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Archive for the Category "Style"

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


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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.

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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.

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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.


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Discontinue CONT’D Dec 12

The Continuing Use of CONT’D

I’m still seeing a ton of people using “(CONT’D)” unnecessarily in their scripts, so it’s time for a quick rant post.

In years past, it was common to use “(CONT’D)” whenever a character’s dialogue was broken by action or scene description. For example:

FRAZZLED TEACHER

Who can tell me how many human blood types there are?

Dracula Jr. raises his hand.

FRAZZLED TEACHER (CONT’D)

Anyone else?

The “(CONT’D)” above is completely unnecessary these days.

The Hollywood StandardWhitespace is Good

Anytime you can eliminate something and gain more whitespace, that’s a good thing. It makes the script feel lighter and easier to read.

Many screenwriting programs will have the “(CONT’D)” enabled by default, so you’ll have to turn that option off. For example, in Final Draft, you would go to Document -> “Mores and Continueds…” Then deselect the “Automatic Character Continueds” option.

The Exceptions

It’s still important to leave the bottom of the page: “(MORE)” and the top of the page: “(CONT’D)” in place, wherever a dialogue block breaks onto the next page.

And if you’re writing a shooting script, you would still use CONTINUEDs for scene breaks across pages.

Also, this rule only applies to film writing. If you’re writing a spec script for a television show, be sure to follow the established guidelines (i.e. half hour television shows would still typically use “(CONT’D)”).

More Information

If you’d like to continue your investigation into “CONT’D” and its various uses, I highly recommend Christopher Riley’s book: The Hollywood Standard: The Complete and Authoritative Guide to Script Format and Style

In it, he goes so far as to say (in bold):

Marking continuing speeches is no longer standard practice in Hollywood and hasn’t been for at least 20 years.

That sounds pretty decisive.

Category: Formatting, Style  | 3 Comments
Cut the CUT TO: Dec 09

CUT TO: -- a pink unitardOften times, the trickiest part of screenwriting isn’t finishing your first draft — it’s paring the dang thing down to 115 pages or so! Every line becomes critical. It’s therefore key that we don’t use any superfluous transitions.

I’m lookin’ at you CUT TO: !

Transitions (directions for the visual movement between scenes), like CUT TO:/DISSOLVE TO:/etc., should be used infrequently (if ever) these days in your script.

Fair Use

You should only feel the need to use CUT TO: in instances where the movement from scene to scene does not follow a logical flow, and may cause confusion for the reader. One legitimate use would be if your script involves parallel action that takes place in separate locations.

Another legitimate use would be if you’re jumping around in time (where the action isn’t a FLASHBACK). I read a script recently where CUT TO: was used very effectively to jump between several couples being interviewed by the same psychiatrist over the course of a day.

Questionable Use

You’ll also see CUT TO: being used where the dialogue or action of one scene ends abruptly and transitions us to the next scene (indicating their connectedness) — often to humorous effect.

For example:

COOPER

It’ll be a cold day in hell before you’ll see me in that!

CUT TO:

INT. THEATER – NIGHT

Cooper, red-faced, squirms on center stage in a tight pink unitard.

It’s not technically incorrect to use CUT TO: in this way, however, in my opinion it’s unnecessary. The above scene would be just as comprehensible and would work just as well (or better?) without the CUT TO:

So if your script is running long, I say cut the CUT TO: in the above type of scenario (or better yet, don’t use it in the first place). You’ll save two lines. Carry that forward through your entire script and you may save a precious page or more.

What’s your take on CUT TO: ? For me, if it’s used too often, it just stands out like… a pink unitard.


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Category: Style, Transitions  | 5 Comments