January, 2010! 6 1/2 years ago…my first post on screenplay Format. Haven’t talked about it for years because the stuff just doesn’t change much. I’m sure it bores you to death but for the sake of the new arrivals at Script Gods, seems like I should at least update some of what I wrote waaaaaay back when. You can access the 17 Format posts I wrote previously (don’t all line up at once!) by writing Format in the Search box at the top of the SGMD Home page. Meanwhile, let’s update and condense some of those posts for your edification…
- FORMAT: THE NOT SO-SEXY SCIENCE
Format isn’t sexy.
I’d recommend you study it only under special circumstances: Like, you want to sell your script.
Learn the rules. Then learn how to break the rules. Story trumps format every time. But you still have know this stuff.
Use professional software. Final Draft is industry standard. Free programs exist: My favorite these days is Amazon Storywriter. Celtx (www.celtx.com) is the Columbia Film & Video School broke-ass student program of choice. Generally fine, it has a glitch or two (dialogue can drop off at page end, short pages, etc.) Please don’t use Word.
Read screenplays. There are thousands available online. Start with imsdb.com, or www.script-o-rama.com or www.simplyscripts.com Fan of Alien 3? (Ok, nobody’s a fan of Alien 3, but if you were…I’m just sayin’…) You could go to Drew’s and find the William Gibson draft, two revised drafts, and a pair of “unused drafts.” Grab the Director’s cut DVD, some cheese popcorn, and check out what 17 drafts have wrought.
When studying scripts, you’ll notice something: There are as many styles as writers. A Woody Allen script looks different than a Charlie Kaufman script. Star Wars looks nothing like Sin City, which bears small resemblance to Dark Knight. Being a student of screenwriting craft means reading screenplays. Want to hone your own style? Read screenplays.
SCENE HEADINGS: Every scene opens with a scene heading. Is the scene indoors? Use INT. Outdoors is EXT. Follow this with location. INT. ROOM, EXT. STREET. Be as specific as possible with your locations. Next comes time of day. I mostly keep to these five: DAY, NIGHT, CONTINUOUS, LATER, and SAME. I am not a fan of EARLY AFTERNOON, TWILIGHT, or DAWN. The only reason you’d say INT. ROOM- 7:01AM, is if it’s necessary to plot, otherwise keep it simple: DAY, NIGHT, LATER, SAME, CONTINUOUS.
Use a scene heading when you change time or location.
Use a scene heading when you indicate a flashback, montage, time frame, or a dream sequence.
INT. JIM’S HOUSE- DAY (1962)
INT. JIM’S JOINT- NIGHT (FLASHBACK)
Following the “slugline” (Scene Heading) come the Action lines. This is you telling the reader who is in the shot and what’s happening. At its essence, it’s what the camera is seeing now.
One of the few “rules” the 10,001 screenwriting blogs can agree on is don’t direct the screenplay. That means keeping technical terms like CU, MS, ECU, WIDE SHOT, DOLLY and other director lingo out of the script. Why not put it in? Because it’s not your job. Let the director direct. For instance…
EXT. PARADE ROUTE- BRIGHT DAY
Jillian watches as the pageant parade passes, seeming to remember the day she was crowned Miss Southeast Panhandle State 1956. There was a goldenrod sun that day too, and as she drove along waving from the festooned Wheaties Breakfast of Champions float, all manner of soon-to-be Mickey Mantles followed, hoping she would throw them a souvenir Wheaties box. It was a glorious, glorious day!
All the sadder that Jillian now peels an orange, watching the new beauty queen pass, thinking how unfair life is, wondering if there is indeed a God at all.
Good Reader, don’t do this! The camera can’t see Jillian’s beauty queen past. It can’t see her ponderings on Life and Eternity.
How would you change this screen direction?
Ask yourself: What is the purpose of the scene? What do you need to happen? What are you trying to say? The whole passage, really, could be boiled down to…
INT. PARADE ROUTE- DAY
Jillian watches the beauty queen pass, her nails grinding the orange she holds into pulp.
The essence of the scene is Jillian’s attempt to cope with mortality, and her failure, as the parade rolls by.
Find the action, the physical equivalent, some business the actor can play, rather than hitting us with backstory (everything that happened before the movie began) that the camera can’t see.
Also avoid unnecessary detail, like this:
INT. CASINO- NIGHT
Pauly Vegas walks in, placing left foot in front of right, making his way to a craps table. He checks the table limit, a 25 dollar game, shakes his head and sighs, on the move again.
Pauly reaches into his pocket, finds some lint, a winter-fresh breath mint, the pink dry cleaning ticket from his Colombian laundry joint that never has his clothes ready on time, and a single dollar chip. Motioning with his left hand to the waitress for a gin and tonic refill, he smirks as he sees a blue-haired Bayonne lady squeal and scoop up her video poker winnings. Pauly bobs his head, all smiles as he finally spies, yes! A table!
This is not just unnecessary detail, but the wrong detail. The purpose of the scene is…what? Do you really believe the actor will care that on page 66, midway down the page, the writer wants him to shake his head and sigh before motioning with his left hand for a gin and tonic? Never going to happen. Waste of space, and a drag on the reader’s eye. Don’t do it.
Don’t do the production designer’s job either. If you want to tell me about the cat passing the fauve 19th Century Ming vase, that vase better be needed to tell the story. The damn cat too. A general rule: If in doubt, take it out. Cut everything you can. Does the scene still make sense? If you cut Pauly shaking his head and smiling, does the scene fall apart? No. Then it stays out.
Develop a cut instinct. Readers have only so much “eye.” If you kill them with screen direction, you feed the tendency to skip screen description altogether and read only the dialogue. Keep your screen direction lean and mean.
Pro screenwriters find a way to get their voices into screen direction. How do they do that?
They cheat. Like this:
INT. ROGER’S ROOM- DAY
Roger drags himself out of bed. He looks for his shirt, finds it and throws it on, finds his socks too, but…where are his pants?
Honey, have you seen…
As Roger looks under the bed, something catches his eye. He pulls out, brilliant and fluorescent green, a man’s cuff link. What the…? Roger confused–He has never, in his life, owned a fluorescent green cuff link.
The part about never owning a cuff link can’t be seen. What can be seen is Roger’s face, his confusion. This comes from finding another man’s cuff link. Thus, we’re technically cheating on the action line rule about only writing in what the camera can see. Pros cheat all the time. They have enough craft to get away with it. For you I’d say go for it but only in key moments. Don’t overuse the device, and don’t get cute.
Here’s an example from Backdraft:
INT. ELEVATED TRAIN – MORNING
A pissed-off Chicago, hauling itself off to work in the morning snap, passes by Brian’s window. Tough Midwestern brick. Tough Midwesterners. Heads-down in their 150 year war with a wind committed to pushing the whole damn thing into Lake Michigan.
What a marvel this little paragraph is! Anyone living in Chicago–especially those of us who take the EL every day—can attest to the truth in that passage. If you were just following the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) approach, you would write something like: Brian rides a grimy subway car. There is nothing wrong with this. Describes what the camera sees. Problem is, anyone can write Brian rides a grimy subway car. Now look at the above example. Look how the writer puts you into the head of the protagonist. This is POV. It is advanced screenwriting. It’s what separates the pro from everyone else. Do you think the fact that you can’t see “their 150 year war with wind” is going to be penalized by the reader at that prodco/screenplay contest/agency? Hell no. Those eyes are starved for originality. The pro gives it to them with POV, with attitude. Thus, the true definition of screen direction: What the camera sees—with attitude.