EXT. CLEVELAND STREET - DAY
Sun glints off the chrome on a '57 Chevy parked outside an abandoned building in a low-rent district, as DETECTIVE JOHN MACY, 30s, turns his intense gaze from the building's many broken windows to his partner, DET. YVONNE BURKE, African-American, late 20s.
Even this much description would be a bit flowery for some people, but it does help to "set the scene" by establishing the feel of the neighborhood (abandoned building, low-rent district), something about our main character (the intensity of his gaze), who else is in the scene (a female, African-American partner - already raising the question as to whether they are friends or foes), and one more thing of interest - the '57 Chevy. The only reason to mention it at all is if it's going to play a role in the story. Otherwise, leave it out, together with any other unnecessary description, such as the bare trees, and the late afternoon sun. After all, who are you to decide when this film will be shot? Unless the season is absolutely critical to the story, leave it out.
In fact, the only reason to mention any detail whatsoever, instead of just writing -
DETECTIVE JOHN MACY, 30s, turns to his partner DETECTIVE YVONNE BURKE, late 20s.
is more for the reader than anyone else.
While a simple but compelling story might be enough to rope in the reader, unless your premise is truly unique, you usually have to give the reader enough information to fully imagine the scene - but not so much detail as to mark you as an amateur. In case you think that "the reader" is just that person who does coverage of your script for the studio, you're wrong - the reader is basically every single person who will eventually turn your
screenplay into a film, including: the reader doing coverage, the assistants at the agencies and production companies, the development executives, producers, studio executives, the director, the actors, etc. And just in case you think that anyone who reads scripts for a living, has an imagination, think again - it's your job to make them "see" the film as they read your script.
There is a fine line between "under writing" and "over writing," and every reader of screenplays is finely attuned to that fine line. Some rules of thumb are:
8. Never start a scene with dialogue. We must see who and what is in the scene, and what is happening on screen other than the dialogue. Most "underwriters" are guilty of this approach, giving us almost no indication of what we see on the screen, other than two (or more) people talking.
9. All narrative sections should be no longer than 3 lines. Yes, you heard me right. While you can occasionally stray to 4 or even 5 lines, two or three is the norm. Don't spend 5 lines after the slugline describing the scene. Most "overwriters" are in serious violation of this rule, trying to cram every possible detail of the scene into the description. Sorry if this sounds cynical, but many readers skim the narrative sections, and if they see large blocks of print, they'll skip it all together (thereby missing much of your story). While it appears that I've written 4 lines, not 3, in the above example, in screenplay format this would wind up being 3. For the sake of argument, however, let's say that my four lines can be pared down. Here are a couple of different ways to do it:
Outside an abandoned building in a low-rent district, DETECTIVE JOHN MACY, 30s, turns his intense gaze from the building's broken windows to his partner, DET. YVONNE BURKE, African-American, late 20s.
Or, even better:
EXT. CLEVELAND STREET - DAY
An abandoned building. DETECTIVE JOHN MACY, 30s, scans its broken windows. He turns to DET. YVONNE BURKE, African-American, 20s.
If you have a tendency to over-write, take each phrase and think about how to make it shorter; then take your wordy first draft and try to pare it down to fit this rule. This means that -
10. Scene length - there is no rule of thumb here, although you should try to keep scenes short, two to four pages at the very most. Most scenes are around three pages. Each page is equal to a minute of screen time, so five pages, equal to five whole minutes in one location on screen, can be excruciating to watch.
For that matter, even one minute can be excruciating when all we're doing is watching two people talk. This is the infamous "talking heads" scenario, where not enough is happening on screen, other than dialogue. If you find that all you have is dialogue, perhaps you should consider writing a play, which tells its story largely through dialogue.
11. Every word counts. Once you've written your first draft, go over every single scene. Then go over every single sentence and try to make your point about the action that occurs, within the constraint of the 3-line rule. You're a writer - you have to appear to be in command of your craft. If not describing every color of every article of clothing every character is wearing becomes unbearable to you, perhaps you were meant to be a novelist, not a screenwriter.
In an action script, you should be aiming for a one-line (two lines at the most), almost staccato use of sentences and paragraphs, to emphasize the tension and rapid pace of the scene. In an historical epic, or romantic drama, a slightly more novelistic approach might be acceptable. But here too, 'tis better to err on the side of brevity. All of your readers will be grateful.
12. In your slug line, acceptable lighting notation is: day, night, dawn, dusk (twilight and sunset). Do NOT write:
EXT. FRONT OF REV. BIDWELL'S OPULENT MANSION - LATE MORNING
Why? Because the actual hour this scene will be shot is not vital to the story, and in any case you have nothing to say about what hour the producers schedule the shooting of this scene. There are other problems with this slug line, as well, namely: if we're outside, we're probably in front; when we meet Bidwell we'll learn he's a reverend; and using "opulent" with "mansion" is redundant. Instead of the above slug line, DO write:
EXT. BIDWELL'S MANSION - DAY
Simple and elegant, this slug line tells us all we need to know, and, most importantly, sets up the location. In the narrative paragraph that will follow the slug line, you can tell us more - like who is in the scene, and what they're doing.
13. The first time we meet a character, and only the first time, their name should be in capital letters, followed by their age, and ethnicity (if relevant). If this is your main character, or a major character in the story, give us a few words which describe him in more detail, to give us a sense of what he looks like, and how what he looks like reflects who he is as a character. So, for example, when we meet Bidwell you might write:
REV. BIDWELL, 40s, ramrod straight with a disarming smile, steers the POLICE away from the front door;
What does this tell us about Bidwell? That he's a man of God, but has a disarming smile, which could be masking something he doesn't want you to know; and that, for some
reason, he doesn't want the police in his house, and may therefore really have something to hide. So you see, we learned a lot, in a very few words.
Here's a description of a different Bidwell, that tells you all you need to know in even fewer words:
REV. BIDWELL, 40s, with keen blue eyes that miss nothing...
14. As mentioned earlier, the only other things that should be in UPPER CASE are camera directions, sound effects and animals, such as:
CLOSE ON the package in the back seat.
A SHOT rang out.
Holly lets the CAT out of the cab, into the pouring rain.
A note re: camera directions: nothing marks the amateur more than the insertion of camera directions to the director of the film. Directors actually like to do this kind of thing, and even get offended at being given instructions from the writer on how to shoot what they consider to be their film. Keep your directions down to a minimum, if at all, by only including them if they are going to make your story more readable, not less. If you're not sure, don't use them at all. Avoid, at all costs, the annoying "we see" and "we hear." Of course we see it, it's a movie. Similarly with "we hear." Also avoid indicating the placement of MUSIC CUES, or any particular piece of music, unless this is a story about music, or unless a particular piece is absolutely vital to the story. Just tell your story, and leave the directing to the director. This includes:
15. CUT TO: While CUT TO: was once inserted between each scene, it is now taken for granted. It can, however, be used as a way to indicate that we're moving from one location to another, within the same scene (location). For example, in the following scene, we're in the barn, where Joe is standing in the hallway, talking with the men.
Joe, uneasy, looks back at Sophie and Hannah.
Hannah. Tears well up in her eyes as she watches Shadrach's labored breath.
We're still in the same scene here, but are focused on Hannah and Shadrach, her dying horse. The cut to isn't strictly necessary, however, since I could have also just said that tears well up in Hannah's eyes, etc. The director would have figured out how to shoot this. As always, when in doubt, leave it out.
The only other time to use a CUT TO: might be between sequences, when we're moving from scenes in one set of locations to another. Again, if you're not sure if it's necessary, then it's probably not.
16. DISSOLVE TO: Dissolves are a method of cutting between scenes, and are normally used before a dream, flashback or fantasy sequence. This would look like:
Any other use of dissolves is the province of the director and editor, and not the writer.
But why use the dissolve here at all? Simply indicating that a flashback is beginning and ending is sufficient.
Instead of the above, it is also acceptable to use:
FLASHBACK TO: In a blur - a flash of fire...Shadrach's plumed headdress falling to the ground...flames reflected in Nebuchadnezzar's golden mask. Then...Shadrach's white hooves, smashing into a tent pole, breaking it...the lantern hanging from the pole falling, and fire everywhere.
In this particular screenplay, flashbacks were integral to the story line. In general, avoid them where you can, and try to keep all action in present time.
17. MONTAGE - Much like flashbacks or dream sequences, a montage sequence is normally indicated by MONTAGE BEGINS. It then lists the numerical list of scenes, with a brief description of what happens in the scene; and is followed by MONTAGE ENDS. Example:
1. Hannah, trailed by Mikey and Sky, runs into the farmyard, hurling her school bag onto the porch and ignoring Sophie's call from the kitchen. She heads straight for the barn, the boys for the house.
2. Hannah and Shadrach ride as one through a field of foxgloves, the world in bloom around them.
3. Hannah and Shadrach, frolicking in the waterfall in Hannibal's forest.
SUPER: ONE YEAR LATER
4.The stall is immaculate, with fresh hay strewn on the floor and the Wild & Free poster on the wall. Hannah, now a gangly and coltish 12, grooms Shadrach tenderly, brushing him until his coat shines. Done, she steps back to survey the results, and smiles, Shadrach snuffling contentedly. Fondly, she rubs his nose, and feeds him an apple.
A montage compresses time into a manageable sequence of scenes, showing the passage of time (here reinforced by the dissolve, and the insertion of text (SUPER means SUPERIMPOSE; also acceptable is TITLE, or INSERT TITLE). Here's another montage sequence, with a shorter passage of time, and a VOICE OVER (V.O.) narrating:
1. Ed eats dinner in bed while watching TV. The clock on the nightstand shows the passing time - six, ten, two.
2. Ed, eyes heavy with sleep, turns over - and sees the picture of her parents on the night table.
ED (V.O.)(CONT'D) Except for those moments late at night, when the house was too quiet, and I missed my parents something fierce.
Tears come to her eyes.
3. Ed, sparkles in her hair, walks out of the school building. Zelda tags along, dressed just like her.
They're at the center of a group of admiring girls, all with sparkles in their hair. Ed catches sight of E.T., riding off, and yells out.
ED (V.OJ(CONT'D) But the rest of the time, let's face it. Life was good.
As the girls watch, astonished, she catches up to E.T. and jumps on the handlebars of his bike. They take off.
4. Ed and E.T. sit on a ledge at the back of Pike Place Market, facing the waterfront and watching the ferries in the distance, laughing and talking.
They run back into the market, straight to the FISH VENDORS. E.T. says something to one of them.
The fish vendor picks up a large sea bass and shows it to him. E.T. nods, and the vendor aims it like a football and throws it to another vendor, who wraps it. Ed, astonished, bursts out laughing. The vendor holds up a crab, and when she nods, he throws it to her. Soon all hell breaks loose, fish flying everywhere, and Ed and E.T. in the thick of it, having a great time.
5. Ed runs down the hallway, dressed in black leather, with black-rimmed eyes, black lipstick, and black nails. She runs after Faith, who takes one look at her and speeds up, zooming into her room.
ED (V.OJ(CONT'D) So Aunt Faith was a little weird. Okay, a lot weird.
6. Ed stands on line outside a club with a prominent sign for ladies' night. The MAN at the door takes one look at her and shakes his head. Downcast, she leaves.
But once out of his sight, she scoots around the alley and into the back door of the club. Pushing her way through the crowd, Ed joins the party, and dances the hours away.
ED (V.OJ(CONT'D) But a weird aunt was a small price to pay for paradise. I did what I wanted, when I wanted. No mother telling me what to do. Total freedom.
As with flashbacks and dream sequences, a good rule of thumb is to minimize your reliance on montage.
18. Dots, dashes, Morse code, and other issues of punctuation:
Many writers are fond of dashes ( - ) and ellipses (...), in the narrative, in dialogue, and well, everywhere. But, other than out at sea, on a sinking ship, or in a foxhole under fire, there is no place for Morse code in a screenplay. I can't tell you how much most producers hate the ellipsis. That said, one of Hollywood's most famous screenwriters is infamous for his use of the ellipsis...In fact, one development executive went on at length, complaining to me about said famous writer's writing style (!) and the unbearable use of said ellipsis. She never mentioned my own over-reliance on the dash, which I am guilty of using to impart a sense of urgency, or a continuity between scenes.
There is one notable exception to the no ellipsis rule, where you are trying to convey an impressionistic view of events, a cinematic style, without getting too wordy. The second flashback example, above, is a good example of this. But in general, try to avoid using ellipses. If you are new to screenwriting, definitely avoid doing this, or any of the "fancy stuff." Try to tell your story in as straightforward manner as possible. As to my use of dashes, well - I don't recommend that you try this at home. Period.
19. Titles - (on screen text). There are times when you want to indicate, on screen, that the action takes place in a particular time and place. Only do this when it's integral to the story, and when you jump back and forth between time periods, and/or locations. In these cases, indicate that text should appear on screen by writing either:
TITLE: OUTER MONGOLIA, 1934 or,
SUPER: OUTER MONGOLIA, 1934.
"Super" stands for "superimpose" (as in "superimpose title").
20. Voice-Overs (V.O.) and Off-Screen (O.S.) dialogue - Many writers confuse these two, but there is really a very simple difference between them. When we hear dialogue via a narrator, even if it's someone in the cast already, it is called a voice-over. We can even see the character, but we hear him speaking as if he's telling us his story. There is an example of this above, in one of the montage sequences. Just as a reminder, here is a portion of it again:
1. Ed eats dinner in bed while watching TV. The clock on the nightstand shows the passing time - six, ten, two.
The voice-over is indicated on the script by putting (V.O.) next to the character's name. Be warned, however - you may see it here, and I may have gotten six figures for this script, but many people LOATHE voice overs. If at all possible, try to get your characters talking to each other, instead of relying on a voice-over narration.
Off-Screen Dialogue (O.S.) - Similarly, when we hear someone speaking from offscreen, write (O.S.) next to their name. They may be in the next room, throwing their two cents into the conversation; it could be a ghost, or the voice of God. Here's an example of what this looks like, and the difference between the narrator (in this case Will, in voice-over) and someone speaking off screen (in this case Josh, who isn't in the first shot we have of Will, but whose voice we hear, and then we see). This scene is from an independent film I was hired to rewrite, entitled TAR. And please, ignore my camera direction (PULL BACK). I can get away with this; you can't.
WILL (V.O.) (CONT'D) I had a friend, I had a lover, I had heroin. I didn't have shit.
JOSH (O.S.) No, man, it's all good, I'm here, I'm here.
PULL BACK to see Josh, bathed in the same hazy white light, with his trademark grin. Will's eyes flicker, as he tries to focus on Josh.
Here's another example, of a scene where we don't see the person who is speaking, at first:
He turns back to the bar, signaling the bartender for another drink. He takes a big roll of cash out of his pocket.
He turns, flushed, to see this beautiful woman by his side.
21. P.O.V. - This stands for "point of view," where we see the action from a particular character's point of view. Since it is a camera direction, it should be used with caution, if at all. It has no place at all in a slugline. And there is no such thing as a POV from an inanimate object's viewpoint - no TREE'S POV, for example. Here's an example of the use of POV, for a character whose point of view we would not normally see.
HAWK'S POV: The road snakes down the mountain gorge, and on it, the kids, SINGING. They clamber down off the road and disappear into the forest.
22. CONT'D and MORE - While some screenwriting programs put "Continued" at the top and bottom of every page, it is isn't strictly necessary. What is necessary, as seen in the first V.O. example above, is the use of (CONT'D) next to the character's name, when he speaks again without interruption from another character. Continue using (CONT'D) until another character speaks.
If your character's speech is cut off at the bottom of the page, and continues onto the next page, then indicate that there is more to the speech by writing (MORE), centered directly under the last line of dialogue. Then, on the next page, put the character's name in again, over the rest of the dialogue, followed by (CONT'D). Example:
Lynch, Sloan and the forensics cop show up at the door.
EMT #1 Nah. He'll come around.
LYNCH That's a relief.
LYNCH (CONT'D) Two dead, one almost dead. We'd better talk to the girls - one more of this little group goes, I'll start thinking it's something I did.
INT. EVAN'S APARTMENT - DAY
23. Script length - scripts should be no shorter than 90 pages, and no longer than 120 pages. Each page of script is a minute of film, and while some films do go over two hours in length, they should not start out that way. If they do, they will signal to the producer that this is going to be a very expensive film to produce, something you don't want them to know before they've actually read the script. And believe me, the first thing every reader does is flip to the last page, to see how many pages they're going to have to read. The shorter the script, the happier the reader.
If all you have are 90 pages, however, producers may see your screenplay as being a little "thin." And while you can never be too rich or too thin, the same can't be said for your screenplay. Ninety pages may be an acceptable length for a TV movie, or an animated film, but not for a live action feature. Comedies can be shorter than dramas, anywhere from 92 - 110 pages; epics can range up to 125 pages. Don't worry about the length of your first draft, however, unless you've written 150 pages and are still going strong. Ninety pages is a great place to start, and subsequent drafts will almost always be longer.
24. While you can print out your first draft on any kind of paper you like, by the time you are ready to submit it you should have it copied onto 3-hole punch paper, with a
cardstock cover front and back, and secured with two brads. I know, there are three holes, so why only two brads? Believe me, these aren't my rules. For screenwriters outside of the U.S., please, try to find 8 ^ "x11" paper, rather than A4, if at all possible, unless you are planning to submit only to producers outside of the U.S. And no fancy covers or binding - the first thing that happens to the script is that copies get made, and the harder to take apart the more irritated everyone becomes. Your most important job here, as with everything else about your screenplay, is to make everyone love you.
25. Title page - Every script should have a title page, indicating the name of the script, the author, whether it's been adapted from someone else's work, the WGA registration number (or at least that it's been registered), and the contact information. Contact information means name, address, phone number and email address, if applicable. If you have representation, a producer, or an attorney, agent or manager, then the contact information should be theirs, not yours.
Some people also have the title of the script copied onto the card stock cover. If you do that, include only the title, or the title and author, and none of the rest of the title page information.
Some examples of properly formatted title pages can be found at the back of this book. Please note that each title page, with all its information, should be on just one page, however this gets reformatted when you download this book. The first example is of an original screenplay; the second is of an adaptation.
Congratulations! You've finished a first draft of your script. Here are some additional tips for your first rewrite - because, like it or not, you are going to have to rewrite.
26. Character development and characterization - Character development is one of those sticky issues, like dialogue, that can be very difficult for some writers to grasp. Oftentimes, new writers will give the actor directions on how to play the scene; but this is
not character development. I'm here to tell you not to tell the actor when to cross his knee or scratch his head - how an actor plays a scene is between him and the director. Also avoid putting all emotional beats in the parenthetical comments new writers use (too often) under the characters name, in dialogue. This is not character development either , nor is it effective characterization.
But your instincts are right on target - in most scenes it would be helpful if you could flesh out the characters' emotional state, and give a heightened sense of immediacy to each scene that would add dimension to the character. You do want to let the reader know what the character is thinking without just saying so, and make your story resonate more urgently on an emotional level. But this has to be done without getting too wordy. So how do you do this?
First of all, go back to your character bio, that you developed before constructing the synopsis to your story. Does your character have at least three clearly identifiable character traits (brave, honest, innocent, for example), of which one is his fatal flaw? The clearer you defined your character to begin with, the more compelling that character will be. Reread the script just for the main character, to see if he sounds and behaves in a manner consistent with the characteristics you gave him.
Then, don't be afraid to use more active verbs in describing your character's behavior and actions. That will already raise the level of the scene. So instead of "Jon looks," think of all the possible ways he could be looking, i.e. observes, inspects, scrutinizes, surveys, views, stares, scans, glances, etc. Be precise - use a thesaurus! This is part of the real work of rewriting. It's not simply a writing exercise - the use of more active verbs helps the reader get into the character's head; and goes a long way to increase the reader's identification with, and sympathy for, your character. It also gives the actor something to work with in terms of the emotional state of your character.
All of the great characterization in the world won't improve the storytelling quality of your script unless you have a clearly identifiable main character. Now that you've finished the first draft, check to see if you've accomplished what you set out to in your synopsis. Is your protagonist consistently the prime mover in this story? He must be if the script is to have any measure of narrative drive. If you didn't figure out the premise earlier, as it relates to your main character's emotional task, figure it out now. Write it down - you will need this later when you pitch your story.
27. Dialogue - Although there are people who are naturals at dialogue, dialogue is often the most difficult thing for new screenwriters to master. Often, all the characters sound exactly alike, despite their age, sex, and personality differences. Similarly, we don't need to hear the entire back-story of the character in overly long speeches to other characters who already know their story. Characters who know each other know the information; never include information just for the sake of the audience.
Bad dialogue can be pompous, pretentious and preachy. If you have a message, it should be buried in the story itself, as sub-text, and not simply stated. Characters should almost never make speeches (unless it's a summation in a courtroom drama). Any monologue that goes on for a page is too long. Similarly, pages of dialogue alone, with nothing happening on screen, is incredibly boring to watch. Your screenplay should be a judicious mix of the visual and the verbal.
The verbal component of the script should not include lengthy telephone conversations, another hallmark of the new writer. This can be very static on screen, and boring to listen to. If a phone conversation is absolutely necessary, keep it short, and move on.
Another problem, as mentioned above, is the tendency to give directions as to the emotional quality of the speech, by putting it into parentheses under the character name, and before the dialogue. Again, this should be avoided; the quality of the dialogue, in the context of what is happening in the story, should indicate what the tone of the speech, and the scene, is.
Once you've finished a first draft of the script, reread for dialogue only; we should be able to get the whole story, just from the dialogue. Similarly -
28. Reread for narrative only. We should also be able to get the gist of the story, just from reading the narrative. Now is the time for some severe editing. Is this script readable, with short, snappy but descriptive and involving action? Pare down every sentence, and every action (narrative) paragraph. Is there something that happens on the first page that grabs our attention? Is there something that happens by the end of the first page to make the reader want to turn the page? If not, and that attention-grabber comes five pages later, think about moving that event to the first page. While that may not be the way the movie eventually deals with the same event, this is the version that will have to attract immediate interest and excitement. Every effort should be made to engage the reader's attention from the start.
As you read through the script, does some of the action seem arbitrary, or does it relate directly to the characters' stories? Is everything that happens actually necessary? Just because you like a scene, or want something to happen to your character, if it doesn't make sense within the context of the character's task in this story, leave it out. As I said earlier, each scene should advance the story, taking our characters on the next phase of their adventure, and not simply serving as a vehicle for the writer to wax philosophical or preach. Character development should also, ideally, take place within the context of the action, and not simply for its own sake.
29. Reread the script again, focusing each time on each main character in the story, making sure each of their stories has a beginning, a middle and an end, and that each is resolved in a satisfying way.
Do your characters undergo a real emotional transformation during the movie? Or do you tell us there's a problem, and in the end you solve the problem, without letting us see the transformational process they go through on the way? Does your main character have some deep emotional task, and learn something, about himself or his relationships, during the course of the story? We need to both learn what the problem is (Act One), see the character try to solve this problem, or a problem that may be related to this problem (Act Two), and then emerge triumphant, or die trying (Act Three).
30. Get a professional opinion on your script, before you send it to agents or producers. You must have someone else read your script, to tell you which parts of it they didn't understand. Friends and family, however, are rarely good critics; and other writers may be too tempted to "inadvertently" steal your story idea (this does happen). In any case, unless they are script consultants or screenwriters themselves, you must get a professional opinion before you send out your script. Be prepared for a serious critique -remember, you hire a consultant to be brutally honest, so that you can get right back in there and turn this into a great screenplay, and hopefully, a great movie. If you can't afford a full consultation, get script coverage. Coverage will let you know what kind of impression your script makes, so that you can fix any problem areas before you send it out. Which brings us to -
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