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!