Monday, February 08, 2010

Guest Post: Julie Gray

The voting for the one page scene competition doesn't close until Friday so you've still got lots of time to choose your favourite. At the moment, it looks fairly evenly split, so it could either way! If you haven't voted yet, click here (or scroll down to the previous post if you feel a bit more energetic).

One of the things Julie noticed when assessing the entries was the frequent misuse of screenplay format. Yes, that old chestnut. Screenwriting 101, right? And yet, no matter how much you try to stress how important it is, it seems more and more people can't quite follow the basics. Even with the Red Planet Prize, I am continuously surprised and disappointed at some of the wild and erratic formatting (typed in Times New Roman in Word, different fonts, colours, centred text, dialogue etc, eugh!).

So, here's a rundown on basic screenplay format by Julie. Take it away, Ms Gray!


Slug and Action Lines

A slugline, which indicates where a scene is taking place, includes three elements: INT. (interior) EXT. (exterior), location and time of day. So we might have:


Notice that all must be capitalized. If you use Final Draft, this aspect of the formatting is automatic.

There are only two choices when it comes to interior or exterior – INT. or EXT.

Location can be anywhere – just make sure to make it both simple and descriptive. Sounds like a contradiction, right? Well, let’s do a little exercise:


Pretty interesting, huh? Not. But how about if we try this:


Okay, now we’re being much more specific, right? Or how about:


Different barn altogether, yes?

Time of day should really be limited to the following choices:


In other words, you would never say:


…because it would be ever so NOT done. Or, you know, not “industry standard”.

Now. Let’s talk about action lines. Action lines are the bits that come after the slug.

So we have:


DREW MACMILLIAN (52) staggers out into the sunshine. His left arm drips blood.

I TOLD you not to come into the barn!!

Okay we’ve got a ton of stuff we could learn from here. Let’s start where we were supposed to start way back like a paragraph ago – action lines. So we’ve got Drew staggering out of the barn. The action line is where the, um, ACTION happens. Notice that the action line is written in the present simple tense: Drew staggers.

Many new writers, not knowing better, write action lines in what we would technically call the "present continuous tense":

Violet is swinging a rake.
WRONG (painful taser-like buzzer in your neck!)

Violet swings a rake.
RIGHT: (pass go, collect $200 and one delicious cupcake)

Stepping away from grammar labels momentarily, the reason the first example is not appropriate for a script is that it distances the reader from the action in a small but subtle way. So rather than being in the scene with Violet, in a sensory way, we are distanced because you are telling me what she is doing. I don't watch it myself - you narrate it to me. As if I am a sight-challenged person. Violet is swinging a rake. Oh hey, thanks for that. I’m late for Braille class.

When an action line is written properly, I observe the action myself. I watch it happen. You aren't telling me it's happening, it just IS happening. I am the observer and I see Violet as she swings the rake.

Let’s see what else…


DREW MACMILLAN (52) staggers out into the sunshine. His left arm drips blood.

I TOLD you not to come into the barn!

Aha! Drew Macmillan is in all caps because we’ve never seen him before. All -cap when introducing a new character. We’ve put his age in brackets. You do not HAVE to do this but it’s a quicker shorthand than the other acceptable method which is:

DREW MACMILLAN, fifties, staggers out into the sunshine. His left arm drips blood.

Then we have this wife (or daughter?) Violet. Notice that I used (O.S.) rather than (V.O.)? O.S. stands for “off screen”. Some people use (O.C.) or “off camera”. In Hollywood, we mostly do (O.S.). So it literally means that the character who has spoken is somewhere IN this scene but we just cannot see them. She’s behind the door, inside the barn with her rake, Violet is. (V.O.) means “voice over” so that would mean that the character speaking the words is nowhere near this scene but rather is narrating it from the past, from the future or maybe from the comfort of his or her living room or jail cell. So we might have:


DREW MACMILLAN (52) staggers out into the sunshine. His left arm drips blood.

I TOLD him not to go in the barn.

You’ll often hear “show it don’t say it” in action lines. Well, yes, a more fundamental screenwriting rule would be hard to find. But what the devil does it mean?

Well, pretend you are a Hollywood script reader for a moment and you run across this in an action line:

Violet and Drew have been friends since high school.

Or -

Drew enjoys impressing the other farmers even though he’s broke.

Or -

Violet has a hot temper.

Now go with me here, guys. As a basic reality check, action lines do not appear on the screen, correct? So using that as a jumping off point, does everybody see what is patently wrong with these examples?

Go ahead. Look back up at those examples. I’ll wait…


So what does “They’ve been friends since high school” look like in an action line? It looks like NOTHING because you have told me, not shown me. So, if you’re needing to show that two characters have been friends since high school, don’t TELL me that in an action line – EVIDENCE me that in the actions that are going on. Such as:

VIOLET: I’m so fat! I can’t fit into this dress!
DREW: Aw hon, you’re as beautiful as you were at senior prom.

There are so many creative ways to let us know that these two have been together since high school. This can be indicated in dialogue as above, it might be indicated by possessions, shared memories, or even someone else making a comment. Don't cop out and simply announce to us what this relationship is. It's lazy writing, it doesn't work, it is the mark of an amateur and it will get you a PASS.

On the other hand, crafty and skillful writers can say things in action lines like:

Violet crouches down in the hay. Wishing she were anywhere but here.

Drew sharpens a knife calmly. Never can be too sharp.

Violet sits up, frightened.

Why can you get away with things like this? Because these are sentiments generally accompanied by facial expressions or body language. Can you picture Violet sitting up, frightened? How about if she sat up, annoyed? Or sat up, confused? See how she’d look different in each instance just by that single word choice?

Remember - show it, don't say it. Evidence things, do not list them.

To summarize:

Action lines SHOULD:

Be like haiku: brief, economical and as sensory and colorful as possible

ALL CAP and briefly describe new characters - even extras like the NURSE.

Always show do not tell. Evidence how your character feels. Do not make a list.

Be written in the present simple tense.

Action lines SHOULD:

NOT be dense and long-winded. Try to keep them to about 4 lines. Particularly on your first few pages.

NOT be so brief that they are choppy and weird sounding. Don't economize so much you leave out the fundamentals of sentence structure.

NOT ever talk to the reader. Do not tell us how we should feel in this moment. Do not tell the camera what to do. Do not give music instructions or set design ideas. Just tell your story. In fact, if there’s one DO NOT about action lines this might just be the most critical one because having these types of instructions on your pages will mark you as an amateur faster than it took you to read this sentence.



Dim said...

Thanks Julie and Danny. I was thinking (as I'm working on a screenplay again) that I should print these notes out and stick them to my monitor. ThenI read them again and wondered if I shoud tattoo them on the inside of my eyelids. Important, but basic rules, which suggests common errors, which means I probably make 'em.

Julie Gray said...

You're welcome, Dim! Another thing you can do is buy my book, Just Effing Entertain Me when it comes out in late 2010 :)

But yes, you'd be horrified how many writers make the most basic mistakes in formatting. I don't know about the UK but in the US mistakes like this lead to the script being tossed out absolutely immediately. It's that important.

Philip Palmer said...

These are great format notes...It's so frustrating when writers don't follow these principles. It just makes the good script SEEM less good.

My own bug bear is writers who put CONTINUOUS all the time. In theory it's correct - shows like Casualty use it when a character moves from one corridor to another corridor. But it's usually obvious if the action is continuous! And to me it interrupts the flow.

I like scene directions which are funny. I script edited Geoff Deane - who wrote Kinky Boots - and his scene directions were hilarious. Because Geoff knows, the people who read scripts are the ones who pay writers!

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