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Archive for the Category "Style"

New Shot, New Paragraph Jul 08

ParagraphWhen do you start a new paragraph?

One thing that tends to confound new screenwriters is the issue of paragraphs. Some scripts have longer paragraphs. Other scripts have shorter ones — some as short as one word.  So how do you decide it’s time to start a new paragraph?

I’m glad you asked. And the answer is surprisingly simple:

One shot = one paragraph

The movie in your mind

As a screenwriter, you should be visualizing your movie as you write it. And in doing so, you’re actually imagining the various shots and angles the audience would see if you directed the movie.

So when you visualize the action in your mind, whenever the camera angle changes — that’s considered a new shot. If it’s a new shot, then it should be a new paragraph.

Let’s look at an example. Visualize the following action from my script FIRE FIGHT. Where would a new shot occur?

Red flashing lights undulate across the top of Portland, Oregon’s LADDER TRUCK 10 as it speeds to an apartment complex. 20 stories up, thick smoke plumes from windows on the top floor. High winds whip the ashy cloud into chaotic swirls. Panicked residents stream out the front entrance, past the arriving truck.

I’ve chosen to break up the action as follows:

Red flashing lights undulate across the top of Portland, Oregon’s LADDER TRUCK 10 as it speeds to an apartment complex.

20 stories up, thick smoke plumes from windows on the top floor. High winds whip the ashy cloud into chaotic swirls.

Panicked residents stream out the front entrance, past the arriving truck.

So why have I broken the action up in these spots? Because there would be different shots used to capture the action. Since I’ve chosen to focus on the “red flashing lights” and the truck itself, that’s a tighter shot. In order to jump 20 stories up, you’d have to use a wider shot to capture it, so it’s unlikely it would be all part of one take.

However, if I had written something like this, it’s conceivable it would be one shot.

LADDER TRUCK 10 speeds to the base of an apartment complex. Flames ravage several floors of the building.

In this version, we’re referencing the fire truck and the burning building in what is effectively one continuous image. So it’s conceivable that we’re seeing both things in one wide shot.

And what about the second paragraph break I chose?

Well, we go from looking at the “high winds” “20 stories up” to the the “panicked residents” streaming “out the front entrance.” So we’ve gone from focusing on the top of the building to the lower floor of the building. That would typically require a new shot angle and therefore a new paragraph.

The pacing of the movie/script will often determine the length of your paragraphs. Action scripts tend to have shorter paragraphs because there are so many more shots involved. There’s a lot happening and switching rapidly between shots invokes the feeling of urgency.

Drama scripts, on the other hand, tend to have slightly longer paragraphs because we’re usually taking more time with each shot, establishing the tone the scene or soaking in the emotions of the characters.

It’s really important that you visualize your movie when you write it. If not, it won’t “feel” like a movie, and the reader will notice.

This is the kind of tip I routinely give as part of my script consulting or proofreading services. If you’d like some help with your script, I’m here for you!

Category: Style, Writing  | 3 Comments
Shakes His Head Jun 13


Screenwriting is all about efficiency. Maximum impact with the minimum number of words.

So one of my biggest pet peeves is when I see the following in scripts:

She shakes her head no.

There are two big things wrong with that action line:

  1. Why is the word “no” there?! We already know she’s saying “no” because she’s shaking her head. If the audience can figure out what she’s indicating without her actually saying it, there’s no need to give the reader this extra piece of information.
  2. What’s a “head no”? Even though it’s completely unnecessary, if you’re going to explain what she means by shaking her head, at least put a comma between “head” and “no.” Or better yet, add quotation marks and capitalize the word: She shakes her head, “No.”

But really, this is all you need to write:

She shakes her head.

Similarly, if someone is nodding their agreement, there’s no need to write:

She nods her head, “Yes.”

Just write:

She nods her head.

Or even:

She nods.

The Importance of Active Verbs Dec 20

Dude, aren’t all verbs active?Are you using active verbs?

Good question, smartass!

The truth is, there are passive and active forms of verbs. The active form (without the “ing”) is almost always the best one to use.

For example, I often see a variation of the following sentence:

Jack is sitting at his desk.

It’s grammatically correct, but it’s passive. Consider this version:

Jack sits at his desk.

Now we have something that not only uses the more active tense but is also shorter (which you should know by now is a good thing in screenwriting).

So things are better, but “sits” doesn’t tell us a whole lot about what Jack is really doing or feeling. It’s something of a wasted verb, because if he’s at his desk, he’s obviously sitting.

What about?

Jack pores over his research at his desk. / Jack fumes at his desk. / Jack types frantically on his computer.

Get the idea? Much more descriptive and interesting.

It gets worse

I’ll often come across something like this sentence after a master scene heading.

Katy on the ship’s deck.

Now you’re not even trying. Sure, it tells us who we’re looking at and where she is (and it’s brief), but again, it doesn’t provide us with any action or context.

What about?

Katy grips the rail of the ship’s deck, eyes burning.

A seasick Katy slouches against a crate on the ship’s deck.

Katy scrutinizes her crew on the ship’s deck.

You get the idea. Don’t be lazy. Use a more descriptive verb, put us in the mindset of your character and make us feel something.

Note: In the first of the three sentences above, I actually use an “ing” form of the verb in the second half of the sentence. That’s perfectly acceptable.

Do you have any writing questions? Let me know!

Category: Style, Words, Writing  | Leave a Comment
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:




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:


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:


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?


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:




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:


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


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




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?

To Pre-lap or not to Pre-lap Jan 10

PRE-LAPWhat the heck is Pre-lap?

I had a good discussion with some of my screenwriting friends last week about using “PRE-LAP” in a script. Since many hadn’t heard the term before, I thought I’d cover it on my blog for those who may be unfamiliar with it.

John August has an excellent post on the subject, on which he succinctly defines pre-lapping as follows:

Pre-lapping is when dialogue begins before we’ve cut to the scene in which it’s spoken.

Here’s an example of how it might be used in a script:


Simon kisses his mistress goodnight. Looks her up and down as she sashays to her car.




Guilt written all over his face, Simon gapes at his wife.


You are totally cheating! You can’t look at all the questions first.

She hurls a plastic Trivial Pursuit pie piece at Simon’s head, revealing a board game being played with ANOTHER COUPLE. They all laugh.


I never get away with anything.

Is it safe?

Notice how the impact of the scene(s) is dependent on the pre-lap setup? In my opinion that’s the only safe time to use it. Safe, meaning that readers should understand why you used it.

Pre-lap gets a bad rap (some readers hate it) because many writers use it simply as a  stylistic choice that would be better left up to the editor of the movie.

For example, it may not be wise to use PRE-LAP for a line of dialogue spoken over a quick establishing shot, even though you see it all the time in movies and television. The editor makes that call.

In the above example, I could have used: WIFE (PRE-LAP) instead of WIFE’S VOICE (PRE-LAP). But using the latter approach is more immediately clear that we’re not seeing the character speak the line.

Here’s another example of how PRE-LAP might be used effectively:


THUNK!  A woman’s dead body crumples into a truck’s cargo bed.

Simon yanks a tarp over her. Climbs astride the body, holding a baseball bat. Strikes the limp figure, again and again...


The brutality of man...


A spectacled FEMALE HOST speaks to a packed house.


... Never before have we been given such a startling glimpse into the mind of a remorseless serial killer. It gives me great pleasure to welcome bestselling author Simon Janus to the stage.

Amidst thunderous applause, Simon strides to the podium, all smiles.

The main point I wanted to get across with the above example is how there was a juxtaposition of the action of the first scene with the dialogue of the second scene. It provides an ironic impact to the sequence.

Bottom line: If you’re going to use PRE-LAP, it has to provide an extra punch to the scene(s) that isn’t merely stylistic.

Some final thoughts

PRE-LAP is sometimes written PRELAP (without the hyphen).

Some people, like Christopher Riley in his book, The Hollywood Standard: The Complete and Authoritative Guide to Script Format and Style, advocate only using V.O. (Voice Over) and not using PRE-LAP at all. And this Wikipedia page uses O.S. (Off Screen) in conjunction with PRELAP.

In my opinion, using PRE-LAP, when appropriate, easily avoids the confusion associated with O.S. (So she’s there in the scene?), or V.O. (So she’s narrating?), and is intuitive enough that new readers unfamiliar with the term will get it.

As writers we’re taught to use the perfect word for the given situation. In these instances, I say PRE-LAP is it.

What do you think about PRE-LAP? Do you use it? Would you use it?

Want me to read your screenplay? Please take a look at my script services.

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Category: Formatting, Style  | 9 Comments