewolf Halloween mask enters.

The clerk at the counter freezes in fear.

In one of the aisles, a young couple faint together.

The masked man steps towards the clerk and opens a Halloween sack.

                   MASKED MAN
        Trick or treat.

Notice, in the above scene, that there is no word in the narrative description written in CAPS.

3. In this example, the CAPS emphasize action and imply sound effects. The words "strikes" and "flees" do not need be placed in CAPS in a spec script. Although you are no longer required to CAP sounds in a spec script, it is okay to CAP important sounds, if you wish. So you might want to CAP the word "strike." It's your choice.

MORE CAPS

QUESTION

After a character is introduced as BURLY COP, what is the correct form for the remainder of the script? For instance, I have seen it written [in narrative description] as Burly Cop, burly cop, and even burly Cop. After reading hundreds of screenplays and numerous books, I have yet to find a clear-cut answer for this.

ANSWER

Burly Cop. Good luck and keep writing.


JULY 2015

LOOK WHO’S TALKING

QUESTION

What is the proper format to use for an animal that makes animal sounds, but who also talks? For example:  A dog barks, then in a human voice says, "Hey, cut that out!"

ANSWER

Animal sounds should be written as narrative description.  That's because only words are considered to be dialogue.  Thus, you would write your example as follows.

Sparky barks, and then speaks in English.

                         SPARKY
          Hey, cut that out!

I SCREAM, YOU SCREAM

QUESTION

How does one write non-conversational vocal sounds, like screams?  Are they written as action [narrative description]?  Or are they placed under a character's name [as in the example below]?

                         LORI
                 (screams)

How about this:

                         LORI
                 Yaaarrrrrgh!

ANSWER

Screams, yelps, and such are sounds, and should be written as narrative description.  Dialogue consists of spoken or shouted words only.  The following is correct.

Lori screams.

Notice that I did not write the sound (screams) in CAPS.  You may CAP important sounds if you wish, but it is no longer necessary in spec writing.

PARENTHETICAL ACTION

QUESTION

I have been told that I cannot end a dialogue block with an action as shown below.  Is that true?

                         GERTIE
          I'm going to make you hurt.
                 (smiling with devilish
                 delight).

ANSWER

You have been told correctly.  You should not end a dialogue block with an action.  You can handle this situation in one of two ways.

                         GERTIE
                 (smiling with devilish
                 delight).

          I'm going to make you hurt.

Or--

                         GERTIE
          I'm going to make you hurt.

She smiles with devilish delight.

Or sometimes you can get away with breaking the rules.

DIALOGUE IS DIALOGUE

QUESTION

I have a scene where a character discovers a journal and reads an entry from it.  Since it's not really up to me whether the character reads the entry aloud or if the actual entry is displayed on screen, how should I format this in the script?

ANSWER

Before I answer the question, let me make two points.  First, don't be ambiguous in a screenplay. Write what we see and hear.  Either the character reads the journal out loud or the audience reads it silently—you decide in the screenplay.  Yes, the director may change what you wrote later, but at least give him or her a vision of what you see.

Second, only dialogue is dialogue.  You can only write in dialogue words that are spoken, shouted, or whispered.

Now, in answer to your question, I see two ways to approach this formatting problem.

If the journal entry is very short, you might consider allowing the audience to read it.  Use the INSERT for that.

INSERT - NATASHA'S JOURNAL, which reads:

          "I love Boris, but I plan to leave
          him for Fearless Leader."

(By the way, here is how you indent using Movie Magic Screenwriter:  Select the "Action" element. Then click on "Format" on the top toolbar and then "Cheat" and "Element" (F3). Select the margins you want (2.5 on the left and 2.5 on the right.)

If the journal entry is longer, then perhaps your character can read it to the audience.

Boris tiptoes into Natasha's room, spots her journal, and turns to the last page.  His eyes soften.

                         NATASHA (V.O.)
          I love Boris, but I plan to leave
          him for Fearless Leader.  Why?
          His silly mustache tickles me.

As you can see, all of this month's questions have to do with writing dialogue and writing action that is connected with dialogue.  I hope your dialogue brings you a lot of action.

 


JUNE 2015

WHY NOT USE CAMERA DIRECTIONS?

QUESTION

Dave, can you give me one good reason why I shouldn't include camera directions in my script? After all, I want the director to see my visual intent.


ANSWER

I'll give you three.

1. You are not writing primarily for the director, but for the reader, and most, if not all, professional readers don't like camera directions.

2. A reader likes readability; that is, a script that is easy to read. CAPS are hard on the eyes and camera directions break up the flow of the story. A spec script should direct the camera without using camera directions; that will give the director your "visual intent."

For example, don't write something like this:

CLOSE UP of Bart's face. ECU twitching eye.

Instead, write something like this :

Bart's eye twitches.

That has to be a CLOSE UP, and it's a lot easier to read.

3. Your scene may not be shot the way you envision it anyway. When a scene is blocked, a director often finds that adjustments have to be made.

For example, in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, the pier scene where Dwayne tells Frank he'll find a way to fly was originally written to be shot while the two were surfing. Thus, a wave pouring over the characters could be seen as symbolic of baptism or rebirth. In reality, it was hard to shoot and looked silly with wave after wave coming during this serious moment. And so they shot it again on the pier, and that's the version that was kept.

ABBREVIATIONS AND SLANG

QUESTION

Can you use abbreviations of words such as cos or gotta or "em in a screenplay? Or is it best to spell them out—because, got to, and them?


ANSWER

What you refer to are not abbreviations, but slang words or alternate spellings to convey pronunciation. This can be done to show a dialect or a particular accent or the particular manner of speaking that your character uses.

 

However, don't abbreviate in dialogue. For example, write "Doctor" rather than "Dr." Write "university" rather than "univ." Acronyms, such as C.I.A. and ASAP, are perfectly okay.

 

Good luck and keep writing.


MAY 2015

VISIONS, HALLUCINATIONS, AND MIRAGES

QUESTION

Say you’re writing a scene where somebody is seeing something mentally (presumably the people with him or her wouldn’t see whatever the image was). You want the audience to see what the character is seeing as well. How would you write that?


ANSWER

Let’s assume that your character’s name is Sybil. Just write what the audience and Sybil see, and label it clearly so that the reader knows that it is only Sybil’s vision. You would format it as you would a flashback or a dream:

EXT. WOODS – NIGHT

Bart and Sybil meander through the woods holding hands. Sybil suddenly stops and gazes up at the sky.

SYBIL’S VISION

 

A bright light descends over her. It’s her dead mama shaking a scolding finger at her.

 

BACK TO WOODS

Bart sees Sybil recoil, but doesn’t see Mama.

By labeling it as SYBIL’S VISION, you indicate that no character other than Sybil sees the vision. Notice that I made that absolutely clear in the last paragraph of narrative description that follows the vision. Use this same format for hallucinations and mirages. Always strive for clarity.

TWO NAMES ARE BETTER THAN ONE

QUESTION

How does a writer denote in a spec screenplay the fact that a character has a double identity, and is known to individual characters under two separate identities? Example: a character is known as RALPH to one set of characters, but JIMBO to another—do you type both RALPH/JIMBO each time he speaks dialogue in the screenplay? Bear in mind that the crux of the story is that he appears as a good guy to one set of characters and as a dirty rat to another set of characters.


ANSWER

You ask a good question, since it will be important to not confuse the reader. Clarity is the overriding principle in cases like this one. That is why you should normally use the same name in your character cue throughout the screenplay. Thus, I believe the best solution is the one you suggest. Refer to the character as RALPH/JIMBO in the dialogue character cue whenever he speaks, as follows:

                    RALPH/JIMBO
         What did you just call me?

Now if this character’s true identity is RALPH and that’s established early, then consider referring to him as RALPH (in the character cue) throughout the entire screenplay, even though some or most characters call him something else. That is what happens in NORTH BY NORTHWEST. We know that Cary Grant is Roger Thornhill, even though most people call him by another name during the majority of the movie. Thus, the character cue shows THORNHILL throughout the entire script.

Finally, if the character is known as RALPH throughout the screenplay and then later in the screenplay, his actual name is revealed to be JIMBO, then type RALPH in the character cue until his true name is revealed, and refer to him as RALPH/JIMBO thereafter.

I'M OKAY IF YOU'RE OK

QUESTION

OK or Okay? I have an editor friend of mine who keeps correcting my "OK's"! She says they need to be spelled out as "okay," but I think "OK" is acceptable. Please help.


ANSWER

Technically, your editor is correct. "Okay" is a word. "OK" is an acronym with many theories of origin. But most readers don't care which you use. Even so, everything will be okay if you use okay…and keep writing.


APRIL 2015

INFLAMMATORY INTERCUTS

QUESTION

I once had a writing instructor say a writer should not use words that "do the director's job"—it's the sign of a novice. Might using the INTERCUT be considered telling the director how to direct?


ANSWER

The INTERCUT is mainly used for phone conversations; its purpose is to show both speaking parties, but it essentially communicates to the reader (and the eventual director): "Show whomever you want to show when you want to show him or her." So in this sense, the INTERCUT actually gives license to the director.

In addition, if you choose to use the INTERCUT for a dramatic reason, then the reader will see that purpose. For example, it may be more suspenseful in one scene to only show one character in a phone conversation so that we (the audience) can't see who is calling her or hear what is said. In another scene, it might make more dramatic sense to let us (the audience) hear what the other character says without showing him.

When you make writing decisions based on story and character issues, then you're much less likely to offend the reader and the eventual director. What is irritating to readers is a screenplay jammed with camera directions, shot descriptions, and editing directions without a compelling dramatic or comedic objective. Even then, it's wise to avoid those technical intrusions. The INTERCUT is seldom seen as a technical intrusion.

MAGICAL FLASHBACKS

QUESTION

What about flashbacks that use magic? Would I have to note that it's a psychic or magical flashback? For example, a psychic detective picks up a hairbrush handle. Then we see what is in his head: a young woman brushing her hair when a man in dark apparel comes through the window.


ANSWER

This is a great question. You would handle the formatting just like a flashback, but you might use different labeling; in other words, you could choose to not call it a flashback for purposes of clarity. Here's just one possible example:

Detective Sam picks up a hairbrush.

SAM'S PSYCHIC VISION

A young woman sits at her vanity and brushes her hair. A man in dark apparel slips through the window behind her.

BACK TO SCENE

Naturally, if the woman and the man in dark apparel are appearing in the script for this first time, you would place their names or labels in all-CAPS (such as DARK MAN). And then you would keep writing!

Keep writing and take $20 off a script evaluation by Yours Truly. Just email me for details at dave@keepwriting.com..


MARCH 2015

MORPHING MORTIMER

QUESTION

In a number of transitions in my screenplay, we are going to see a person in the middle of an action morph into a younger version of himself without a break in the action, but indeed a change of scenery and time. How do I handle that?


ANSWER

There are many possibilities. Here is one:

INT. THEATER – NIGHT

The theater is packed with fans.

MORTIMER struts across the stage playing his harmonica. He MORPHS into....

EXT. KANSAS CITY BACK ALLEY – DAY

...YOUNG MORTIMER (15) playing the same tune on his harmonica.

SUPER: "KANSAS CITY 1983"

BOLD AND COURAGEOUS HEADINGS

QUESTION

What do you think of the new bold-and-underline format for scene headings?


ANSWER

I think it's perfectly okay, but completely unnecessary. The standard is still ordinary, unadorned scene headings. You'll know when that changes when the two major software companies (Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter) incorporate the bold-and-underline style (or bold style, or underline style) into their applications.

In the meantime, I suggest you stick with the regular scene heading style unless a different style is specifically requested, or you have fallen in love with it and feel courageous. The main thing is to courageously keep writing!

Take $20 off a script evaluation by Yours Truly. Just email me for details at dave@keepwriting.com..


FEBRUARY 2015

DO I HAVE TO USE FORMATTING?

QUESTION

Shouldn't the script writer just write a good script and let the tech people figure out all that [formatting] stuff? Does a screenwriter really need to know how to direct the camera? My experience in writing plays is that the director ignores almost all the directions; I'm pretty sure the same applies to film scripts. In other words, the scriptwriter, like the playwright, supplies the words that people speak to each other, and it is left to other professionals to film it.


ANSWER

My friend, let's take this one idea at a time.

Yes, the script writer should "write a good script," and that "good script" by definition would include correct format. It's not a script unless it's written in script format. Your premise almost sounds like this: "I'd like to write in Spanish without having to use the Spanish language." Use the language of film.

You mention the "tech people." You are not writing for the tech people, the director, or the actors. You are writing primarily for the reader (story analyst), who is almost always the first person to read a script and write a coverage for the producer or agent the script was intended for. If the coverage is negative, the agent or producer is unlikely to read the script. Readers read quickly because they have so much to read, so they expect a script to meet some minimum requirements, such as appearance (that is, correct format).

Does a screenwriter really need to know how to direct the camera? No. A spec script (written on speculation that you will sell it later) should not contain camera directions, shot descriptions, editing directions, or other technical directions normally found in a shooting script. That should come as good news. However, it helps to understand the visual aspects of film and write the script in such a way that you direct the camera without using camera directions. For example:

A vulture circles high above the grassland until swooping down on a half-eaten gazelle.

He picks at the gazelle's eye.

The first paragraph implies an aerial shot or crane shot with the camera descending down to the jungle floor. The second paragraph is a CLOSE UP. A professional reader will get that.

You mention the director. The director is the second creator of the film (with the editor being the third), and certainly the director will have his or her ideas as you correctly implied. However, your script should include enough detail that your vision is not only understood by the reader, but your story involves him or her emotionally so that your script eventually becomes a movie.

Good luck with that prospect and keep writing! And take $20 off a script evaluation by Yours Truly. Just email me for details at dave@keepwriting.com.


JANUARY 2015

CAPPING NAMES

QUESTION

Should I place a name in all-CAPS for characters with no speaking parts, but which interact with other characters? In my case, I have a dog and baby who move the story forward but don’t talk.


ANSWER

When any individual character first appears in narrative description, that character’s name or label should be placed in all-CAPS that first time, even if the character doesn’t talk later. If your dog is called MAX, that name should appear in all-CAPS that first time only. The same is true of characters without names who are labeled, such as CHUBBY COP, CRYING BABY and SEXY WAITRESS.

It is not necessary to CAP groups of characters, like “the crowd,” but it’s perfectly okay to do so if you wish.

 

CONTINUOUS

QUESTION

Someone told me that using CONTINUOUS in slug lines [scene headings] is wrong. Is that true?


ANSWER

What that person may have meant is if it is already obvious that one scene follows continuously a previous scene without any jump in time, then writing CONTINUOUS is not necessary. For example:

INT. HOUSE – DAY

John opens the door and steps out.


EXT. HOUSE


John steps onto the porch.

In the above situation, it is obvious that one scene follows the previous scene continuously. However, if that is not clear, then definitely use CONTINUOUS so that the reader doesn’t misunderstand.

FOLLOW-UP QUESTION

QUESTION

How about DAY or NIGHT?


ANSWER

The same logic applies, but don’t outsmart yourself and confuse a reader who may wonder for a given scene, is it day or night?

 

WE THE PEOPLE

QUESTION

I’d like your opinion on using “AND WE” when transitioning between scenes. I have seen this technique used in many shooting scripts.


ANSWER

Don’t use it in a spec script. As a general guideline, avoid the use of first person: AND WE, WE SEE, WE HEAR, WE MOVE, and so on. Naturally, there can be exceptions.

Good luck and keep writing! And take $20 off a script evaluation by Yours Truly. Just email me for details at dave@keepwriting.com.

 

 


DECEMBER 2014

THE HOLLYWOOD SLASHER

QUESTION

In a couple of "Hollywood" scripts that I have read, I see scene headings that use a slash as follows:

INT. JILL'S MARKET/BAKERY – DAY


EXT. LANCE'S CAR/WASHINGTON, DC – DAY


ANSWER

The slash is not used correctly in either case above. The slash is generally used to indicate that we are at two places at the same time and that the director and editor may alternate between the two locations at will. It is most often used with the INTERCUT in telephone conversations, as follows:

–TERESA'S KITCHEN/BOB'S BEDROOM

Now the camera can be either location at any point in the conversation.

Your first example presents a master (primary) location followed by a secondary location (that is part of the master location). This would be correct:


EXT. JILL'S MARKET – BAKERY – DAY


The same is true for the second example, but the master location is erroneously named last. Also, in this case where you simply want the reader to know we're in Washington, but not actually show us the city of Washington, use parentheses as follows:


EXT. LANCE'S CAR (WASHINGTON, DC) – DAY

WHAT TO DO WITH A SKULL

QUESTION

You say in your book that when a character's name is used as a secondary scene heading that it means the camera is on that character until the next scene heading. So how would you make the transition in the following scene?

THE GROUNDSKEEPER


is spellbound by the weird mesh holding the skulls together.


Suddenly, the skulls come alive.


ANSWER

Sometimes you can cheat a little if you are absolutely clear, and the above may be the exception that proves the rule (or should I say "guideline"). On the other hand, why not get rid of the secondary scene heading altogether; for example:

The Groundskeeper is spellbound by the weird mesh holding the skulls together.


Suddenly, the skulls come alive.

Good luck and keep writing! And take $20 off a script evaluation by Yours Truly. Just email me for details at dave@keepwriting.com.

 


November 2014

POTTY TALK

QUESTION

I am writing a script, and I want to know how I would write shit as in “and then a bird shits on the windshield.” Should I use crap, poop, or something else?

ANSWER

How about defecates? The word is not as important as the action. Make this visually interesting to the reader. Here’s one possible example:

A raven releases a white bomb on the windshield -- SPLAT! The windshield wiper smears the payload across the window.

Let me address your underlying question: Is it okay to use “naughty words” in a screenplay? My general response is to take the high road when writing narrative description, but to write what the characters say in dialogue. Of course, if you are writing a “low comedy,” then you might want to maintain that tone in your narrative description as well as in your dialogue. Finally, don’t use “language” just to demonstrate that you are hip; make sure all of your words contribute to the reading experience; in other words, write clear, visual narrative description and crisp, original dialogue.

I once had an agent tell me a curious thing, and she was referring to dialogue. She said, “Use less profanity and crude language in your script than you would expect to see in the completed movie.”  She told me that a lot of "language” grates on a reader. Since then, I have read hundreds of scripts, and would tend to agree with her.

PHONE TALK

QUESTION

I am having trouble with one of my scenes and I need help. There are two characters. One character is on screen, and the other is in another location on the phone. Should I use (O.C.) or (O.S.)?

Furthermore, when the two characters are speaking to each other, should I only establish the parenthetical (O.C.) or (O.S.) once in association with that character or throughout the character’s dialogue in the scene?


ANSWER

Let’s answer the first question first. Don’t use (O.C.) at all; it has fallen out of use. 

It appears as though the second character is in a separate location and we only hear his voice through the phone. In that case, his dialogue is “voiced over” (V.O.). Use (O.S.) if a character is in the scene at the location, but is “off screen.” In other words, use (O.S.) if we don’t see her on the silver screen, but she is there in the scene at the scene location.

To answer your second question, use (V.O.) in every instance that the character’s dialogue is “voiced over,” and use (O.S.) for every instance that the character’s dialogue is spoken “off screen.” Be clear. Have fun. And keep writing.


OCTOBER 2014

WHO’S COUNTING?

QUESTION

Although I don’t use a software package for writing my screenplays (I use Word), I strictly follow the formatting conventions. The other day on a screenwriter’s message forum, I read that the lines-per-page standard is 54 lines. To date I’ve never read that in any formatting book. Further, the message stated that Microsoft Word’s default single line spacing results in only 50 lines per page. Applying that formatting scheme to my 106-page screenplay, it shrunk to 96 pages. Can you clarify this “lines per page” standard?

ANSWER

Anywhere between 50-55 lines is okay, but who’s counting? I don’t know any readers who do. Line spacing is less crucial to a spec script than to a shooting script. However, if a reader looks at your script and the lines seem crammed together, then that’s a negative, so stay within that 50-55 lines range. Incidentally, now you know what to do if your script is too long or too short. :-)

Of course, if you own Movie Magic Screenwriter, then you don’t have to worry. All the tabs and margins are pre-set to industry standards.

THE STORYTELLER

QUESTION

My script is pretty much told in flashback, so would I format that as FLASHBACK, write the rest of the story until I reach the point where we come out of the flashback, and then write END OF FLASHBACK or BACK TO PRESENT DAY?

ANSWER

It appears that you are using the “storyteller device.” In other words, most of your movie is one long flashback, as is the case with Saving Private Ryan. Therefore, instead of a flashback, use a SUPER (short for superimpose) that identifies the year that we flash back to. Here’s an example that assumes your character is a 71-year-old man at the beginning of the movie.


John’s eyes get misty. He looks off into the distance.
          
EXT. SAN FRANCISCO - DAY
     
An 18-year-old John stands at a busy intersection.


SUPER: "San Francisco, 1950."

 

At the end of the movie, you will return to PRESENT DAY.

 

 


SEPTEMBER 2014

ACTION AND PARENTHETICALS

QUESTION

Is the following example correct?

 

                    JACK
               (grabs Jill by the
                hand)
          Could sure use some water, my dear.
               (a beat; starts up
                the hill)


                    JILL
               (snatches the bucket
                out of his hand)
          Sounds like a good idea, Jack.
               (swings bucket around
                and around as they near
                the well)

 

ANSWER

Action should be written as action, unless that action can be described in just a few words (tipping his hat). Also, do not end a dialogue block with a parenthetical; end it with dialogue. Finally, the dialogue in the example above is stiff; let’s make it more natural. At the same time, we’ll try to give the scene a little more movement. Here is my revision.

 

Jack shows Jill his empty bucket.

 

                    JACK
          Water?


Jill snatches the bucket.


                    JILL
          Race ya.

She swings the bucket around as they gallop to the well.

 

CALIFORNIA DREAMIN’

QUESTION

I want to be a screenwriter, but I cannot move to L.A. What do I do?


ANSWER

You don’t have to move to L.A. It helps, but it is not necessary. Writers such as Diablo Cody (JUNO) and Michael Arndt (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE) break in from outside of L.A. all the time. Just keep writing.

 


AUGUST 2014

HOW MUCH DETAIL?

QUESTION

I know I shouldn’t direct the director, so I try to keep the dialogue and description lean. But where do I draw the line between too little detail and too much detail? For example, should I write:

 

Molly cries.

Or...


Molly cries. Her body shakes, hands tremble, face turns red.

 

 

ANSWER

This is an important question because, as writers, we sometimes wonder where this fine line lies. Your second example adds drama and interest. If Molly is an important character, the reader will more readily identify with your second example. But don’t go beyond that and describe how her tears refract the light streaming through the window, creating a prism of sad colors. The key is to provide details that move the story forward, add dimension to your characters, dramatize dramatic and emotional moments, and add atmosphere (be careful here).

 

It follows that you don’t need to include every incidental action. For example, don’t write “He lays the coffee cup on the edge of the table.” No one cares where he lays the coffee cup unless he is going to spill it later, or it contains poison. Focus on story and character elements.

 

If your character enters a classroom, just describe it as an ordinary classroom. We do not need to know about the windows unless someone is going to come through those windows. We don’t need to know what kinds of desks or chairs are in the room unless our character cannot fit into his/her desk. Again, focus on story and character elements.

AND THE MUSIC?

QUESTION

Shouldn’t I indicate when the orchestra plays?


ANSWER

No. Your great writing establishes the mood for each scene. This is where the music composer should get his/her cues. 


JULY 2014

MARGIN CALL

QUESTION

As I understand it, the right margin of a script should be at one-half inch, but I have seen the right margin of some scripts at anywhere from a half inch to 1.5 inches.  What is correct?


ANSWER

They all are.  The right margin is normally at one-half inch to one inch.  However, if your screenplay length is bit short and you need to add pages, you might consider creating more white space on each of the pages—that’s one reason you might have a right margin of more than an inch.  It’s your call.  However, the following always applies:  Left margin should be 1.5 inches, right margin should be  no shorter than one-half inch, and the right margin should be ragged. 

CALLING THE SHOTS

QUESTION

As I understand it, the right margin of a script should be at one-half inch, but I have seen the right margin of some scripts at anywhere from a half inch to 1.5 inches.  What is correct?

 

EXT. HOUSE - DAY

CLOSE SHOT

Mark opens the door.

Or, would this be better:


EXT. HOUSE - DAY

CLOSE ON Mark as he opens the door.

 

 

ANSWER

I do not see a reason for either camera direction.  The following is more acceptable and more readable, plus it implies a CLOSE UP of Mark and the door.

 

EXT. HOUSE - DAY

Mark opens the door
.

Relax and keep writing!

 


JUNE 2014

GOING VIRAL

QUESTION

How do you format a monologue accompanied by a series of shots that describe what the monologue is about (for example, a monologue about the downfall of human civilization due to a slowly creeping virus over the course of several years).

 


ANSWER

You could use a series of shots or a montage for this.  The key in either case is to match images to dialogue, just as you would do in a scene.  Here is an example, using the montage format:

 

MONTAGE – THE VIRUS PROGRESSES

-- JAMES BOYLE, 45, with a huge grotesque nose explains to a video camera.  He pulls out a handkerchief.

                     BOYLE
        About three years ago, there was no
        sign that the virus had taken effect.

-- On a beach, perfectly normal people play and have fun.

                     BOYLE
        Then, two years ago, we noticed that
        the average nose size of Americans
        was slightly larger.

-- A family plays ping pong.  They have large noses.  Two of them rub their noses with handkerchiefs.

                     BOYLE
        Noses kept growing and with that
        growth, colds became more intense....

-- People sit in basketball bleachers.  All of them have noses twice the size of normal.  All of them cough or sneeze continuously until one drops dead.

                     BOYLE
        ... Until people started dying.  Now
        more people are dying than are being
        born.  It could be the end of civili-
        zation as we know it.

-- Boyle’s nose is now even larger.  He sneezes and crumbles to the ground.  Silence.  No one comes to his aid.


You get the idea.  A series of shots would look very much the same.


SERIES OF SHOTS – THE VIRUS PROGRESSES

A) JAMES BOYLE, 45, with a huge grotesque nose explains to a video camera.  He pulls out a handkerchief.


Be well and keep writing!

 


MAY 2014

I SMELL A RAT

QUESTION

How does a writer denote in a spec screenplay the fact that a character has a double identity, and is known to individual characters under two separate identities?  Example: a character is known as BILL to one set of characters, but JIM to another—do you type both BILL/JIM each time he speaks dialogue in the screenplay?  Bear in mind that the crux of the story is that he appears as a good guy to one set of characters and as a dirty rat to another set of characters.

 


ANSWER

You ask a good question, since it will be important to not confuse the reader.  Clarity is the overriding principle in cases like this one.  That is why you should normally use the same name in your character cue throughout the screenplay.  Thus, I believe the best solution is the one you suggest.  Refer to the character as BILL/JIM in the dialogue character cue whenever he speaks, as follows:

 


                    BILL/JIM
          What did you just call me?


Now if this character’s true identity is BILL and that’s established early, then consider referring to him as BILL (in the character cue) throughout the entire screenplay, even though some characters might call him something else (in dialogue).

That is what happens in NORTH BY NORTHWEST.  We know that Cary Grant plays the role of Roger Thornhill, even though most people call Thornhill by another name during the majority of the movie.  Thus, the character cue shows THORNHILL throughout the entire script, regardless of how people address him.

 

 

I FEEL OKAY

QUESTION

OK or Okay?  I have an editor friend of mine who keeps correcting my “Ok’s”!  She says they need to be spelled out as “okay,” but I think “OK” is acceptable.  Please help.

 


ANSWER

Your editor is okay by me.  And technically, she is okay.  “Okay” is a word.  “OK” is an acronym or a derivation of a foreign expression—no one really knows for sure the origin.  The one thing that every grammarian agrees on is it is not a word and should not be used—okay?  Now that we’ve settled that, keep writing.

 


APRIL 2014

I SEE THE LIGHT

QUESTION

Say you’re writing a scene where somebody is seeing something mentally (presumably the people with him or her wouldn’t see whatever the image was).  You want the audience to see what the character is seeing as well.  How would you write that?

For example, there was a TV movie that aired called Living With the Dead with Ted Danson.  In several scenes, the main character sees visions in his head, and we the audience see the same visions. How would that be written?  Would we need a whole new scene heading for each mental image, even though we really haven’t left the first scene?

 


ANSWER

Let’s assume that your character’s name is Dame Nostra.  Just write what the audience sees, and label it clearly.  You would format it just as you would a flashback or a dream, but instead of DAME NOSTRA’S DREAM or FLASHBACK as a heading (slug line), your heading would be DAME NOSTRA’S IMAGINATION OR THE DAME’S VISION, or something similar to that.  For example, if she sees the woods at night, you might write:

 


DAME NOSTRA’S VISION - THE WOODS AT NIGHT


And then describe what Dame Nostra and the audience see.  The main thing is to clearly communicate to the reader what is happening on the movie screen.  If there is more than one vision in a row, handle it like a MONTAGE, as follows:

 

DAME NOSTRA’S VISIONS

-- A man drags a body into the woods.

-- A plane flies into a skyscraper.


And so on.

 

 

I HEAR THE PHONE

QUESTION

What is the best way to cross cut a telephone conversation that cuts back and forth between two characters?

 


ANSWER

I think you want the INTERCUT here.  Simply establish the two locations, then write out the telephone conversation, as follows:


INT. MARY’S KITCHEN - NIGHT

Mary paces nervously, then punches numbers on her phone.

INT. DARIN’S CAR - SAME

Darin drives through the rain, looking depressed.  His cell phone rings.

INTERCUT - TELEPHONE CONVERSATION

                   MARY
        Come back.

                   DARIN
        What?  Now?

                   MARY
        Yes.  Please.

                   DARIN
        Give me one good reason.

                   MARY
        You forgot your casserole bowl.

                   DARIN
        I’ll be right there.

 

Here’s an alternate way to handle this.

 

INTERCUT PHONE CONVERSATION – MARY’S KITCHEN/DARIN’S CAR

Mary paces nervously, then punches numbers on her phone.

Darin drives through the rain, looking depressed.  His cell phone rings. 

 

And then write out the dialogue…and keep writing.

 


 

MARCH 2014

LOCATING THE LOCATION

QUESTION

What is the correct format for a montage that has a series of scenes at different locations, but no dialogue?

 


ANSWER

There are many correct ways to format a MONTAGE or SERIES OF SHOTS.  It all depends on your purpose.  Generally, a MONTAGE is used to describe a series of images that convey a concept, such as passage of time or falling in love.  The SERIES OF SHOTS is for a straight narrative, a chronology of events.  Naturally, the two are often used interchangeably.

 

What follows is standard format for the MONTAGE:

 


MONTAGE - JOHN WAITS FOR MARY


-- John glances at the waiting room clock.  It’s 10:00.

-- He stares at a door, glances back at the clock -- 10:30.

-- He paces the room nervously -- 11:00.  The door opens and Mary exits the bathroom.

In your question, you describe a series of locations.  So let’s format a MONTAGE that emphasizes location:

 

MONTAGE - JOHN FALLS FOR MARY

-- AT A RESTAURANT -- John and Mary exchange caring glances over a glass of wine.

-- AT THE BEACH -- John and Mary frolic in the sun.

-- ON MARY’S BALCONY -- John kisses Mary, then falls back over the railing, flailing his arms.

Of course, you don’t necessarily have to CAP your locations.  For example, you could write:

 

-- At a restaurant, John and Mary exchange caring glances over a glass of wine.

And so on.  Whatever format you decide to use, be consistent.

 

Let’s look at standard format for a SERIES OF SHOTS:


SERIES OF SHOTS - John gets even.

 

A) John lifts a gun from his desk drawer.

 

B) John strides down a sidewalk. 

 

C) Mary answers the door.  John pulls the trigger.  A stream of water hits Mary in the face.


As you can see, there is very little difference between the MONTAGE and SERIES OF SHOTS.  In both cases, you start with an informative heading, and then list shots in a way that best suits your purpose.  The main thing is to follow the basic form and strive for clarity so that the reader can follow what is happening.

By the way, the example is taken from the new 6th edition of The Screenwriter’s Bible, due for release in March, 2014.

 

NAME CHANGES

QUESTION

I am writing a script with a character whose name will change late in the first act.  How should this be indicated in the script?  Should he be TOM and then later TOM/HARRY?

 


ANSWER

As a general rule, you want a character to have the same exact name in the character cue throughout the entire script.  (The character cue section of a dialogue block is where you type the name of the person speaking.)  In NORTH BY NORTHWEST, we have a case of mistaken identity, but the Cary Grant character is referred to by his true name throughout the entire screenplay.

 

Whatever you do, make sure the reader is not lost.  And keep writing.

 


FEBRUARY 2014

TIME JUMPS MONTAGE

QUESTION

My opening scene shows a small child being tended to by his mother and three other women.  This scene takes place in the past, and we soon meet all of these characters again 25 years later.  How do I describe everyone in my opening scene in comparison to how they will be described a few scenes later when they are older?  Is it a YOUNG VINCENT?  And do I describe them again later?

 


ANSWER

Yes and yes.  Call him YOUNG VINCENT, four years old, or whatever his age is.  And then when you cut to 25 years later, call him VINCENT, now 29.  And then describe him just as you would if this were the first scene in the movie.

 

TIME STANDS STILL

QUESTION

In my scene, a young newlywed couple is at a park among guests, cutting the cake.  The next scene shows the same couple 13 years later, watching the tape of their wedding at the park (the previous scene).  What would be the correct way to write this?

 


ANSWER

There are many correct ways.  Let’s look at just one.  I think the key to the transition will be to cut from one action to that same action on the video tape:

 


EXT. PARK - DAY


John and Mary are ushered to the wedding cake by guests.  Mary takes the knife and, with John’s hand on hers, cuts the cake.

INT. HOUSE - DAY

On a TV screen, Mary cuts the cake
.

Together on a couch, John and Mary watch the video contentedly.

It’s 13 years later.

If you want to be clearer about the jump in time, you could omit that last sentence, double space, and write:


SUPER: "13 YEARS LATER"


JANUARY 2014

THE FALLING IN LOVE MONTAGE

QUESTION

I'm at the point in my romantic comedy script where the two characters get together and fall in love.  I want to show the audience that two months go by in the characters' lives and in the things they do; that is, go on a picnic, go to the beach, attend parties, etc.  Usually, in actual movies, there is music during this section.  How do I write it down so that the producer/director knows what sort of sequence I am after?

 


ANSWER

You are referring to the montage.  Use the specific shots of your montage to show "passage of time" or "falling in love" (or any other concept).  Here's an example:

 


MONTAGE - JIM & SUZY FALL IN LOVE


-- At a picnic in the park, Jim and Suzy wolf down an entire chicken in record time.  Their affectionate countenances are smeared with chicken fat.

-- Jim (now with two-months worth of beard) and Suzy jog along the beach until they come upon a beached whale.  Together, they push the huge mammal back into the ocean.  The whale waves its tail in grateful thanks.  Jim and Suzy wave back.

 

And so on.   You did say this was a comedy, right? :-)

 

In terms of passage of time, I used a beard in the above example, but you will not need to be so obvious.  Normally, show passage of time by how the relationship grows or deteriorates.  A classic example is the breakfast montage in Citizen Kane.  Obviously, time is passing.  In both A Man for All Seasons and A Beautiful Mind, there is a short montage of the seasons changing.

 

Incidentally, you will not indicate music in your montage.  That's not your job.  But certainly the filmmakers will see an opportunity to insert a hit song.  Your job is to keep writing.

 

THE TELEPHONE INTERCUT

QUESTION

What is the best way to cross cut a telephone conversation that cuts back and forth between two characters?

 


ANSWER

I think you want the INTERCUT here.  Simply establish the two locations, then write out the telephone conversation, as follows:

 


INT. MARY'S KITCHEN - NIGHT


Mary paces nervously, then punches numbers on her phone.

INT. DARIN'S CAR - SAME

Darin drives through the rain, looking depressed.  His cell phone rings.

INTERCUT - TELEPHONE CONVERSATION

                   MARY
        Come back.

                   DARIN
        What?  Now?

                   MARY
        Yes.  Please.

                   DARIN
        Give me one good reason

                   MARY
        You forgot your casserole bowl.

                   DARIN
        I'll be right there


DECEMBER 2013

ACRONYMS, ABBREVIATIONS, AND NUMBERS

QUESTION

Would you please tell me if it is professional/acceptable to use acronyms when writing a spec script? For example, may I use MCC for Mobile Command Center?


ANSWER

Acronyms are okay. Just make sure the reader knows what they stand for. The main thing is to be absolutely clear so that the reader does not get confused. You don’t want a reader wondering what MCC stands for.

In dialogue, if you want the actor to say the individual letters of an acronym, then separate them with hyphens or periods, as follows: M.C.C. or M-C-C. Use the hyphens only if the character is spelling a word.

 

FOLLOW-UP QUESTION

Can I abbreviate words; for example, hwy for highway?

 

ANSWER

In the words of William Safire, “Don’t abbrev.” Do not abbreviate regular words like highway. It comes across as sloppy writing. In dialogue speeches particularly, you must always write out the words.

 

FOLLOW-UP QUESTION

What about numbers?


ANSWER

Numbers should be written out as words in dialogue speeches. In narrative description, use your best adjustment.

 

SPECIAL WORDS AND ITALICS

QUESTION

If there are words in the action or dialogue segments that are unusual, such as the name of an extra terrestrial civilization called the Barkuda, or the Latin term for African lion, panthera leo, is it okay to italicize the words to a reader, so that the reader will know that the words are special and not typos? If so, would one italicize every occurrence of the word(s), or just the first?


ANSWER

The general rule is to not bold or italicize anything in a spec screenplay. The exception is foreign words like your panther leo.

As a general rule, when you want to emphasize anything in a screenplay, such as a word of dialogue or a sentence of narrative description, underscore the word or sentence. Do this only rarely.

If you wish to emphasize an important sound, use all-CAPS. Although it is no longer necessary to place sounds in all-CAPS, you may emphasize important sounds (or all sounds) if you wish.


NOVEMBER 2013

Last month we discussed sitcom writing.  This month, I’ll respond to two more questions regarding writing for television.

EXITS AND ENTRANCES

QUESTION

Is capitalization of entrances and exits passé?  Example: SHARON EXITS.  I want to keep things “clean and lean,” but can’t decide if the caps are a help or a burden to the reader.

 


ANSWER

Let me respond first for screenwriters, and second for TV sitcom writers.

In screenwriting, no CAPS are required for exits and entrances.  In fact, you do not need to use the terms ENTRANCE and EXIT at all.  When a scene begins, simply describe the action we see and who is involved in that action.

If someone enters the scene or exits the scene, and it’s important to point that out, then do so.  But don’t write SHARON EXITS.  Doing so tells us almost nothing about Sharon or the story.  Instead, describe how she exits to characterize her, or to reveal her feelings or attitude, or to reveal something of her character.  Here are three examples:

 


As Sharon waves goodbye, she steps backwards and trips through the doorway.


Sharon slams the door behind her.

Sharon strides triumphantly through the doorway.

 


In a situation comedy (sitcom), all narrative description is capitalized, and entrances and exits are underscored.   

 

SHARON WAVES GOODBYE AND EXITS.

SHOW ME THE MONEY

QUESTION

I heard the real money is in TV, but how can that be when some screenwriters make over a million for a screenplay.

 


ANSWER

Most established screenwriters are not making millions per script, but it’s true the money can be big for the right script.  Specs for big budget movies can earn six figures or more.  Most established TV writers not only make six figures, but they make it year after year.  And it is true that the money in TV writing is more consistent than for screenwriting.

The downside for TV writing is you will work very long hours to make that money.  I have a friend who writes for a sitcom, who said he would love to take a break from TV, but he can’t give up the big bucks.

Whatever venue you choose to write for, in order to make any bucks at all, you need to keep writing.  Good luck!


OCTOBER 2013

SITCOM DIALOGUE

QUESTION

I want to write an episode for a situation comedy.  Is the formatting for dialogue the same as in feature length scripts?

 


ANSWER

No. Sitcom dialogue is double-spaced and is different in other ways.  Perhaps, a comparison would be helpful.  What follows is how a speech would be written in standard spec screenplay format.

 


                         GROUCHO

          The other day I shot an elephant
          in my pajamas.

                 (flicking his cigar)
          How the elephant got in my pajamas
          I don't know.

 


What follows is the same speech written for a situation comedy.   

 

                         GROUCHO

          The other day I shot an elephant

          in my pajamas.  (FLICKING HIS CIGAR.)

          How the elephant got in my pajamas

          I don't know.


As you can see, there is a big difference between the two examples.  One reason the TV sitcom style emphasizes dialogue is that a sitcom is actually a two-act stage play shot for TV.  Usually, in a TV situation comedy, the emphasis is on dialogue, not on action.  Often, there are only one or two sets for a sitcom series.

If you wish to write for a specific sitcom, you will first want to verify that scripts are being considered for that show.  You will also want to see how scripts for that show are formatted.  That’s because there are slight differences from series to series.  That’s especially true for one-camera TV shows like The Office.

Incidentally, Movie Magic Screenwriter provides many helpful TV templates.

HOUR-LONG TV SHOWS

QUESTION

Is an hour-long TV show formatted the same way as sitcoms?

 

ANSWER

No.  An hour-long TV show is formatted in standard spec script format, just like a feature length script.  The only difference is that you label the teaser, acts, and tag (or epilogue).  A pilot does not need the acts labeled.

 


SEPTEMBER 2013

IT’S STILL THE SAME OLD STORY

QUESTION

What is the difference between SAME and CONTINUOUS?

 


ANSWER

It depends on whom you talk to.  In many cases, the terms are used synonymously. 

 

However, in most cases, the term CONTINUOUS is added to a master scene heading to indicate that it follows the previous scene without any jump in time.  Here is an example.

 


INT. CASTLE - DAY

 


Squire Hermagilde spots a group of angry peasants storming the castle.  Scared speechless, he lunges through the open doorway.

 


INT. STAIRWELL - CONTINUOUS

 


He races down the stairs and through another doorway.

 


EXT. DRAWBRIDGE - CONTINUOUS

 


He pulls the drawbridge chain hand over hand, drawing the bridge up, just as the peasants arrive at the moat.

 


The term SAME is usually used in the same way.   

 


EXT. STAIRWELL - SAME

 


However, most writers use the term SAME to indicate a scene that happens at precisely the same time as the previous scene; in other words, simultaneously.  However, those occasions are rare.

 


EXT. CASTLE – DAY

 


Someone lobs a bomb over the wall.  The castle explodes.

 


INT. CASTLE – SAME

 


The bomb lands near Squire Hermagilde.  The bomb explodes, launching the squire on top of a distant canopy.  He is unhurt.

 

DAY OR NIGHT

QUESTION

I like to flow scenes together, and the suffixes DAY and NIGHT often become redundant.  For that reason I try to use headings and sub-headings to avoid repetition of DAY and NIGHT.  For instance:

 


INT. KITCHEN - DAY

 


Darrin heads out to the

 


BACKYARD

 


to find Eleanora resting in a hammock.

 


ANSWER

First of all, it’s okay to omit the terms DAY or NIGHT from a heading if it’s already obvious what the time of day is and ifthat time of day has not changed since the previous scene. 

 

In your example above, the BACKYARD is not part of the KITCHEN, so a secondary heading is impossible.  In other words, the BACKYARD is another master location that requires a  master scene heading.  However, you could end that second master scene heading with CONTINUOUS (instead of DAY), since one scene follows right on the heels of the other.  Therefore, this would be correct:

 


INT. KITCHEN - DAY

 


Darrin saunters to the door.

 


EXT. BACKYARD - CONTINUOUS

 


Derrick finds Eleanora resting in a hammock.

 

FOLLOW-UP QUESTION

QUESTION

In what situation could I use secondary headings?

 


ANSWER

You can use secondary headings when you cut from one (master) location to a location that is within or part of that master location.  Let’s borrow an earlier scene, and re-format it to illustrate this point. 

 


INT. CASTLE - DAY

 


Squire Hermagilde spots a group of angry peasants storming the castle. Scared speechless, he races through the doorway and down the

 


STAIRWELL

 


through another doorway to the

 


DRAWBRIDGE

 


where he tugs at the drawbridge chain, and pulls up the bridge just as the peasants arrive at the moat. 

 


Since the STAIRWELL and the DRAWBRIDGE are both part of the master location (the CASTLE), they are secondary headings. 

 


AUGUST 2013

SIMULTANEOUS DIALOGUE

QUESTION

When two characters say the same line at the same time, how do you format that?

ANSWER

Here's the first of four ways to present two people speaking at the same time.

                         SAM AND JO
          Huh, what?

Or you can add a parenthetical to make it absolutely clear.

                        SAM AND JO
                 (together)
         Huh, what?

Or replace the word "together" with "simultaneously." Here's a third example that you can use when the two characters say the same thing at about the same time or when they say different things at about the same time.

                         SAM
          Huh, what?

                         JO
                 (overlapping)
          Huh, what?

And finally...

          SAM                    JO
       Huh, what?              Huh, what?

LOCATING THE LOCATION

QUESTION

If, for dramatic purposes, you cut to the next scene by using a stark image—BLOODY FINGERS, for example—would you do something like this for the slug line:

INT. BLOODY FINGERS - NIGHT

Or would you just write BLOODY FINGERS, and then pull back and describe the situation?

ANSWER

First of all, BLOODY FINGERS is not a location so it would not be part of the heading (slug line). You would probably write it along these lines:

INT. BARN - NIGHT

Bloody fingers tremble. They reach for the barn door.

In the above description, I focus the reader's attention on the fingers first, and then on the action and surroundings. That implies that we open the scene with a CLOSE UP on the bloody fingers, and then the camera PULLS BACK (or PANS) so that we see the barn door (and barn interior). Thus, we present a clear, visual image to the reader without using camera directions.

ACTION SHOULD COMMENT ON CHARACTER

QUESTION

I'm presently writing a script which involves a lot of comings and goings of the characters. In so doing, I find myself often using the same exit and enter lines: Charlie enters or Charlie leaves. Would this method be too repetitious in the eyes of a script reader?

ANSWER

Yes. Be more specific and concrete than "Charlie enters" and "Charlie leaves." How does Charlie enter? How does Charlie exit? Make it a character thing by being more specific. Let every action tell the reader (and the eventual audience) something about the character and/or the story:

Charlie silently slithers in.

Charlie staggers into the bathroom and, on his third try, kicks the door shut.

THREE, FIVE, OR NINE ACTS?

QUESTION

What are your thoughts regarding nine acts versus three acts?

ANSWER

Well, a nine-act story still has three main parts. It has a beginning middle and end, just like a three-act story. Some screenwriters like to think in terms of four acts—each about equal length. They still have a beginning (which focuses on establishing story, characters, and situation), middle (mostly concerned with complications and a rising conflict, culminating in some kind of crisis), and end (the showdown and denouement). Shakespeare used five acts, and even when he was in love, there was a beginning, middle (Acts 2, 3, and 4), and end. Most TV MOWs (movies-of-the-week) have seven acts. The first act is the beginning, and the last two are usually the end.

Basic dramatic structure is about the same for everyone. Now, how you specifically apply it to the content of your story requires some creativity and skill, and how you present the content of your story so that it is dramatic and compelling also requires some creativity and skill.

AND SITUATION COMEDY?

QUESTION

...But isn't a situation comedy just two acts?

ANSWER

Yes, it has a teaser, the first act, the second act, and a tag or epilog. However, it still has a beginning, middle, and end. The way it differs from a screenplay is that the middle is divided by a Pinch that is one of the following: 1) The funniest thing in the sitcom that makes us anticipate more hilarity while the commercial plays, 2) A very serious and dramatic turning point that makes us wonder what is going to happen next while the commercial plays, or 3) A funny twist that makes us wonder what is going to happen next while the commercial plays.

May what happens next involve a six-figure contract. Good luck and keep writing.


JULY 2013

FOREIGN LANGUAGES AND SUBTITLES

QUESTION

Suppose my character joins the foreign legion and speaks in French, do I use the dreaded wrylies to explain that he is speaking in French? Or do I write the dialogue in French? Or should I use subtitles?

ANSWER

I've had legions of questions about foreign languages, so I am using the above as representative of them all. Even though I have addressed this issue briefly in a previous column, the time has come for a full treatise. First, let me explain the question.

The writer refers to "dreaded wrylies." Wrylies are the parentheticals that sometimes appear before dialogue speeches. The term developed because so many novice writers used the term "wryly" to describe their characters' dialogue. For example:

                         SAM
                 (wryly)
          And when you lay down tonight,
          remember to fall asleep.

And so the term wryly was born. The reason they are "dreaded" is because writers are encouraged to use them sparingly. Only use a wryly when the subtext of the dialogue is not otherwise clear. You may also use them to describe small actions that can be described in two or three words, such as lighting his cigar or smiling wistfully.

Using foreign languages
In working with other languages, realize there is one general rule: write your script in the language of the eventual reader so that he/she knows what is going on. In other words, avoid writing dialogue in a foreign language.

If a character speaks in French, do not write out the dialogue in French unless the eventual reader is French, or in the extremely rare case that the meaning of the words don't matter. Simply write the lines as follows:

                        JEAN-MARC
                 (in French)
         Come with me to the Casbah.

Now the observant reader is likely to say, "But Dave, the word ‘Casbah' is a French word." Yes, however it's also an English word with French and African roots, but the observant reader brings up a good point.

Instead of having your character speak in French, consider sprinkling his/her dialogue with French words to give us the flavor of French. Then everyone knows what is being said.

Now, suppose your character absolutely, positively must speak in a foreign language. Your desire is for something realistic, such as the Italian spoken in The Godfather. You have five options, depending on your specific purpose.

1. If it doesn't matter whether the audience understands the meaning of the foreign words, or if you believe the audience will be able to figure our the meaning of the words by their context, then just write them out in the foreign language. For example:

Tarzan shouts at the charging elephant.

                        TARZAN
         On-gow-ah!

The elephant turns and stampedes in the opposite direction.

Or write the words in English using a wryly to indicate what language the words will be spoken in, as follows:

                        PIERRE-LUC
                 (in French)
         Imbecile. Idiot. Retard.

2. If the characters speak in French throughout an entire scene, then make a clear statement in the narrative description that all the dialogue in the scene will be spoken in French; then, write the dialogue out in English so that the reader can understand it.

...But this begs the question: How will the audience know what is being said? They won't unless they are French. For that reason, this is seldom a viable option. If your character must speak in French and it's also important that the audience understand what is being said, then the solution is subtitles.

Subtitles
3. If you write a complete scene where French (or other language) is spoken, and if you want English subtitles to appear on the movie screen while the character speaks in French, then include a special note in the narrative description, as follows:

NOTE: THE DIALOGUE IN THIS SCENE IS SPOKEN IN FRENCH AND IS SUBTITLED IN ENGLISH.

Then, simply write the dialogue out in English. After the scene ends, write:

END OF SUBTITLES

4. Another option for using subtitles is to use our friend, the "dreaded wryly."

                        MICHELLE
                 (in French, with)
                 subtitles)
         I spit on your name. I spit
         on your mother's grave. I
         spit on your column.

The spittle flies.

5. There is one other option for using subtitles. Use this device only if the sound of the words in the foreign language is important; for example, in the case of this space visitor's language, the words have a humorous quality.

          ALIEN              SUBTITLES
     Zoo-SEE, Woo-BEE     You're cute.

My final advice is to choose English whenever possible and give us a flavor of the foreign language by including a few foreign words and/or flavor of a foreign accent. So until my next column, I bid you adieu.

Note: To format dual-column dialogue using Movie Magic Screenwriter, simply click on "Help," search for "dual-column dialogue," and follow those instructions.


JUNE 2013

A PROFESSIONAL LOOKING SCRIPT

QUESTION

How unprofessional can I be in formatting? Do I have to have everything exactly right?

ANSWER

If your story is wonderful, then the reader may overlook little formatting problems. Then again, the reader may never read your script if he or she is turned off by those “little formatting problems” when he or she glances through your script. Obviously, the story is the most important thing, but formatting is also important. In marketing, we call this packaging. Packaging is important in selling the product—your script.

Here’s the bottom line. If the formatting errors in your script are minimal, you will probably be okay. Keep in mind that different people in the biz have different ideas of what correct formatting is. Thus, be smart and follow the rules of spec formatting as best you can, and then don’t be unduly concerned. Relax and write.

HOW LONG IS A SCENE?

QUESTION

I’ve read in various articles and heard from a wide variety of industry professionals that a scene should take up no more than three to four pages (exceptions granted). How many times can this rule be successfully broken?

ANSWER

Any scene length is fine if it works. One of my favorite scenes from The Princess Bride is ten pages long. I usually recommend “challenging” any scene over 2-3 pages. Sometimes you need long scenes, but often you don’t. There isn’t a magic formula, since the length depends on the scene content, the story context, and what the scene needs to accomplish.

However, many scenes can be streamlined and improved if you will give them a hard look. For example, can you start the scene later in the scene without losing what is important to that scene? If so, omit some of the beginning. Are you being redundant in your scene? If so, do some condensing. Does your scene end strong, making the reader wonder what happens next? In other words, is the scene compelling? If so, then you’re probably okay.

THAT FIRST DRAFT

QUESTION

I tend to write the action for each scene as I visualize it “on screen.” Sometimes formatting seems to get in the way of this creative process. Any tricks?

ANSWER

In your first draft, write it just the way you see it in your mind, and use any format you’d like. Forget the rules. Just get something down on paper. To quote Forrester in the film Finding Forrester, “write the first draft from the heart and the second draft from the head.” Go ahead and have fun with that first draft! Then, in your second or later draft, conform what you have to proper spec form.

THE OPENING HOOK

QUESTION

When writing my script, should I focus on catching the reader’s attention quickly or on the quality of the story?

ANSWER

Both.

That does not mean that you must open with a car chase and explosion, but that you must pull the reader into the story.

RIGHT FIRST, WRITE SECOND

QUESTION

You say get the right or rights first before writing a sequel or adaptation, but my instructor says write the movie, then worry about the rights. Why different views?

ANSWER

My advice assumes you are writing to sell and that you are writing your first or second script. Consider this.

Let’s say you write a sequel to the most recent Indiana Jones flick. Who are you going to sell your sequel to? Well, you can only sell it to the person or company who own the rights. And since you have no where else to go with the script, they can say if they choose, “We’ll give you a grand for your script; take it or leave it.” Do you see that you are in a weak negotiating position? Also, keep in mind that producers of successful movies generally hire writers known to them to write sequels. It’s possible that a sequel is already being written.

In the case of an adaptation, if you are already emotionally invested in a work that you have already adapted, and the seller of the rights senses that, then (once again) you place yourself in a weak negotiating position. It follows that if you write an adaptation without the rights to the source material, then you place yourself in a weak position with producers. My desire is to see you in a strong negotiating position.

Finally, agents and producers, for the most part, seek writers who can create characters and a story from scratch, without borrowing from the work of others. So unless your adaptation or sequel is absolutely brilliant, get the rights first. Otherwise, I suggest that you write an original script so that your agent can use that sample to get you work writing sequels and adaptations. Naturally, there are notable exceptions to this guideline.

AGENT RESPONSE TIME

QUESTION

How long does it take for an agent to respond?

ANSWER

Forever. Actually, it’s closer to several months. Give the agent at least a month before doing any kind of follow-up. During that follow-up call, ask when you can expect a response, and then wait until that time period has lapsed before calling again.

Remember that calling agents is fine, but the main thing is to keep writing.


MAY 2013

LOOK WHO’S TALKING

QUESTION

What is the proper format to use for an animal that makes animal sounds, but who also talks? For example:  A dog barks, then in a human voice says, "Hey, cut that out!"

ANSWER

Animal sounds should be written as narrative description.  That's because only words are considered to be dialogue.  Thus, you would write your example as follows.

Sparky barks, and then speaks in English.

                         SPARKY
          Hey, cut that out!

I SCREAM, YOU SCREAM

QUESTION

How does one write non-conversational vocal sounds, like screams?  Are they written as action [narrative description]?  Or are they placed under a character's name [as in the example below]?

                         LORI
                 (screams)

How about this:

                         LORI
                 Yaaarrrrrgh!

ANSWER

Screams, yelps, and such are sounds, and should be written as narrative description.  Dialogue consists of spoken or shouted words only.  The following is correct.

Lori screams.

Notice that I did not write the sound (screams) in CAPS.  You may CAP important sounds if you wish, but it is no longer necessary in spec writing.

PARENTHETICAL ACTION

QUESTION

I have been told that I cannot end a dialogue block with an action as shown below.  Is that true?

                         GERTIE
          I'm going to make you hurt.
                 (smiling with devilish
                 delight).

ANSWER

You have been told correctly.  You should not end a dialogue block with an action.  You can handle this situation in one of two ways.

                         GERTIE
                 (smiling with devilish
                 delight).

          I'm going to make you hurt.

Or--

                         GERTIE
          I'm going to make you hurt.

She smiles with devilish delight.

Or sometimes you can get away with breaking the rules.

DIALOGUE IS DIALOGUE

QUESTION

I have a scene where a character discovers a journal and reads an entry from it.  Since it's not really up to me whether the character reads the entry aloud or if the actual entry is displayed on screen, how should I format this in the script?

ANSWER

Before I answer the question, let me make two points.  First, don't be ambiguous in a screenplay. Write what we see and hear.  Either the character reads the journal out loud or the audience reads it silently—you decide in the screenplay.  Yes, the director may change what you wrote later, but at least give him or her a vision of what you see.

Second, only dialogue is dialogue.  You can only write in dialogue words that are spoken, shouted, or whispered.

Now, in answer to your question, I see two ways to approach this formatting problem.

If the journal entry is very short, you might consider allowing the audience to read it.  Use the INSERT for that.

INSERT - NATASHA'S JOURNAL, which reads:

          "I love Boris, but I plan to leave
          him for Fearless Leader."

(By the way, here is how you indent using Movie Magic Screenwriter:  Select the "Action" element. Then click on "Format" on the top toolbar and then "Cheat" and "Element" (F3). Select the margins you want (2.5 on the left and 2.5 on the right.)

If the journal entry is longer, then perhaps your character can read it to the audience.

Boris tiptoes into Natasha's room, spots her journal, and turns to the last page.  His eyes soften.

                         NATASHA (V.O.)
          I love Boris, but I plan to leave
          him for Fearless Leader.  Why?
          His silly mustache tickles me.

As you can see, all of this month's questions have to do with writing dialogue and writing action that is connected with dialogue.  I hope your dialogue brings you a lot of action.

 


APRIL 2013

SUBLIMINAL SCRIPTWRITING

QUESTION

There is a sequence in my screenplay where there are flashes of images, like TOM IN A CHAIR, TOM IN MOTEL ROOM, TOM DEAD IN THE ALLEY—quick flashes in an almost subliminal fashion.  How would I format this?

ANSWER

The "flashes" are either subliminal or they are not.  Just write what we see.  There are many ways to handle this.  Consider using the SERIES OF SHOTS if the flashes tell a little story; in other words, if they outline a narrative.  Use the MONTAGE if these flashes revolve around a concept, such as passage of time.

SERIES OF SHOTS - TOM'S DEATH

A) Tom sits in a chair -- silent.

B) Tom paces in a motel room, then glances towards the door.

C) Tom lies dead in an alley.

If these must be quick flashes to get the right effect, then use the following:

SERIES OF QUICK FLASHES

-- Tom sits in a chair.

-- Tom paces in a motel room.

-- Tom lies dead in an alley.

If these are quick flashbacks, then label them as such:

SERIES OF QUICK FLASHBACKS

SCHOOL DAYS

QUESTION

Within my script, the main character walks to and from school several times.  I've established him leaving his house (EXT. JOSH'S HOUSE) and arriving at school (EXT. LINCOLN HIGH SCHOOL).  What about the journey between the two locations?  Generally, nothing happens along the way (no actions or dialogue).  How do I write this?  Do I refer to it as "EXT. ROUTE TO SCHOOL"?  Or do I mention it at all?

ANSWER

If you have read my column with any regularity, you know that the answer to half the questions I receive is "Write what we see."  And that's the case here.  Apparently, we don't see the route between home and school, so write something like this.

EXT. JOSH'S HOUSE - DAY

Josh exits the house throwing on his backpack jammed with books. He rushes through the front yard to the road.

EXT. LINCOLN HIGH SCHOOL - LATER

Josh arrives on the school grounds.

NOISES OFF

QUESTION

I noticed in a produced spec script that the writer only capitalized sounds that really exploded with description.  For example: Tires CRACKLED across the broken glass.  In other cases, the writer did not capitalize sounds at all.  Is this something new?  Or is it all discretionary?

ANSWER

Yes and yes.  The current trend is towards not capitalizing sounds.  However, most writers still capitalize very important sounds, and sometimes all sounds.  It's at your discretion, but there is no longer any requirement to capitalize sounds in a spec script.

I hasten to add that every agent and producer has his or her own preferences, but the above is generally true.


MARCH 2013

GETTING ANIMATED

QUESTION

I am working on a script for a film that would contain several short animated segments.  How should these be worked into the script?  Is there a standard format for this?

ANSWER

Handle it just the way you'd handle a DREAM or FLASHBACK or MONTAGE that you need to work into the script.  Here's one possible way:

ANIMATION -- SILLY BILLY MEETS THE MONKEY MAN

And then describe your scene or sequence of shots, just as you would with a MONTAGE or DREAM SEQUENCE.

We often forget that there are basic principles behind formatting.  These aren't just a bunch of arbitrary rules.  So don't be afraid to extrapolate from some known principle if you come up with a new screenwriting situation.  What if the above were a dream sequence?  Handle it like this..

DREAM -- SILLY BILLY MEETS THE MONKEY MAN

or

EXT. AMAZON JUNGLE - DREAM

Silly Billy and his friends hike the jungle trail.  Suddenly, the Monkey Man drops out of a tree

...And so on.

What if you have an animated dream?  Just call it that, an ANIMATED DREAM.

If you have a particularly long FLASHBACK, DREAM, MONTAGE, SERIES OF SHOTS, or ANIMATED SEQUENCE, handle it like this:

DREAM SEQUENCE

And then write out all of the scenes in the sequence, just as you would normally write scenes, and then end the sequence with this:

END OF DREAM SEQUENCE

Or, you could label each scene with an appropriate suffix.

EXT. JUNGLE - DAY - DREAM SEQUENCE

EXT. MOUNTAIN TRAIL - CONTINUOUS - DREAM SEQUENCE

Just apply fundamental formatting principles.  As screenwriters, we must understand formatting to fully understand spec writing.  This is something I really get animated about.

THIS IS MY CHARACTER

QUESTION

How detailed should I be with the appearance of a new character?  Do I describe only those with speaking parts?  Do I describe past circumstances, such as "Josh's father left when Josh was just a baby," or "Kelly's sister Sharon is far more outgoing and, as a newspaper editor, loves to dig for the dirt."

ANSWER

First, let's set up the ground rules.

Rule #1:  You can only describe what we (the audience; the reader) actually see and actually hear in narrative description.  Occasionally, you can cheat a little in character descriptions, but don't go so far as to tell us someone's history as a character introduction.  Don't write something like this:

Jenny used to be a cocktail waitress and had an affair with Jane's husband just a year ago, although Jane doesn't know it yet.

You cannot do that, but you can say that Mark is Jenny's wife or that Jane is Jenny's sister--you can probably get away with that..

Rule #2:  With character descriptions, focus on character and make the description visual in some way.  My favorite example is this:  She wears clothes that are too young for her, but gets away with it.  Do you see that the description is visual, but that it also says something about her character?  That's what you want to strive for.

Okay, now let's answer your questions above.

Let me answer the second question first.  Characters without speaking parts do not necessarily need an introduction.  However, you want every character to be clearly visualized by the reader.  For minor characters, you can do that with just a few words that makes the reader see them.  For example, "He's proud of his pony tail" (it's visual and says something about his character) or "wearing a Metallica tee-shirt" (it's visual and says something about his character).

For characters with speaking parts, it is even more important to give them some handle that the reader can grab them with.  Here's a description of a character from SCREAM:

BILLY LOOMIS, a strapping boy of seventeen.  A star quarterback/class president type of guy.  He sports a smile that could last for days.

Now, the writer doesn't say that Billy is class president or star quarterback, just that he is that type of guy.  The description is visual and says something about his character..

Also, note that there is no driver's license description of Billy Loomis.  The writer doesn't mention height, weight, eye color, or hair color.  Why?  Because it's not important to the story.  Only mention those physical details when it is crucial to the story.  For example, in the movie LEGALLY BLONDE, the central character has to be blonde.

Here’s one last example form THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION:

WARDEN SAMUEL NORTON strolls forth, a colorless man in a gray suit and a church pin in his lapel.  He looks like he could piss ice water.

Sometimes a single adjective can do the job.

THE LITTLEST ORPHAN

QUESTION

I have been taught to never leave a slug line [heading] or character cue as an "orphan"; that is, never leave any of these as the last item on the bottom of the page.  Does this also apply to "direction" [parentheticals; actor's instructions]?

ANSWER

You are correct all the way around.  Do not end a page on a slug line, character cue, or parenthetical.  Just move those to the top of the next page.


FEBRUARY 2013

THE SLUG FAMILY, PART 2

NOTE: This continues our discussion from last month about scene headings (slug lines).

QUESTION

Where am I?

ANSWER

As a script consultant, I sometimes find myself saying while reading a script, "Where am I?"  For example, here's one of my favorites.

INT. A HECTIC BREAKFAST – DAY

"A hectic breakfast" is not a location.  Where am I?  Here's another goof..

EXT. OCEAN – DAY

Marion runs through the waves.

LIBRARY

Marion reads a book.

How can a library be part of the ocean?  Is it a floating library?  And how did we get from an exterior camera placement to an interior camera placement?  Did I miss something? 

Do you see the potential confusion?  It's not good for you to have a reader stop and try to figure something like this out.  You want the story to flow smoothly through the reader's mind. 

Master scenes and secondary scenes revisited

Let's go to another example. As you know, you begin a scene with a master scene heading, which names the master (or primary) location; for example, EXT. SMITH HOUSE - DAY.  Other locations (such as BEDROOM or HALLWAY) that are part of the master location are called secondary locations; the resulting heading is called a secondary scene heading

In addition, it's okay to add a secondary location to a master (primary) location in a master scene heading.  I'll illustrate all of these points below. 

First, we'll begin with the master scene heading that includes a secondary location and then move to other secondary locations.

INT. SMITH HOUSE – LIVING ROOM – DAY

John slams the front door and races down the

HALLWAY

and into his

BEDROOM

where he dives on top of his bed and sobs.

The above is correct, but it could have just as easily been written like this, which is also correct:

INT. SMITH HOUSE – DAY

LIVING ROOM

John slams the front door and races out.

HALLWAY

He runs past pictures of his family.

IN THE BEDROOM

He stumbles in and falls on his bed sobbing.

As you can see, any number of secondary headings can follow as long as the locations are part of the master (primary) location.  Once we change the camera placement to an exterior location or to a location that is not part of the master location, we must create a new master scene heading.  

What if you want to show John sobbing on the same bed hours later?  Well, you could write:

INT. SMITH HOUSE - BEDROOM – HOURS LATER

That would be technically correct, or you could use the following secondary heading:

HOURS LATER

John continues to sob.

You do not need a new master scene heading for a change in time, but you will for a change in camera location from interior to exterior or vice versa.

Description in scene headings

If I may, I'll mention one other common formatting fumble—including description in the scene heading.  To wit:

EXT. A WINDY NIGHT WITH A PALE MOON SHINING THROUGH TREES IN THE WOODS

That should actually be written as follows:

EXT. WOODS – NIGHT

A pale moon shines through trees buffeted by a stiff wind.

Save the description for the description (action) sections of your script.  And save the reader a lot of pain and make him or her a happy reader.  A happy reader can make you a happy writer.


JANUARY 2013

THE SLUG FAMILY, PART 1

QUESTION

Why do some writers use the term slug and others heading?

ANSWER

You’ve often heard the terms slug, slug line, and mini-slug in reference to screenwriting. Understanding these terms is paramount, so let’s explore the slug family.

Most common formatting error

I have no quarrel with the sluggish terms used every day by screenwriters and other industry pros, including top writers. They’re perfectly okay. My main interest is in assisting you, the developing screenwriter, to understand the elements those terms reference and how those elements are used, which is why I prefer the term scene heading over slug.

The most common formatting errors I see in developing writers’ screenplays are with confusing and improper scene headings. That implies a possible lack of understanding of what they actually are and how they should be used.

Sometimes calling something by its given name rather than its nickname helps us understand its use. I’m sure that is one reason you will find the term scene heading rather than slug line used in the software applications Movie Magic Screenwriter and Final Draft. Incidentally, the term slug line originated in journalism, while the term scene heading is purely a screenwriting term. Let’s discuss why.

Scene headings

A heading of any kind identifies the content of what follows, just like the heading you see above this paragraph.

A scene heading, thus, identifies something about the content of a scene: primarily, the camera placement (interior or exterior), the location, and the time (usually DAY or NIGHT).

For those who are wondering, action stacking is...well..."stacking" short sentences that describe action without double spacing between those sentences.  Here's an example.

INT. HOTEL – DAY

For those who are wondering, action stacking is...well..."stacking" short sentences that describe action without double spacing between those sentences.  Here's an example.

Bart spins around.

The above is called a master scene heading because it identifies the master or primary location of the scene. Any location within the interior of the hotel would be a secondary location. Thus, you can use a secondary scene heading to identify that secondary location. For example, here is a secondary scene heading:

LOBBY

We’re still in the master (or primary) scene, but at a specific location (the lobby) within the broader master (or primary) location (the hotel). You could call it a secondary scene or a mini-scene if you wish. Some screenwriters refer to a secondary scene heading as a mini-slug.

This understanding of the difference between master and secondary scenes really comes in handy when you want to describe an action sequence such as a car chase. Just identify a broad master location in your master scene heading; for example, the streets of San Francisco. That’s a big location. Thus, we have this master scene heading:

EXT. STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO – DAY

The above is called a master scene heading because it identifies the master or primary location of the scene. Any location within the interior of the hotel would be a secondary location. Thus, you can use a secondary scene heading to identify that secondary location. For example, here is a secondary scene heading:

LOBBY

Now you can use secondary scene headings such as McQUEEN’S CAR, BLACK VETTE, A SIDEWALK BIZARRE, AN INTERSECTION, and so on. These secondary locations are all part of the master (or primary) location, the streets of San Francisco. If the chase continues beyond the streets of San Francisco, you will need to type a new master scene heading for the new location. 

You can do something similar for an air battle; for example: EXT. SKY ABOVE IRAQ – DAY. Having established the master scene, anything in the sky above Iraq (including different fighter jets) is a secondary location.. 

NOTE: This is the end of Part 1. Next month, we’ll continue our discussion of the slug family. 


DECEMBER 2012

ACTION STACKING

QUESTION

Can I "action stack" for selected scenes and use a [traditional] narrative style for others, or do I have to be consistent throughout my screenplay?

ANSWER

You can combine styles, but don't use one style (action stacking, for example) just once in a screenplay.  There should be a pattern in your chosen writing style.

For those who are wondering, action stacking is...well..."stacking" short sentences that describe action without double spacing between those sentences.  Here's an example.

Bart spins around.
A truck speeds towards him.

Bart dives for the gutter.
Looks up a pair of legs.

The leggy woman looks down.
She has a gun.

Personally, I'm not a big fan of action stacking and I don't see it a lot, but it's perfectly legal to use. 

A SUPER QUOTE

QUESTION

How does one present a quote or an introductory piece of text at the very beginning of the film?  A SUPER does not seem quite right, since the text is over a black screen.

ANSWER

Just SUPER (superimpose) the quote, text, prologue, or roll-up over the black screen.  And after typing

SUPER THE QUOTE:

double space, and indent ten spaces for the quote—just as you would for dialogue.

If you want the quote or prologue to scroll up, then write:

SCROLL:

POTTY TALK

QUESTION

Are profanity and the f-word allowable in spec script dialogue, or is that something for the actors to add?

ANSWER

You want a little less profanity and vulgarity in the screenplay than you would find in the eventual movie.  I have heard this advice from many agents and producers. 

Of course, virtually everything is "allowable" in a screenplay, including profanity.  It all depends on the market you are writing for, so my advice is to look carefully at the market you are writing for.

In addition, make sure your characters don’t all talk alike, and that you, as a writer, are not exaggerating the emotions of your characters.


NOVEMBER 2012

SPACING OUT

QUESTION

Regarding triple spacing prior to new master scenes, if I have a continuous sequence that involves different locations, should I still triple space before those new scenes that are in that sequence?

ANSWER

Just double space before scenes that are part of a master scene.  Before we go any further, let’s define terms.

A master scene takes place at a master location.  For example, perhaps you open a scene with INT. SMITH HOUSE - DAY.  That’s the master (or primary) location.  If you then cut to a BEDROOM of that house, and then to the DEN, and then to the WINE CELLAR, those secondary locations are all part of the master (or primary) location (the interior of the house).  Thus, you are still within the same master scene.  Let me give you an example

INT. DAMON’S HOUSE – LIVING ROOM – DAY

Damon strides into his

BEDROOM

and dons a sweater.  He hustles into  

THE DEN

and finds a wine glass but nothing to pour.  He steps out.

IN THE WINE CELLAR

He grabs the bottle he wants and smiles at it.

LIVING ROOM, BEDROOM, DEN, and IN THE WINE CELLAR are all secondary scene headings because they name secondary locations that are all part of the master (primary) location. The master scene heading is INT. DAMON’S HOUSE – DAY.

As you know, you should normally double space between scenes.  But, as an option, you can triple space before master scene headings, but not before secondary scene headings. 

One thing I like and appreciate about Movie Magic Screenwriter is their software is already set up to double-space before and after scene headings of every kind.  It’s clean and simple, just as a spec script should be. 

FOLLOW-UP QUESTION

If I am triple-spacing before master scene headings and cut to a new master scene heading to set up a telephone intercut, should I triple space before that second scene heading?

ANSWER

Technically in this situation, you would triple space before the new master scene heading, but I recommend that you just double space to maintain a sense of continuity.  In fact, I recommend you double-space before all scene headings; that way, you don’t have to worry about issues like those we have discussed. All you have to do is write. Here’s an example:

INT. SUZY’S ROOM – DAY

Suzy pokes her cell.

EXT. PARK – SAME

Joe’s cell sings a joyful tune.  He pulls it out of his pocket.

INTERCUT PHONE CONVERSATION – SUZY’S ROOM/PARK

ANOTHER MASTER QUESTION

QUESTION

My short scene takes place in a bookstore.  In the scene, a character goes into the restroom, so I used a secondary heading: IN THE BATHROOM.  If I want to take the reader back into the bookstore, should I use another secondary heading or a master scene heading?

ANSWER

Use a secondary scene heading, as follows:

INT. BOOKSTORE - DAY

sets up the master scene.

IN THE BATHROOM

is the secondary heading, and then

BACK IN THE BOOKSTORE

is an acceptable secondary scene heading to get us back into the main bookstore area.


OCTOBER 2012

FIRST PERSON/THIRD PERSON

QUESTION

In the screenplay I am working on, I have a sequence where the camera is the character's eye.  During this sequence, the story is told in first person.  I would be interesting in knowing how to insert this sequence into a screenplay written in third person without [using] technical intrusions.

ANSWER

A memory hit? I don't think that term has hit the mainstream formatting lexicon yet.

When you say the "story is told in first person," I assume you mean that the character (whose eye is the camera) talks to or describes what he/she is sees.  Thus, that character's viewpoint dominates in that scene.  However, the narrative description would still be written in third person.  Narrative description is always written in third person, present tense language.  (First person would involve the use of the pronouns "I" or "me."  Second person would use "you."  And third person would use "he," "she," "they," and so on.)  The fact that the eye is the camera changes nothing in terms of how you write description and dialogue.

That leaves the issue of communicating to the reader that the "camera is the character's eye."  I assume that you mean that the camera takes the point-of-view of the character--what he/she sees, we see.  You are right to want to write this without the camera directions, if possible.  In cases like this, we are all tempted to write something like the following:

If your character (let’s call him Zep) speaks while we see the flashback, then use the voice over (V.O.) extension.

POV JANE -- A man walks towards her.

You can (and should) write the same thing without the camera direction, as follows:

Jane sees a man walking towards her.

S-S-STUTTERING AND D-D-DIALECTING

QUESTION

I am writing a screenplay where the main character stutters almost all the time.  How should I indicate that in the dialogue?  I find it annoying to indicate it in parenthesis before every line of dialogue, so I came up with something like the following:

               ZEP (V.O.)
        W-what?  I-I d-don't understand.

Do you have any suggestions?

ANSWER

Just show a flavor of stuttering; that is, occasional stuttering to remind us that this character stutters.  Don't overdo it or, as you rightly said, the reader will be annoyed.  Also, when you first introduce the character, indicate that he/she stutters. The same holds true for accents and dialects--just give us a flavor.  Don't adjust the spelling of every word to show precisely how each and every word would be pronounced in a certain dialect or with a certain accent.  It will be too difficult to read. .

In THE KING’S SPEECH, the following paragraph appears in narrative description:

(For ease of reading, Bertie’s stammer will not be indicated from this point in the script.)

HOW LONG IS TOO LONG?

QUESTION

How long should a [spec] screenplay be?

ANSWER

About 100-110 pages, but certainly not more than 120 pages.  Ideally, a comedy will come in at about 100 pages and a drama or action story at 105-110.  The minimum is 90.

You may wonder why the 120-page limit when you've seen produced screenplays that are much longer than that.  In virtually every case, those long screenplays were both shooting scrits and were developed within the system; they were not spec screenplays.

That leaves the issue of communicating to the reader that the "camera is the character's eye."  I assume that you mean that the camera takes the point-of-view of the character--what he/she sees, we see.  You are right to want to write this without the camera directions, if possible.  In cases like this, we are all tempted to write something like the following:

The central theme that runs through this issue's column is to make your spec screenplay an "easy but fascinating read."

- - - - - -

DAVE TROTTIER has sold or optioned ten screenplays (three produced) and helped hundreds of writers break into the writing business.  He is an award-winning teacher and script consultant, author of The Screenwriter's Bible, and friendly host of keepwriting.com


 

SEPTEMBER 2012

NOTE: This is the fourth column focused solely on flashbacks and the last in the series.

FLASHBACKS AND VOICE OVERS

QUESTION

How do you handle a quick memory hit? Let's say a man is telling a story to a friend about a friend getting killed by a train 30 years ago. Do I just write the image of a train killing David? [Apparently, David is the questioner's character who is killed; either that, or it's a secret message to me.] Do I need any caption such as a memory hit or quick flash?

ANSWER

A memory hit? I don't think that term has hit the mainstream formatting lexicon yet.

The standard response to questions of this type is this: Write what we see. What does the audience see? If you actually show the train, then that is a flashback and you will want to indicate a flashback. You must label it as such so that we clearly understand that it is a flashback.

If your character (let’s call him Zep) speaks while we see the flashback, then use the voice over (V.O.) extension.

FLASHBACK - TRAIN TRACKS

David sees a train coming. In a surreal game of chicken, he places himself on the tracks.

               ZEP (V.O.)
        David always flirted with
        disaster...

With the train nearly upon him, David tries to leap from the tracks, but his shirt catches on a rail tie.

He glances up at the unforgiving mass of steel.

               ZEP (V.O.)
        ... Then one day, disaster
        responded.

The wheels of the train slice through his body.

BACK TO SCENE

We can learn three lessons from the above example.

  1. Notice that I avoided repeating in dialogue what we already see visually. Whenever you use a voice over in situations like this one, let that voice over dialogue add something that the visual does not already tell us. Don't just describe in your dialogue the action that you describe in your narrative.
  2. Do not write something as general as "The train ran over him." Present us with concrete, visual images that we can respond to emotionally or intellectually.
  3. Start a new paragraph when you switch to a new visual image. Generally, a paragraph of narrative description should present one visual image or one beat of action.

DAVE TROTTIER has sold or optioned ten screenplays (three produced) and helped hundreds of writers break into the writing business.  He is an award-winning teacher and script consultant, author of The Screenwriter’s Bible, and friendly host of keepwriting.com.


AUGUST 2012

NOTE: This is the third in a series focused solely on flashbacks.

QUICK FLASHES—SITUATION #1

QUESTION

How do you handle a series of very quick flashbacks?

ANSWER

Use the same format that you would use for montage. Here's an example:

QUICK FLASHES – DUKE’S BASEBALL MEMORIES

-- Duke slides home safe. Jubilant teammates scramble to congratulate him.

-- Duke, playing shortstop, snags a hot grounder, and tosses the man out at first.

-- Duke swings at a fast ball and watches it sail over the left-field fence.

BACK TO SCENE

If you have just one quick flashback, use the following format:

QUICK FLASHBACK

Duke strikes out.

BACK TO SCENE

QUICK FLASHES—SITUATION #2

QUESTION

I have a series of quick flashbacks at the end of a short script that reference a character's memories of three different people. Do I create three flashback headings, one for each flashback?

ANSWER

You could, but I recommend you use my answer to Situation #1 above as your guide and create a series of QUICK FLASHES:

THE STORYTELLER DEVICE

QUESTION

My script is pretty much told in flashback, so would I format that as FLASHBACK, write the rest of the story until I reach the point where we come out of the flashback, and then write END OF FLASHBACK or BACK TO PRESENT DAY?

ANSWER

It appears that you are using the "storyteller device." In other words, most of your movie is one long flashback, as is the case with Saving Private Ryan. Therefore, instead of a flashback, use a SUPER (short for superimpose) that identifies the year that we flash back to.

Here's an example that assumes your character is a 71-year-old man at the beginning of the movie:

John's eyes get misty. He looks off into the distance.

EXT. SAN FRANCISCO - DAY

An 18-year-old JOHN stands at a busy intersection.

SUPER: "San Francisco, 1950."

At the end of the movie, you will return to PRESENT DAY.


DAVE TROTTIER has sold or optioned ten screenplays (three produced) and helped hundreds of writers break into the writing business.  He is an award-winning teacher and script consultant, author of The Screenwriter’s Bible, and friendly host of keepwriting.com.


JULY 2012

A SERIES OF FLASHBACKS

NOTE: Last month we discussed flashbacks at length.  Since then, more questions on flashbacks have arisen, so I’ve decided to continue this “flashback” discussion this month and into next month.

QUESTION

I have a situation where my character recalls different scenes from the past, some of which contain dialogue, as he puts the pieces of the puzzle together.  How should I format that?

ANSWER

In most formatting situations, there is more than one possible formatting solution that is “correct.”  In this case, you could use a SERIES OF SHOTS, SERIES OF FLASHBACKS, or a MONTAGE.  With any of the above three devices, it’s perfectly okay to include dialogue.

I suggest a FLASHBACK MONTAGE where you identify the location of each FLASHBACK to help the reader recall it along with the character.  We could call these QUICK MEMORY FLASHES if your desire is for a quick succession of images.  For example:

MONTAGE – JIM’S QUICK MEMORY FLASHES

However, in this particular case, it appears that you want to insert entire scenes in succession.  I suspect you will be best off showing as little of those past scenes as possible—just the key moment of each to remind the reader.  This was done to great effect at the end of The Sixth Sense. 

In the example below, I made up the content just to illustrate one possible formatting solution to your problem.  

FLASHBACK MONTAGE - JIM REMEMBERS

-- SUZY’S BEDROOM -- Jim spots a bottle of theater blood on Suzy’s dresser.  Suzy laughs about it.

               SUZY
        
Oh, my niece’s play. 

-- RESTAURANT -- Suzy’s smile fades momentarily.

               SUZY
        Nature calls.

She leaves the table with her purse.  Jim watches her follow a platinum blonde into the ladies room.

-- BEACH -- Jim notices the platinum blonde watching him from the pier above him.  She turns her head.  Jim shrugs his shoulders.

...And so on.  If desired, you could replace the CAPPED locations above with complete master scene headings; for example: INT. SUZY’S BEDROOM – DAY.  That would be perfectly fine.  You could also use a non-capped version; for example: In Suzy’s bedroom, Jim spots a bottle….

Finally, you could use a different expression to identify the nature of the FLASHBACK MONTAGE, depending on your dramatic purpose.  For example: FLASHBACK MONTAGE – JIM PUTS THINGS TOGETHER. 


JUNE 2012

FLASHBACKS

QUESTION

Are there any special format rules for writing a flashback?

ANSWER
Since the FLASHBACK is often abused by developing writers, make sure that your use of it pays off dramatically. In terms of formatting, there are numerous correct methods. The overriding principle is to be clear.

Method 1
In the example below, we label the flashback like we would a montage.

FLASHBACK – TRAIN ACCIDENT

Barry sees the train speeding toward him and leaps from the tracks, but his foot catches on a rail tie.

BACK TO PRESENT DAY

The above method is designed for short flashbacks that happen within a scene. For longer flashbacks, consider one of the following methods.

Method 2

FLASHBACK – EXT. TRAIN TRACKS – DAY

Method 3

EXT. TRAIN TRACKS - DAY - FLASHBACK

Or

EXT. TRAIN TRACKS - DAY (FLASHBACK)

If you use either of the above notations, then the next scene heading would follow the same pattern and look like this.

INT. HOSPITAL - DAY – BACK TO PRESENT DAY

Or

INT. HOSPITAL - DAY (BACK TO PRESENT DAY)

You can also use either of the above BACK TO PRESENT DAY notations for Method 2 as well.

If you wish, you may shorten the extension, as follows:

INT. HOSPITAL - DAY - PRESENT DAY

Or

INT. HOSPITAL - DAY (PRESENT DAY)

Alternate flashback endings for Methods 2 and 3
At the end of a flashback, you can use one of the following alternative methods to end the flashback.

END OF FLASHBACK

INT. HOSPITAL - DAY

It would also be correct to place the phrase END OF FLASHBACK flush to the right margin followed by a period, as follows:

END OF FLASHBACK.

INT. HOSPITAL - DAY

Flashbacks longer than one scene
If a flashback is more than one scene in length, you will use Method 2 or 3 for your first flashback scene heading. Subsequent scene headings will be written as normal scene headings without the word FLASHBACK. The reader will assume that each scene that follows that first flashback scene is part of the flashback until he sees END OF FLASHBACK or BACK TO PRESENT DAY in some form. Here's an example.

EXT. TRAIN TRACKS – DAY – FLASHBACK

Barry sees the train speeding toward him and leaps from the tracks, but his foot catches on a rail tie.

INT. HOSPITAL - DAY

Barry lies on a gurney. A doctor pulls a sheet over his head.

INT. OFFICE – DAY – BACK TO PRESENT DAY

Or:

INT. OFFICE – DAY – PRESENT DAY

If you wish, it's perfectly correct to label each scene heading in a flashback sequence. For example:

EXT. TRAIN TRACKS – DAY – FLASHBACK

Barry sees the train speeding toward him and leaps from the tracks, but his foot catches on a rail tie.

INT. HOSPITAL – DAY – FLASHBACK CONT'D

Barry lies on a gurney. A doctor pulls a sheet over his head.

INT. OFFICE – DAY – PRESENT DAY

Method 4
An alternative method is to label the entire flashback comprised of more than one scene as a flashback sequence.

BEGIN FLASHBACK SEQUENCE

EXT. TRAIN TRACKS - DAY

And then write out all the scenes in sequence, just as you would normally write scenes, and then end the sequence with this:

END OF FLASHBACK SEQUENCE

INT. OFFICE – DAY

DAVE TROTTIER has sold or optioned ten screenplays (three produced) and helped hundreds of writers break into the writing business. He is an award-winning teacher and script consultant, author of The Screenwriter's Bible, and friendly host of keepwriting.com.


MAY 2012

 

HOW DO I INDENT TEXT MESSAGES

QUESTION

How do I indent text messages using Movie Magic Screenwriter?

ANSWER
There are several ways to format the content of text messages and emails.  One is to simply include the text message as part of the narrative description, as follows:

Deb looks at her smart phone screen, which reads: "U ready?"

If you want the text message to pop out, indent the content like dialogue, only without the character name.  For example:

Deb looks at her smart phone screen.  It says:

        "U ready?"

Although I prefer the previous method, an INSERT would also work:

INSERT – DEB'S SMART PHONE, which reads:

"U ready?"

BACK TO SCENE

Let's assume (as your question suggests) that you have chosen to indent a text message, or the content of an email on a computer screen, or the lengthy content of a SUPER (superimposition).  How do you do it?

Using Movie Magic Screenwriter, select the "Action" element. Then click on "Format" on the top toolbar and then "Cheat" and "Element" (F3). Select the margins you want (2.5 on the left and 2.5 on the right).

FOLLOW-UP QUESTION
Dave, since you mention SUPERs, is there more than one way to format them?

ANSWER
Yes.  If the SUPER is brief, the following method is usually preferred.

SUPER: "Washington, DC – 2020"

If the SUPER is quite long, the following method is generally used.

SUPER:

        "Long ago in a galaxy far, far
        away, there lived a strange
        old diminutive man who mixed
        up his words when he talked.
        Yet, wise was he."

Now a very long SUPER such as what we find at the beginning of the Star Wars episodes would be called a SCROLL.  Format it exactly like the SUPER; just substitute the word SCROLL.  Avoid the terms TITLES and TITLE CARD. 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

SLO-MO

QUESTION
I'd love your advice on scenes designed for slow-motion.  Should this just be left out, or should there be some specific format for slow-motion shots?

ANSWER
As a general guideline, stay away from technical effects like slow motion.  On the other hand, if you have a good dramatic or comedic reason for the effect, go ahead and include it.  With slow motion, just write:

SLOW MOTION

Write out the action as you normally would, and then write:

END SLOW MOTION

Or:

END SLOW MOTION.

DAVE TROTTIER has sold or optioned ten screenplays (three produced) and helped hundreds of writers break into the writing business.  He is an award-winning teacher and script consultant, author of The Screenwriter's Bible, and friendly host of keepwriting.com.


APRIL 2012

ACTION AND PARENTHETICALS

QUESTION

Is the following example a correct use of parentheticals?

                   JACK
              (grabs Jill by the
               hand)
        Could sure use some water,
        my dear.
              a beat; starts up
              the hill)

                   JILL
              (snatches the bucket
               out of his hand)
        Sounds like a good idea, Jack. 
              (swings bucket around
               and around as they near 
               the well)

ANSWER

No.  Action should be written as action, unless that action can be described in just a few words (for example, “snatching the bucket”).  Also, do not end a dialogue block with a parenthetical; end it with dialogue.  Finally, the dialogue in the example above is stiff; let’s make it more natural.  At the same time, we’ll try to give the scene a little more movement.  Here is my revision.

Jack shows Jill his empty bucket.   

                   JACK
        Water?

Jill snatches the bucket.

                   JILL
        Race ya.

She swings the bucket around as they gallop to the well.

#   #   #   #  #   #   #   #  #   #   #   #  #   #   #   #

LOCATING THE LOCATION

QUESTION

What is the correct format for a montage that has a series of scenes at different locations, but no dialogue? 

ANSWER

There are many correct ways to format a MONTAGE or SERIES OF SHOTS.  It all depends on your purpose. 

Generally, a MONTAGE is used to describe a series of images that convey a concept, such as passage of time or falling in love.  The SERIES OF SHOTS is for a straight narrative, a chronology of events.  Naturally, the two are often used interchangeably. 

What follows is standard format for the MONTAGE.

MONTAGE - JOHN WAITS FOR MARY

-- John glances at the waiting room clock. It reads “10:00.” 

-- He stares at a door, glances back at the clock –- “10:30.”

-- He paces the room nervously –- “11:00.”  The door opens and Mary exits the bathroom. 

In your question, you describe a series of locations.  So let’s format a MONTAGE that emphasizes location.

MONTAGE - JOHN FALLS FOR MARY

-- AT A RESTAURANT -- John and Mary exchange caring glances.

-- AT THE BEACH -- John and Mary frolic in the sun.

-- ON MARY’S BALCONY -- John kisses Mary, then falls back over the railing, flailing his arms.

Of course, you don’t necessarily have to CAP your locations.  For example, you could write:

-- At a restaurant, John and Mary exchange caring glances. 

And so on.  Whatever format you decide to use, be consistent.

Let’s look at standard format for a SERIES OF SHOTS.

SERIES OF SHOTS -- John gets even.

A) John lifts a gun from his desk drawer.

B) John strides down a sidewalk. 

C) Mary answers the door.  John pulls the trigger.  A stream of water hits Mary in the face. 

As you can see, there is very little difference between the MONTAGE and SERIES OF SHOTS.  In both cases, you start with an informative heading, and then list shots in a way that best suits your purpose.  The main thing is to follow the basic form and strive for clarity so that the reader can follow. 


Screenwriter's BibleDAVE TROTTIER has sold or optioned ten screenplays (three produced) and helped hundreds of writers break into the writing business.  He is an award-winning teacher and script consultant, author of The Screenwriter’s Bible, and friendly host of keepwriting.com.