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Commas in Scene Headings? Aug 20

Comma Chameleon

Commas are great. I’m a fan.

Without them, misunderstandings abound…

Commas - They Save Lives!

But why are so many commas turning up in scene headings these days? Did I miss the memo?

Let’s clarify what I’m talking about. It’s the use of commas in place of hyphens for separating location elements in scene headings. For example:

INT. JUBILANCE MENTAL HOSPITAL, PADDED ROOM - DAY

or

INT. PADDED ROOM, JUBILANCE MENTAL HOSPITAL - DAY

One of my friends sent me his script recently. He’s a pro and one of my favorite screenwriters. When I saw he had used commas in his scene headings, my brain partially exploded.

I’m going to tell you guys what I told him. It’s a bad idea.

It’s highly non-standard

Despite its growing popularity, it’s still a non-standard way to format scene headings. Non-standard formatting = red flag. Too many red flags and your reader may form a less than positive opinion of you or your script.

I’ve never seen a recognized script formatting guide that says it’s acceptable to use commas in place of hyphens. Have you? In my opinion, this isn’t a new, trendy technique – it’s an old mistake that’s making a resurgence.

It’s confusing

Whenever I see a comma in a scene heading, my read slows down.

Why? I now have to stop to think about the intention behind the formatting.

In a master scene heading, that uses conventional formatting, the locations go from general to specific. So, in the example above, the correct way to format the scene heading would be as follows:

INT. JUBILANCE MENTAL HOSPITAL - PADDED ROOM – DAY

The problem with commas is that I find approximately 50% of people who use them tend to reverse the natural order. They go from specific, to general. For example:

INT. PADDED ROOM, JUBILANCE MENTAL HOSPITAL – DAY

The even BIGGER problem is that the people who use this technique tend to alternate the order throughout the script. Sometimes they use specific to general. Sometimes they use general to specific.

In the example above it’s easy to comprehend that the JUBILANCE MENTAL HOSPITAL is the general location and the PADDED ROOM is the specific location. But what if you have something like this?

INT. DARK ROOM, GUN STAND – NIGHT

Uhhhh… Is the gun stand like a small rack of guns that’s inside the dark room? Or is the stand like a large booth, with a dark room in the back?

Using a hyphen instead of a comma, and the general to specific rule throughout, would clarify things.

It’s unwieldy

What if, God forbid, you add a third location? Sometimes I see things like this:

INT. PADDED ROOM, JUBILANCE MENTAL HOSPITAL - SECOND FLOOR – NIGHT

or

INT. SECOND FLOOR – PADDED ROOM, JUBILANCE MENTAL HOSPITAL – NIGHT

Yikes. Just… Yikes.

If you have to use a third location (and odds are you don’t), then just go from general to specific to avoid confusion:

INT. JUBILANCE MENTAL HOSPITAL – THIRD FLOOR – PADDED ROOM – NIGHT

But even that’s unwieldy. You’re almost certainly better off simplifying things:

INT. PADDED ROOM – NIGHT

If there were things happening in different padded rooms on different floors, you’d probably still be better off with a shorter, single location:

INT. TREVOR’S PADDED ROOM – NIGHT

INT. SALLY’S PADDED ROOM – NIGHT

etc.

Try to keep scene headings as short as possible… but not shorter.

But if some pros do it…

Let’s be honest, when you reach that magical stage in your career where important people are asking to read your scripts, formatting doesn’t really matter.

But until then, why take the chance? Is your love for the way scene heading commas look really worth making the experience of reading your script more challenging?

What are your thoughts on commas in scene headings?

Script Notes – July Sale! Jul 07

Script Notes - July SaleA July 4th sale is good, but a month-long July sale is even better. So that’s what I’m cooking up this month – a discount on script notes!

Whether you’d like an insightful written critique of your script, or a more interactive verbal critique (or both), you’ll get $25.00 off through the month of July.

Script not quite done? No problem. Purchase the script notes for the reduced rate in July, and you can send me your script later, when it’s ready.

Please visit my script notes page for more information and to order.

Category: Script Notes  | Leave a Comment
Embrace The Grind Jun 23

Anyone else out there a fan of MMA (mixed martial arts)? No? Doesn’t matter, this lesson applies to any professional endeavor — including screenwriting.

So there’s this fighter named Benson Henderson. He’s got about as much genuine swagger as any human has a right to. And for a good reason — he steamrolls over most of his opponents.

Benson Henderson

This, ladies and gentlemen, is genuine swagger!

After handily winning his last bout, he was almost in tears talking about how people have no idea how hard he trains for his fights.

Here’s a guy who you can tell by looking at him, and seeing him fight, has tremendous natural gifts. He’s one of the best fighters in the world, yet he still pushes himself to the breaking point during his training camps.

Gone are the days when some fighter, who merely dabbled in mixed martial arts, could rise to prominence off of luck or talent or connections alone. If you want to be successful in MMA, you have to embrace the grind.

It got me thinking. The same rule applies to screenwriters.

We may not risk traumatic brain injury every time we write a script (hmmm, that’s debatable), but we do have to compete with other screenwriters. Professional screenwriters. Professional screenwriters with agents and managers and industry credibility and one more thing…

A strong work ethic.

The successful screenwriters are the ones embracing the grind and putting in their hours of writing, networking, and keeping tabs on the industry. Every. Single. Day.

How on earth can you expect to compete with them (or other amateurs who are similarly inclined) if you’re only writing once in a blue moon?

This isn’t meant to depress you. It’s meant to explain the reality of the modern screenwriting business. It’s not an industry where dilettantes do well. You have to really want it. And you have to be really good at it. And you have to put the time in. Lots of time. That means lots of scripts.

If not, the screenwriting equivalent of Benson Henderson, or Ronda Rousey, or some up and coming amateur, is going to kick your ass. Because right now there are only a few coveted jobs or spec sales for screenwriters.

Bottom line is, if you you want to succeed — hell, if you just want make the fight competitive — you have to embrace the grind.

10 Page Torture Test – Open To Submissions Jun 11

10 Page Torture TestThere are many writing achievements that I’m proud to have accomplished: placing in/winning script competitions… having my first script optioned… getting my first paid writing gig…

And now I’ve been asked to be the first guest script reviewer for the 10 Page Torture Test!

While my previous achievements were grand, I can say without hyperbole that this one is at least a billion times better than the others. ;)

What is the 10 Page Torture Test?

It’s a site where a mysterious and talented guy, who goes by “Pitchpatch,” takes the first 10 pages of mostly amateur scripts, and digs deep into their nooks and crannies. In doing so, he offers fantastic (and hilarious) insight into what works, and what doesn’t, complete with suggestions for improvement.

And what’s more, he does it for free! All for the love of screenwriting, and the recognition of the importance of the first 10 pages of a script. As you should know, if your first 10 pages don’t impress, the reader will likely have permanently checked out by page 11.

How good is this guy, Pitchpatch? Here’s a hint: Guess who I beg for notes when I need one of my scripts critiqued?

Send me your scripts!

For the next edition of the 10 Page Torture test, I’m going to take the reins and provide the feedback.

But I only get to choose one script. So if you’d like the first 10 pages of your script critiqued publicly, FOR FREE, send it to me, with its associated logline, by Friday, June 20th at Midnight.

I’ll be choosing the script based on two things:

  1. The intrigue of the logline. (Is the concept compelling? Is the movie marketable?)
  2. The potential for readers to learn from my notes. (Are there things the writer has done really well? Are there common mistakes to point out?)

It should hopefully go without saying by now, but any constructive criticism will be provided with an aim to enlighten — not embarrass.

So send me your script (and logline) for consideration!!!

Pop Quiz: What’s wrong with this dialogue? Jun 06

Are you a sloppy writer?

Of all the common, lazy mistakes I encounter when reading scripts, the one that possibly irks me the most can be found in the following dialogue exchange.

Have a look:

TOOKY

Look, I ain’t playin’ with you. Give me the money, or you gonna get got!

JOSH

I really should of stayed at a nicer motel.

Pop QuizDo you see it?

“ain’t”? — No, that’s a legitimate word. Merriam-Webster tells me so.

“playin’”? — Nah, that’s simply eliding a letter to give a better sense of the how the character speaks.

“you gonna get got”? – Nope. As grammatically offending as that slang is, it’s appropriate for the character.

So what is it?

Take a closer look at Josh’s line.

Do you see it?

No? Then you may be a sloppy writer.

There’s no such thing as “should of”!!!

The phrasing is either “should have” or “should’ve.” It may sound like “should of,” but sounding like something doesn’t count.

It’s like that time I wanted to tell someone off in my yearbook graduating entry, but didn’t want to have it flagged. So I wrote “FUH Q” instead of, well, you know. (True story. Yeah, real classy.)

Sounding like something, and being the equivalent of something, are two totally different things.

But what about intentional misspellings to give characters a certain affected manner of speech?

Intentional misspellings and grammar faux pas are permitted in screenplay dialogue blocks, as long as it’s clear to the reader that the mistakes are indeed intentional (e.g., slang, speech impediment).

It’s like how I wrote, “real classy” above, instead of the grammatically correct, “really classy.” In a casual blog post, or a script dialogue block, that’s just fine. It’s being cheeky and using the common phrasing.

However, spelling it: “reel classy” would be a mistake. The audience can’t see or hear the misspelling, so it can’t be justified by saying, “But that’s how my character would have spelled it!”

Bottom line is, if you’re one of those who missed the mistake above, you may be making others in your script that you’re not even aware are mistakes.

So if you need proofreading or script notes, I’m here for you.

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