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Archive for the Category "Style"

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.


Category: Style, Transitions  | 5 Comments
10 Rules For Using Parentheticals Nov 23

First, what are they?

Parentheticals, or actor/character directions, or “wrylies,” are those little descriptions that sometimes appear after a character’s name, in dialogue blocks, to spell out tone, intent or action.

In the poorly written example below (see Rule #1), the parentheticals are “(breathlessly)” and “(confused)”:

The Loyal Squire bursts through the door. Collapses on the ground. Pulls a bloodied envelope from his pocket.

LOYAL SQUIRE

(breathlessly)

I may not live... to see tomorrow my liege... But I die knowing... that I have served thee well.

KING

(confused)

I’m sorry. Who are you?

10 Rules for Using Parentheticals

1. Don’t use parentheticals when it’s redundant or obvious

It’s a common mistake to use parentheticals in places where the emotion or intent of the dialogue is already obvious (my example above, for instance).

Many actors dislike parentheticals — it’s their job to interpret the emotion, etc. of the scene based on the dialogue provided. So it’s very important to use them sparingly for emotional cues, and only when it would otherwise be unclear…

2. Use parentheticals to avoid confusion

Take the following dialogue, for example:

GRANNY

How did you like my stew? It’s an old family recipe.

BILL

I hated it.

That’s very different than the following (especially when developing a character):

GRANNY

How did you like my stew? It’s an old family recipe.

BILL

(sarcastically)

I hated it.

3. Don’t use parentheticals  to direct minor actions

Similar to Rule #1 (where you’re needlessly directing an actor’s emotions), it’s also a faux pas to overuse them for an actor’s actions.

Example of POOR usage:

DOUG

(index finger massages his right temple)

There must be a way out of here. We have to think.

ELANOR

(purses lips)

I can’t come up with anything.

DOUG

(scratching neck)

Have you tried opening the door?

ELANOR

(shaking head)

No, not yet.

Leave the decisions of those minor actions up to the actor. In the example above, all of the parentheticals should be removed.

Note: If your character has a specific quirk, that’s pivotal to your story, you have a bit more leeway in this regard. But even then, you may be better off including such mannerisms in a line of description.

4. Use parentheticals for quick, significant actions

Often times, you can save several lines by slipping quick and significant actions into the dialogue block. And since some execs only read the dialogue blocks of a script to save time, this practice can even provide some much-needed clarity.

Example of GOOD usage:

GARY

Son of a bitch. You got blood on my shirt!

(kicks the body)

And now my shoe!

5. Parentheticals should never come at the end of a dialogue block

Example of INCORRECT usage:

SCOTT

I told you not to disturb me!

(throws pen at the door)

If the action follows the dialogue, simply pull it out and make it a separate line of description:

SCOTT

I told you not to disturb me!

He throws his pen at the door. It rebounds. Hits him in the eye.

6. Don’t use parentheticals for the actions of a different character

While one actor is speaking, you can’t describe another actor’s actions.

Example of INCORRECT usage:

PETE

There are ninjas all over the place!

(Bruno steps to the window)

What are we gonna do, man?

Instead, you would use:

PETE

There are ninjas all over the place!

Bruno steps to the window. Stares bug-eyed.

PETE

What are we gonna do, man?!

7. Don’t use parentheticals for sounds or camera directions

Example of INCORRECT usage:

FRED

(WIND HOWLS)

We need to get to that house on the hill!

SHAGGY

(steps INTO FRAME)

Like, you mean that creepy one everyone said was haunted?!

Instead you would write something like:

The WIND HOWLS. Whips at the group’s hair and clothes.

FRED

We need to get to that house on the hill!

SHAGGY

Like, you mean that creepy one everyone said was haunted?!

I left out the “steps INTO FRAME” part. Don’t specify camera directions (in your spec script) unless they’re critical to the comprehension of your scene. Leave that up to the director. (See The 5 key differences between spec and shooting scripts)

8. Don’t capitalize the first letter of parentheticals

Example or INCORRECT usage:

BRAD

(Gritting his teeth)

I couldn’t be happier.

Example of CORRECT usage:

BRAD

(gritting his teeth)

I couldn’t be happier.

9. Use correct punctuation in parentheticals

In those rare cases where you need to specify multiple actions in your parenthetical, don’t use periods, dashes or ellipses.

Example of INCORRECT usage:

WOLFGANG

(looks up from clipboard... smiles -- waves them through with gun.)

Don’t worry. I will not waste my time with you.

First of all, that’s a lot to put in the parenthetical. The first two parts, if not all the parts, should probably have been written as scene description. But for purposes of this exercise, semi-colons are the answer…

Example of CORRECT usage:

WOLFGANG

(looks up from clipboard; smiles; waves them through with gun)

Don’t worry. I will not waste my time with you.

10. Don’t use a pronoun to start the parenthetical

Example of INCORRECT usage:

DAVE

(he winks at Betty)

Sure, Sarah, I’ve always thought you were the prettiest.

Instead, you would simply write:

DAVE

(winks at Betty)

Sure, Sarah, I’ve always thought you were the prettiest.

For an expanded investigation of the correct way to use parentheticals, I highly recommend the following Amazon books:

5 Key Differences Between Spec and Shooting Scripts Nov 20

Shooting ScriptSome Definitions

A spec script is a screenplay that’s written “on speculation.” That is, you, the screenwriter, write the script without any development contract or promise of payment in place, in the hopes of getting it optioned, sold, or gaining representation by an agent. It’s how most screenwriters break into the industry.

But the spec script will undergo many changes between the time it’s first optioned or sold, and the time shooting begins for the movie. That leads us to…

A shooting script — a script that has been vetted, changed, rewritten and is now being used as the blueprint for filming the movie. It’s a different animal than the original spec, in a few fundamental ways.

It’s important to know the difference

Often times screenwriters pick up bad habits from reading shooting scripts available online.

It’s therefore very important, if you’re a new screenwriter submitting a spec script for review, that you understand the differences between the two formats.

Five Key Differences Between Spec and Shooting Scripts

1. The Title Page

A spec script should have the title of the movie, “written by,” the author or author’s names, and some contact information (for author or agent). WGA notification is optional.

A shooting script may have, in addition to the above, multiple subsequent writers, studio or producer contact information, draft or revision dates, and copyright notices. So stay away from these things in your spec.

If you don’t know how to correctly format your title page (or script), or even if you think you do, I highly recommend this book:

The Hollywood Standard: The Complete and Authoritative Guide to Script Format and Style by Christopher Riley

You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

2. Scene Numbers

Spec scripts should not have scene numbers.

So if you’re using them as some sort of cool tool to gauge the length of your script, while writing it, make sure you remove them before submitting your script to anyone.

3. Title Sequences

Spec scripts should avoid any reference to opening credits or title sequences. Screenwriters should just focus on crafting the best opening scene they can. Even if you think your concept for opening titles is wicked brilliant, it may brand you as an amateur if you incorporate such a sequence into your spec1.

Shooting scripts can contain title sequences (or at least reference their location) because at that point, the script is finalized and typically the Director knows how everything is going to play out. The guys that look after the title sequences for films are masters of their craft. They won’t be left floundering if you don’t “leave a spot” for the opening titles in your screenplay.

4. Camera Direction

In spec scripts it’s never a good idea to include camera directions (PAN, DOLLY, TILT UP, ZOOM IN ON, CRANE UP, etc.). It’s the Director’s job to interpret your screenplay and come up with their own shots.

It is okay, however, to craft a scene that implies the camera direction — that directs the mind’s-eye of the reader. Just don’t specify a camera shot in your spec, unless it’s absolutely integral to your vision and pivotal to your movie.

Example:

CAMERA TRACKS Bella as she plummets toward the raging ocean.

Instead, write:

Bella plummets toward the raging ocean.

The Director will get it, without your telling him how to film it.

5. The Writing Craft

Often times the shooting script will not be as well written as the spec script. The very nature of breaking scenes up into specific shots can often compromise the writing quality of the original script. Having already been sold on the movie’s merits, scenes may be written, or rewritten for functionality over form, speed over eloquence. Typos may even sneak in.

But that doesn’t mean that the original spec script wasn’t a flawless work of art. It’s not okay to point to errors or poor writing in shooting scripts and say, “Well, if they did that in their script, I can do it in mine.” No can’t. You still have to sell your screenplay.

Also keep in mind that Screenwriter/Directors sometimes write screenplays for themselves. In these cases they tend to include more camera direction and different language — even in “spec scripts” — than they would normally have used.

Bottom Line

Always make your spec script the best it can be. Thank goodness we live in an age where a multitude of scripts are available to us with the click of a mouse, to learn from. Just be wary of picking up bad habits from shooting scripts.

If you can choose between versions of scripts online, take a look at the earlier versions as well. They may be truer to the original spec.


  1. It’s perfectly acceptable, however, to craft a scene that lends itself to opening titles — such as establishing the location and tone of your opening
Category: Style  | 15 Comments
Reaction shots for maximum humor Nov 17

Sally's big mOmentThere’s a real joy that comes with learning an inside trick of the trade. In film school, one of the first such screenwriting secrets I remember learning was that funny things are made ten times funnier by showing reactions to them — reaction shots1.

Show me the funny

Think about your favorite comedy movie and what made you laugh the hardest. Was it a funny event — or someone’s reaction to that event?

Let’s take the famous diner scene from When Harry Met Sally. Is Sally’s (Meg Ryan’s) fake orgasm funny on its own? Maybe a little, but it’s more funny watching Harry (Billy Crystal) squirm uncomfortably. And it’s the funniest when the patron in the diner reacts with the line, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

Remember Superbad when Fogell gets his new ID and McLovin is born? The name McLovin itself is sorta funny, but it’s the characters’ reactions when they learn about the name that really make it hilarious.

EVAN

McLovin? What kind of a stupid name is that, Fogell? What, are you trying to be an Irish R and B singer?

Reaction shots are even more important when there’s no dialogue and there’s just a sight gag.

Do you recall that hilarious scene in There’s Something About Mary, where Healy (Matt Dillon) is spying on Mary (Cameron Diaz) with binoculars? The audience laughter doesn’t come when he accidentally sees her saggy and wrinkly old roommate’s boobs — it comes when we see Healy cringe in horror.

So remember to include reaction shots in your script. It may make the difference between kinda funny and laugh out loud hysterical.


  1. Now when I say reaction “shots,” I don’t mean you should specify a camera direction (that’s a topic of conversation for another time). I’m just talking about describing a character’s reaction — either a visual reaction or a verbal one.
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Category: Humor, Scenes, Style  | Leave a Comment