Screenwriting Basics #5: Scene Description

I want to spend time showing examples, so very quickly here’s what goes into scene description (also called action lines):

Elements of Scene Description:

  • tells you what the characters are doing in the scene
  • describes the setting
  • details what can be seen or heard in the scene
  • sets tone and pacing or rhythm that informs the edit
  • uses ALL CAPS to highlight important things (use sparingly)
  • avoids camera direction (don’t use “the camera dollies in…”)

We’re going to look at pages from three very different scripts: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman, Zodiac (2007) by James Vanderbilt, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) by William Goldman

Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse (2018)

This animated film balances humor, pathos and a coming-of-age story in a superhero origin film. It is excellent, and for that matter, so is the script.

Into the Spider-verse has a narrative told through a comic book filter, and for that reason the script has to show this comic flair as clearly as possible. That includes scripting out the comic thought bubbles and things that appear across the screen. Note that the pivotal moment “EVERYONE KNOWS” is played up for comic relief — the script has it appear in giant letters behind Miles, the last period landing with a resounding note.

Later in the script, when Miles is trying to help Peter B Parker hack into a computer they have to work around the Head Scientist Olivia Octavius. This fun exchange happens:

That “organize your desktop, lady!” line got big laughs in the theater, and that’s partly because of how starkly we’re shown the “BAFFLING DESKTOP FULL OF FILES” right before that. So relatable. If that moment hadn’t been scripted out, it wouldn’t have played to such laughs.

Zodiac (2007)

Lots of good feelings from the first example. Let’s go down a darker path.

Writing horror, thriller, suspense… they come with other challenges. How can you communicate that a scene is scary? Get out this page from Zodiac, the movie based on the real story of the Zodiac Killer.

Look at how the car following Darlene and Mike, soon-to-be-victims, is characterized. Like a hungry lion. It’s not literal, and yet it works to get the point across.

What was interesting when I looked up this example was the fact that the script I lfound and the resulting film were very different scenes. In the script, this car has been following Darlene and Mike for miles, resulting in a car chase and eventual car trouble. In the movie, things are quite innocent until the killer’s car pulls up behind them.

An early draft could look totally different from what you eventually see on screen. Why this car chase scene was skipped over was possibly two-fold — the car chase scene took too long and detracted from the rest of the movie, and possibly because it wasn’t true to what really happened. This is a real killer this movie is based on, so some attempt at reality should be made.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

In the opening of this Western, we’re introduced to our main character Butch Cassidy. The scene descriptions give us a good idea of what type of man he is and how he should be portrayed.

William Goldman is a very well known screenwriter, and he could get away with some tricks that you probably shouldn’t do in your first scripts. For one, he’s scripting out a lot of stuff that cannot be seen, like how Butch speaks and that he’s been a leader of men all his life. For the most part, if you can’t see or hear it, you should think twice about writing it in your action lines.

The format is also a little off from the norm, or at least what we see today. A MAN is separated from the rest of the description. This could be very intentional rhythm illustrated for the scene, having the director and actor take their time letting this introduction play out before the camera. Nowadays, write the subject in the same paragraph. William Goldman can do all this. We can’t. Yet.

I also want to note Goldman’s use of “CUT TO:” between each segment here. This is a stylistic choice — it’s not necessary. Sometimes this can give a sense of pacing. Personally I find script pages to be prime real estate — I might need to hit very specific page counts and I find the CUT TO unnecessary because…well, what else are you going to do? If you’re jumping to another scene, you’re gonna cut.

Sources:

The Magic Bullet: Action Lines – ScriptMag.com

5 Ways to Write More Effective Scene Description – The Script Lab

Screenwriting Basics #4: Dialogue

One way to get me interested in your script: Have really compelling, interesting, and/or funny dialogue.

Writing dialogue is hard. Heck, writing at all is hard. It takes years of study — reading everything you can get your hands on, practicing at your craft, sucking at the first few scripts you try, doing better with each draft and receiving constructive criticism that leads you down the right path.

First, let’s understand what counts as bad dialogue.


*snore*

Is anyone else bored yet? I know I am. Dialogue like this, although similar to how we talk in real life, does nothing to advance a plot and frankly bores the reader into a stupor. Authentic dialogue does not mean word-for-word small talk. Authentic dialogue is more simulated reality.

Another example:

If some kid scares off some robbers with his, um, karate skills? Wouldn’t you want to see that happen?

Here’s where we remember the cardinal writing rule of Show, Don’t Tell. It’s much more interesting to see action scripted out, happening before us, than to have some character explaining it. Johnny’s dialogue here becomes an info dump — blurting out a series of events in an unnecessarily long rant. It is so dull to hear a character explain things that should have just unfolded on screen.

Another fun, yet difficult one to learn. On-the-nose dialogue.

On-the-nose dialogue is when characters say what they actually feel in the moment or describe things that are obvious. It’s the opposite of subtlety. This is where subtext comes in, and that’s a tricky subject.

Subtext is the implicit meaning of a text—the underlying message that is not explicitly stated or shown. Subtext gives the reader information about characters, plot, and the story’s context as a whole.

https://www.masterclass.com/articles/what-is-subtext-learn-the-definition-and-role-of-subtext-in-writing-plus-5-tips-to-better-incorporate-subtext-in-your-work

A character’s feelings, or even the situation at hand, can be described using visuals, settings, character body language and more to be conveyed. Sometimes, a character will say the opposite of what they mean, but we as the audience can see the truth behind it. Humans lie a lot. Your characters could too.

Yeah. Johnny isn’t happy.

Your characters can say a lot without really saying much. Trust the actors to do the acting. Body language coupled with dialogue can change an entire meaning of a line.

Great dialogue is, of course, subjective. Beauty is in the ear of the beholder. But there are a number of films out there that many folks agree has good dialogue. Check out this scene from The Shawshank Redemption. Spoilers if you haven’t seen this famous film from 1994.

“It always makes me laugh. Andy Dufresne… who crawled through a river of sh*t and came out clean.”

– Red

This scene comes at the end of the movie. Andy Dufresne has already escaped, and Morgan Freeman’s character Red laments his loss. It’s expositional. It’s telling, not showing. It shouldn’t work but it does. It wraps things up beautifully, told in the unique voice of Red.

“I’m Mad As Hell and I’m Not Gonna Take This Anymore!”

– Howard Beale

This scene from Network is a great one to study. A news anchor losing his cool on national television! But the story behind the scene is not that he’s mad about current events… it’s truly about his anger over the fact that he’s losing his job. Subtext!

“That ain’t no Etch a Sketch. This is one doodle that can’t be undid.”

– Convenience Store Clerk

I really like Juno. The characters all have very strong, individual voices. Even the bit parts, like the clerk at the convenience store, are interesting characters for an actor to play.

You want to be the type of writer who could attract someone to any part in your film, and screenwriter Diablo Cody became quite the Hollywood darling after this film premiered.

Sources:

How to Avoid Writing On The Nose Dialogue – Screencraft.org

15 Movies Screenwriters Should Watch to Study Dialogue – Screencraft.org

What is Subtext – Masterclass.com

Screenwriting Basics #3: Character

Unless you’re writing the type of artistic film where you only show time lapses of moss growing or something, you’re likely going to need characters to populate your script. They may be a hodgepodge group of high schoolers or even anthropomorphic cars.

The most important of which is your main character. And they should do more than just go through the motions.

Your main character needs to be interesting. Infuse them with details, quirks, dialogue that makes the reader, and eventually audience, enjoy going on this ride with them.

How do you do this? Start thinking details. Are they funny? Smart in a really unique way? Do they see the world in a way others do not? Do they have a personal struggle and you can’t help but root for them?

Do they have a general disdain for humanity but also the propensity for curing everyone’s ills?

Lookin’ at you, Doctor House.

You want to avoid stereotypes in your main character. Instead of having a genius doctor, you have a genius doctor who lacks a bedside manner, has a physical disability which leads him to a dependency on narcotics.

So let’s talk round vs flat characters.

“A round character is deep and layered character in a story. Round characters are interesting to audiences because they feel like real people; audiences often feel invested in these characters’ goals, successes, failures, strengths, and weaknesses.”


https://www.masterclass.com/articles/round-vs-flat-characters-in-fiction

Round characters are more interesting and make your reader and audience more invested in the story.

“A flat character is a two-dimensional character lacking depth or a real personality. Usually, flat characters have just one or two perfunctory traits. Often considered “stock characters,” flat characters can often be summarized in one word (like “bully” or “love interest”) and never digress from or transcend their role.”

https://www.masterclass.com/articles/round-vs-flat-characters-in-fiction

A flat character lacks the great detail that makes a compelling character. They fall into stereotypes — the distracted professor, the overworked single mom, the ditsy cheerleader… we’ve seen these time and again. It’s fine if they populate the rest of your world a bit, but for the characters we follow? We want more.

How to write a round character:

  • Character Traits. What are their character traits, both good and bad? What is the flaw your main character possesses that might cause them grief later in the story?
  • Details. What are their likes/dislikes? What is their appearance? What sports do they play? Where do they work? You might not use all of these, but it will help you make more informed decisions on how your character will act.
  • Believability. Your main character has believable reactions to events based on their character traits. A generally mellow person won’t just blow up at a minor inconvenience. It wouldn’t fit their character. Don’t lose your reader, and later your audience, by making your character behave strangely.
  • Conflict. Give them an internal and external conflict. The main conflict may be the fate of the world ending, but the internal conflict may be a father regaining the love of his estranged daughter.
  • Dialogue. Your character has a voice, and it should be a distinct voice. If you cover up the names of all the characters in your script and read the dialogue, you should be able to tell who is speaking. Don’t let everyone sound the same.

Building a really interesting main character is one part of writing that great first script.

Sources:

https://blog.reedsy.com/round-character/

https://www.indiewire.com/2013/11/screenwriting-101-5-tips-for-writing-better-characters-into-your-screenplay-33156/

https://www.masterclass.com/articles/round-vs-flat-characters-in-fiction

Screenwriting Basics #2: The Format

A screenplay is a blueprint that not only tells the story, but contains the basic information needed to make the actual movie. Unlike the men of Mulan, it should not be as mysterious as the dark side of the moon.

Screenwriting requires using a tried and true format that is immediately easy to read, well organized, and follows some basic rules. If you’re writing your first or even your hundredth script and want to look professional, this is the way to do it. That’s why this Screenwriting Basics is all about format. 

Scene Heading/Slug Line – contains pertinent practical information on when and where the scene takes place. Also called a slug line. (Ex: INT. BEDROOM – DAY would be “Interior bedroom in the day” or EXT. HOUSE – NIGHT “Exterior House at night.”)

Action lines – Describes what is happening in the scene, written in present tense.

Dialogue – centered under the character name of who is speaking out loud.

Parenthetical – a description of how the line is spoken. Use sparingly.

Let’s look at a snippet from Stranger Than Fiction:

In the above example you see where I marked basic elements of screenplay format — the character names, dialogue, scene description and even a parenthetical.

Now let’s look at a portion of a scene and its script. Spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen this movie from 2006. This is the moment that Harold, our main character, finally calls the author who has been narrating his life:

Now let’s look at this scene:

The script had to make it clear what was happening in this scene, and that includes what Kay is typing versus what is actually happening in the scene. Kay’s dialogue “Don’t answer that!” is in italics because the normally pretty chill author is now feeling very tense.

I might have thrown you off with this slug line of the scene (INT. GARMENT LOFT – CONTINUOUS). It says “Continuous” instead of “night or day” because it’s coming right after a scene of Harold dialing the phone, so they are right up against each other time-wise. For now, keep it simple at Day or Night so your Assistant Director can schedule things easier.

Note that the writer, Zach Helm, doesn’t feel the need to describe the slow camera dolly in to Kay as this climactic moment approaches. He lets the words tell the story and trusts the director and cinematographer to put their creative touch on later. You too don’t want to be held accountable for “directing from the page,” but perhaps that’s a lesson for another day.

It’s a lot of work putting together a film production, and you need a clear blueprint so every crew member knows what to bring to the table.

Want further reading on the subject?

Check out the Hollywood Standard Vol 2, the definitive formatting guide for screenwriters.

You can also read a more detailed overview of format over at Screencraft.

Screenwriting Basics #1: Budget Friendly Screenwriting Software

This is the first in a multi-part series breaking down the screenwriting process so you can get started writing your next great idea.

First, let’s talk where you write the script. I don’t care if you start in a paper notebook or scribble outlines on napkins, at some point you’re going to have to type this into proper screenwriting format on a computer.

Professional screenwriting programs like Movie Magic Screenwriter or Final Draft are a major investment. Screenwriter 6 is currently at the sale price of $169. It’s usually $249. Final Draft 12 is on sale for $185 (again, usually $249).

That’s a hefty price tag for someone who is just starting out. Luckily, there’s some really good free and cheap options out there too:

  • YouMeScript – a Google Drive extension. Features the ability to have multiple writers working at the same time from different computers. Great for collaboration but make sure you save often. It does not automatically save for you.
  • Fade In – Fade in provides a free trial to get you started. It is only $80 for the full version.
  • Writer Duet – a Cloud based software that has a lot of nifty features. The free trial lets you write your first 3 scripts on the program for free.
  • Celtx – This used to be free but it seems it’s gone through some updates and is now $15/mo for the most basic package.

The free options are fine for when you are learning to write or if you are simply writing for your own short films, but if you decide to go big time and start submitting to agents or contests or major production houses — get Final Draft or Screenwriter. There can be little formatting issues with the free programs that the pricey programs would sort out.

Study the Craft

You can’t expect to grow as a writer unless you work at it, study it and see what’s been done before.

You can see my list of recommended screenwriting books here: Reading List: Screenwriting.

How do you expect to write a script if you don’t read them first? The following link gives resources to the best screenplays to read in each genre.

You can also check out a lot more scripts on Simply Scripts and Drew’s Script-o-Rama. Just keep in mind some are transcripts written by a fan watching a show, which makes them not worth studying. You may also have to click through a few, especially on Drew’s site — some links are broken.

“So what’s all this I hear about formatting?” We’ll talk about that in the next Screenwriting Basics post.

Fear Street and How to Elevate your Horror Film

This post is going to be VERY spoilery for Fear Street 1994, Fear Street 1978 and Fear Street 1666 on Netflix. I recommend you watch them first. There’s some great surprises in this story you’re going to want to experience firsthand.

I read some of these Fear Street books as a kid. Each one began with a yearbook. Each one crossed out these pictures as the teenagers were killed off. The story that stuck out the most though was woven throughout the Fear Street and Fear Street Cheerleaders books: Sarah Fear and The Evil.

Sarah Fear was like “I woke up like this.”

The movies are loosely based on these. In this case that’s a good thing — the movies elaborate and elevate the campy horror I loved as a kid to something I really enjoy as an adult. Not only is it good horror, it’s smart.

There are many themes touched upon in the Fear Street movie series. I noted:

  • Racism/Classism (Shadyside vs Sunnydale. Even the names show a clear distinction in their fortunes, but Sunnydale’s good luck is at the expense of Shadyside’s sacrifice)
  • The Societal Harm of Misogyny (Literal witch hunts. Women who spurned the advances of men are accused of witchcraft – sentenced to death for the mere act of denying a man.)
  • Homophobia (The plot begins in 1666 with Sarah and Hannah accused of witchcraft since they love each other.)
  • Legacy and The Choice to Bear it or Break it (The Goode Family continuing their “traditions” to ensure their good fortune at the expense of others).
  • Reversal of Expectations (Goode = Evil. Fier/Fear = Innocence. Sunnydale is full of dark secrets, while Shadyside is innocent.)

I find that good horror, the stuff I want to watch again and again, isn’t just full of cheap scares. Good horror is about something.

My favorite horror movies are in the realm of It Follows, A Quiet Place.

Fear Street decided to be more than just a trio of slasher flicks. It’s clear depiction of classism separates and destroys people. Because one man, Solomon Goode, decided he wanted power over others, he doomed an entire town for generations. “The sun will shine on us yet,” he says, prophesying not that his crops will grow, but that he will be among the chosen few, at the expense of whoever is sacrificed.

Shadyside is plagued with gruesome murder and people being trapped in the town due to financial reasons. “Nobody ever leaves Shadyside” is a poignant line spoken from despondency. Sunnydale is the cookie-cutter perfect town. As long as each generation of Goode sacrifices someone to the evil forces that Solomon summoned, they will remain prosperous and carefree. Who cares if some teenagers die? Or a church full of children? Power over all becomes the ultimate evil here. The pulsating blob of malevolence in the caves is just a personification of that.

Forcing the Shadysiders to kill each other? That’s the whole dog eat dog mentality that plagues the working world. Step on someone to get ahead, that’s what the corporate bigwigs do right?

Nothing like someone over analyzing horror movies to ruin the mood, amiright guys?

But our Shadysiders make the ultimate decision to fight this. Our main characters band together to take down the evil. They fight against expectations and they honor the memory and wishes of Sarah Fier. The truth sets them free, and follows Goode to the end of his days.

When Deena and Sam emerge from the evil caves at the end of the third movie, they emerge in Sheriff Goode’s house. It’s beautiful, perfect, and full of mounted and taxidermied goats. Goats, of course, being a symbol of the Devil. The girls go out to the street, bloody and bedraggled. A neighbor spies them as he’s backing his car up, which causes him to be flattened by a passing truck. Sunnydale’s good luck is over and that is due to the actions of the Shadysiders.

If you are writing horror, you’d do well to take a page from Fear Street‘s book-to-movie adaptation. Making your movie about something other than just an axe wielding serial killer will capture your audience’s imagination, bring to light societal problems in the real world… and possibly lead to a few sequels. Anyone can write about some murderer picking off teenagers, but to make that story more than scares elevates your writing to the next level.

It’s been many years since I read the books, but I believe The Evil was originally Sarah Fear’s revenge personified. I distinctly remember her dying on her passage to America, cursing her sister or somebody for making her go on this journey. The movies decided to go deeper, and the revelation of the real evil was a great twist that made for excellent commentary on classism, misogyny and more.

I’d totally watch more of these, Netflix. Please continue giving Leigh Janiak the chance to direct them.

A Film Is Born Three Times Pt. 1: Re: Writing

“A film is born three times. First in the writing of the script, once again in the shooting, and finally in the editing.” — Robert Bresson, French film maker.

I think folks at first take for granted that a film is a thing born of an idea, written, produced, and edited and then it just exists… but there’s so many changes along the way. Your first draft is almost never, ever going to be what appears on screen. And it probably shouldn’t. Some first drafts are better left being forgotten, but you can’t make a final draft without suffering through the whole writing and re-writing process.

The Road Less Traveled

I talked a bit about my short horror film The Road Less Traveled in my how-to post here: Making the No Budget Horror Film – Bridget LaMonica

The very first very rough draft was written in 2014 while I was at SCAD. Cassie is abandoned at a bar by her friends and captured by two bad men named Miles and Dawson in a cool car.

While in their nefarious clutches, Cassie calls her mother, who races to try to find her. Cassie gets her revenge, only to have her mother finally arrive in time to bury a couple bodies. I called the story Werewolf because that was the monster at the end of the story.

Hunted, an early draft of The Road Less Traveled:

Cassie talks too much. There’s a lot of her talking on the phone, to a friend at a bar, to the kidnappers. Blegh.

She has a cell phone and is able to call for help (kind of a horror movie no-no).

Cassie is resourceful. She knows ways out of her situation but finds her methods were anticipated.

I sent the draft to my friend Masha, who gave me a great critique. Eventually I created the story that was much more interesting to me: Mia (formerly Cassie, now with a more appropriate name – Missing In Action) kidnapped by a lone serial killer named Clyde (the name is never said out loud) who brings her to an abandoned slaughter house to do his evil work. Jokes on him, because Mia fights back. This was called Hunted.

The script was presented to director Lindsay Barrasse. With Lindsay’s attachment to the script and her love of classic horror, we leaned further into classic horror tropes and set the story in the 1970s instead of modern day. No more convenient cell phone.

Draft 9:

Cassie is now Mia and she has no spoken dialogue (only a few lines of voice over).

This version mentions a “90’s style watch” but later we changed the date to the 70s.

Mia is adept at survival — she knows some skills but is unable to escape until later.

I wanted a horror story that played on the classic tropes while delivering some surprises. I had a not-so-subtle reference to a favorite TV show, Supernatural.

Hunted became The Road Less Traveled, inspired by the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken”, Supernatural‘s “The Road So Far” and the fact that we had a female victim who would prove herself capable. The film became more and more about female empowerment, especially since most of our production team was female.

A note: I almost never find my title until a few drafts later. Same with a theme or tone — sometimes it just takes that long to finally whittle down to what I want to say.

Routine Procedures

Before The Road Less Traveled was produced, I had a thesis film at SCAD called Routine Procedures.

This script began in a short script writing class. The basic premise being a group of soldiers discovering an alien box in the woods that could spell doom for all mankind.

The very first (equally very bad) draft saw Johnson, your average Gary Stu with his boss Magnus and a feisty Latina soldier Reyes (inspired by Private Vasquez in Alien). Reyes ends up being an alien. There might have been some idea about aliens enslaving humanity or something? I dunno. This draft doesn’t exist anymore and nor should it.

This script went through several drafts in the class, becoming a time travel story in which these soldiers discover this alien artifact that forces them to relive the same day over and over as they deteriorate. Only one soldier notices, and he is freaking out, man.

Draft 3, Page 1:

In this version we have about 5 characters: Johnson, Sterling, Reyes, Magnus and Hopkins.

This draft was way too talky with too many characters. Still I can see all the major things I kept from this draft forward: Johnson as our lead who figures things out, Magnus as the hard-as-nails superior who is afraid of change, the story starting by mentioning de ja vu.

I condensed the best parts of Hopkins into Reyes and deleted Sterling entirely. He was a useless jerk.

I worked with director Nick Bow to make the film. He suggested Johnson should be a woman. I stopped. I was about to argue. And then I realized, yeah, why didn’t I think about that? The genders of Johnson and Reyes were flipped and we put out a casting call. We got some excellent people to fill out these roles and it wasn’t who we originally expected.

Draft 9, page 1:

The characters were reduced to 3.

We wanted to be clear what happened where (time travel stories get complicated). We labeled the repetitions and the different sections of landscape we were shooting in.

In Draft 3 Reyes saw a snail stuck in a loop. Here it’s a millipede.

Less dialogue and more focused.

As I recall, the title Routine Procedures was there for most of the drafts. I think the first one or two were called Maneuvers or something vaguely military-esque. When I settled on Routine Procedures, it helped sell the fact that this was a time travel story.

Let’s Wrap This Up

Drafts are called such because they are a continuously changing process. The first draft is often called a vomit draft (ew) because you might need to get your initial idea out fast. You bring it to a critique group or a trusted friend who can give you notes, and then you incorporate that into a rewrite. The script is never actually done until it is filmed, and even then it’s open for interpretation.

Next up, Part 2: Production.