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 #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 #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.

The (Super) Hero’s Journey

The Hero’s Journey

Joseph Campbell wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces in 1949. This book introduced the hero’s journey and popularized the theory of comparative mythology — the theory that humans have the impulse to create stories that stem from universal themes.

Campbell’s work focused on religious and historical mythology, but it didn’t take long to see this applied to fiction.

George Lucas is the first to credit Campbell with inspiring the mythological structure of Star Wars. For that reason, many look to Star Wars as a way to teach the hero’s journey, and hopefully use that formula to make more blockbusters.

heros journey graphThe steps of the hero’s journey:

  • Ordinary World
  • Call to Adventure
  • Refusal
  • Meeting with the Mentor
  • Crossing the Threshold
  • Tests, Allies, Enemies
  • Approach to Inmost Cave
  • Ordeal
  • Reward
  • The Road Back
  • Resurrection
  • Return with Elixir

The (Super)hero’s Journey

We’ve seen the classic superhero origin story a hundred times. They all have the basic formula to get our average Joe or Jane into hero-mode.

This is actually a parallel of the classic hero’s journey, retold for modern audiences and nerdy sensibilities.

The examples I use are from solo superhero movies. Ensemble films won’t be considered.

Ordinary World

  • Smallville, Kansas.
  • Gotham before Thomas and Martha Wayne are murdered.
  • A day in the life of a bullied NYC teenager.

These are the humble beginnings of our heroes. This is what is supposed to make the protagonist relatable and have us invested in what happens to them.

Call to Adventure

  • Tony Stark’s caravan is attacked and and creates his first Iron Man suit.
  • When things seem to be going well for Wade Wilson, he is diagnosed with cancer.
  • Steve Rogers signs up for the service and is picked for the super soldier serum.

Closely related to the inciting incident, this is when it’s clear that our hero’s world is about to change.

Refusal

Some of our heroes, especially those in the Chosen One subcategory, will refuse the job they are meant to do. Superman in Man of Steel spends much of his adult life hiding who he is until events force him to intervene.

This refusal is then reversed, sometimes by a traumatic event or some conflict that only our hero can resolve. It’s every villain origin and early death scene.

Meeting with the Mentor

  • Alfred Pennyworth for Batman.
  • Pa Kent and Jor-El for Superman.
  • Dr. Strange being trained by The Ancient One.
  • Uncle Ben, whose famous words are so pivotal they could only be uttered in one trilogy.

These are the people who shape our protagonists into the heroes they will become. It is their words that are repeated in our hero’s darkest hour. Remember, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Crossing the Threshold

Our hero can willingly start their adventure, or they can be pushed with tragedy or conflict. Oftentimes in superhero stories, the parents or a loved one is killed off or taken, pushing them to seek justice.

Uncle Ben dies to push Peter into becoming a hero and not just some punk goofing off in a costume. This can sometimes be the direct result of The Refusal — good guilt-causing material for an angsty teen hero.

Learning from — and losing — the mentor is a key part on this journey. It is when they lose that person (Pa Kent and Uncle Ben like to die all the time for a reason) that the hero comes of age.

Tests, Allies, Enemies

  • Spider-man taking down a number of unnamed and easy foes.
  • Iron Man bombing the enemy as a one-man army.
  • Montages, montages, montages.

I’ve also heard this called the “fun and games” section of the story. This is when our hero is testing their limits, saving people and enjoying their power. Can be done in montage mode. It’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt…

Approach to Inmost Cave

  • Scott Lang sneaking in and being caught on his last heist.
  • Clark Kent meeting with a priest before going to face Zod, who could destroy him.
  • Bruce Wayne, thrown into a pit and climbing the worst rock wall ever.
  • Logan, taking a shot of serum, knowing it’s his last fight.

Ordeal, Reward, The Road Back

The finale. Big explosions, toppling buildings, mayhem and property damage.

The hero after the big battle, scarred but triumphant (maybe). Cheering crowds optional.

The opposite of the Call to Adventure.

Resurrection

  • Bruce healing after his back is broken.
  • Hancock shot.
  • Superman poisoned by kryptonite.

A couple of my examples are a little too on-the-nose, but hospital and near death scenes are part and parcel with our superheroes.

This is the lowest point, the near-death moment from which the hero must rise.

Return with Elixir

 

This is the moment of triumph when our hero has prevailed and we look forward to fighting another day.

At the end of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, we see Batman hanging up the cape and cowl for a more ordinary life. In Deadpool, our hero is reunited with his love and they jam to Careless Whisper. As one should.

Flying off into the sunset

In the Richard Donner Superman films, Christopher Reeve’s Superman flew around the world and smiled at the camera. That motif was even carried into Superman Returns, which was a loose sequel. The end of Sam Raimi’s Spider-man films we see Spidey swinging into action.

We like the idea that our hero keeps going, adventure never ends and everything will be alright.

It’s also a good way to end if you want a bushel of sequels.

Sources:

The Hero’s Journey – Mythic Structure of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth

For more insight into the Hero’s Journey, check out:

The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.

The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler.