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Archive for the Category "Writing"

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
Capitalizing God, Mom and Dad Jan 22

When do you capitalize god, mom and dad? 

When to capitalize God, Mom and DadBased on the frequency with which I encounter these capitalization mistakes while proofreading scripts, there seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding this question. Luckily, there’s a really easy trick to remember when to capitalize these words:

If the word is being used like a name, then it should be capitalized.

So let’s look at the sentence:
“Are you there, Mom?”

Now let’s substitute the name Karen:
“Are you there, Karen?”

The sentence still makes perfect sense, so “Mom” should be capitalized.

Now let’s try another:
“Some people believe there’s a god that lives in the clouds.”

Substituting Karen:
“Some people believe there’s a Karen that lives in the clouds.”

That doesn’t make sense, so “god” is not capitalized.

Even if, in the context of the story, you were referencing a supernatural being named Karen, you still wouldn’t have written the sentence that way. You would have written: “Some people believe that Karen lives in the clouds/Some people believe that God lives in the clouds” — now a perfectly legitimate capitalization.

The “a” preceding the word is a big tip-off not to capitalize. Here’s a full list of articles and pronouns to watch for (i.e. If mom/dad/god is preceded by any of these words, then it doesn’t need to be capitalized):

  • a
  • an
  • the
  • my
  • your
  • his
  • her
  • its
  • our
  • their

A final note: Many atheists believe that “god” should never be capitalized, while many religious folks believe that it should always be capitalized. Both are wrong. It depends on the context. It’s a grammar thing, not a religion thing.


Category: Writing  | Leave a Comment
Interruptions Revisited May 17

The Problem

In a previous post, I discussed the difference between using dashes (hyphens) and dots (ellipses) at the end of a sentence — a common source of confusion. Recently, I’ve discovered a new and erroneous trend with hyphens.

With increasing frequency, I’ll see a writer use hyphens to both indicate an interruption (at the end of a sentence) and also to start off the next speaker’s dialogue (at the beginning of the following sentence).

Let me show you what I’m talking about.


You never let me finish a single sent--


--That’s because you never have anything good to say!

Those two hyphens in front of “That’s” in the sentence above? Completely unnecessary. The two hyphens at the end of Peter’s sentence are all we need to indicate interrupted speech.

The Exception

The only time you’d use two hyphens to begin a character’s dialogue is when the second speaker is attempting to complete the first speaker’s sentence.

For example:


You never let me finish a single sent--


-- Sentence? Yeah, because I always know what you’re going to say.

In the above exchange, Peter’s dialogue could also have been written with the double hyphens coming after the word “single,” without the partial word “sent.”

Do you have any other hyphen-related questions or need me to proofread your script? Let me know!

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