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.
July 8, 2011 / 2 Comments

Can You Describe the Problem?

First off, a bit of shameless self-promotion (because I haven’t done any in weeks now)…

Ex-Patriots, my third novel and the sequel to Ex-Heroes got a slightly early release this week from It’s coming out in paper/e-book format in September, but if any of you are impatient you can go grab it now. There’s also a bunch of videos for their ZombieFest promotion where a bunch of folks wrote in with questions for the authors of all the featured books. So if you’ve ever wondered just how goofy I sound in real life (or look, or act, or dress…) , here’s your big chance to find out.
And now, back to our previously scheduled pontification…
So, if you’ve been reading this pile of rants for a while, you know there was a point a few years back when I helped to run an online fantasy MUD. If you’re not familiar with the term, a MUD is a multi-user dungeon. Because the game is entirely text-dependent, it was a lot like writing or reading a story. In fact, it was a great tool for polishing your writing, because if you got too long-winded with your words people wouldn’t be able to read them—the description would just scroll up the screen and vanish as other things continued to happen. You had to describe things, but you couldn’t get bogged down in useless details. People would either ignore it or lose their forward momentum as they went back to read it.
One of the things staff members had to monitor was the descriptions players wrote up for their characters. We checked for basic spelling and grammar (“His dark hair compliments his thin lips” was a common phrase). We also checked to make sure the style and wording, by way of the game’s narrative nature, wasn’t forcing actions or reactions on other players (“This scarred man may be the most terrifying person you have ever seen, and the mere sight of him makes your stomach churn with fear.”)
Now, I told you all that so I could tell you this little story…
One day, a staffer called attention to the description of a new female character. Y’see, when the game was originally built the coders left some stuff at default settings, and one of those things was the range for the description string. It was ridiculously high, but no one had ever bothered to set it because… well, there were more important things to do. And, really, who would ever fill it, right?
Well, this player had figured out the high-end range and written a description that was yards and yards and yards of purple prose. On a rough guess, their character description was around five or six hundred words. Maybe more. When you accessed it, the first dozen or so lines automatically scrolled up and off the page because it was so long.
I’m sure some of you are already thinking of character sketches you’ve done that are far longer, but keep in mind, this is all just physical description. It isn’t personality quirks or dietary preferences or anything like that. By nature of the game, it’s not clothes or weapons or equipment, either.
Needless to say, we pointed out that it was excessively long and asked her to trim it. She refused. By her reasoning, since the buffer allowed such a long description, it had to be game-legal. And if people didn’t want to see it, they didn’t need to scroll back.
We pointed out that those first dozen lines contained all the gender and age information for the character. This wasn’t “optional” material, it was stuff other players needed to know.
Still, she refused.
Now, stepping away from my tale, let’s think about this for a moment. A writer is refusing to edit a description, while at the same time admitting most people are going to skim over it or ignore it altogether. Even when authorities on the topic are explaining why it doesn’t work, said author is steadfastly refusing to change.
Does this sound remotely like a writer who’s interested in having an audience?
A common problem for all writers is when description gets too excessive. We get caught up in giving all the details and nuances of this character or those rooms or that magnificent sword which seems to be stuck in a stone… a jagged, raw stone, although one could see hints of granite and shale and flecks of white quartz that gleamed like the teeth of ancient dragons, the likes of which the world had not seen in long millennia. So perhaps calling it “a” stone was a misnomer, for it seemed to have a rich ancestry and heritage written through its structure. This was, perhaps, several stones that had come together untold eons ago, perhaps even then sensing the greater purpose they would serve and the rough bed they would form for the sleeping blade. Or perhaps it was just a coincidence that the gleaming sword had found itself in this particular malformed mound of misshapen rock, and in truth any of the many stones scattered around this subterranean chamber could have been oh dear God I think I’m making myself sick.
As I was saying…
We go one and on and sometimes lose track of the fact that somebody’s going to have to read all this. And since most readers are more interested in the story, that active element of your writing, odds are they’re going to start skimming after the fourth or fifth flowery description which they’ve come to realize has no bearing on the story. At which point, any decent storyteller should question why they’re including stuff that people are just going to skim over.

Elmore Leonard famously said that when he writes he leaves out all the parts people would skip anyway. Alfred Hitchcock said drama is life with all the boring parts taken out. And I’ll tell you that a six hundred word description of how a character’s hair hangs over her ears is either wasting time or is going to bring things to a crashing halt.
As I’ve mentioned once or thrice before, this kind of overwriting is a deadly mistake in screenplays. Screenwriting is a very concise, minimal form of storytelling. One of the most common complaints I hear from professional readers is when the writer puts in piles of description that just doesn’t need to be there.
That, of course, leads to another issue with massive over-description. We all tend to form our own mental pictures of people and objects in stories. My lovely lady and I were chatting the other day about Lee Child’s character Jack Reacher and realized we both had very different ideas about what he looked like. That’s part of the joy of books. We can all have our own view of different characters like Taran Wanderer or Harry Bosch or St. George or Stu Redman. And nothing’s more distracting or disruptive than to be constantly reminded of all the many details the author’s putting in that don’t match up with that mental picture we’ve already formed.
Now, there’s another side to description, and that’s when writers never actually describe anything. Sometimes this is an attempt to invoke mystery or suspense (check out that dark figure across the street watching our main character). Other times it’s a way to evoke an emotional response with a clever metaphor or simile (when the knife sinks into your back and it’s like every painful sensation you’ve ever had in your life got balled up, hammered flat, and slipped beneath your shoulder blade).
And sometimes… well, sometimes it’s just a cheat. I can try to avoid the monster for as long as possible, which helps build suspense and dread, but eventually I need to say what it is. It’s not uncommon for a writer to try to find a way around an actual description at this point. After all, I’ve been hyping X for three-quarters of the manuscript now, and an honest description may not live up to all that hype.
I got to interview David Goyer (screenwriter of Blade, Batman Begins, and many others) a few years back. He’d just taken a turn in the director’s chair and I asked him if doing so had affected how he approached writing scripts. He laughed, admitted it had, and then told me a very funny story about working on a script with Guillermo del Toro. At one point, it seems, Goyer had “cheated” in the script and just described something as “a complete nightmare.” As they went through, del Toro pointed out this bit, shook his head, and said “What does that even mean? That’s boollshit.”
Which, Goyer admitted, it was. He’d dodged writing any sort of description because he knew it was something the director and art department guys would deal with. But he’d given them nothing to work with. Which was fine… until he was the director and under the gun to figure out what the hell it was that writer-Goyer couldn’t be bothered to put down on paper.
So, here’s an easy tip. It’s so easy I bet half of you will shake your head and ignore it. And some of you are probably already doing it without thinking about it.
If you’re going to describe something, have a reason to describe it. Thats’ it. Not only that, have a reason for the level of detail you’re using. A soldier in a war zone, a housewife, and a forensic examiner can all see a bullet hole in a person’s head, but they’re all going to treat it differently. And if it takes three or four paragraphs to explain what the housewife sees, where does that put the forensic examiner?
If you’re going to describe a person, have a reason for doing it. I’m betting nobody here can list off all the people they crossed paths with the last time they were pushing a cart through the grocery store. Oh, one or two might stand out in some small way, but let’s face it… there were probably close to a hundred. They just weren’t important in the long run. You can’t describe the police officer who gave you your last ticket, but you can probably give a lot of details about the last person you went out to dinner with.
Give descriptions the same weight you’d give characters or dialogue. Y’see, Timmy, if you waste them on the little things, they won’t have any strength when you get to the big things.
And then… well, then you’ve got nothing.
Next time, I’d like to ramble on about cooking school.
Until then, go write.