Monday, October 20, 2008

Screenwriting: Formatting (Part 1)

There are two levels at which a script varies, "spec" and "industry". Speculation scripts (or spec scripts as we call them) are those in which are written by writers who are hoping to get their work into the hands of someone within the industry. They may be newly represented, or have no representation at all so, until their script is optioned, it is a spec script.

Obviously, a writer who is employed by a production company who writes on assignment, or a writer who has already built a name for themselves within the industry will be writing the latter of the two. At that point, they're not considered 'unknowns' or 'amatuers'. They'll also be allowed to use formatting rules a little more loosely, and because of this, you will see some variation from time to time. Bottom line is, though, there are formatting rules for everyone, and you need to know them.

The big difference between the two, besides the obvious fact that the big names will be more willing to see one than the other, is formatting. For a spec script, formatting needs to be tight, precise and correct at all times. (You've got to show them that you know what you're doing!)

There are so many stages that a script goes through that at some point, different rules will apply and my advice in this installment of Screenwriting 101 probably won't be worth a bucket of beans. Beans are good though, don't get me wrong. Point being; if you're already a pro, you won't be taking notes on my blog, but if you're an aspiring writer, I may just be able to help you, so we're only focusing on what the aspiring writer needs to know about formatting.

Let's get the beginners advice out of the way, first and foremost. The first thing that ANY new screenwriter needs to know is that if you write one script, DO NOT try to sell it. Big round of applause for you if you've completed your first one and you feel good about it, BUT, this doesn't mean that you're ready to go headlong into the pursuit of an industry that doesn't need or want any new writers. You've gotta know your stuff inside and out, you've got to have experience, and you've got to have more than one script. Period.

Why? I once heard an industry professional use an analogy that put it all into perspective, so I'm going to borrow it from him. If you want to be a painter, and you start painting, you can't expect an art enthusiast to purchase your very first painting for thousands of dollars. If you've ever tried painting, you know that it takes a great deal of skill and you only grow better with experience. So, more than likely, that first painting that you produce isn't going to be worth anything to anyone but you and possibly your mother. So, give it to her.

I promise you that from the time you finish your first screenplay until the time you finish your third, fourth, fifth, or even twelfth, you will look back on that first script (or third, or tenth) and think "This is wrong, that could be better, here's a plot hole...." Trust me, you don't want to waste time and emotion on trying to market something that no one will ever buy. Not even Troma.

So, that's the first piece of advice. What's the next piece? Well, you should do massive amounts of research and studying. Visit sites like Simply Scripts and Script-O-Rama and read as many screenplays as you can. Become familiar with the feel and the construction of the various types and styles that each different writer has used.

If you remember a little something about this from a film school that you attended and/or graduated from, great! However, I know A LOT of film school grads that come out knowing ZILCH about industry standard screenwriting or even how to pursue their film industry dreams. This, of course, isn't always the case. Look, all's I'm sayin' is do some independent research!

So to film school kids or not, to people like me who have dedicated years to learning, studying, networking with industry people, or anyone who just has the desire to write a film, the biggest piece of advice that anyone can give to you is to listen, learn, allow constructive (and not so constructive) criticism. Be willing to learn. No matter how good you're doing, keep in mind that you've still got a lot to learn. Hey, we all do.

Now, formatting is tricky, but even with the most complicated format needs, you'll become better suited to use your own good judgement in presenting a unique scene or idea in your script once you have a great deal of experience. All I want to cover today is basic formatting, so maybe we'll get to those trickier parts sometime later. For now, its all about The Big Four, as I'm calling them... because I'm a nerd.

The Big Four
There are four elements to master in basic screenplay formatting:

1. SCENE HEADINGS (aka Sluglines)
3. CHARACTER NAMES (aka Dialogue Header)
1. Scene Headings (sluglines)
A scene heading is what appears at the beginning of each new scene. A scene heading should include mention of and interior or exterior environment, the place/setting of the scene, and the time that the scene takes place.
A.) INT. / EXT. (Interior / Exterior) is for technical use. (Yeah, it's part of the story, but as I mentioned in an earlier installment of Screenwriting 101, screenplays are more like an instruction manual. The story is what comes later in movie form.) It's used by production crews who work on the production of the film, and it tells them if the scene will be inside or outside. Simple, right?
B.) The location designates where the scene takes place. Keep these short, you don't want a two line slugline, and you don't want things to get confusing or sloppy. Keep in mind, these only tell the production crew which sound stage or set to put the rest of the crew on when the filming date come around. You don't have to make it poetic, just keep it simple.
C.) Crews need to know what time of the day the scene needs to be filmed in. Shooting schedules are a big deal, and if they're following a slugline that reads EXT. CAFE - MORNING, they may just need to know when to reserve a cafe so that this scene can be filmed according to the story's needs.
You'll want to keep this as short as "DAY" or "NIGHT", "EVENING", "MORNING", etc, so in an instance where the state of your story hinges on a clock, how do you approach it? If in the event that Little Suzie needs to be at the olympic tryouts at 8:00 AM sharp, and her punctuality-challenged mother is rushing her in the building at one minute til, you'll need to incorporate that into your Scene Action so that it, in some way, can be communicated to your viewing audience.
Other Things You Should Know About Sluglines
-Scene Headings/ Sluglines are always ALL CAPS. You'll use spaces and hyphens to separate the int./ext., the location and the time, just as in the examples above.
-A new scene occurs each and every time the time/location changes in your story.
-Once in a while, you'll need to use SUBLOCATIONS.
-You can also include FLASHBACK or MEMORY or PREMONITION as your time in a slugline.
This is the block(s) of text found right under the slugline. It contains character introduction (on first appearance only), character actions, important enviromental elements (couch, tv, large window for the killer to peep through, etc). In Scene Action, you MUST keep lean writing, as discussed in my second installment, at numero uno on your priority list. This "instruction manual" should not read like a novel, kids! Remember, Screenplay= Instructions to creating a story on film.

So, you want the screenplay to read easily, to not be cluttered and to look profession as well as being professional. You're going to use your S.A. to describe what is happening on screen, which characters are in the scene or will come into the scene, and what is going on around them in between bits of dialogue.

Example of Scene Action (with a slugline):


MAUDE, 92, knitting a doily while sharing the couch with fifteen cats,
watches the evening news. Staring at the tv, she POKES herself with the knitting

Screaming and gushing blood, she LEAPS from the couch, disturbing many
sleeping cats and heads for the bathroom.

She rushes back out with a toilet paper- covered hand.

Other Things You Need To Know About Scene Action
-Make sure to keep it in present tense.
-Only mention detail (clothing, house layout, hairstyles, etc) if this plays some role in the storyline through the dialogue.
-Try to keep your text in blocks of less than four. Break up the text by imagining/using your own judgement to render the breaks in each shot. See above example.
-Notice in the above example, some words in the Scene Action are CAPPED. This is to bring emphasis to certain actions. Don't over use them, just use them when you feel it's an absolute necessity. It's not complicated, in fact, it's THAT simple.

3. CHARACTER NAME (dialogue header)
The names of your characters will be used frequently thoughout your script, be it in Scene Action or as the Dialogue Header. When used as the Dialogue Header, it should always be CAPPED. Even minor characters require this formatting, whether they have a name or just a "man in striped socks" or "police officer #2" kind of reference.

Your Dialogue Header/Character Name must also be placed in CENTER, with CAPS, and it has to be ABOVE the dialogue... not to the side or slightly somewhere near it.

**Now, unfortunately, I can't really give you precise format examples because this is a blog word processor, it's not screenwriting format software. I'll get to the software issues later, but keep in mind, you're going to need one to ensure that everything in your script is where it needs to be.

Ok, you should know what dialogue is, but did you know that it has to be block form indented and directly underneath your Dialogue Header?

Again, showing you format won't be exactly correct because I'm presenting it via this blog, but let's give a crude example:


MAUDE, 92, knitting a doily while sharing the couch with fifteen cats, watches the evening news.

Staring at the tv, she POKES herself with the knitting needle.

Screaming and gushing blood, she LEAPS from the couch, disturbing many sleeping cats and heads for the bathroom.

She rushes back out with a toilet paper- covered hand.

Oh Lordy! I've cut myself good
this time!

Other Things You Should Know About Dialogue
-Single space your dialogue, follow standard writing rules.
-Do not use quotations around your dialogue unless the character is quoting someone.
-Know how to use Parentheticals before you slap them on the page. (I'll cover this in Formatting II.) This will include correct usage of (V.O.) and (O.S.).

As a final piece of information, proper formatting CAN be achieved without a formatting program. Though, it's really tough and time consuming, and in this day and age, you shouldn't have to be toiling away in front of a sixty year old type writer, wasting precious time, when all you have to do is get yourself a good computer program that will instantly format everything for you.

Many writers will tell you that Final Draft, or even Movie Magic, is the only way to go, but I disagree. These programs are expensive and sometimes hard to obtain for a aspiring screenwriter, and with so many freeware programs out there, like Cynergy and Celtx, there's no reason to be without a good application to help take care of the really technical stuff so that you can focus on creating a great story.

Personally, I would suggest Celtx. I use it and I love it. I've used several programs, and considering that this program is freeware, comes with instant access to a great online community for the writer, and has such a widespread variety of tools and helpful applications, I honestly believe it to be the best program out there. You should give it a try, if you're looking for a good screenwriting program.

So, there it is; the basics of screenwriting. I'm planning to do a second part to formatting, and I plan to get into the really complicated stuff later on.

For now, I hope this helps and I hope that you'll take the time to educate yourself on all of the knowlege that lies between the lines and in the gray areas. Just go read some scripts! You'll catch on.

Until next time!...

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Just A Quick Update

I know, I've neglected to post the next installment of my Scriptwriting 101, but for good reason.

I'm not intentionally ignoring the responsibility, it's just that I have been outrageously busy. I'm trying to get my screenplay "Trip To Euphoria" finished up, and it's taking a lot of time because I have to do so much research. I'm nearly half way through it, at the moment, and I know that doesn't sound like much, but considering the amount of strategic mapping and location and drug research that I've had to do, I think I'm making some good progress. Most importantly, I think this script is really good. I can honestly and proudly say that I believe it to be industry worthy, and it hasn't even went past first draft stage, yet.

So, I'm pounding away at this keyboard, day after day, working hard on this project, and I haven't been able to sit down and get that next Screenwriting blog finished. Yesterday, I worked about nine hours on TTE, and by the time I came in, I was so mentally exhausted that I couldn't even concentrate on my netflix movie.

It was a bad movie, though.

At any rate, this week is also picture week for the tax folks in Texas, so I'll be out there doin' some crazy photo shooting for, probably, the rest of the week. Maybe more, who knows?

If I have any secret readers out there that I don't know about, (to my knowlege, I don't have readers so you're all secret, really), then please check back soon, and I'll try to get the Formatting post up before the end of the weekend.

Until next time....

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Screenwriting: Lean Writing

Yesterday I covered character introductions; what works, what doesn't work and why. As promised, today I plan to cover the "Too Wordy, Too Long" issue that so many writers meet right off the bat when trying to lasso that elusive unicorn that is screenplay writing.

Keeping Your Writing Lean & To The Point
Nearly everything you'll learn about screenwriting will be something essential. There's nearly no piece of screenwriting knowlege that is less important or less vital than another piece. It's all very crucial. It's so crucial that every single mark you make on the page must be there for some very specific reason.

Don't let that scare you. You can do it. It just takes a lot of practice, a lot of studying and a lot of concentration.

We keep our screenplays lean for various reasons. One of the most predominant reasons being that scripts must be a certain length. A spec script (those of which are written by unrepresented writers who are trying to break into the industry) needs to be between ninety to one hundred ten pages. I think one hundred twenty is max, but just try to keep it between aforementioned brackets.

So what is 'lean writing' and how do we achieve it? The best way to put it into perspective is by saying that what novelists do is the exact opposite. While an author who writes a novel must elaborate and embellish their work to the fullest because of the format it is presented in, (novels work off of our personal imaginations with throrough descriptions for sights, smells, feelings, etc) a screenwriter must used condensed to-the-point style descriptions so that they may be interpreted by a director so that it may be filmed.

In a way, screenplays are not completely unlike instruction manuals. They dictate the technical formula for the story to the production crew who takes on the project. They don't tell the reader how the character feels, or how a the characters perceive the story around them; they express it through the persona of that character, reactions, their situations and choices.

So let's get right into some examples.

Example A:
Molly walks cautiously into the theatre. She feels threatened and
alone, scared, but is forcing bravery. She looks all around her,
searching for Trevor, knowing that he is hiding from her.
From the darkness, Trevor is watching, waiting for her.
He has a vengence and he plans to kill Molly. He's wearing the
same black trench coat that he wore when he killed David and
Sally, so it's obvious that he's planning to kill Molly as well.

ERRR. Wrong. So what's wrong with it?

1. "Molly walks cautiously into the theatre"
This is ok, saying that her walk is a cautious one. Why? Because we can detect a cautious walk when we see one. So, this sentence is go because it can be filmed.
2. "She feels threatened and alone, scared, but is forcing bravery"
Here's where it gets off track. Don't tell your reader how the character feels. Normal movie goers don't read the script when they're interested in a movie. The go to the theatre, or they rent or buy the dvd/vhs/etc. The readers of a script will be the people who are on the crew that will bring the story to life. So, a director does not need you to tell him how that character is feeling because he should already be able to imagine it. An actress surely doesn't need someone telling her how to portray her character (they get a little egotistical about this, as they should-- the acting part is their craft). And, a producer is the last person you want to tell "Molly feels scared" because that's going to scare him-- into thinking that you're an amature and have no idea how to write a good script.
3."She looks all around her, searching for Trevor, knowing that he is hiding from her."
Again, don't tell us what she thinks or knows.
4."From the darkness, Trevor is watching, waiting for her. He has a vengence and he plans to kill Molly."
This is not a novel. Don't give us a play by play of what should already be somewhere further down the page. You're not trying to build suspense... or you shouldn't be, anyway.
5."He's wearing the same black trench coat that he wore when he killed David and Sally, so it's obvious that he's planning to kill Molly as well."
Now, as far as describing what a character is wearing, if you read yesterday's installment, you might already know that physical descriptions of characters aren't always needed (there are exceptions... I'll go over that again).

By this point, you should have a good understanding of what is wrong with the example shot info. Let's try fixing it up, the right way.

Example B:

Molly enters the theatre with caution. She quickly scans her surroundings.
Above, Trevor stalks her from a dark alcove, waiting to strike.
Alright! Condensed like concentrated orange juice-- just the vital elements. And, look how much space you saved! This is KEY.
By using the above, you've managed to cut seven lines from your script (which would only represent a couple of seconds on the screen) back to TWO. Anyone, screenwriter, novel writer, or even an english teacher should be able to see why this example is correct and why the previous one is wrong based on these comparisons. It's just that simple.
As for what "Trevor" was wearing, (his special trench coat fer killin') it wouldn't be completely wrong to work this in at some point, if it is absolutely essential to some aspect of the plot. If not, then it should be left to the director to decide that "Trevor" has a certain signature look for his rampages.
There's always an exception to the rule, but for the rules of screenplay, you'll have to do a lot of learning in order to make a call on what rule exceptions are and which ones are ok. I might discuss that in a later installment.
I hope you'll check out the next installment, as I'm going to be talking about formatting basics and requirements.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Screenwriting: Getting Started & Character Introductions

Helping n00b writers is sort of a vow that I took.

I remember a time when I was completely in the dark about scripts, and no matter how many script sites I visted or how many produced/shooting scripts I read, I still didn't get it. The technical aspects of a screenplay are demanding and complex, and to a writer who is recently taking on the lexicon of creative writing tasks, (screenplays, of course), it can be simply mind boggling/nerve wrecking.

I've always said that I wanted to make this blog a helpful one, like those blogs that I love so much and have helped me greatly-- Two Adverbs and Nathan Bransford, (Nathan is amazing! Check him out..) just to name a couple. Today, I'm going to embark on that and hope to make it an all - of - the - time thing.

Getting Started
To me, the first thing needed to begin is writing experience. Listen to me, if you don't have any previous writing experience, it's just not going to work out.

Sure, you might say that some of the big Hollywood players didn't have any experience and just jumped into screenwriting and ended up making it big. Truthfully, I can't think of one who didn't have some kind of writing background, and atop that, if they did just 'jump in', then they were just born to make great films. Period. Those folks ain't a dime a dozen, k?

Character Introductions
One of the key essentials in writing a, marketable, screenplay is character introduction. These are big make or breakers. Let's have a couple of example exerpts and you tell me which is the good one, which is the bad one.

A.) Angela- twenty something. Thin, petite. Looks innocence. Long auburn hair. Denim shorts, neat t-shirt with cute logo. Hair neat in pony tail or plait.

B.) BARBARA has a kind of wholesome beauty that is mellowing well, as she approaches middle age. There's a hint of unfulfillment in BARBARA that gives her a little more of an edge than ADAM.

Now, a lot of writers, agency readers, and prodco interns will be quick to tell you what is wrong, but never kind enough to tell you why it's wrong. For the most elusive part of script writing, I'm going to attempt to break down the inner workings (and the do's and don'ts) of character introduction in a screenplay.

Choice A, above, is very wrong. Aside from the tip off that might be obvious to some, (one of my all time favorite and best films ever, Beetlejuice-- Barbara and Adam Maitland, of course) choice B is correct.

So, WHY is A wrong and B correct?

A. Angela- twenty something. Thin, petite. Looks innocence. Long auburn hair. Denim shorts, neat t-shirt with cute logo. Hair neat in pony tail or plait.

First, let me just say, I did steal this intro from someone.... I shortened it but did not re-write any of the original material, though I did change the name... for privacy reasons. ;)

The first rule of thumb that some writers will tell you to bear in mind when writing intros is, "If you can't see it, don't write it", which I disagree with to some extent. Take a look at example B. It's not, technically, filmable that Barbara has a 'hint of unfulfilment' or that she is 'wholesome'... Or is it?

Granted, professional writers who write on studio assignment have A LOT of extra privileges that spec script writers just DO NOT have, Option B is filmable. All of it. We'll get to that.

But first, let's discuss why having a description like choice A would make your script very unappealing to studio bigshot... or even his seventeen year old summer intern.

One rule that comes into play with option A is "Don't overstep your boundries". Studios hire wardrobe and costume designers and hair stylists and make up artists-- who also have to study the script and stick to it-- to handle physical appearances of your characters. Unless you are Tarantino or Lucas and you'll be directing your own film, producing it and painting the faces of your actors all the while picking out a top to match their skirts or pants, DO NOT try to tell us in the screenplay what this character will be wearing. Don't do it!

Why? This delves into another rule of screenwriting which is going to distract me from the topic at hand, so keep reading and I'll get to the "too wordy, too long" issue.

Another reason to avoid physical descriptions is that it does not establish your character. Saying that "Jane is wearing a black dress, has artificial black hair and thick black eyeliner to match her lipstick" might give the impression that she's gothic; but to really convince a guru that you're a master of your craft, you might say something like, "Jane, sullen and moody, a tortured poet". If the costume designers and director wants her to look equally as gothic, then they might go ahead and rub her down in some used motor oil just to show her "life is pain" attitude. Ok, that was a joke... the motor oil... joke.

Now, let's not write it in stone that giving some discussing of physical descript is completely bad and wrong. Once in a while you can get away with it, it really just depends on how you work it in. So let's say that, while you wouldn't give a full run-down of our Hot Topic customer Jane, you could say something like "Jane, 17, sullen and moody, hides a deeper pain under her black clothes and thick matching eyeliner". See? Physicals aren't ALWAYS bad.

Now, before we move on to character intro B, let's check our rule book for another pearl of wisdom. Each and every word in a screenplay must be there for a reason. This applies to every aspect of the project, right down to the sluglines. If, somewhere in your plot, you'll need to reference a character's outward appearance for storyline reasons, then by all means, go physical in your description.

Obviously, if you were writing a screenplay adaption of Tomb Raider featuring Lara Croft, you would want to describe her physical appearance because there are usages for it in the plot.

"Lara Croft, muscular yet beautiful, .45 cals strapped to each upper thigh, shotgun strapped to back, magnetic grapple shimmering from her tool belt...", then when it gets to the scene with the rock slide and the egyptian mummy attack, you'd reference it with, "Lara defies gravity, leaping in a triple sow-cow over and behind the head of the seven foot tall angry mummy of Tutankhamen, throws the grapple from her belt and swings over the lava pit, barely escaping death". In that shot info, you referenced her strength when she does some crazy gymnastic move over Tut's head, you referenced the grapple attached to her belt, you could have went further and talked about her shooting at his thousand year old ass, then smiling and blowing a kiss to him as she escapes out of a tiny hole in the ceiling.

See where I'm going with this? Everything needs to be in place for a reason. If there's no reason for it, then it just needs to go.

Now, as for our favorite undead housewife of all time, Barbara Maitland, her description in option B is a good one because it not only gives the actor an archetypical feel for her character, but it does provide a certain demeanor and personality for when she is playing the character on screen. In approaching dialogue, it will also be reflected in some of the things she says to Adam. See? It's useful-- it has a reason to be there.

So what did I mean when I said that you need to have previous experience? And what does that have to do with character descriptions? Ok, let's put it this way; a painter paints, but he doesn't just paint an exact image of what he sees. He uses vivid colors and tedious strokes to bring out the exuberance and brilliance in the world around him. He breathes life into the blobs and smears of paint, creating an interpretation that can speak to you, inspire you or touch you. What does a music composer do? He composes a series of notes to make a catchy tune, but that tune embodies the very essence of his subject. "The Planets" by Gustov Holst could easily have been the theme song for anyone gazing upon the beauty and supreme majesty of those mystifying 'other worlds' that share our galaxy.

The painter and the composer both interpret a world around them in a way that is not unlike concentrated orange juice. Yes. Orange juice. It's all of the main reasoning and feeling that it gives and you get, but to a level that is understandable and can be appreciated by anyone, young or old.

So what should a writer do? Well, a screenwriter needs to be able to see people and situations in a "concentrated orange juice" kind of way so that they may express the main reasoning behind the ideal or persona, thus giving the audience a clear cut path to stereotype and instantly understand what they see before them. It kind of works off of the tendency to "judge" what you see, which is, arguably, human nature.

No one can teach the talent for writing. Truth be told, you're either born with it or you're not. Some people can learn to construct intellectual sounding ideas on paper, but that doesn't mean that they're novelist material. That doesn't even mean that they're a good writer-- it just means that they paid attention in English class. Perhaps even a Creative Writing 101.

So, this concludes my first post in the series "Screenwriting: My Journey & The Tools You'll Need To Make The Trip As Well". Hope you'll check out the next entry where I discuss aforementioned issues "Too Wordy, Too Long: Ideal Spec Script Length and How To Swing It".

Until next time, auf wiedersehen, and keep your heads up!