Friday, December 11, 2009

Building A Story – ACT I: The Basics, The Mechanics

I was chatting with a colleague and close friend of mine just the other day, and we were discussing the best method of utilizing random pieces of a story that pop into your head, on a whim. She had mentioned that she had an idea for a character, but couldn’t decide how to wrap a story around him, or place him within a story.

This is common. You’ll have a stroke of genius, a moment of clarity, a trial and tribulation when it comes to gathering all the ingredients for a new project. You’ll need personalities, themes, missions, problems, entertainment, and thought provoking emotions. So, where do you start when it comes to crafting?

The Story Arc
A Story Arc is the skeleton of any story—written or filmed. It lives in three acts, and dictates the flow of every story. Tried and true, it will ensure that you take all the right roads on your writing journey-- granted that you have some prior understanding of writing. Once you discover and study the story arc, creating a story will be easier than you ever imagined.


There are two main functions in the first act; the setup, and the inciting incident. While the inciting incident will straddle and mark the line of Act I & Act II, the set up/hook must be presented first and foremost.

Let’s use one of my favorite films, The Station Agent, as an example, (I know, I know—most of you probably haven’t seen it. You should, it’s terrific.) Alongside showing us the set up, Act I will also introduce us to all main characters—usually. I’ll get to that. For the most part, we will become acquainted with our protagonist; we’ll learn their:

- Goal/ desire - Recall an earlier post where I explained the protagonist’s Inner & Outer Motives?

Outer Motivation= (Physical Achievement/Goal) = PLOT
-> This must be a tangible goal, and will be resolved by the protag’s success or failure of attaining said goal.

Inner Motivation= (Why they’re pursuing that particular goal)=THEME
->The protag’s inner need will govern this and it, in turn, will govern the way the protag views him/herself and others.

- Need/Flaw – The need/flaw of a character is directly associated with the inner motivation, in that it is subconscious; in the beginning of your story, the protagonist may not recognize this flaw, so throughout the course of the story—while they pursue the goal/achievement (the outer motivation—they will be tried and tested and put into situations that challenge their world view. Coming full circle at the climax, they will recognize and repair this flaw. (We’ll mention this more when we discuss the CHARACTER ARC.)

In The Station Agent, the story begins by introducing us to Finbar, a man of no more than 4' 5". He works in shop that sells model trains. His coworker (and only friend) Henry is the only person he has any human contact with because he’s self conscious of his petite stature. However, Henry dies, leaving to Finbar, by will, an abandoned train station. Being that Finbar is such a miserable little man and has no personal ties, friends, family, or roots of any kind, he packs up and leaves, heading out to this station in hopes of being a hermit and never having to deal with another human being, ever again.

This is the set up for The Station Agent. It introduces us to the main character, allows us to see the core of his “problem” and situation in his daily life. We come to know him as somewhat hermit-like and emotionally cold from living a life where he’s never been accepted—except, of course, by his friend who dies. What luck! Sounds like me.

Anyway, there are two other essential elements at work here, though they’re fairly elusive and difficult to distinctly identify-- unless you have prior knowledge of their existence-- they are vital elements and must be present in any set-up.

Based on the need/flaw of the story, your protag will, subsequently, have what is known as a Clear World View. In The Station Agent, Finbar views the world as cold and uncaring, and he believes no one will ever accept him. In turn, he has adopted a similar policy and refuses to “let anyone in”.

This is also second element that is at work in the set up. More specifically put; you must express to your reader/viewer the wound that has led to the need/flaw. This is pretty self explanatory, and in my own round-about way, I’ve already covered this, so no need for reiterating.

Once you’ve laid the foundation of your story in Act I, you’ll be ready to tackle your Inciting Incident. We’ll tackle that in the next installment, Building A Story – ACT II: The Basics, The Mechanics.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Rewriting What Needs To Be Rewritten

If you’ve just begun your immeasurable expedition into the world of penning novels or screenplays, you may find the concept of a rewrite to be the most ominous and elusive task at hand. Some may even feel them quite unnecessary. Whether you’re dedicated to keeping your original prose because it’s “so amazing”/your “best work ever”/ “better than most crap out there, these days, anyway” OR you simply just don’t understand how to do it effectively, trust in this advice; a good writer with potential for longevity will, inevitably, come to understand and perfect the art of rewriting. If you’ve created a million and one pieces of work and still don’t feel that rewrites are ever necessary, then something may be very wrong with your perspective as a writer.

Rewrites are tremendously necessary.

Why Do I Have To Rewrite What I’ve already written?
I’ve listened to standpoints on this topic from many writers, new and seasoned, and I’ve heard it all—including my own complaints. Let’s put some reasons down, in a nice list-format, hm?

-“I feel like I shouldn’t disturb my original creative vision. By rewriting it, I would injure that fragile creature that is my first take on the subject and topic of my prose.”

-“I’ve rewritten everything I had because I wasn’t sure what needed to be rewritten, and now I have a Frankenstein’s monster and my original story is completely gone.”

-“I wrote the story I the first time around. It’s how I wanted it and I’m not changing it. It’s perfect, as is.”

All in all, these are usually the core three reasons that so many writers use to avoid the rewriting process. Each one illustrates a different mindset as to why they won’t be doing their rewrites, or why they can’t.

The first reason is based on the idea that whatever came out onto the paper in the very beginning is a magical creature whose feelings would be hurt if you asked it to change in order to make the relationship work. Listen up kiddies, it may feel like a unicorn and it may have long silky hair like a unicorn, but the truth is, you can’t bring that sucker in the house until it’s had a bath. In case that’s too cryptic for you, what I’m getting at is that, during the first draft writing, you’re going to be writing all over the place—you’ve got this huge story, in flotsam and jetsam format, floating around the murky seawaters of your brain. Selecting each piece and putting it together in the most pristine order is a near impossible feat, but if you don’t get all of it, at least, fished out and onto the paper, then it will sink to the bottom and be gone forever. So, you slop out every idea you’ve got. This is my definition of a rough draft. It’s every idea that you have, in beta version, and though it may not be the most coherent, it is what lays the foundation for a good, sturdy piece of work.

The second quote is what you’ll get from someone who ultimately just doesn’t understand and needs a bit of assistance before they can even feel comfortable disturbing that sacred rough draft temple. Because they have been encouraged by more seasoned writers to tackle the task at hand, they jump in, gung-ho, like a nineteen year old boot camp grad leaps off the ship and begins blindly storming the beaches of.. erm.. Normandy. They don’t have a clue what they’re doing, they just know that someone put a pen/gun in their hand and told them to “Shoot! Shoot! SHOOT!” So, they start takin’ some pot shots.

All militia related metaphors aside, what happens within this process is that they will continue to move pieces of the story around, chop things that may have played a highly important role in the structure, insert things that don’t even make sense and ruin everything they’ve done.

Last but not least, if the third quote is your final answer then you’re either, A.) Tarantino-- and I applaud you or B.) you need to stop claiming to be a writer altogether. You show me a first draft script (or manuscript) that is perfect, flawless and impervious to bullets and I will show you a writer who lied about how many times they rewrote it. Seriously, I don’t believe it’s possible to make a once over and be done with it. I’m sorry; I just don’t think it’s possible. (Prove me wrong? ;)

So of our three contestants, who’s got that longevity I mentioned? I’m going to say that number two—the confused one—has the best chance of making it. In fact, I think we might have all started out doing this. With my first “serious” script, I chopped, hacked, butchered, mutilated, and plot-holed until the thing was completely unreadable. It’s called practice when you butcher something that you worked so hard on, in the name of ‘bettering’ it. YOU LEARN. You learn to let go of ideas that you once felt were impossible to leave behind. You learn to pay close attention to what changes you do make and you learn that if you don’t do some more research, you’ll never get the swing of things. So while this procedure will immunize and retrain the new writer, if he or she has true determination and the desire to learn and become better, he or she will set out in search of learning tools for their next battle with the great beast rewrite.

Ok Wiseguy, Tell Me How To Rewrite, Then.
Not to sound like I’m attempting to evade this request but, in all honesty, it’s not something I can just tell you how to do. It’s one of those things you have to learn, and once you learn it, it’s strangely difficult to teach another. It’s almost as if it’s an intuitive or instinctual quality, rather than a learned skill. As I’ve just stated, however, a writer with good potential will seek out advice, information, hints and clues. They’ll apply them, they’ll use what works and throw out what doesn’t. That’s all I, or anyone else, can offer—learning tools.

My first piece of advice is one given to me by a great filmmaker and dear friend, “Don’t marry your ideas”. This piece of advice changed my (writing) life for the better. It means that, no matter what you’ve written and how incredible you think it is, it can be changed, and changed for the better. You have to learn to trust yourself and trust your writing, your creativity and your potential. You have to be able to make those executive decisions and choose what is best for the story, overall.

Quick story. I wrote a scene, once, that I felt to be one of the greatest scenes I’ve ever written. I took great care to handcraft this, bit by bit, as if I were fashioning a gift for The Cosmic CEO himself. It was intense, it was dramatic, it had so much of the vital emotion and a personality that I felt my characters needed. I could see it unfolding before my eyes on the silver screen as the audiences swooned, cried, laughed and understood. I just knew that it would never need to be changed, rewritten or touched. I had a feeling of magnified pride and accomplishment that I had never felt before.

Then my script writing program ate that scene and I never saw it again.

My heart was broken. I didn’t feel like I could go on. This piece of work that I had so loved and cherished was gone. Gone. Forever.

Thank God!

When I started over on the script from that point, that gush of emotions opened up ideals and feelings in me that allowed me to pull something much darker and more intense onto the page. Because of the pain I felt from the loss, I was able to find a, previously, hidden doorway to the route of my story, thus strengthening the mechanics and entertainment value of my story. This doorway was one of the first that led me to creating, what I now consider, one of the best screenplays I’ve written to date. Had that not happened, I’m not sure which direction I would have went with the story, but I feel like it would have been one, awry.

Precisely, that story is a bit off the subject of rewriting, but the result is the same. The result of taking away, (or in my case-- losing), a chunk of the story that may be slowing the pace, weakening the infrastructure or averting the main story arc always proves beneficial as you will quickly recover and create something far better. The moral of the story is that you must not fear the change that a rewrite will bring.

Where’s My Step-By-Step Checklist To Rewriting?
You may find one of those on the internet, somewhere, but you won’t find it here. What you will find is a collection of new entries aimed at the focal point of story writing. When you think you’re ready to delve a little deeper, we’ll get started.

Upcoming Articles:
Building A Story - Act I: The Basics, The Mechanics
Building A Story - Act II:(Title Pending)
Building A Story - Act III:(Title Pending)

Writing A Scene Vol 1: Who Said What?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Better, Bitter Return

Here is my attempt at returning from the craziest hiatus that you can possibly imagine. I hope that you’ll accept me back and find some benefit from my experience as a writer.

My experience as a writer; let’s talk about that.
Several months ago, I met a woman who claimed to be a development executive. She claimed to be a formidable opponent for any of the greats, capable of taking a rough Tarantino script and making the real movie magic happen. She was surely something special, right?

I had given advice to a fellow writer, based on his clunky script sample, and had critiqued his script just as I would anyone else’s’, even my own. He’d waited for weeks for some feedback, for someone to take the time to read his rough ‘first ten’, someone who was willing to help him work out the bugs and smooth things over. No one had offered to take the time, so I stepped up to the plate. I could see every mistake and I knew what was causing the breakdown in his story. I took the script apart, piece by piece, and explained to him what didn’t work, why it didn’t work, and how to solve the problem. He seemed satisfied with my help, and I welcomed him to it any time he needed assistance.

Enter stage right; the lady who knew it all, the development executive.

“You don’t know as much and you think you know.” She says to me. “You’re giving him bad advice.”

The bad advice? He had wastefully built a wall of text, describing the color and paint texture of a house in which a character resided. I had advised him to shorten this, condense it to its essence and keep a rhythmatic flow, so that it still sounded like a story when rolled off the tongue, yet kept him from going overboard on the ‘too long, too clunky’ edge.

This wonderfully wise lady was so quick and eager to tell me that I was giving him such poor advice, that it seemed I wouldn’t be able to come back at her quick enough with explanations. At one point, I wondered if she was even listening to what I was saying; recognizing it, thinking about it. She convinced the lad that I was wrong because she started spitting out her “qualifications” in a rapid-fire hard ass manner.

I, respectfully, digressed from the situation. What’s the point of arguing someone who’s bat shit crazy, right?

Several conversations with the bat lady took place thereafter, all of which proved nothing to me as far as her position in the film industry. In turn, I became curious with a spits worth of suspicion. To the Google cave!

Searching her name brought no validation, as anything involving her was merely a personal profile that she, herself, had made at any given writer’s forum/community. The last nail in her coffin was when I didn’t find any listing for her on because, if she was truthful in what she was claiming to be, she should have been listed and sharing a meet-and-greet photo or two with legends like Coppola and Scorsese.

So let me warn all of you new writers and even some of you seasoned writers; be prepared to butt heads from time to time with a pretentious poser who’s hell-bent on proving their worth over yours. Be prepared to take a verbal beat-down from a scorned screenwriter wannabe who couldn’t cut it in the business so they lurk around writing forums in search of weak prey to devour and spit out in order to gain their “jollies”. They are out there and they will try to convince you that they’re bigger and higher on the food chain.

And to you, bat shit crazy lady, if you’re out there in cyberspace reading my final words to you; stop what you’re doing. You’re lying, you’re misrepresenting yourself and you’re (more than likely) stealing money off of poor, desperate writers who have naively come to the wrong doorstep in search of a guiding light in this big, crazy, competitive world. While too few out there are willing to front you out and growl back, I am not. I will defend these young writers who wear their heart and pencil on their sleeve. I will stand up for them and tell you that what you’re doing is NOT fair.

Call me tactless, call me uncouth, call me whatever you want for fronting you out via a blog. The truth is that I don’t care because I’ve been where all of these new writers have been and I remember just how hard it was. I will defend them if no one else will.
To my readers, I truly apologize for the animosity, but I’m vicious when it comes to defending my beliefs and righting a wrong. There is no shame in fighting for what you believe in.

Friday, April 3, 2009

What does a new writer want to know most about screenwriting?

I'm currently researching for material to use on my next series of blogs, and I've decided that the best advice would come directly from those who are new to, yet passionate about, screenwriting and are in need of guidance from experienced writers.

Time for crowd participation!

So, when you're searching the net for valuable information, or reading an article or blog for assistance, what would you like to see more of, what would you like to learn in more depth and what information on screenwriting can you simply not find anywhere but desperately need to know?

When I was a young whippersnapper like yourselves, I was mostly interested in the technical aspect; what's the format? Why do we format? How do we format? The story structure and mechanics had been pounded into my brain during Kentucky's Writing Portfolio program for elementary schools, statewide, and I had a tough little teacher who really pushed me past the limit EVERY DAY to get that story polished and refined. I owe my writing knowlege and success to her for that very reason.

Now I'm asking you, my young grasshopper readers, to let me know just exactly what you'd like to have some insight and assistance on. Tell me all of your problems and anything (ANYTHING!) about screenwriting that you don't understand or feel that you could understand better. And-- do not tell yourself that your question isn't good enough or serious enough. Yes, if you have a question, then it is a good question because if you don't understand something, you need answers and explanations.

So c'mon folks, give me some ideas for blog material! Let me know what you need to know!

Post your questions here in the comments on THIS blog entry or, if you don't want anyone to see/read your question, email it to me at Make sure you put something about the blog in the subject line-- I get way too much junk mail and I might accidentally look over it. I won't post any names or tell who asked what, unless you want me to, but I will go above and beyond to explore all possible reasoning to answer your question. I vow no black and white answers, no simple yes and no responses, but rather a deeply explorative explanation that will erase all confusion from your overwhelmed mind.

Afterall, that's why I started this blog!

Now get those questions coming! And don't worry about expiration dates, if one year from now, you have a question, send it to me!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Writing For The Action Genre & How To Avoid "Directing From The Page"

One of the most tedious jobs for a writer of the screen persuasion is knowing their vision well enough to express it clearly on a page. Sometimes you have a 'cool idea' and want to slop it out, but it comes out clunky with bad formatting and a bit of copyright infringement on the last Die Hard flick.

Well that's just not ok.

From my perspective, as a writer from the drama genre, the action genre seems to be the lexicon of 'tough' screenwriting. It's not a genre that a first time screenwriter will do well in, normally. Why? Let me extrapolate.

You have to know all of your formatting rules and techniques, COLD. You have to be ablsolutely educated on every in and out of the craft. Action, or good action, or even an action screenplay that would sell to the industry, must be high concept, it must be unique, it must be interesting. You've gotta know your stuff to pull it off. A first time writer doesn't have the experience under their belt to support such a feat. And should a first timer start off on an action flick, you're nearly pre-destined to create a hot mess.

From the first script you write until the second, third, tenth, or twentieth-- you're learning! You learn the whole way, even if you're not trying to learn. And the more you learn, the more you'll find to correct in that first action screenplay you've written. Soon, you'll be chunking and chopping, replacing, renaming, digging plot holes and forcing inconsistencies. You'll rearrange your scenes and you'll revamp your style. This all equals a hot mess.

So how, you ask, can GopherGrrrL prevent you from making this newb mistake? Well, I can't. I can't keep you from trying the action genre on your first go-round with a script. And maybe I shouldn't anyway because, afterall, if you have potential to become a good screenwriter, you'll realize some time in the process of writing and re-writing this script that its not worth saving. You'll shelve what you have and start on something new and fresh with your new-found knowledge. That's just how it works. I did it myself in the beginning.

I can however give you some pointers, some food for thought, if you're going to try an action screenplay.

In action films over the past one hundred years, we've seen car chases, hostage situations, bank heists, ninja fights, alien invasions and so much more. The biggest lesson that a screenwriter can learn is that there will be many people working together to create this film, and therefore, (as I always tell you) know your role as writer!

1. Don't choreograph a fight on paper.
2. Don't over indulge the damages to a car in a car chase.
3. Don't describe the villian to us as if we were reading about him/her in a novel.

Know your vision, tell your story, but keep it concise. Leave some room for others to interpret. That's what makes a film amazing-- so many personalities and perspectives coming together to create one vision. Its the ultimate melting pot.

So while I could give you a hundred examples here on the page, I'll leave this lesson up to you, the screenwriter, to learn. Let's get into a few more tidbits that will keep you on track as you proceed down that winding road of action genre writing, hm?

Camera Direction

What Is Camera Direction?
Here it comes, I'm going to say it-- Industry writers can do it, but spec writers (you and me) CAN'T. Directors can do it. Spec writers can't.

Camera direction indicates camera movement, camera focus, and camera angles. Example time!

Below are two examples, one correct and one incorrect. The incorrect of the two is a good example of how a new writer may think that the scene should look on film, however they do not know that this decision is no longer up to them once that script passes from their hands into the director's hands... Unless of course the director really wants input from the writer. That could happen.

example 1:
Gretchen, in her gymnastics leotard, tumbles rapidly across the gymnast mat. Camera pans quickly along side her as she tumbles.

She lands a perfect backflip and is statuesque in her poise as her fellow gymnasts cheer. The camera closes in tight on her proud smirk.

The camera pulls back to reveal Gretchen in her cheerleading uniform in front of a large crowd at a football game. She soars through her routine, effortlessly.

example 2:
Gretchen, in her gymnastics leotard, tumbles rapidly across the gymnast mat.

She lands a perfect backflip and is statuesque in her poise as her fellow gymnasts cheer.

Example 1 utilizes the fatal first timer mistake "directing from the page". You're a story teller, Mr. or Ms. Screenwriter. You aren't here to make the calls on where the camera goes or what it does once this baby goes into production. No ifs, and, or buts about it. Those few lines are breaking down the flow of your story.

Let me put it this way. You're reading a novel. Its a gripping tale of suspense and terror, its a dark rainy night and you're enthralled with this book as you read by flashlight light from beneath the covers of your thousand count thread blanket. You read the following paragraph:

"Lucy's hands quivered as she pulled the lever on the mausoleum door. She could only imagine that Quinn's mother had been buried alive, but she couldn't fathom the possibility of the body being reanimated by Voodoo priestess Marie Laveaux. As she pulled back the heavy door, the screech of the aged hinges rang loud and lonesome. (Writers' Note: Hi, My name is Ted. I wrote this novel, remember? I'm on the back sleeve. Flip over and look at my picture real quick. Ok, so anyway, at this point of the story I want you to imagine that there are bats and spiders and shit flocking out the door of the tomb. Oh yeah, and a huge cloud coverage comes over. And, if you want, you can imagine some zombies sneaking up on Lucy from behind because its actually going to happen within the next paragraph. Ok, keep reading. Sincerely, Ted.) Lucy peers into the tomb and sees a herd of mad zombies rushing towards her. She screams."

Ok... what just happened there? Would you read that novel for any other reason than that of which you would stare at a train wreck? (Human curiousity, I mean.)

No! You wouldn't. In fact, its rude of the writer to leave you little notes along the way. Ruins the story! So, don't do that with your script, because everytime you get too wordy or try to direct from the page, this is what experienced screenplay readers will experience. Pain!

Now, that was a tangent, but it was a good way for me to breakdown what I was talking about and beat it into your heads so that you'll remember this the next time you start to type somthing about where the camera pans to.

Back to the examples; you'll notice in the second example (which is also the correct example) that I stopped sooner than the first example did. There's a formatting issue involved here, and that's why I did this, so that I could properly format it and show how you connect two scenes through one action. This is one 'loop hole technique', as I like to call it, that can allow you as the writer to sneak in a 'you have no choice, mr. director' direction.

Take the movie Shaun Of The Dead, for example. If you're familiar with the film then you'll remember the scene where Shaun writes several goals on the marker board on his refrigerator and then falls asleep in the chair across from it, waking up the next morning. This was an exellent segway because it, 1.)went well with the themed pace that the movie so delightfully kept grasp of throughout and 2.) elapsed time in a clever way. So how do you write this in your screenplay, without breaking any rules and without 'directing from the page'? Simple, you don't give the director a choice. Let's use the example from above.

Gretchen, in her gymnastics leotard, tumbles rapidly across the gymnast mat.

She lands a perfect backflip and is statuesque in her poise as her fellow gymnasts cheer. She SMIRKS proudly.


Standing proudly with her signature smirk, Gretchen, in her cheerleading uniform, faces the large crowd of fans at the football game. She soars through her routine, effortlessly.

So now you've given continuation to the first scene, using a somewhat reversed psychology on your director to make him/her think that they should carry 'the smirk' over onto the next scene. You've just made a direction decision from the page without breaking any rules.

Remember though; use your powers for good, not evil, and don't abuse such a clever technique. Only use this if you truly feel that this is necessary.

So, you're a little bit wiser just from reading this.. I hope. Use this advice to further your writing career. Keep studying, keep learning, keep researching and most of all, JUST KEEP WRITING! You'll learn as you go.

A great way to learn about and get the feel for a script is to read as many as possible, so be sure to check out sites like Simply Scripts or Script-O-Rama. If you need some tech support, come visit me and my friends over at Absolute Write's Water Cooler, and then on to the Screenwriting Boards!

Screenwriting: Formatting Pt. 2 - Scene Headings

I've got my favorite stripey java cup, full to the brim with boiling hot brown energy, and my ten foot tall stack of notebooks, and I am ready to school you on some Scene Heading must-know tips!

What is a Scene Heading and when do I use them?
A Scene Heading, or slugline as they are sometimes called, is a required element for each and every scene in a screenplay. In a properly formatted script, a new Scene Heading is used each and every time there is a shift in TIME, LOCATION or both.

Many new writers will misuse and abuse the Scene Heading; using incorrect formatting, insufficient or irrelevant information with the heading, or completely neglecting to use them at all. Its highly important that a screenwriter grasps the ideals and importance of the scene heading; not only are they a vital part of the story, but they are critical pieces of information for the production crew who plans the filming process of a script. They're nearly more technical than they are creative.

A scene heading consists of THREE things:

1. INT. or EXT. (Interior/ Exterior)
Interior shots will be planned for indoor environments, while exterior are planned for outdoor environments.
The location is... you guessed it!.. where the scene takes place.
Normally, something as vague as NIGHT or DAY is acceptable here. However, this can differ from situation to situation, and can be more specific.

The format of a scene heading is a.) all caps, all the time, b.) normal spacing, separate with dash(-), so your properly formatted scene heading should look something like this:


So now let's write a few scene headings using the above formula.

Where am I?

More specifically?
**The above example utilizes a SUB LOCATION, but we'll get to that.

These are simple and easy, once you get the hang of it.

Scene Headings: Variations
As there always are 'some exceptions to the rule', the scene heading is no different. You'll see variations from time to time, ranging from minor formatting differences to specific time designations, or Sub Locations, as mentioned above. The most important differences that you'll need to learn about are that of the specific time stamps, time stamp variations, and sub locations.

Sub Locations
Quickly put; this is just a continuation of the location, and is sometimes necessary to clarify the location.

If you were at home, on the phone to a friend and they asked you "Where are you at?" you might say "I'm at my house", as opposed to being at Wal-Mart or Hooters or something. If it was understood that you were at home, then when they ask, you might clarify by saying "I'm in my bedroom" or "I'm in the kitchen". This is the basic principal behind Sub Location usage. You're simply clarifying where, at a location, the character in the scene is. It is necessary that you employ sub locations at some point, but luckily it is very simple to understand and master.

Time Stamp Variations
We've all scene a movie where the scenes change but the environment stays the same. As mentioned above, this is technically a new scene because the TIME changed (Remember; shift in time, location or both merits a new scene heading!). So, how do you format it? With Time Stamp Variations, of course!

Sometimes rather than using DAY or NIGHT, we will use "LATER", "MOMENTS LATER" or "CONTINUOUS". From a technical aspect, these are necessary because they imply that sets pieces and costumes, among other things, will need to be intact based on the last shooting session/previous scene. It gives a continuation to the previous scene, linking them together on a technical basis. Though they are a part of your story, they, like so many other elements of a screenplay, are more technical than they are creative.

The differences that set them apart, though minor, should be understood and you should always use them accordingly.

CONTINUOUS is used to link together two technically separate scenes which are happening continuous but require location change.
LATER links together two scenes which are separated by a breif time elapse.
MOMENTS LATER links together two scenes which have an even shorter time elapse.

Here are some examples:

Jane and Steven walk, hand in hand, towards Steven's car.

Jane straps on her seatbelt and smiles, lovingly, at Steven.

I love this car, Steven. I'm so
glad you didn't sell it.

Example of LATER

Steven's car pulls up to the curb, stopping. Jane exits the passenger side door. Steven drives away.


Jane enters the front door of her house, hangs up her coat and keys and places her purse on a nearby desk.

Specific Time Stamps
These occur when the actual time element in a story is involved and necessary to the plot or events occurring. Here is an example:

Mr. Gevedon looks at his watch, anxious.

What time is it?
Mr. Gevedon
Two fifty two.
The bomb is set for three pm! That
means we only have eight minutes!
Mr. Gevedon
I know, dammit! We have to
think of something, fast!
Though you won't usually need to employ such a specific time stamp, in some instances it will be necessary.

Keep your scene headings short and clear!
New writers will often assume that scene headings need in-depth description and detail, thus causing a scene heading to be lengthy and improperly formatted. A scene heading should never take more than one line, and does not need to be greatly detailed in order to be affective. Be sure to keep your scene headings breif and be sure to use them properly, because this is the first tip-off to an agency or production company reader that the writer is either inexperienced or knows their stuff!

I hope you learned something new today and will prosper from that new-found knowledge! Until next time, keep reading and learning and above all, KEEP WRITING!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Screenwriting: Formatting Pt. 2 - Scene Action

And... ACTION! Scene Action, that is!

Welcome to the second installment of "Formatting Pt. 2". Guess what we're covering today? If you guessed Scene Action, you are correct-a-mundo!

Scene Action is that oh-so-necessary block of text that fills in the gaps between sluglines and dialogue, describing the events that occur on screen, which characters will be involved, and often mention an important prop or set piece. Too much scene action can make your script clunky and disturb the flow, where as not enough may leave your reader confused and uninterested. Knowing what is necessary to mention and how to mention it is key, and that's what we're discussing in this installment.

Before we move on, I'm going to assume that you've read the previous lessons and have come to understand them. I'm going to assume that you know the basic techniques, structure and rules and we're going to move beyond that. So that I won't sound like I'm beating a dead horse, I won't bother to mention that you shouldn't use scene action to 'direct from the page'. You should have heard me quarrel enough, by now, seeing as how you've read the previous entries. Onward we go.

Three basic things that you should know about when writing Scene Action are:

1. Scene Action is (but is not limited to) where you will introduce characters.
I say 'not limited to' because, in some instances, you can use the first piece of dialogue for a newly introduced character to extenuate the aspirations, motivations, persona or afflictions of the character.


SPIKE, scowling and dirty from the long haul across the desert on his Harley motorcycle saunters into the truck stop.
Who needs a fuckin' Hilton when
you've gotsouthern hospitality
right here by the interstate?

Yes, I used some profanity, but sometimes it is necessary to express a rough and rugged character. Nevermind, that-- its all for the sake of art. The important part, rather, is that what the character intro didn't cover, his very first statement did. It gives us the feel that this fellow, Spike, is a 'wind in my hair' free spirit kind of guy. He'd prefer a down-to-earth and possibly roach infested truck stop over a swanky hotel resort.

(Also, you'll noticed that his name is CAPPED. I'll get to that in sub-lesson A.)

2. Scene Action should be used to mention important props/set pieces that will effect some portion of your storyline.


Laura smiles sweetly at the old lady next to her on the park bench, and then glances at the girthy exposed WALLET bulging from the old lady's purse.
Hey look over there, it's a penguin!

The old lady looks away long enough for Laura to snatch the thick wallet and bolt away.

Notice that we're only mentioning the lady's purse because it is important to what happens in this portion of the scene. Had Laura been interested in hearing a long and educational story from the old lady, we wouldn't have had to mention that the old lady was even carrying a purse. Had Laura not interacted at all with the old lady, but only stopped for a rest on the bench, we may have only breifly mentioned the old lady, if at all.

It's all determined by which direction the story is going in, and based on that, the writer must determine how much detail is enough and how much is too much.

3. Scene Action is where you will express a specific date, should you want it presented on screen, perhaps in subtext.

Some films will specify to their viewers, on screen, that a scene happened in a particular location, or at a particular time. This will be presented in subtext on the screen. As for formatting this, there are a variety of ways. I usually use something like this:


RUSSIA, The year 2052

Gustav is laying, face down on a filthy matress. He snores. Gun fire in the distance wakes him.

Its good to use this technique for two reasons; 1.) It doesn't dictate what the director HAS to do, therefore I am not directing from the page. Should the director have a clever way of expressing this, he can, (for example, maybe showing a hand-made calendar on the wall). If not, then he/she may opt for the good old fashioned on screen text. Either way, the information is there for the reader/viewer and it is concise.

Scene Action: To Cap or Not To Cap?
Many new writers become bumfuzzled and confused when the capitalization within Scene Action technique must be employed. So, here are the basics for determining what to cap and what not to cap.

1. As mentioned above, S.A. will be the place for mentioning important props. In a previous example above with Laura and the old lady, you saw that "WALLET" was capitalized. This is because it is an important prop in the scene. You will always capitalize an important prop, set piece or even a sound, (like SMASH! or BANG!). Sometimes scripts will also have important actions capped. (Ex: "The police cruiser SLIDES across the icey highway, careening off an embankment.")

2. Character names will be capped ONE TIME throughout a script, and that is the very first time that you introduce/mention that character. At any other point in the script, the character name will need to be in normal sentence format.

Well congrats, fellow writers! You've survived another of my intense screenwriting lessons and you are the wiser for it! So, keep writing, keep studying and keep on keeping on. Educate yourself on the craft and know your formatting! Remember to read all the scripts for all of your favorite films at sites like Simply Scripts and Script-O-Rama!