Monday, January 05, 2009

smack, Bang, WHALLOP!

Q: When I’m writing action-based scripts, I try write down the sound of the action. eg..... BANG! The car erupted into a ball of fire. SLAM! The man attacked from the side, sending John crashing into the wall. SMASH! The dark figure burst through the window, glass shattering all around.

Is this a good idea, or do you think it comes off as amateur-ish? Does it seem like I don't know what I'm doing or that I can't describe the action any other way? Or does it have the desired effect - helps the reader visualise the moment and keep reading?

In general, I think it’s a good idea to use CAPITAL LETTERS to accentuate the moment. The above example would be perfectly fine in my book as there’s a pace and immediacy about the action that the reader can feel and visualise. However, as with most things in screenwriting, especially spec scripts, proceed with caution. Don’t OVERUSE CAPITAL LETTERS BECAUSE IT WILL GET VERY ANNOYING, VERY SOON.

Obviously, entire scripts written in capital letters are a big no-no, but they still crop up here and there, which really shouts AMATEUR more than anything else (some TV script formats being the exception). When you first mention a character, their name goes in capital letters, then you refer to them as normal from there (but everyone knew that, right?).

When it comes to describing the action, always remember that less is more. How you use capital letters will usually indicate how confident you are about your script. For example, if you’re feeling a bit insecure about your writing, you might write something like this:

“Danny WALKS into the empty ROOM, takes one LOOK around, inhales DEEPLY, then makes a RUN for the window.


SMASH! He jumps right through the window”.

If you’re feeling more confident, or normal, you’d probably use the capital letters for the SMASH! only; everything else just gives the description an unnecessarily jerky feel. And the smash is the most dramatic part of the scene, so it justifies its capital use.

For action scripts specifically, you should probably use capitals for the ACTIVE parts of the description rather than lazily pepper EVERY WORD WITH CAPITAL LETTERS. If you’re writing well, the story will work, regardless of capital letters, so be smart and be cool, and you should be okay. Always think of the scene and the story, rather than worrying if you’re missing out on making an impact with lower case action-description.


Spec Odyssey said...

Danny, you say that it's common knowledge to put a character's name in capitals for the first time he/she appears, and then just use lowercase after that, and that's what I thought, but if you look at Life on Mars scripts, Ashes to Ashes etc... you'll see that they capitalise the names all the way through!

I guess what I'm trying to say is WTF!!!?

Neil said...

Thanks a lot Danny, that really helps. That's the sort of thing I was planning on, so I'll stick with my gut. Interesting about the Life on Mars scripts. Just goes to show - know who you're writing for. Check the formatting of every show before you spec it.

Danny Stack said...

I think some writers get in the habit of writing names in capital letters all the time, and if you've been commissioned to write Life on Mars, no-one's gonna complain. The only people who do complain are script readers, so in general it's wise to write a spec by following the 'rules of format', otherwise you just give them easy ammunition to hate your script.

Anonymous said...

I posted a comment on capitalization over at, but since not everyone is a member I'll post it here.


Disclaimer: I'm a media concept reader / pre-producer - mind that I don't read and forward screenplays, but business concepts with creative attachments. However, the main rule of screenplay reading applies: don't annoy your reader.

I'm an avid hater of overused capitalization. There's no need for it unless your ability of creating suspense / drama with words is somehow limited. If the WRITER has CAPITALIZED every second WORD to SHOCK me or to POINT my INTEREST to a certain FACT then his way of PHRASING FAILS.

Stick to capitalizing names that you introduce (i.e. RICHARD, 34, enters the room) and otherwise wait for the moment that you want to emphasize most. For example: Nip / Tuck writers rarely capitalize. But the episode "Christian Troy" plays with the shock of a certain moment:

--- "A still shirtless Christian stands in front of the mirror, peels off his nose bandage and leans forward. He takes a good long look at himself and hates what he sees.

He opens his medical bag, pulls out some surgical tools. A long three-inch needle. A scalpel. A chisel.

He fills the needle from a tranquilizer bottle and sinks THE ENTIRE THREE INCHES into his nose. It's a slow painful process that takes nerves of steel and makes his eyes water and burn." ---

It's one of three, four capitalizations (apart from a camera direction and names) - and you can immediately identify the highlights of the episode. What about this?

--- "A still SHIRTLESS Christian stands in front of the MIRROR, PEELS off his nose bandage and leans forward. He takes a good long LOOK at himself and HATES what he sees.

He OPENS his MEDICAL BAG, pulls out some SURGICAL TOOLS. A long three-inch NEEDLE. A SCALPEL. A CHISEL.

He FILLS the needle from a TRANQUILIZER bottle and sinks THE ENTIRE THREE INCHES into his NOSE. It's a slow PAINFUL process that takes NERVES of steel and makes his eyes WATER and BURN." ---

It's almost boring. My advise, again: don't capitalize without thinking. It's like screaming into someones face - when you always do it people don't know when you're really angry. But when you're a quiet person and suddenly burst out - wow, that's disturbing.


Unknown said...

Good info, thanks.

Does the same apply to radio scripts, anyone? With capital letters for name when first introduced, then normal letters thereafter?

Anonymous said...

I'd recommend reading the Dark Knight screenplay, lots and lots of capitalisation there.

Anonymous said...

Right I am going to sound a complete idiot now but I honestly don't know what a spec script is!!
Is it just a screenplay? I mean the BBC ask for unsolicited material but say they don't want spec scripts, then when you guys mention spec scripts it just sounds like you have written another screenplay. I am confused.

I was a CAPITAL letter for characters all the way through my scripts until i was told by two people to not do it.

Danny Stack said...

A spec is a speculative script, i.e something you've written yourself that has no guarantee of getting made but serves as a writing sample of your talents if anything else...

Lucy V said...

I use capitals for scripts only for such instances as CRASH, BANG, SLAM, WALLOP - onamata--onnap--those words that are spelt like they sound. In fact, the only one I don't is RING as in "the telephone RINGS." Which is total insanity now I think of it.

Overuse of capital letters do my absolute nut when I'm script reading.

Capital letters for all sounds are for shooting scripts, not specs as a *general* rule: it says in loads of books, on the 'net, Final Draft will tell you in that little dialogue box that pops up every time you open it. Having said that, I don't really care about *just* sounds being capitalised, especially if it's a writer/director, but scribes persist in capitalising absolutely everything as well as sounds - a real fave is DOORBELL, as in the DOORBELL RINGS. Argh!

Anonymous said...

This is one of those hugely annoying instances where advice from different readers is contradictory. Everyone agrees that you shouldn't overuse it, but I've heard of readers that won't tolerate it at all. Better to completely avoid it unless you are absolutely confident about what you are doing.

Anonymous said...

Most of the scripts on the BBC Writersroom have their characters in caps all the way through, a writer shouldn't be dismissed because they copied what they assumed was a UK standard. What else do we have to go by but these scripts?

And it seems to me that readers getting annoyed by CAPITALS is ridiculous because a good story is a good story, CAPS or no-caps. Readers seem to me to be too ready to hate a script.

Unknown said...

Hmm, I have to say I feel a little bit the same way as Aspiring Writer. I do think the fact that character's names in capitals really annoys readers, is a bit silly.

From reading some, and I stress 'some' reader feedback (I don't mean anyone I've come across here) I can't help getting the impression that a few of them feel quite 'above' the rest of us and almost gleeful about their high reader status. You know, I can make or break someone, kind of attitude.

I do appreciate that it must be boring and irritating when script layouts aren't as they should be, but a lot of people sending in these scripts are very new to it.

Piers said...

Characters in caps all the way through used to be the UK standard, which is why you still see it.

First appearance capped and others not is the US standard, and is making headway over here.

Personally, I'd tend to use the US standard, cos I think it makes the script easier to read.

Danny Stack said...

I think you're not far wrong. It is silly, and readers can be terribly sensitive. I was like that when I first started. It's a reverse ego thing, probably.

Lucy V said...

I think there's always more than one way of looking at things like this. Yes readers can be a pain in the arse and sometimes it feels as if they or circumstance is against us. "Who are THEY to tell us what are work is like??" We've all felt it, I'm not going to deny it.

I think the reason readers *can* get totally hung up on format is because it's something CONCRETE, it's like a get-out-of-jail-free card. You needn't get into an argument - what's a good story to one, isn't to another, after all.

However format - "it's not supposed to be like that", whammo, a reader can feel justified on passing maybe... Perhaps that's why readers at the start of their careers in particular put so much emphasis on format: it takes away the GUILT. And some readers do feel guilty typing PASS on reports, especially as they're more likely to write that, than CONSIDER or the fabled RECOMMEND.

Like Piers, I think less caps makes it easier to read but I've never passed on the basis of "too many caps", no way. But as for power - I think only a reader who's been working five minutes will think they are a *real* "gateway": over the years
I've recommended scripts that have never seen the light of day and passed on scripts that have made it onto the DVD shelf.

End of the day, a good story IS a good story - a good reader isn't gonna argue with a script that has a good story, regardless of how many caps it has - good stories that resonate are in short supply.

Lucy V said...

"Are work" - lol. and an extra blank space. Who the hell is this girl???? ; p