September 15, 2011 / 4 Comments

Screenwriting 101

Okay, I’ve said many times that I don’t want to use this blog to go over the basics. If you’ve found your way here, I’d like to pretend that you’ve got a loose grasp of your chosen writing format. But after a few recent scripts I’ve seen, it’s apparent the basics aren’t as well-known or understood as they should be.

So, without further ado (because there’s a lot to go over), here’s a baker’s dozen of basics you should have down before you show your screenplay to someone. And especially before you submit it to someone.

1) Basic FormatScripts are always in single space Courier 12. Always. If you heard a story about a professional screenwriter who only works in Times Roman and turns in his or her work that way, I can tell you two things—that person’s already got the leeway you only get with a well-established career, and as soon as they handed the script in the whole thing was reformatted into Courier 12. It’s the industry standard for a number of reasons, including timing and scheduling. Every other department needs that script in Courier 12.
Ahhh, says clever wanna-be #7… but if they can convert it anyway, what difference does it make if I want to write in Times or Arial or Wingdings?
It doesn’t make any difference how I write it. But when I submit it to a contest, an agent, or a production company, it has to be in Courier 12. Because scripts are always in Courier 12. Always. And I’m trying to convince people that I’m a professional.
And another thing—you don’t use scene numbers in a spec script. That’s something that comes up much later during the actual pre-production for a film. They’re a tool for the assistant directors and department heads, not the screenwriter. Putting them in now will just get me tagged as an amateur.

2) Basic StyleAlways use third person, present tense. Always. The script is what’s happening on screen right now. Characters can have dialogue where they talk about things in past tense, but all my action blocks and descriptions must be in third person, present tense.
A screenplay that switches person or dips back and forth between past and present tense is always a good tip-off for readers that this is someone’s short story or novel they sloppily adapted into screenplay format. There’s also usually a reason no one bought their short story or novel, and it’s related to the fact that they didn’t bother to learn how to format a screenplay…

3) Don’t use archaic terminology – Forsooth, whenst thou uses scrivening of yesteryore, thy words appearst equally of yesteryore. And few and far between liest those who show interest in the dry, dusty bones of a mouldering anecdote.
Or, as we say today, no one’s interested in an old script.
It used to be common to end every scene with CUT TO or FADE, or to end every page with (CONTINUED). It also used to be common to see kids be-bopping to their transistor radios. In both cases, no one’s done that for years. When I started working in the film industry back in 1993, CUT TO was already dead. CONTINUED was on life support, and only crops up in very limited use, usually for ongoing dialogue.
If you’ve been using an old script from Casablanca, Star Wars, or Chinatown to learn this stuff–toss it. The film industry grows and changes like any other industry. If a script wasn’t written in the past ten years, it’s probably going to give you more bad habits than good ones.

4) Capitals — This really isn’t that tough. You use capitals the first time we see a character so the reader knows this is someone new. I’ll go into this a bit more in a minute.
You also use capitals when something important happens. When YAKKO IS SHOT or Dot’s exploring the cellar and finds A SEVERED HAND ON THE FLOOR. Keep in mind, though, that in this sense capitals are just like exclamation points. The more often I use them, the less power they have, and eventually they’ll tip the scale and just start frustrating or annoying the reader.
Also, none of this applies to dialogue. Again, for clarity, never apply the above rules to dialogue. If dialogue is in capitals it means someone is shouting, nothing else. There is no other way to interpret capitals in dialogue. So even if my step-sister has never been mentioned before, I don’t say “Have you met my step-sister CAROLYN?” I also don’t say “Hey, over there on the floor, is that A SEVERED HAND!?!!?
Well, okay, I might shout if I see a severed hand… Question is, am I supposed to be shouting?

5) Names — Again, whenever I introduce a character, I always put them in all caps, even in the action blocks. The very first time I see YAKKO WARNER I need to know he’s someone new. After that he’s just Yakko. For example…
Another man cut from the 50’s action cloth, ZACK “ZAP” MARSHALL is standing by another panel, a few feet down the wall from Lance’s. This one has three large buttons on it, marked “laser,” “missile,” and “x-ray”. Zap also wears a wide, high-tech belt buckle with a large button in the middle of it.
Ready, Zap?
Just give the command, Captain. I’m ready to blow it out of space.
Dialogue headers are always all caps and you never change dialogue headers for a character. Jack’s dialogue is always headed with JACK, Jill’s is always headed with JILL. The only time they would change is if the character has completely changed identities on screen.

For example, in Lord of the Rings when we find out the ranger Strider is actually Prince Aragorn. He’s STRIDER in headers until he’s revealed as ARAGORN in either the action block (because you’re introducing a new character) or dialogue. Then his next dialogue header should be STRIDER/ARAGORN. Use that double-header once, and then he’s ARAGORN from there on in.
6) Don’t Name every Character—In the abbreviated, concise format of a screenplay, names are an important tool. They tell the reader that this character is someone we need to pay attention to. They’re important enough to the story that they rate a name and not just a title like MAN #2 or WAITRESS or OFFICER.
Alas, some idiot somewhere started pushing the idea of naming everyone in a screenplay. The logic is that this gives more detail, nuance, or some such nonsense. Do not do this. If your screenplay is littered with extra names, I’m going to be tripping over myself trying to keep them straight because the logical assumption is that they need to be kept straight. You made the effort to name them, after all. So rather than focusing on the story, I’m trying to figure out how the guy at the bus stop and the waitress figure into it. That’s breaking the flow and it’s going to piss me off when I realize I wasted time and effort juggling twenty-seven names for no reason.
Never name someone just to give them a name. No one—not even the actor—is going to be upset with just MAN #2. A friend of mine has made a good career out of being MAN #2. Trust me, MAN #2 is going to make a nice chunk of money, even for just one day on set.

7) Actually Describe Things—A few years back I got to interview screenwriter-director David Goyer (The Dark Knight, Batman Begins, the Blade trilogy) and he told me a funny story about getting smacked down by Guillermo del Toro. It seems Goyer had described a character in a script as “a living nightmare.” del Toro looked at this and said “What does that even mean? That is boolshit!”
There is a time and a place for pretty, evocative imagery and language. That time and place is not while writing a screenplay. As I mentioned above, the script is about what’s on screen, which means it has to be something we can actually see. A reader needs to be able to visualize what’s on the page, and it’s very important that multiple readers visualize the same thing. I can tell you Kara is a dead ringer for my college girlfriend Penny, but that doesn’t mean a damned thing if you don’t know what Penny looked like. “It’s every bad dream you’ve ever had rolled into one” sounds fantastic, but it’s really hard to do concept sketches and storyboards off that.
During the interview, Goyer actually admitted this issue bit him in the ass when he was directing one of his own scripts. He’d given a vague, roundabout description of a sequence, but once he was on set he actually had to figure out how to film it—now he needed a real description. So the gears of production jammed up while Goyer and his assistant director tried to clear up the mess writer-Goyer had left them to deal with.
That leads nicely into…

8) Don’t write what we can’t see – A solid corollary to the last point. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen stuff like this in amateur screenplays.

Tight on a man sitting on the side of a bed. This is JOHN, a computer scientist who created a new type of parallel processor chip. He’s depressed because he found out his wife is cheating on him with his best friend. He’s moved out of the house and has been living in this hotel room in Boston for the past six weeks as he tries to figure out what to do with his life. He’s thinking about divorcing her, but part of him is still in love, despite the pain she’s caused him.
What’s wrong with that paragraph? Well except for the first sentence, how is the audience expected to know any of this? All we’re going to see is a guy sitting on a bed. Again, the script is what’s on screen. Not what’s in someone’s head on screen. That’s the stuff that comes out through dialogue, action, and maybe some clever set dressing or wardrobe choices. But definitely not in a block of exposition in the action blocks.

9) Don’t Over-Describe Characters—This sounds a little contrary to some of the stuff I’ve just said, but trust me–it isn’t. A bad habit some writers develop—especially prose writers—is to go mad with character description. Hair color, eye color, education, underwear preferences, etc… They take their entire character sketch and drop it into the screenplay.
You don’t go nuts describing characters in scripts for a few reasons. One is that you always want to be tight and lean in a screenplay. Two is, as I just said above, you don’t want to describe anything you can’t see. Three is the one none of us like to think about—there’s a good chance this character will change. I can spend half a page describing Angelina Jolie and then they decide to cast Kiera Knightly. It happens.

Just give enough description so the character stands out from any other character. Really, if you’ve got more that two sentences of character description you’ve got too much. Yeah, you may have tons more, but remember—the script is about right now. Everything else about your character will come out in the course of the story through their dialogue and actions. If it doesn’t, my problem is not that I only got two sentences of character description.

10) Don’t act – Okay, you know those little descriptions under the dialogue header, usually in parentheses? These are called parentheticals. Sometimes, as a joke, they’re called wrylies. It’s a quick set of instructions to the actor about how the line’s supposed to be delivered.

Actors hate parentheticals. They hate them the same way screenwriters hate development and producers who want you to add in a bit with a dog and a part for their girlfriend. It’s someone who has no idea how to do your job telling you how to do your job. Let’s look at a quick scene from one of my own scripts…
You did it!
Yeah, great shot, Zap!
All clear again, Captain.
Yes. But for how long?
What do you mean, Rex?
If it wasn’t for brave crewmen like Lance, Zap, Ted, and the rest of you, the galactispiders would make the starways far too dangerous.
Are those parentheticals really telling you anything useful? Most actors would be able to figure this stuff out just from context. So would any reader. Which, for the record, is why none of these parentheticals are actually in my script—I just added them for this example.
Y’see, Timmy, there are only two times to use a parenthetical. One is if it’s life or death important to the story that this line is delivered a certain way. If the whole film is going to fall apart if Yakko doesn’t whisper in this scene, then add a (whispered) to that line of dialogue. Two is if I think there’s a very real chance this line could be misunderstood, even with all the context and lines before it, and the resulting misreading will destroy the entire film.
If you’ve got a parenthetical in your screenplay, think long and hard about if it meets one of these two criteria. And then remove it. They’re the adverbs of screenwriting.

11) Don’t direct—Okay, remember what I just said about actors hating it when you tell them how to act? Directors loathe writers who fill up a script with directing notes. When I fill pages with stuff like “Dolly over to reveal” or “pan up to Dot’s face,” directors start shaking their heads and figuring out how they’re going to shoot it.
Like the parenthetical above, only put in direction if it’s life or death important to the film. If the story hinges on this being a crane shot, then put in—if the story really hinges on it. Me thinking this scene would be really cool with a crane does not make it a pivotal shot.

Plus, a lot of time adding direction honestly detracts from the story. Here’s a great example—how many of you have seen The Shawshank Redemption? The last time we see Andy walking to his cell, it’s pretty important that we don’t see his feet, right? Except if I point that out, readers are going to spend the next ten pages trying to figure out what’s so important about Andy’s feet and that’s going to override a lot of what’s going on now. If I hadn’t mentioned it, they wouldn’t’ve thought about it, but now it’s essentially a low-level spoiler in my own script that his shoes are going to be key. By the time the readers get to the flashback and figure it out, they’ll understand that when the movie is filmed we can’t see his feet at that point.
By the way, just to clarify—it doesn’t matter if I plan on directing the script myself. The script I submit to a contest, an agent, or a producer, has to be a script for anyone. If you’ve actually going to be the director, you’ll have plenty of time later to add that stuff. Plus you’ll have your own notebook and schedule. For now, all those things are just taking up space on the page.
12) VO vs. OC—Okay there’s a huge difference between voice-over and off-camera. This is one of those little things that can get me tagged instantly as an amateur if I get them wrong.

Voice-over (V.O.) is when someone’s talking that no one else can hear. Announcers and narrators are usually voice-over. Train of thought is voice-over. “Little did he know…” tends to be voice-over. Another good tip—I will never, ever see lips moving for a voice-over.
Now off-camera (OC) is when someone’s talking that other characters can hear but the audience can’t see. For example, if Yakko’s on his phone talking to Dot, and we hear her voice, she’s off-camera, not voice over. That old bit when everyone hears a voice, turns, and sees that Wakko’s come into the room—that’s off-camera.
I want to use OC carefully, because too much makes it look like I’m trying to direct again (see above). I’m not going to put it during an intercut phone call. I don’t use it when we know Dot’s on the other side of the room but we’re not seeing her at this moment.

13) Don’t use real celebrities as charactersThe last of our baker’s dozen. I’ve read screenplays where one character married Carmen Electra, another one where someone ended up on a cruise with Whoopi Goldberg, and a really, really creepy one about Matt Damon falling in love with a producer (who happened to have the same name as the screenwriter). Unless your movie is already in production and Zachary Levi happens to be your best friend in the world who would do anything for you, do not use his name in your screenplay.
Yeah, I’m sure some of you are already calling foul. After all, didn’t I litter Ex-Heroes and Ex-Patriots with mentions of celebrity zombies? Well, yes I did. But that’s the difference between a book and a screenplay—you can still read the book if Angelina Jolie, Alex Trebek, or Nathan Fillion don’t show up. Now if someone ever decides to make a movie… well, then there’ll be issues. Although I feel relatively safe saying Fillion would show up…
So, thirteen tips to a more coherent screenplay. I’m betting the majority of you knew most of them. But a few of you… well, now you know.
And knowing is half the battle.
Next week, I think I’ll steal another reader suggestion and show you some of my etchings
Until then, go write.

0 replies on “Screenwriting 101”

And, just for the record… don't use any of my script examples here as a guideline for anything. Blogger messed up the format. They're all indented and spaced wrong. If you understood they were supposed to be script excerpts, that's probably all I could ask…

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