A Scene heading, also known as a Slugline, tells the reader where a scene takes place. Examples:
EXT. NEW YORK STREET - AFTERNOON EXT. VILLAGE SQUARE (ROME) - NIGHT INT. GRIFFIN INC. - CONFERENCE ROOM - CONTINUOUS
-Format: Scene headings are in all caps and left aligned. They are placed at the beginning of each new scene.
-The first part of a scene heading indicates whether the scene is interior (INT.) or exterior (EXT.)
-The second part specifies the location.In the first example, the location is a street in New York. Sometimes, the location needs to be more specific. In the second example, the location is a village square in Rome. Rome is put in parenthesis because it establishes the larger setting encompassing the entire story. Once it is established the story takes place in Rome, the information inside the parenthesis can be dropped. In the third example, the more general location is followed by a hyphen then the more specific location.* This is common, but not always necessary.
-The third part specifies the time of day. Usually the time is general, such as MORNING, DAY, NIGHT, AFTERNOON, etc. It can also be more specific (if necessary) such as MIDNIGHT, 1:30PM, DUSK, etc. CONTINUOUS shows that the scene takes place immediately following the previous scene and no time has passed. MOMENTS LATER is also used to show a small jump in time.
*I would like to note there are other ways of specifying location that are acceptable in the industry. This just happens to be the way I prefer.
I saw that someone had asked about tips for budding screenwriters on someone else’s blog, and seeing as I did not have much to do this morning, I thought that I would write out basic tips that I have struggled with in screenwriting classes that are fairly common mistakes/problems.
Every Line Is A Punch Line. Starting out for me I had hyper realistic, long winded, totally boring dialogue that was not necessary at all. Get to the point. The shorter the better and the more you can represent a character through as little dialogue as possible the better. Screenwriting is bizarre because on one hand, you want it to sound realistic on screen, but realistic dialogue on screen is very different from what people actually sound like in real life.
If You Are Working In Movies: Everything Is VISUAL. If You Are Working in TV: The DIALOGUE Is Essential. Yet at the same time, don’t get too carried away with visual descriptions. Your goal is to make clear images in the readers head with as few words as possible.
Start The Story As Close To The End As Possible. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bored audiences with longwinded, beautifully shot, quiet, elegant scenes nor how many times I have been a bored audience member for that exact reason. If you’re unsure when to start, start writing at the moment that you are most excited about and then have someone read it aloud. If it doesn’t make sense, go back and revise it.
Remember, these are just general tips, but in the screenwriting/filmmaking world, remember that they can always be broken if they are broken well. Hope this helps! :)
Hey, resident script writer! Could you tell us more about script doctoring since we all just learned Carrie Fisher's been doing it in the shadows for decades?
Of course! XD And thanks for asking!
First, let me give you the technical definition of a script doctor, as given to us by the Great God Wikipedia:
[[Screencap of Google Wikipedia result, which says: A script doctor, also called a script consultant, is a screenwriter or playwright hired by a film, television or theatre production to rewrite an existing script or polish specific aspects of it, including structure, characterization, dialogue, pacing, theme, and other elements.]]
This is true, as far as it goes. What this definition leaves out, though, is that a script doctor is the Hollywood screenplay version of a ghost-writer – meaning, they don’t usually get official credit for their work. They are paid a set amount to “doctor” an existing script – which can mean anything from a quick “punch up” (i.e., a polish,) of the existing dialogue and action, to a rewrite of the plot itself – but the credit for the screenplay will most likely still be given to the original screenwriter(s).
Why is this? Well, for a number of reasons, both commercial and artistic.
Firstly, we must remember that writers work in a primarily intellectual and intangible medium – words on paper can be easily scrubbed out, files erased, and notes lost. So it becomes difficult sometimes to prove that a story came from one writer’s brain as opposed to another. Things get even more complicated because there are those who are the Idea Guys, those who are the Collaboration Kids, those who are the Nuts and Bolts Gals, and those who are all three. So, one person might have come up with the idea for a movie or a television pilot, written the treatment (synopsis,) or outlined the story – and then another person will be the one who actually writes the script.
Because of this, one of the most often contested issues in the Writer’s Guild becomes, “Who gets credit for this??” This is vital, because whoever gets the credit gets three VERY important things:
A reputation-boosting line on their resume
A step towards eligibility to join the WGA, the writers’ union
The right to residual profits (i.e., royalties.)
Since a screenwriter’s career depends entirely upon selling their next script, you can see how gaining a good reputation and joining the union is of utmost importance. As for royalties, while often not much, they can be enough to keep a writer from homelessness in lean times – also rather important.
And yet. And YET. Just because someone came up with the idea, or wrote a screenplay, doesn’t mean it’s good. In fact, one of the best-kept secrets in the industry is just how AWFUL first drafts can be. But the machine needs to be fed, meaning that if an agent or a producer sees potential in a poorly written mess of a script, they’ll still try to pitch it, getting as much momentum and interest for the story itself until they inevitably run into the road-block of said poor story, dialogue, characterization, etc.
This is when they call in the script-doctor – usually someone experienced, with a knack for witty dialogue or fixing plot holes. (This happens a hell of a lot with both comedy and action scripts, for some strange reason.)
But why call in a third-party at all, you ask? Why not give a few notes/criticisms, then let the original writer take another crack at it?
The answer is eminently practical: We believe what you show us. If a screenwriter has turned in a mess of a script, the producers who see it assume that said mess is the best that writer can do – otherwise, why wouldn’t they have submitted something better? Since every re-write takes time and money, it’s a much safer bet to give the mess to a veteran writer you KNOW can turn out good product than to give the moron who screwed it up the first time a chance to screw up again.
The problem with this approach, however, is that once a script doctor takes control, at what point does the script stop being the intellectual property of the original writer, and start being the property of the person who’s rebuilt it from the ground up?
A perfect example of this would be the over 30 uncredited screenwriters who worked on the movie The Flinstones. THIRTY WRITERS! Why? Well, every time the film changed directors, or producers, it was given to a new writer or group of writers to do a draft. The original story ended up being chopped and changed and sewn back together a bazillion times. It came out barely watchable mush, but that’s not the point; the point is, it still made money, so who gets it?
Deciding on the credit for The Flintstones became such a circus that it forced the WGA (Writer’s Guild of America) to change its bylaws. Now, a screenwriter must contribute more than 50% of a script, or 33% of an adaptation, to retain credit.
So, in order to keep a script doctor at the level of “ghost-writer”, or uncredited, the production company only has to make certain that they use only 49% of the script doctor’s rewrites. Or that they hire two script doctors, and split the rewrites half-and-half. Of course, sometimes the script doctor has to do what they call a “page-one” rewrite, meaning they basically recreated the script from the ground up. That guy gets a writing credit for sure. But since the WGA does not like having more than 3 writers credited on any given project, a producer’s choices might be influenced by not wanting to have to go to arbitration in order to give credits to the 10 writers that actually helped the project.
Thing is, all writers all good writers have the ability to edit and fix other people’s work. It’s really far easier to fix a poorly executed story that already exists than to come up with something original oneself. So often, well-established writers will take script doctoring jobs on the down low to help pay the bills, and just forget about the credits because
They don’t need the credits that badly, and
They get more out of gaining a reputation as a good script doctor, like future jobs as word gets around about them.
This, I believe, was how it worked for our Carrie. She was well-known in the industry for her ability to fix terrible dialogue, although there were a few movies she worked on that I don’t think anyone could have salvaged. The first time she showed her dialogue-honing chops was rumored to be by fixing her own lines in the original Star Wars trilogy. Lucas was so impressed with her work there that years later he asked her to do a punch up on Attack of the Clones, and to write a script for the Young Indy series.
She also punched up Hook, Sister Act, The Wedding Singer, and a bunch of others. Here’s a short video about her script-doctoring career:
So, that’s how it works! But if you’re thinking of doing this for a living, understand that it’s harder nowadays to get into script doctoring, because they make you pitch ideas and notes before they give you a chance – and who wants to give their ideas away for free??
If you want to read more, there’s a short article on script doctoring here that I like.
Audiences and industry readers that read your screenplay will only have one first impression of your script, so make it a good one.
Opening scenes can (and should try to) do a number of things:
Capture the audience’s attention and immerse them in the story (what is this character’s world - and why do we care?)
Put the remainder of the film into context
Set the emotional tone of the film - this will raise expectations for the remainder of your film. You can work with these expectations, or you can subvert them later on for effect.
Allude to the genre of your film. Not always important, but helpful in putting your plot and characters into context.
Establish setting: time and place.
Think of your opening scene like a subliminal message to your audience that tells them what is to come. Opening scenes are crucial for any medium in screenwriting, however they are particularly important in short films as the audience has the option to click out of your (assumedly online) video at any time. More on writing for short films.
Here are ten tips for a positive, productive critiquing experience:
1. Tolerate the Task When you write, you don’t have to be an aficionado or expert to produce an article or a story on a given topic. Editors don’t need these qualifications, either, and they don’t have to be enamored of the writer’s voice or technique. The same goes for someone conducting a critique: Don’t turn down a request for feedback just because you’re not interested in the subject or you don’t like the writing style. Help the writer succeed in reaching the audience they are writing for. (But don’t hesitate to express your opinion if you think the approach is flawed.)
2. Ask for a Clean Copy The manuscript sample you receive should appear exactly as it would look when it’s ready for submission to a publishing professional. Hard copy should be double spaced and must be free of handwritten annotations or emendations. An electronic document should be professionally formatted and at least mostly devoid of the writer’s notes to self.
3. Mark It Up If you’re reviewing an electronic copy, activate change tracking and edit it. Insert notes using the comment feature or by entering them in brackets, highlighted in boldface or with colored type or background, so they are easily located and distinguished from the content. If you’re working on hard copy, use a pen or a colored pencil for brief notes, and write or type your detailed queries and comments on a separate sheet of paper or in a computer document.
4. Evaluate the Writing, Not the Writer Compliments and complaints alike should focus on the product, not the producer. Refer to the sentence or the section, the character or their actions, the narrative flow or the exchange of dialogue rather than to the person who requested your help. Suggest how to improve the article or the story, not the writer.
5. Start — and Stop — with the Positive Whether you’re responding with general impressions or providing detailed feedback, begin by lauding the strengths of the sample, and reiterate your positive feedback when you summarize your critique. Refer to strengths, not weaknesses, and use positive language: “stronger,” “more interesting,” “a better approach.” Be frank but diplomatic: Even people who can take criticism need to hear that they’re doing something right, and that’s what you should start (and end) with.
6. Craft Your Critiques Be specific, not vague. Be active, not passive. Point out problems, but suggest solutions. Your goal is to clearly communicate to the writer about how they can more clearly communicate to their readers.
7. Guide, Don’t Carry The writer will appreciate focused feedback, and you should feel free to model precise changes in structure or tone and detailed revisions of narrative or dialogue, but do so sparingly. Think of your advice as patterns for the writer to use as templates, or you may end up rewriting the piece, and the writer will have learned little or nothing (except never to ask for your help again).
8. Invite Questions Set up a time to go over your critique after the writer has had a chance to review it. Welcome the writer’s requests for clarification and discussion. If the writer becomes defensive, mention that you have offered your perspective, and that they are free to act on your critique as they see fit.
9. Follow Up Check in with the writer and see how they’re progressing. No matter how careful you are about being diplomatic, the writer may feel a bit battered, and part of your unwritten contract should include a clause requiring you to keep in touch about the project.
10. Know Your Limits It’s reasonable for a writer to ask you for a second light look at the piece after they have made changes in response to your comments, or to request that you provide a general impression about a revision based on your in-depth critique. But establish boundaries about how much time and effort you expend on the writer’s work.
If you’re writing a character that doesn’t move the story forward, take it out or your script will suffer. A lot of people have trouble with taking out static characters because they get attached, but if you’re going to be a proper writer, you have to be willing to cut characters, story lines, and scenes that only end up slowing down your script.
The most basic way to tell if your character needs to be taken out is to ask yourself the following question:
If your character were taken out, would the main story still be in tact?
Filmmaking Tips: One of the Most Important Lessons You'll Ever Learn
I’ve been writing this blog for almost five years now and over those years I’ve extolled many a lesson I’ve learned during my journey as a filmmaker. I try to convey things as I learn them and never try to pretend that I know it all, there’s always something new to glean from personal experience.
Last night I had one of those moments of recollection, going back to 2003 when I started in the film business, reviewing the choices I’ve made. I do this to remind myself of the work I’ve accomplished and also the mistakes I hope not to repeat. I thought back to those first three years of trying to make it, of when I wrote a very ambitious screenplay called ‘Ceremony’ and spent years shopping it around with hopes that someone would give me the money to direct it, which never happened.
Ceremony was an interesting script, semi-autobiographical as most first-time screenplays tend to be, and really well written. I’d spent a year writing it, holed away in my apartment, devouring screenwriting books and watching countless movies for reference. The story had a tricky time travel element that weaved mythology and spirituality, and in hindsight it was actually a really beautiful script. I dug it out this morning before I started to write this post, and it really is quite well done, a bit idealistic perhaps, but nothing a few rewrites couldn’t solve.
And then I stopped myself right there. Having now made two feature films, and a third now in edit, I’ve learned a little something about the practicality of being an indie filmmaker, and this is likely one of the most important lessons I can pass on to you, my faithful readers.
And the lesson is this: when you write your first screenplay, write something you can make TODAY. It’s a tough one to follow because when we first start our careers as young filmmakers, our minds are overflowing with ideas and images, and we tend to overpopulate our first scripts with those ideas and images. We write things that are relatively expensive to pull off, requiring six and seven figure budgets, or the attachment of an influential actor or producer.
But I look at my current film, 6 Angry Women, and now realize that it was the type of film I should have made back in 2003. It is one room, seven actors, twelve crew, shot in six days on a five-figure budget. From greenlight to current edit, I’ve been at work for three months, and my goal is that by the end of January, my film should be mixed, conformed and ready to show. I was able to make it NOW, with little dependence upon others to make it happen.
Yours truly directing ‘6 Angry Women’ with my DoP Faroukh Mistry. Photo by Fawzia Mirza.
With Ceremony I needed to raise about two million dollars to realistically make it happen, and for someone with zero film credentials and no connections, that’s an impossible task. I was trying to sell a movie that I couldn’t make. It’d be a different story if I wanted to make a living as a screenwriter, where I could then write anything and try to sell the script to people who have the means to get it made, with a director and cast that are not of my choosing. But that’s not what I want to do. I want to direct. That’s always been my goal.
Write films that can be made today. Look at Shane Carruth’s Primer, which he made for $7,000. Or Evan Glodell’s Bellflower, which was made for $20,000. These were films that could be made now, today, without the aid of a studio or any kind of attachments. They are feasible, plausible, and exceptionally creative.
Note that I never said they were easy. It never is. Making a low / zero budget movie, if you’re serious about making a true creative statement, is one of the most difficult things you’ll ever do. Don’t settle for three people mumbling about being bored and listless in a room. Throw genre into it. Make it science fiction, make it horror, make it with wall-to-wall sex, or all three combined. But it should say something, and say it in the most inspired, intriguing and creative way possible. Come up with that script you can make right now and greenlight it tomorrow.
Wait- science fiction? That’s expensive! No, it really isn’t. Primer was about time travel but it used its narrative as special effects. Mike Cahill and Brit Marling’s Another Earth is essentially the same thing as Interstellar but one was made for $200k while the other was made for $200 million. Remember that the greatest special effect is the human condition. Show your creativity, your intelligence, your gusto on the page and you will see the universe expand in front of you. Then greenlight it.
Once you make that decision to greenlight, your work will be focused and determined because you’re working on something that you know is going to get made, as opposed to something that might get made. It’s a HUGE difference.
I can’t emphasize enough how important this will be in your career. I’ve heard countless times before the advice of “just go make a movie” and it seemed too easy, to fey to be of any value. Which is why it needed to be modified: just go make a movie that you can film today. Be in the moment, embrace your talent and hunger, and then look at the world around you. You’ll see resources you never knew existed emerge around you. Don’t depend on a Kickstarter, reserve that for post-production if you need it. Cobble funds through friends, family and small patrons. Ask for a hundred dollars here and there. Get five thousand dollars together. If you live in Canada or Europe, use your government funds. You can make magic if you trust your talent and push yourself into bold new territories. Don’t make boring, safe shit. Push push push until you’re convinced you’re doing something so batshit insane it’s almost suicidal to even try. Then shoot your movie. Edit it. Put it out there. See what happens.