Subscribe to feed via email:
Subscribe RSS

Archive for the Category "Style"

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?

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:

EXT. PARKING LOT – NIGHT

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

WIFE’S VOICE (PRE-LAP)

Cheater!

INT. SIMON’S HOUSE – NIGHT

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

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.

SIMON

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:

EXT. FOREST – NIGHT

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...

FEMALE HOST’S VOICE (PRE-LAP)

The brutality of man...

INT. UNIVERSITY AMPHITHEATER – DAY

A spectacled FEMALE HOST speaks to a packed house.

FEMALE HOST

... 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.

Category: Formatting, Style  | 9 Comments
Be Like Donna Apr 13

Short And SweetShort And Sweet

I’m fortunate enough to have two friends named Donna. Curiously, they both share a trait: they get straight to the point — no padded sentences or beating around the bush.

I love it. You always know where you stand and it saves a ton of time. As screenwriters we should follow their lead — especially when it comes to scene description.

Keep It Simple

Donna #1 (we’ve known each other since we were 5) used to work with me at a municipal hall.  She was a switchboard operator/receptionist, and I was always amazed at her talent for offering concise directions to the public.

One day I filled in for her at the front desk. People routinely asked, “Where do I pay my water bill?”

Trying to be as helpful as I could, I responded with something like:

“Head towards those glass doors. Once you go through, cross to the staircase. Walk down the stairs, and when you reach the bottom, turn to your right. Look for the sign that says, ‘Finance Department.’ Go to that counter and someone will help you.”

When Donna came back, I was curious to see how she handled that same question. The response she used was:

“Through those doors, down the stairs, on your right.”

Bam. So much shorter, and so much easier to grasp.

What About Making It Enjoyable?

Trust me, when you’re reading tons of scripts, brevity = enjoyment.

Script readers, like those people paying their water bill, want to know just enough information to get them from point A to point B. Don’t overdo it with micro-description and extraneous detail. In a screenplay, it will weigh your story and audience down.

Throw in just enough creative flare to accentuate the genre of your script in a unique way, then move on.

Keep it short and sweet. Be like Donna.


Related Post:

Seven ways to ensure your scenes are lean and mean


Want me to personally read your script and let you know if it’s ready to go out? Please take a look at my professional script services.

Category: Scenes, Style, Writing  | Leave a Comment
Sunday Pop Quiz Dec 28

Sunday Pop Quiz

There are at least seven ways to improve the following short script excerpt. Can you find them all?

INT. PATRICIA’S HOUSE – UPSTAIRS – BEDROOM – DAY

Patricia is sitting at her computer. She looks at her monitor, then angrily KNOCKS on it.

PATRICIA

Come on you damn poltergiests! I know you’re in there!

Wow, that was hard to write that junk! When you’re ready, scroll down for the answers.

*

*

*

*

*

*

1. The Slug Line

The structure was correct (starting with the general and moving towards the specific), but it’s even better to keep scene headers as brief as possible, while still maintaining clarity. Simply write it as follows:

INT. PATRICIA’S BEDROOM – DAY

Depending on how you’ve framed the scene sequence, or other locations in your script, you could also use:

INT. PATRICIA’S HOUSE – BEDROOM – DAY

You would only include the “UPSTAIRS” if Patricia had another bedroom elsewhere in the house. Even then you would probably be better off using: “INT. PATRICIA’S UPSTAIRS BEDROOM – DAY”

2. Don’t use the passive form of a verb (i.e. “is sitting”)

I covered the basics of this rule in a previous article. So is the following correct?

Patricia sits at her computer.

Well yes, and no. There’s more to the story…

3. Try to avoid using the verb “sits”

Usually you can eliminate this verb. If an individual is at a computer or diner or table or desk or chair, etc. — it’s understood that they are sitting. Give us a more qualitative verb or even combine some of the ideas.

That leads us to…

4. Try to avoid using the verb “looks”

There are certain verbs that are just lazy (looks, walks, gets… please see my previous article). They give us no insight into Patricia’s state of mind and lack a descriptive punch. See if you can come up with something better.

Taking the above points into consideration we would be left with something like this for the first part of the description:

Patricia gawks at her computer monitor.

5. Try to avoid using adverbs — just come up with a better verb

Sometimes there’s no getting around using adverbs, but usually there’s a stronger verb just waiting to be utilized. “Angrily KNOCKS” — yuck! Just use a verb like: “pounds.”

Before we tidy up the description, we need to take a look at the next point…

6. Don’t capitalize sounds if they’re made by actors on screen

In a spec script, it’s debatable whether or not you even need to capitalize sounds at all. But if you do, you wouldn’t capitalize a sound that the actor produces on-screen through their live interaction with the environment.

So an improvement to the description would be:

Patricia gawks at her computer monitor. Pounds on the screen.

Note: I’ve taken out the “then” from the original line, but it was a stylistic choice. Sometimes using the word “then” can help delineate two actions that occur at different times.

7. Spelling!

Did you catch it? The word “poltergeist” was misspelled. Don’t forget to spell check your work!

Here’s the updated script excerpt:

INT. PATRICIA’S BEDROOM – DAY

Patricia gawks at her computer monitor. Pounds on the screen.

PATRICIA

Come on you damn poltergeists! I know you’re in there!

How did you do? Any other obvious things I missed?

It’s amazing how many problems can exist in such a small section of script. Make sure you don’t make the same mistakes.


Category: Style  | Leave a Comment
Are your slug lines naked? Dec 23

What’s a slug line?

It’s another way of saying “shot heading” or “scene heading.”

What’s a naked slug line?

A naked slug line is a scene heading that has no direction below it — only dialogue. It’s considered bad form to jump directly into dialogue without first setting the scene.

There’s no minimum number of words that you must use for your scene description, but there should always be something written.

******

Here’s an example of BAD form:

INT. BRANDINE’S ICE CREAM SHACK – NIGHT

BRANDINE

What can I git fer you fellers?

And here’s an example of GOOD form:

INT. BRANDINE’S ICE CREAM SHACK – NIGHT

Two wide-eyed boys approach the counter.

BRANDINE

What can I git fer you fellers?

Quite often the temptation to use a naked slug line will spring up in the following situations:

  • When you’re jumping back and forth between quick action scenes that you’ve already established
  • When you’re using secondary scene headings
  • When you want to connect the dialogue from the previous scene to the dialogue of the new scene

In all these cases, resist the temptation to omit the scene description. Just throw in a few words. It’s proper form and won’t leave your slug lines looking so exposed.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Category: Style  | Leave a Comment