Story and characters will sell your movie. But the packaging should be there too. Paul Peditto offers suggestions on how to format your screenplay like a pro.
I don’t know why I picked this photo to start this post. Sure, the sexy Swede on the left can’t hurt. Closer to the truth is that it reminds me of my all-time favorite all-you-can-eat joint in Chicago, the Red Apple. Red Apple is Polish, not Swedish, 20 bucks all-in... which includes the 20% tip for the Polish gal who served you the Coke and nothing else in an outfit like the one above. Tip her, rise for the Kielbasa and twenty or so sauerkraut pirogis you attempt to digest, and stumble back out onto Milwaukee Avenue…
None of this has much to do with screenwriting format. I haven’t written about this subject in quite a while and wanted to return to it this month. Format isn’t sexy. And then there’s the N-O-I-S-E of conflicting advice when you get down to the “rules.” So, can I say right from the start…
S T O R Y
O V E R
F O R M A T
Bickering over this stuff is like a Facebook political argument, a waste of time for all concerned. I’m sick to death of the experts urging you on to "break the bogus rules of gurus! Tell a great tale, format be damned!"
Product vs. packaging. Content and style. Story and characters will sell your movie. But the packaging should be there too. And on the internet, there is endless debate on the right (“Gotta do it this way!”) vs the left (“Reject all rules! To blazes with the preaching pretenders who want to cash in on uniformed newbies! AVOID!”) Yeah, you know who you are and I’m just fed up with the pettiness.
There are a million posts on ten thousand websites telling you how to format. Agreed, the self-proclaimed experts are out there, the screenwriting message board trolls too, with nothing better to do with their afternoons. I don’t know what motivates these folks. These are suggestions, OK? Not the screenwriting equivalent of the 10 Commandments. Tendencies, stylistic choices. Vamos...
- SIZE IS EVERYTHING, KINDA
Comedy is generally shorter than drama. Ideal length 90-100 pages. I am going to tell you your drama must be between 90 and 110 pages? Nope. Do I personally try to keep within those bounds? Yes sir, I do. But maybe your story demands more length. The trolls will scream about the The Social Network script weighing in at 164 pages. You want to write a 164-page script, be my guest. If Social Network gets 164, so should you…long as you bring the same writing chops as Aaron FREAKIN’ Sorkin. Because if you don’t, and you write it at 164, I’m thinking you’ll have plenty of time to complain about your rejections on those screenwriting message boards.
INT. and EXT.= interior and exterior. Next part is the location. Please, no two-line sluglines, keep locations concise. Then the third part, time frame, I personally prefer five of them: DAY, NIGHT, LATER, SAME, CONTINUOUS. These five cover every contingency in your screenplay day. Is DAWN wrong? Nope. How about EARLY AFTERNOON? You can write that too. I’m giving you a stylistic choice. I’m all about moving the reader’s eye down the page, the proverbial fast read. One short word, DAY, instead of two longer words, EARLY AFTERNOON, does that for me. This stuff seems like small potatoes but consider this: You might write a hundred or more sluglines per script. The small stuff adds up.
- CAMERA DIRECTIONS
Directing your film in the action lines is amateur hour. Cue the trolls informing me that the script for Birdman, one of my all-time fav movies, is LOADED with camera directions. Not to mention Gangs Of New York, From Russia With Love and God knows how many others dating back to the silent film era. Does that make it OK if you, Good Reader, to place a poetic camera angle or two (or twenty) into the script?
Sure, go ahead. No absolutes in screenwriting. But without descending into pointless screenwriting diarrhea debate, let me just point out a common-sense fact: Birdman was co-written by the director, an established Hollywood player with major movies to his credit. Is that you? Are you bankrolled and directing the thing? If so, feel free to write camera angles into the script. If not, why the hell not put them into a Shot List? Perhaps one day after the script gets picked up the director will invite you, the screenwriter, into the meetings with the DP when they put the shot list together. Perhaps, too, the Bears will win the Super Bowl one year after the Cubs won the World Series, ending 101 years of North Side suffering.
- WE SEE/WE HEAR
“BLACK. We hear a clock ticking.”–Birdman
That’s the Oscar winner, using a WE HEAR. So why can’t you? You can. There are no hard/fast rules concerning we see/hear. It’s a stylistic choice. Would I recommend using them?
Why not? I want a screenplay to fly, to not stop the tired eyes of the reader. Action lines, by definition, are what the camera is seeing and hearingnow. Who is in the shot and what is happening. So why would you write WE SEE? I already know I'm seeing/hearing it because it's in the action line.
This isn’t a deal breaker, it’s a head scratcher. People say it helps visualize the story. Really famous people say it helps differentiate between a camera POV and a character POV. I don’t get the argument. See what I mean about this being like a Facebook political argument? Write Birdman and nobody will give a crap about the WE SEE’s, no doubt But why do it at all?
- WHITE SPACE- 5-LINE PARAGRAPHS
Screenwriters have heard this one since their first teething ring. Give white space. Keep action line paragraphs to five and under. Multiple paragraphs are OK but give white space. Develop the cut instinct. Minimize minimize minimize…so why did the writers of Gangs Of New York not get the memo? Look at these passages…
“Amsterdam grabs the tortoise handle of the knife, PULLS on it. Vallon tries not to cry out. The knife does not move. Amsterdam tries again. He can’t budge the knife. Vallon MOANS. Nearly wild, Amsterdam PULLS with all his strength. Vallon SCREAMS in agony. Amsterdam is pulling so hard he raises his father’s back four inches off the ground. Still the knife will not move. Vallon passes out from the pain. Now, finally, someone steps forward: Monk Eastman. He leans over but Amsterdam, berserk with grief, pushes him away, turns back to his father, and, with a last desperate pull, DRAWS the knife from his father’s heart. He throws it on the ground. Monk picks it up, wipes the blade on his arm, closes the knife and hands it to Amsterdam.”
“As the sun goes down, we have our first full look (MATTE) at the low pale outlines of the city. The harbor is crowded with the high masts of sailing ships. Just north of the island tip is the steeple of the city’s tallest structure, Trinity Church. The buildings of Wall Street are masses of concrete and wood, the streets surrounding them paved with cobblestones. Just above the financial district are the sloping buildings and rutted avenue of the Five Points . The Old Brewery stands tall and forbidding over Paradise Square. Above the Five Points, in the distance, we can glimpse some finer, newer buildings. One wide street–Broadway–seems to run from the very tip of the island clear up into the woods just a few miles north of the harbor. The only SOUNDS are the lapping of the harbor water against the boats, the creaking of masts in the winter WIND.”
Beautiful, sure. But doesn't it feel like a novel? You’ll need to weigh just how dense you want to make your screen direction. I’m from the less is more school and would recommend treading lightly here. Show off with dense detail at key emotional moments, otherwise keep it lean and mean. Five and under.
- CUT TO
I used to debate stuff like this. With the acquisition of age and scarcity of time, I just can't anymore. I remember one such debate with my brother Chris who was working for HBO at the time. He wrote his own script was chiding me when I told him to dump every last CUT TO. Informing me that in his HBO capacity had seen tons of scripts that wrote in CUT TO. I get it. Go to Drew’s Script O Rama or Simply Scripts or IMSDB and for every ten scripts you’ll find two or three that use CUT TO. So, what should you do, Good Reader?
No absolutes. This isn’t the stuff that’s going to make or break your script.
Would I, personally, recommend using CUT TO?
When it comes time to edit this movie, unless you’re the director you, the writer, are not going to be anywhere near the editing room. So why are you telling me about scene transitions? Because it’s your job as writer to make me visualize the movie in your mind? Yeah, whatever…I get it. But screw that.
A new slugline, by definition, tells me I’m in a new scene. That’s clarity. How I get from one scene to the next, be it a DISSOLVE or SMASH CUT, is not your call. It’s an editing room call and writing it every CUT TO scene to scene is helping burn out the already burned out eyes of your reader.
Don’t do it.
Cue the trolls and experts.