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 #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.

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.

Reading List: Screenwriting

Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his book Outliers: Secrets of Success that in order to become an expert in anything, you need 10,000 hours of practice. That is also true for screenwriters and film makers.

I am of the belief that if you want to be good at something, you’re constantly working to enhance your knowledge, hone your craft and try new things.

When I interact with young screenwriters, I find myself recommending the same reading material over and over again, so my next logical step was to list them here.

The Short Screenplay: Your Short Film from Concept to Production

Before you run, you must walk.

Before you write a feature, I highly recommend you write a short film.

A short film can range anywhere from 1 min to 45 or so, but usually around 5-10 mins is the common format that can find itself programmed into film festivals. That’s the sweet spot, so you might want to look in that range specifically.

Find it here.

Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need

Often touted as the “Bible of Screenwriting,” Save the Cat! is a famous book on the craft. This book takes a more Hollywood approach to screenwriting that’s beneficial for those wanting to understand the formula of most popular films.

From the initial idea, to creating a beat sheet to marketing your script, Save the Cat! is a great resource to dive into.

the book’s strength lies in its foundation of the formula of story arcs and organizational tools such as the beat sheet, so this is definitely a book you should check out.

Find the book here.

Your Screenplay Sucks! 100 Ways to Make it Great

I always send this book recommendation with the disclaimer “This is by no means a commentary on your script!”

This book is broken up into digestible chunks that go into details on common problems and how to fix them. This book explores structure, the nitty gritty of story and other details that might have been missed during your first draft, such as a deep B story or multi-faceted characters.

Find the book here.

Crafty TV Writing: Thinking Inside the Box

This is the book for any sort of TV writing. Here you learn about the particular format of broadcast television writing. TV writing is a different game than writing a feature by a long shot, as it pertains to act breaks, teasers, tags, and how to best tell a joke (the funny word comes last!).

This book also has a meaty section on agents, navigating the world of spec script writing and pitching.

Find it here.

Honorable Mentions:

The Coffee Break Screenwriter: Writing Your Script 10 Minutes at a Time. Find it here.

Secrets of Film Writing. Find it here.