Wednesday, March 5, 2014

How NOT To Write A Screenplay, Part 1: Formatting And Other Details

I recently read and reviewed 144 amateur spec scripts for a screenwriting contest. Some were good, a lot were not so good, and a few were astonishingly bad. What many of them had in common, across this entire spectrum of skill and content, were little things affecting the overall impression of the work. Whether decently written or horribly composed, a large number of these scripts had the same small problems. And by problems, I mean things I got sick of reading over and over again when I don’t think they should appear in any proper screenplay, much less dozens upon dozens of them.

If anyone wonders why I consider myself qualified to make these judgements: I have a Bachelor of Arts in Film, I am a produced screenwriter, and I’ve spent all my adult life (plus those formative teenage years) studying this craft, reading & reviewing & writing (and rewriting). There are certainly those who have read and written more than I have, some of whom may even disagree with a few of my assessments, but two things we can likely all agree on in regards to screenwriting: Less Is More, and Show Don’t Tell. The fewer things on your pages being called into question and distracting a reader, the more you can show us how you create characters and tell a story.

Part One is about technical choices which either add nothing useful to the script (and should therefore be excised) or are flat-out wrong (and should be corrected). I won’t go on about margins or spacing (should be standard), or the number of lines in paragraphs or speeches (aim for 4, tops), or using bold type or italics or underlining (don’t), or any other general concept that’s either handled by the software or covered in basic how-to-write-a-screenplay education. This is about specific choices many writers make, and what they should be doing instead. If you want your script to stand out in the eyes of people who read a lot of them, avoid these things.

Character Continueds
By far the most prevalent unnecessary text I’ve seen. I don’t even know why they exist, much less why three out of four people don’t deactivate them. They occur when the same character has at least two speeches in a row within a scene, with only action in between...making their dialogue a monologue of sorts, and thus, continuous - but is it really? What about when a person says “Let’s go!” then after three pages of action shouts “Retreat!” and it’s all in the same location, the same scene? Is that a continuous speech? No. And this is not a made-up example; I’ve actually seen this in a script.

Perhaps the CONT’D next to a character’s name is meant to help a reader be aware the same person is talking, that for the moment this is not a back-and-forth conversation...but that’s already clear, as the speaker’s name is right there on the page. And any extra words on the page are nothing but clutter. Get rid of these, please. While you’re at it, reconsider your impulse to include CUT TO (or other transitions) at the end (and beginning) of every scene. When I’m reading about events in one location, then you specify another scene in another location, I understand there’s going to be an edit there. Besides, you don’t want to be accused of directing on the page. Save these transitions for when it’s absolutely necessary, either for reasons of clarity (which are rare in this spot) or artistic imperative (even more rare). Otherwise, they’re useless.

Speaking of useless, there’s almost never a point to including information between a character’s name and dialogue. Whether it’s about how to deliver a line (actors will, and should, ignore it) or to specify a particular action (which belongs in an action paragraph, not within dialogue), it’s one more thing to slow down a reader’s eye. Plus it takes up an entire line on the page, making your script longer for no reason; those extra lines add up and will increase the page count. Unless it’s necessary for clarity - such as to whom the character is speaking when the dialogue and number of characters in the scene don’t make it obvious - don’t bother. Try reading it without this extra detail, and if the meaning still comes across, delete the parenthetical. If it doesn’t make sense, or doesn’t convey what you want it to: rewrite!

V.O. & O.S.
I’m surprised to see these mixed up so often, as the words these letters stand for define how they’re meant to be used. O.S. means Off Screen. Some people use O.C. for Off Camera, and though I prefer the former they’re pretty much interchangeable, though you should choose one and stick with it. Anyway, what this means is, the person speaking is in the scene but not viewable. They’re in another room, or otherwise nearby, but physically present in the location without being shown, at least during that particular speech. A person on the other end of a phone conversation is not off screen. Neither is someone on the radio, and neither are these two scenarios a Voice Over.

V.O. is a narrator, someone entirely separate, physically, from the scene - in other words, the speaker’s VOICE plays OVER the scene, because their speech is non-diegetic. If your dialogue is neither offscreen nor a voice over, don’t use these. If you mention, once, at the point when it begins, that a voice is on the radio, we get it. If a person in a scene is on the phone, and you tell us who’s on the other end, we understand. We all know how phones work. Tell us what is seen and what is heard and don’t waste words on anything else not required for clarity.

This is a problem for two reasons, one of which often occurs even when the term is used correctly. A scene is only continuous if it literally begins at the exact same moment the previous scene ends, and something or someone carries across, thereby providing the continuity. If a character walks from an interior to an exterior, and the story continues without a gap in time, go ahead and put CONTINUOUS in the EXT scene heading. If you have a scene in a restaurant, then a scene set somewhere else - whether a flashback or occurring in the present in another location - then return to the restaurant and the scene picks up precisely where it left off...this is not continuous. It was broken up by another scene. If you want to get across the idea that nary a moment has passed since last we left, do so in context. And if your scene is legitimately continuous, you still need to specify time of day, for the production crew. You don’t want to make people scroll back to the beginning of the previous scene just to find out if it’s day or night in the current one.

The custom is to put character names in all caps when they are first introduced...and that’s it. Not every time, in every scene, or even any time, ever again. The one thing I can think of that might be considered an exception is the introduction of the same character at a different age, and different enough a second actor (or heavy makeup) would be needed - but I would consider this a new character, in a sense, and thus, going from BOB to Bob and then OLD BOB to Old Bob would be the kind of thing to do.

Another all caps convention is for things like specific sound effects or particular props, a leftover practice from an era when it was necessary to highlight these things for those creating or providing the sounds or items. It’s acceptable, to a certain degree, but like anything else, don’t overdo it. Save it for when you really need it, or don’t bother. What you should never do, no matter how many times you may have seen it done, is put sentences or phrases, in action or dialogue, in all caps as a means of making it seem bigger, louder, more isn’t. Just tell the story. And if you capitalize your action verbs, such as “Bob DIALS his phone as he STEPS off the sidewalk and DODGES traffic,” I will mentally slap you. And it will leave a mark.

Age & Appearance
Film is visual. What we see is what we know. What you tell us on the page is meaningless if it doesn’t translate to the screen. So if you write that a character’s real age is 27 but he looks 42 because of stress...guess what? When I see him onscreen I’ll think he’s in his 40’s, because that’s what you said he looks like. Unless they cast someone younger, but then he won’t look 42, will he? So why did you write that? Some of you may be thinking, hey, this is ridiculous, who would write that a character is a certain age but looks older or younger? I don’t understand it either, but it happens. So just don’t be one of those writers.

I consider a typo to be an error you know is wrong, but didn’t notice. There are bound to be one or two of them in any script, no matter how thoroughly and repeatedly you peruse the work. This is why it’s good to have someone else read it - they’ll catch those things your own eyes miss, because your brain knows what it’s supposed to say and lies to you that it reads correctly. But the real problem is writers who don’t know what they’re typing is wrong. Homophones are becoming epidemic; I can’t even tell you how many times I read about characters slamming on the breaks, drinking from little glass viles, peaking around corners...if I only see it once I can write it off as a mistake you haven’t spotted, but several times in the same script? Clearly you don’t know what you’re writing, and that’s just bad gnus.

If you know you can’t spell, or use punctuation, or comprehend grammar, find someone who can and let them fix your script. If your friends don’t know any better than you do, pay someone who does. Heck, I’ll do it. I’ll be glad to do it. Because I’d much rather read a script the writer is trying to improve than a screenplay the writer thinks is brilliant and perfect but is actually full of mistakes and bad ideas. 

I know these things may seem subjective, and some readers & writers may consider some of them useful despite my objections, but I look at it this way: if you’re questioning whether or not to use it, you probably shouldn’t use it. When in doubt, leave it out.

Questions? Disagreements? Things I missed, or failed to clarify? Let me know in the comments, and be prepared for Part Two: Style and Substance.

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