Paul Peditto authored the book The DIY Filmmaker: Life Lessons for Surviving Outside Hollywood, wrote and directed the award-winning film, Jane Doe, starring Calista Flockhart and has optioned multiple scripts to major companies. He teaches screenwriting at Columbia College-Chicago, has professionally consulted on thousands of screenplays since 2002. Follow Paul at www.scriptgodsmustdie.com and on Twitter @scriptgods.
Format isn’t sexy.
I’d recommend you study it only under special circumstances: Like you want to sell your script.
While it’s not an actual war, the goal is to get your script past the reader, to get it passed up the chain to the person that can actually make the script happen. You’re dealing with readers at every level and gateway—agents, managers, screenwriting contests, production companies. It’s been my experience that readers have tired eyes. Put yourself in their shoes. The pay ain't great. I’m picking up my third script of the day to review, turn to page 1 and find three screenplay format errors. After I finish groaning, what am I thinking as the reader? It might be cynical but not totally unfair to say I’m looking for any reason to not read your script, and because of format BS you just had strike one and two with me. If the writer can’t format correctly, why on earth would I believe you can tell me a worthwhile story? Why should I invest 90 minutes on my time reading your magnum opus? So, without further ado, a few basics to help you on your way...
Use professional software. Final Draft is best. Free programs exist: www.celtx.com is the Columbia Film & Video School broke-ass student program of choice (though lately they are trying to charge $). I'm hearing good things from students about Amazon StoryWriter. If you’re serious about this, I’d get Final Draft. Don’t even think about using Word.
Read screenplays. Best sites for free screenplays are www.imsdb,com , www.script-o-rama.com or www.simplyscripts.com. When studying scripts, you’ll notice something: There are as many styles as writers. A Woody Allen script looks different than a Charlie Kaufman script. Star Wars looks nothing like Sin City, which bears only some resemblance to Dark Knight. Want to hone your own style? Read screenplays. Learn the rules. Then learn how to break the rules.
Here are some general guidelines:
SCENE HEADINGS: Every scene opens with a scene heading. Is the scene indoors? Use INT. Outdoors is EXT. Follow this with location. INT. ROOM, EXT. STREET. Be as specific as possible with your locations. Next comes time of day. I mostly keep to these five: DAY, NIGHT, CONTINUOUS, LATER, and SAME. I am not a fan of EARLY AFTERNOON, TWILIGHT, or DAWN. Is it wrong to use SUNSET? Of course not. I’m giving you guidelines, not absolutes. When someone gives you a screenwriting absolute, chances are pretty good they’re full of shit. The only reason you’d say INT. ROOM- 7:01AM is if that exact time is necessary to plot, otherwise keep it simple: DAY, NIGHT, LATER, SAME, CONTINUOUS.
Use a new scene heading when you change time or location. Or when you indicate a flashback, montage, time frame, or dream sequence.
INT. JIM’S HOUSE- DAY (1962)
INT. JIM’S JOINT- NIGHT (FLASHBACK)
INT. JIM’S PLACE- DAY (DREAM SEQUENCE)
SECONDARY SCENE HEADINGS: Use these if you cut to multiple areas within a single location. For instance, at a party in a single room, cutting to and from different conversations/areas of the room. Or different rooms of a single home...
INT. CLEAVER HOME – KITCHEN- DAY
Mom makes breakfast at the stove.
Wally’s right arm works furiously, closing the jar of zit cream.
Why can’t I get five minutes alone!
Beaver gets five minutes!
Get down here now, mister!
Mom slams a stack of pancakes on the table.
I know what you’re doing up there, young man!
Wally tucks up his well-thumbed Playboy and stalks out.
ACTION LINES: BASICS
The two major areas of a screenplay are dialogue and action lines. Avoid unfilmables: “Sandy realizes….” “Jimmy thinks…” How can the camera see someone thinking? If he’s sitting on the dock of the bay thinking, all the camera can see is him sitting on the dock of the bay. In general, describe the visual, what the camera sees now.
Notice I said “in general.” There is another component to writing action lines. Pros cheat. We’ll go over ways they break the rules another day, but first let’s figure out what people mean when they tell you to keep your action lines tight. One general rule of thumb is to not go over five lines for any action line paragraph. My own rule is: When your action lines can’t be covered by a block of Velveeta cheese, it’s too long.
Examine every word, every line. Is it necessary? If you dropped it, would the scene still make sense? If the answer is yes, then drop it. Five lines or less is a good break point. Cut on natural camera breaks; if we see a new character, or the camera would naturally move, start a new paragraph. This will make your script cleaner.
If it’s a critical scene, sure, go Dylan Thomas on their asses, lay out the three-dollar verbs. But if a character walks into Starbucks, please don’t tell me about the fake burnt-orange flame logs in the fireplace, or the vermilion stitchery of the loungers, or how many single-pump caramel Frappuccino drinkers are working screenplays on their MacBook Pros. Not unless it impacts story.
MONTAGE OR SERIES OF SHOTS?
Montage is used to condense time for story purposes, to advance story without a single line of expository dialogue. Show, don’t tell is advice given to the point of cliche, but if followed, will remind you to always seek the visual solution. While we’re at it, here’s another one you’ll use all day long—Get in late, get out early. Get into every scene as late as possible, get out the instant the scene accomplishes what it must.
So how do you know when to use a Montage vs. Series Of Shots? This is a stylistic choice. For me, if the passage of time is short, SERIES OF SHOTS works best.
INT. COLUMBIA COLLEGE- DAY
As Professor Pauly teaches, he looks out the window, seeing... his car, being towed!
SERIES OF SHOTS
--Pauly desperately waits at the elevator. Nada!
--Pauly sprints down the stairs.
--Pauly out the front door, hits the street flying.
--Pauly to his car, just in time to find it jacked, rolling off on a flatbed tow-truck, one of Mayor Rahm’s best.
SERIES OF SHOTS plays out here over a span of minutes.
The MONTAGE unfolds gentler, over a longer period of time:
MONTAGE—PROFESSOR PAULY AND KEIRA KNIGHTLY PASS 1870’S ENGLISH SUMMER AS ONE
--Pauly walking Devonshire hand in hand with his beloved Keira.
--Pauly and Keira at the swimming hole in period-piece bathing suits. Lovely weather!
---Pauly and Keira lie in soft-rippling English wheat, gazing longingly in each others eyes.
--Pauly below Keira’s window by nightfall, watching as she douses her candle on another hot, wet August night.
We’ll do more format another time. Don’t neglect it. Meanwhile, three cheers for English summer!
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