So You Wanna Write a Screenplay ?

It’s been so long since I taught myself how to write a script, that I looked up one day and realized that there is no simple training tool out there for instructing a newbie how to actually write a damn script.  Many of the programs out there (which format for you) don’t really teach you what any of the formatting actually means.  And at some point during the writing process of a screenplay, trust me, you will need to know, and understand all of it.

So, I came up with the idea of simply spelling it out; plain and simple.  From there, of course, you’re on your own.  But for now, here’s how it all begins.

I won’t dwell on margins and formatting to much, mainly because it is likely you will be using a software program that does that for you.  However, I will give you my old typewriter margins from wayyyy back.  This is from around 1987, I believe.  And I recently discovered they are still Industry standard.

Left Margin — 20
Dialogue — 33
Parenthetical Directions — 42
Character who is speaking — 51
FADE TO:/CUT TO:/DISSOLVE TO: Directions — 78
Page Number — 87
Right Margin — 90

And make sure to leave a ONE INCH margin at the top and bottom.  And regarding the right margin, a trick I used to use when I was still using a typewriter was to take a ruler and a pencil and lightly draw the margin down the right hand side of several successive sheets of paper, exactly one inch from the edge of the page.  Trust me, you’ll want to know that’s coming as you’re typing across the page and you’re really on a roll.

But most of you are going to be using software, so now let’s skip ahead.  In order for filmmakers and studios to approximate the intended running time of the finished film, the length of a screenplay is measured by the following method: one page per one minute of screen time.  Given that movies generally run about two hours, that would mean 120 minutes = 120 pages.  And most lower level execs in Hollywood prefer that you actually keep it at around 110 pages.  So keep that in mind and use it as a general target.  Don’t slave yourself to it, by any means.  But definitely keep it in mind.

The top of the first page of a script typically looks something like this:

FADE IN:

EXT. HOUSE/YARD – DAY

Wet golden retriever happily jumps back and forth in lawn sprinkler.

BOB (O.C.)
(sarcastic)
Look at that bitch go.

DISSOLVE TO:

FADE IN refers to the camera.  Camera direction is now being mostly frowned upon in the industry, unless it is absolutely necessary, so I would suggest avoiding it.  To be honest, you will nonetheless see it on a lot of scripts, but I can tell you from first hand experience that if you put it there, 9 times out of 10 the lower level development executives at studios and production companies, will simply remove it.

Now I’ll break down the Slugline.  A Slugline is a general description of the location and time of day.  Piece by piece, it can be simplified as follows:

EXT means EXTERIOR, and typically outside.  If (INT) is used, that means INTERIOR and thus inside.

HOUSE/YARD … this is somewhat tricky.  You have to establish where you are and you need to be direct and specific.  If you are in the driveway, you need to type HOUSE/DRIVEWAY, or OFFICE BLDG./DRIVEWAY, etc.  The reason for this is mostly obvious, but many would ask, ‘Why not just type EXT. DRIVEWAY ?’  Because it’s not specific enough.  EXT. DRIVEWAY could be a driveway separated from a residence or business by many miles.   Middle of nowhere.  So be more specific.

– DAY should be obvious.  It’s either NIGHT or DAY or MORNING or EVENING or NOON or MIDNIGHT or MAGIC HOUR …  MAGIC HOUR by the way is sunrise or sunset.  In the film industry both sunset and sunrise are interchangeable as long as the audience cannot spot whether they are looking into the West or the East.  So MAGIC HOUR is a good substitute for EARLY MORNING or EARLY EVENING, or even TWILIGHT.  It gets the point across that you are still seeing daylight peek over the horizon.

A good example of how to also place the time of day above the Slugline, would be TITLES.  Originally, in the script for the movie Outland, writer/director Peter Hyams placed a time Title there, underlined.  This indicates a TITLE CARD, which means the information will be read on the screen by the audience.  It looked like this:

TUESDAY, 4:15 P.M.

If you want, you can even place the time of day in the Slugline.  But that’s only if you can’t find another way of getting that information across fast enough.

EXT. HOUSE/YARD – DAY (2:00 PM)

Most of the time, you don’t really need to do that.  You can simply add the time into the following exposition,

At around 2:00 PM, a wet golden retriever happily jumps back and forth in lawn sprinkler.

… or even include it in the dialogue.

BOB (O.C.)
(sarcastic)
It’s after two o’clock, and look at that bitch go.

Following the Slugline, you will want to give a brief description of the subject.   This is referred to as Exposition.

Wet golden retriever happily jumps back and forth in lawn sprinkler.

You will notice there is no ‘A’ at the beginning of that sentence.  That’s because it isn’t really necessary.  However, remember to be consistent.  The script should be written in the same voice, throughout.  If you start by using one style of writing, keep it consistent.  Same with the voice, unless you’re experimenting — and even then — be careful with the ‘person’ you are writing in.  As in first person, second person, third person.  If this changes and confuses the reader, they’ll put your script down and probably never pick it up, again.

Again, this initial line of Exposition could give the director and cameraman an infinite volume of possible camera set-up ideas, but in general, they’re going to do exactly what you think they will: put a Steadycam harness on a cameraman and let him follow the action of the dog playing in the sprinkler.  This, after they’ve spent half a day coercing the mutt into actually jumping through the sprinkler.  If you want them to do something other than that, you will need to be more specific, and without using camera directions.  Herein lies the art of screenwriting.  For example, if you picture the camera stationary and the dog leaping back in forth in and out of the audience’s view, you might want to type:    

Wet golden retriever leaps happily back and forth, in and out of view, through lawn sprinkler.

Also keep in mind that if the dog has a name in this script, you want to use that up front.  So in that case, the sentence would read something like:

FIDO, a thoroughly wet golden retriever, leaps happily back and forth, in and out of view, through a lawn sprinkler.

Once your story gets going and you have characters doing a walk and talk and changing rooms, it isn’t always necessary to add Exposition.  Dialogue can suffice, following the new Slugline.  Especially if your Characters are in the middle of a conversation and you don’t want anything to interrupt it.  But …

When it comes to the opening page of script, some will choose to simply start with dialogue, instead of a line of exposition — and this can be verrrry tricky.  My only word of advice in this area is this: when the Cinematographer/Director of Photography looks at the script, he needs to know where to put the camera.  If you omit the description in a new location, you’re going to cause confusion.  And I can promise you, it will only result in someone else writing the opening Exposition line to your script.  And you’ll also piss off the cameraman.

BOB (O.C.) is of course the name of a character, but the O.C. acronym which follows the name of the character, stands for OFF CAMERA.  Also known as O.S, or OFF SCREEN, this is a good example of where camera directions become necessary.  If you have a character who is actually talking in the scene and OFF CAMERA, you have to be specific about that.   If it’s a VOICE OVER, such as a character talking to the audience, without the actor currently speaking, then you would use V.O. instead.  Try not to overuse this unless it is a necessary component to telling your story.

(sarcastic) — this is called a Parenthetical.  Also try not to overuse these.  You will find with experience that they become a nuisance.

There is also an interesting trick you can pull with bringing a Character into a scene.  That is, if the Character has already been established.  Take a look at this small paragraph from the script for Michael Mann’s film, Heat.  And keep in mind the Character’s name, is “Waingro.”

EXT. MACARTHUR PARK – WAINGRO

Waits. His shell jacket is in a tight roll under his arm.
Then a garbage truck – a Dempsey Dumpster (the kind with a
power forklift on the front) – pulls up.

Notice how the presence of the Character ‘Waingro’ is simply a part of the Slugline.  Instead of being mentioned in the exposition.  It’s one of the many fun little tricks you’ll pick up, the more screenplays you read.

Here, I should mention something else very important.  The very first time a speaking character in your script is mentioned, his or her name must be CAPITALIZED.  In other words, if BOB had been mentioned in the Exposition before speaking, his name BOB would need to be completely Capitalized, as follows:

Wet golden retriever happily jumps back and forth in lawn sprinkler.  BOB, a twenty-two year old college drop out, stands idly by.

And only the initial instance, after that, just type ‘Bob‘ instead.  And remember, character names are always CAPITALIZED and centered while speaking.  But that’s easier to remember than Capitalizing the full name on opening mention.  Something that slips by a lot of writers and can cause havoc during production.  When a character’s name is CAPITALIZED, it’s the introduction of that character into the story.  And everyone in production needs that reminder, throughout the production process.  Enough miscommunication runs rampant during film and TV production, as it is.  Any Script Supervisor involved in the making of a film or TV show will usually catch this, but occasionally they don’t and you would be shocked at the consequences.

DISSOLVE TO:  — is not really used as often as it used to be.  It means exactly what it says.  It’s an instruction to DISSOLVE from one scene to another.  Often indicating a passage of time.  Another instruction often used is CUT TO: — but only when it makes sense or is necessary; modern scripts don’t really use this anymore, because it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that you’re cutting to another scene, anyway.

Other examples of Camera Direction that are used would be ANGLE ON, ECU (EXTREME CLOSE UP.) WIDE, TIGHTER, PAN DOWN, PAN UP, PAN ACROSS, etc, etc.  You should really read more scripts to see the multitude of these options; I don’t want to confuse you more than I have to — but keep in mind, you should use these Camera Directions very sparingly.  You will see them in produced screenplays of major motion pictures, but it’s called “Directing on Paper.”  Neophyte screenwriter’s are never allowed to do it.  Those Camera Directions are solely reserved for, and generally placed in the script by, the Director.  It’s the Director’s discretion to use that verbiage, so you might as well leave it to him or her to place it there.

Now, let’s look at some examples of how the structure of a script can really work well when done properly.  I reference the following example for it’s use of dialogue.  The following is taken from the script for Casino Royale:

M sees she is never going to make a dent in his armor, tries a different tact.

M
Bond, this may be too much for a

blunt instrument to understand,
but arrogance and self-awareness
seldom go hand-in-hand.

BOND
(amused)
So, I should be half monk, half hitman ?

M
Any thug can kill.  I need you to
take your ego out of the equation
and judge the situation
dispassionately.  I have to know I
can trust you, and that you know
who to trust.  And since I don’t
know that, I need you out of my
sight.  Go and stick your head in
the sand somewhere and think about
your future.
(re: newspaper)
Because these bastards want your
head.  And I’m seriously considering
feeding you to them.
(as BOND EXITS)
And Bond …
(he pauses, looks)
Don’t ever break into my house
again.

BOND
Wouldn’t dream of it, “M”.

Notice the economical use of dialogue and parenthetical information in this exchange.  (re: newspaper) = references newspaper.  The (re:) abbreviation just came into use in Hollywood within the last decade.  The old school method was to spell out the entire word “reference(s).”   Also notice the use of what is called Stage Direction within Character Dialogue.  And it’s not even intended for the Character that is speaking.  In the middle of “M’s” Dialogue there is this: (as BOND EXITS).  And then a beat later, there’s another one: (he pauses, looks).  Neither of these parenthetical directions can be attributed to the Character speaking — but the writer used them anyway.  This is also something new in the recent years.  The old school rules say never do this.  However, in modern scripts, it is acceptable, no matter what you read in any of those 20-year-old screenwriting books.

Another thing  I should mention briefly is what is commonly referred to in the film world as a negligible difference in the ands and buts.  Meaning that actors will often reword a statement, because it rolls off of their tongue easier.  So, although the original script reads …

BOND
(amused)
So, I should be half monk, half hitman ?

… The line as spoken by actor Daniel Craig in the movie, was in fact:

BOND
So you want me to be half monk, half hitman ?

And you will notice the (amused) has also vanished.  That’s because the way Craig played it on camera, Bond is clearly not amused.  In addition to these small differences, also note Bond’s last line is not the same in the script as it is in the film.  In the script, Bond says this:

BOND
Wouldn’t dream of it, “M”.

While in the film, he refers to her as, “Mum.”  Possibly a sarcastic ‘Mom’ reference, but more than likely — given earlier dialogue in the scene — ‘Mum’ is her actual last name.  Mum is an English name.  Guess we’ll find out when Skyfall is released — reportedly that film’s plot deals heavily with the character Judy Dench plays.

Another thing you should be aware of, in respect to Dialogue, is when it should be labeled: “Continued.”  A “Continued,” or “Cont’d” should be applied when a character is speaking, and that Dialogue is interrupted by either exposition or action, or even a turn of the page.   If you’re using a typewriter, if not software typically handles “Continued’s” for you.  Some writers place this in a parenthetical, others will place it right next to name of the Character speaking.  For example:

WILL
I can’t tell if it’s orange or mauve.

Will inspects the bizarre paint, revealed underneath gray primer on the old car.

WILL
(continued)
But whatever color it was before they painted it,
it sure as hell wasn’t black.

Or …

WILL (CONT’D)
But whatever color it was before they painted it,
it sure as hell wasn’t black.

Now let’s look at a brief example of the opening description of both the Scene and the Main Character.  The level of exposition necessary in introducing your Main Character, is entirely up to you.  Here is a good example of a complete character sketch.  And notice how this takes a full paragraph and even includes Voice Over (V.O.) Narration.   The first page from the Pilot script for the Television show Burn Notice:

EXT. KAZAKHSTAN STREET CORNER – DAY

A crowded street in Qaraghandy, Kazakhstan. It’s a decaying
industrial city of crumbling Soviet-era architecture. Street
vendors haggle with housewives and oil workers, and ancient
cars negotiate the chaotic traffic.

MICHAEL WESTON (40) stands on a corner. He’s good looking,
clean-cut, with blue eyes and a crooked smile. He’s athletic,
but not huge… like a college professor who goes to the gym.
His Western attire attracts a few looks, which he ignores. As
he checks his watch, we hear his dry, sardonic voice in V.O:

MICHAEL (V.O.)
Covert intelligence involves a lot

of waiting around. Know what it’s
like being a spy? Like sitting in
your dentist’s reception area 24
hours a day. You read magazines,
sip coffee… and every few weeks
someone tries to kill you. That’s
what it’s like being a spy.

Notice how the writer also snuck in a reference to the character’s voice without having to use a parenthetical: “… we hear his dry, sardonic voice in V.O:”  You should always try and seize these opportunities, if at all possible.  Too many parentheticals can make a script appear unprofessional and written by a neophyte.  And you don’t want that.

Now here’s an example of a slightly briefer opening Character description from the screenplay for the 1983 film, WarGames:

CLOSE UP – DAVID LIGHTMAN

Seventeen, pale, carelessly dressed in torn T-shirt and jeans that hang loosely on his lanky frame. 

Rather economical, isn’t it ?  That’s often the idea.  In the case of Burn Notice, you’re meeting a character that you may be stuck with for several seasons, therefore a longer description up front is often necessary.  (In fact, you’ll see much longer if you read enough scripts)  It can even come in handy when the Casting Agents are trying to find someone to fit the role.  As is often the case in Television, once the Pilot is given the go-ahead, the producers are required to cast the lead as soon as possible.  Whereas with a film, there is a very long development period, therefore a more descriptive Character sketch isn’t really necessary yet.

Also notice “CLOSE UP”.  This is a Camera Direction.  Try and use this sparingly.  Often, it is completely unnecessary, given that the Director and Cinematographer will most likely change it, anyway.  CLOSE UP means exactly what it implies: the camera is Close Up on the actor’s face.

Most of the structural stuff you will really get from reading scripts, but there is a fun one I came across a long time ago, that will actually help you keep your script shorter.  It’s called ‘Staccato,’ and it involves typing your exposition like poetry in one line increments.   Take a look at this passage from the opening page of Walter Hill/David Giler’s draft of ALIEN:

FADE IN

SOMETIME IN THE FUTURE:

INT. ENGINE ROOM

Empty, cavernous.

INT. ENGINE CUBICLE

Circular, jammed with instruments.
All of them idle.
Console chairs for two.
Empty.

INT. OILY CORRIDOR – “C” LEVEL

Long, dark.
Empty.
Turbos throbbing.
No other movement.

INT. CORRIDOR – “A” LEVEL

Long, empty.

INT. INFIRMARY – “A” LEVEL

Distressed ivory walls.
All instrumentation at rest.

INT. CORRIDOR TO BRIDGE – “A” LEVEL

Black, empty.

INT. BRIDGE

Vacant.
Two space helmets resting on chairs.
Electrical hum.
Lights on the helmets begin to signal one another.
Moments of silence.
A yellow light goes on.
Data mind bank in b.g.
Electronic hum.
A green light goes on in front of one helmet.
Electronic pulsing sounds.
A red light goes on in front of other helmet.
An electronic conversation ensues.
Reaches a crescendo.
Then silence.
The lights go off, save the yellow.

Maybe this style of writing is right for you and maybe it isn’t.  Maybe the style is right for your script and maybe it isn’t.  Often, writers have far too much exposition for this style of writing to be of any actual use.  Admittedly, it can be a nuisance if you require a lot of exposition, and using this style only makes your script longer.  Could be that you’re simply in that kind of mood, could be that you simply write better at that rhythm.  Either way, Staccato is perfectly acceptable as a legitimate format for screenwriting in the industry.

Well now, wasn’t that fun ?  I think that’s enough for you to get started.  If you have any questions, feel free to place them in the comments section below.  And remember, the best thing you can be doing if you want to write one of these things, is reading scripts.  Google is your friend now.  You want to read a script, Google the name of the movie and right behind it ‘Screenplay’ or ‘Script.’  A lot more scripts than you would expect are available on the internet.  The more of them you read, the more tricks you’ll learn.

Have fun.

J.A.

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One response

  1. Thank you for this, Jim. I’m bookmarking it in case I decide to try it. 🙂 I just might, ya know!

    I know nothing about writing scripts, but I’ve seen a lot of movies. I don’t know what Hollywood is up to lately (smoking crack, judging by the junk they’re pumping out!) but there is one writing-related thing I would add.

    PLEASE, no obvious expository dialogue!

    This is called Hollywood dialogue (!!) and it happens when one character tells another character something he/she already knows, solely for the purpose of enlightening the audience. It makes actors look awkward and sounds idiotic.

    “As you know, coworker Bob, you and I have been in this department for seven years, with our desks right next to each other, and you are often in the habit of rolling your chair over to ask me really stupid questions.”

    I would imagine a screener would roll his/her eyes and dump your script and move on to the next. It’s not good writing. Let us figure out the dynamics of the situation; it will hold our attention. We’ll be thinking “Who is this guy? Why did he do that? What will happen now?”

    I’d much rather see a movie where I have to keep watching to find out what happens rather than clunky stuff like this.

    February 21, 2012 at 6:30 PM

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