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Archive for the Category "Screenwriting Basics"

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?

Screenwriting Basics: The Importance of Sentence Variety Mar 29

Matrix Word Cloud

I’ve decided to do a few posts geared towards newer screenwriters. So if you’ve been screenwriting for a while, feel free to ignore the posts, review them as refreshers, or read them so you can cackle maniacally at how far you’ve come.

Great Beginnings

Remember back in school when your teacher would correct you for starting every sentence with the word “The”? Well things haven’t changed. It’s still bad form.

One thing that I’ve been noticing a lot lately, on the amateur scripts I’ve been reading, is the repetition of sentences that begin with a character’s name or a pronoun (he/she).

Let me give you an example of great sentence variety.

Here’s an excerpt from the THE MATRIX script:

INT. HEART O’ THE CITY HOTEL

The Big Cop flicks out his cuffs, the other cops holding a bead. They’ve done this a hundred times, they know they’ve got her, until the Big Cop reaches with the cuffs and Trinity moves --

It almost doesn’t register, so smooth and fast, inhumanly fast.

The eye blinks and Trinity’s palm snaps up and the nose explodes, blood erupting. Her leg kicks with the force of a wrecking ball and he flies back, a two-hundred-fifty pound sack of limp meat and bone that slams into the cop farthest from her.

Trinity moves again, BULLETS RAKING the walls, flashlights sweeping with panic as the remaining cops try to stop a leather-clad ghost.

A GUN still in the cop’s hand is snatched, twisted, and FIRED. There is a final violent exchange of GUNFIRE and when it’s over, Trinity is the only one standing.

Terrific stuff, right?

Now here’s that same excerpt, but amateurised. Check it out:

INT. HEART O’ THE CITY HOTEL

The Big Cop flicks out his cuffs, the other cops holding a bead. The Cops have done this a hundred times. The Cops know they’ve got her, until the Big Cop reaches with the cuffs --

Trinity moves so smooth and fast, inhumanly fast. It almost doesn’t register.

Trinity’s palm snaps up and the nose explodes, blood erupting. Her leg kicks with the force of a wrecking ball and he flies back, a two-hundred-fifty pound sack of limp meat and bone that slams into the cop farthest from her.

Trinity moves again, BULLETS RAKING the walls, flashlights sweeping with panic as the remaining cops try to stop a leather-clad ghost.

She snatches A GUN in the cop’s hand, twists, and FIRES.

She is the only one standing after a final violent exchange of GUNFIRE.

See what I’m sayin’? Virtually the same action lines, but one screams PROFESSIONAL and the other screams AMATEUR.

Don’t be an amateur. Mix it up. Sentence variety is the spice of professional scripts.

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