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Archive for the Category "Formatting"

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?

Parentheticals: Always Before Dialogue – Not After Apr 15

Quick Tip

Never end a dialogue block with a parenthetical.

I’ve been seeing this kind of thing a lot lately in the amateur scripts I’ve been reading:

DEMON

You think that puny gun can kill me?

(laughs)

If you need to indicate an action that follows a block of dialogue, then just write it as an action line following the dialogue. For example:

DEMON

You think that puny gun can kill me?

Demon laughs.

Note: The first example would have been okay if there were another line of dialogue after the parenthetical (also known as a “wryly”). For example:

DEMON

You think that puny gun can kill me?

(laughs)

Shit, you might be right.

For more juicy insight on this absolutely fascinating topic (not really), please check out my 10 rules for using parentheticals.

Insights from the 2013 Black List: Title Pages Feb 04

Recap

This series takes a look at current trends in screenwriting and screenplay formatting, by examining the 2013 Black List scripts.

The Black List 2013 – Part 4: Title Page Formatting

Black List 2013 - InsightsSoooo… title pages. The various formatting books I rely on consistently prescribe title pages where the title of the script is:

  • all uppercase
  • underlined
  • written in a standard 12 point Courier / Courier New font (or equivalent — like Courier Final Draft or Courier Prime)

But as anyone who reads professional scripts on a regular basis will tell you, that rule is routinely broken.

You might be inclined to say — “Yeah, but the pros can get away with it, but we can’t.”

And you might be right.

Speaking in generalities and from my experiences, the farther up the chain you are in Hollywood, the less likely anyone is to treat such a thing as a red flag.

So depending on where you’re at, and your level of confidence with the important stuff that comes after your title page, you may want to just stick to the standard formatting so you don’t inadvertently annoy anyone.

Having said that, I almost never use Courier 12 pt for my script titles!

I feel it’s the one part of the script where I can shed the rigid confines of standard script formatting, and add some flavor. After reading the first page of one of my scripts, I doubt that any reviewer is still going to be agitated by my flamboyant font use.

The 2013 Black List Title Page Stats

So where do we stand this year for title page formatting practices? The investigation yielded some surprising results:

  • Of the 72 Black List scripts this year, only 14 used “standard” formatting for their script titles (19.4%)
  • That means 58 used non-standard formatting (a full 80.6%)!

Here’s how it broke down:

  • 20 script titles used a font size that was larger than 12 pt (28%)
  • Of those, 14 used a font other than a Courier variation (19.4%).
    Note: No scripts used a non-standard font while keeping standard point size. If a non-standard font was used, the font size was always greater than 12 pt.
  • Of those, 2 used a graphic image for their script titles (2.8%).
  • 4 of the scripts that used a non-standard font — used the font for more than just the script title (5.6%) .
  • 3 of the 72 scripts used a space between the letters of their titles (e.g. E X T I N C T I O N) (4.2%)
  • 8 scripts used a Mixed Case Title (11%).
  • 17 scripts used bold for their script title (23.6%)
  • 38 scripts did not underline their script title (53%)

… And of course, unless specified above, there’s a lot of overlap (e.g. some scripts used both bold and Mixed Case).

Non-Standard Fonts

For those who are curious, here’s a list of the non-Courier fonts that were used (excluding the two that used graphics in place of their titles), in alphabetical order:

  • American Typewriter (Bold) 56 pt
  • Arial Black (Bold) 14 pt
  • Arial (Bold) 24 pt
  • Arial Unicode MS (Italics) 28 pt (Mixed Case)
  • Bleeding Cowboys 28 pt (Mixed Case)
  • Cooper Black MS (Bold) 18 pt
  • Dense 64 pt
  • Georgia (Bold) 18 pt
  • GillSans 14 pt
  • Oriya Sangam MN 24 pt
  • Times New Roman 32 pt (Mixed Case)
  • Wide Latin 26.04 pt (Mixed Case)

Do you find these types of stats to be helpful?

Insights from the 2013 Black List: Scene Spacing Jan 22

Recap

This series takes a look at current trends in screenwriting and screenplay formatting, by examining the 2013 Black List scripts.

The Black List 2013 – Part 3: One or Two Line Spaces before Master Scene Headings?

Black List 2013 - InsightsI was originally going to look at the prevalence of using non-standard fonts and font-sizes on title pages, but I’ll do that next time. Since I looked at the incidence of bold, underlined and bold and underlined scene headings last time, I thought it would be better to look at something somewhat related — the spacing that comes before master scene headings.

Why is the discussion somewhat related? Because I found a not-so-surprising correlation between using only one blank line space and using bold scene headings.

First, let’s look at the numbers:

2013 Black List - Blank Lines Before Scene Headings

  • Of the 72 scripts, 59 used two blank lines before master scene headings (81.9%).
  • That means 13 — used one blank line (18.1%)
  • Of the 13 scripts that used one blank line space, a full 8 of them used bold scene headings (61.54%).
  • That’s almost double the overall percentage of scripts that used bold scene headings this year (33.33%)! [See previous article]

So why are scripts that use a single line space almost twice as likely to use bold scene headings?

It’s simple — the whole point of having two blank line spaces is to break up the pages, inject some white space and make the script feel less dense. If you use a single line space, then adding bold to the scene heading helps to do the same thing. It visually “chunks” up the page and makes it easier for the reader to see when a new scene starts.

Page Count and Spacing for Scene Headings

If you  look at the median page count of those 13 scripts that used one blank line and compare it to the median page count of all the scripts in the 2013 Black List — the number is the same: 110 pages.

In a typical script if you change from triple-spacing (two blank lines between scenes) to double-spacing (one blank line between scenes) you can actually cut your page count by two or sometimes three pages. I may be wrong, but I suspect that at least a few of the writers opted for double spacing and bold scene headings, versus triple spacing and no bold, to lower their page count.

Final Thoughts

No readers really care if you double or triple-space your scripts (i.e. use one blank line or two before scene headings). They might not even notice. What they do notice is the amount of white space in your scripts.

If you’re consistently using 5 to 8 line paragraphs in your scene descriptions, you run the risk of irritating a reader. It won’t matter if you’ve left two blank lines between your scene headings because the script will just feel dense. Try to limit your paragraphs to 3 or 4 lines.

It’s worth pointing out that the script that topped the 2013 Black List — Holland, Michigan by Andrew Sodroski — used the bold scene headings and single blank lines approach. I have no idea as to Andrew’s thought processes, but the script clocked in at 117 pages. And 117 pages has a whole lot nicer ring to it than 120 pages — which it might have been if he had used triple-spacing (two blank lines).

Then again, he might have just liked the way it looked.

Insights from the 2013 Black List: Bold Scene Headings Jan 14

Recap

This series takes a look at current trends in screenwriting and screenplay formatting, by examining the Black List scripts.

The Black List 2013 – Part 2: Bold and Underlined Scene Headings

Black List 2013 - InsightsToday, I’m going to look at the practice of using bold and underlined scene headings.

As trivial as this issue is (especially compared to the importance of quality writing), I do often get asked about the prevalence of such formatting in modern scripts. Screenwriters want to know if the practice is common enough to not get flagged as an annoyance by purists who might be reading their screenplay.

While it’s plain to see that using bold, underlined (or both bold and underlined) scene headings are definitely gaining in popularity, I was curious to see how common these formatting devices were in the 2013 Black List scripts.

Here’s how it broke down:

One third of all the Black List scripts used bold scene headings!

That was surprising. Things have really changed. I’d say that if a third of any community engages in a practice, then it can safely be described as mainstream.

  • Of the 72 scripts, 24 of them used bold (33.33%)
  • 19 used bold exclusively (26.39%)
  • 5 used both bold and underlining together (6.94%)
  • 1 used underlining alone (1.39%)

Final Note

I have two versions of Richard Cordiner’s terrific script, The Shark Is Not Working. The earlier version of his script used bold. The later version, with the cover page changed to show his agent and manager, did not. I was curious about the change… Was he given some sage advice to remove the bold?

Nope. Richard kindly responded to a tweet I sent him explaining that it was simply a stylistic choice: “Hi Trevor, no reason, just prefer the old school look I guess.”

He then went on to provide a great reminder about the importance of such matters in the grander scheme of things:

https://twitter.com/richardcordiner/statuses/422957492843204608

Do you obsess over these kinds of details, or do you always stay focused on the bigger picture? Or both? Let me know.

In the next issue I’ll look at irregular fonts and font sizes on the title page.

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