Trainee Writer

Adventures of a screenwriter in training…

Screenwriting Basics #2 – Sluglines and Action Sequences


3771819483_a7e0db754a_zBe honest; when you saw the word ‘sluglines’ is this what you imagined in your head? I hope not but, if you did, allow me to suggest that you make a quick pit stop over at part one of this tutorial series? It’ll take you but a moment to read through it, and it’ll give you the intro to the terms we’ll be using throughout the series… which is kinda useful, right?

So… in this lesson I’m going to be teaching you a little about sluglines – the lines of text which tell us where a particular scene takes place – and action sequences which, frankly, covers just about everything else you see on the screen that isn’t dialogue. Seriously, dearest Trainee Writer, this is the big one. You’re going to be using these things a lot, so let’s get on with it.

Slugline Structure

Unlike the trails left by actual slugs, the sluglines we use in the language of film are actually completely straightforward and come in three parts. Actually, come to think of it, most things in screenwriting come in three parts. Yes, we’re going to pick that conversation up in future, too. It’s a doozy, though, so stay tuned…

The first part of the slugline is very simple; it tells you what kind of location we’re in. Most of the time, this is going to be one of two options: Interior or Exterior. When we use them in a screenplay, we tend to just abbreviate them to INT. and EXT. – the shorthand makes for a much easier read which, ultimately is always our goal.

The difference between the two should be fairly self-explanatory; an interior location is one that takes place inside a building, while an exterior location is outside. As I said, simple, right?

The second part of the slugline is the location itself. This part, again, is very straightforward. It’s where we are. A warehouse, a dog track, a church, a park, a house, even a particular room of said house. As long as your INT. or EXT. match up with your location – you know, you’re not writing INT. A FIELD or something – then you’ve got this one nailed.

See how simple this is so far? That’s what we’re going for. I’m not going to bog you down in unnecessary complications on this journey. I want you to be able to read these tutorials and get going. Although, to be honest, I’m probably burning more words than I should be. Ah, well. If you’re a writer and you’re not a little verbose, I’d be surprised. Although, ironically, that’s actually not a good thing in a screenplay always. More on that later, too!

Let’s wrap up our slugline by talking about the third part: the time. This can be simple, or it can be complicated, but here’s the most basic way of doing it: use NIGHT or DAY. If it’s supposed to be light outside, it’s daytime. Dark is night-time. Simple, right?

Now, there are other ways of doing this. You can be more specific as long as you’re consistent and the information is vital to the script. Is it DAWN? Is it DUSK? It could be. Does one scene immediately follow another? Then it’s CONTINUOUS. Is this scene in the same location as the previous one but at a different time? Try LATER and variations of it. Maybe you’ve lucked out and you’re writing an episode of 24 or something in a similar, ‘real time’ vein… you could even specify the exact time. There are no hard and fast rules here, but as a Trainee Writer, I say keep everything simple. Baby steps, you know? Stick to DAY or NIGHT for now and the rest will follow. I promise, I’ll get deeply into when the other variations are appropriate down the line, or you can feel free to ask me in the comments section.

So, what does the complete slugline look like? This:

Frozen slug

Yeah, I went back to my graphical well. Sue me. (Please don’t sue me.)

Seriously, though… how easy was that. Try writing one of your own. See how simple that is? Dearest Trainee Writer, you just started writing your first scene. Awesome right? Good job!

Ready to move on to writing an action sequence? I’ll bet you are! Let’s do this.

Action stations

Remember what I said before? That writing action is the bulk of writing a screenplay? Master that and the rest will follow. I promise.

An action scene describes EVERYTHING that happens in a scene that isn’t someone talking. Think about that. If a character walks across a room, opens a jar of pickles, punches a cop, drives a car or turns into an alligator… it’s an action and you have to write it down. But here’s one caveat that I’ll have to really cover in detail at a later date: only write it down if it’s important. If it doesn’t matter than your character opens that jar of pickles, don’t write it down. Simple enough, right?

You also use action to introduce characters to a scene. This is an important thing that many writers will continually get wrong that I want to address while you’re still a new Trainee Writer. If it’s the first time a character appears in a script, you capitalise their name. If it’s the second, tenth or thousandth, DO NOT CAPITALISE THEM.

The reason for this is for the benefit of your reader. If a name is capitalised, it draws attention to the fact that you’ve introduced someone new that they need to add to the casting breakdown if they decide to buy from you. It doesn’t matter if this character is your lead, a supporting character or the waitress that appears for one scene, when they appear for the first time, you have to call that out.

The other key thing when you introduce a character, and only when you introduce that character, is to give some kind of description of who they are. Don’t be too specific if it doesn’t need to be specific. When I started to write screenplays the rule of thumb was that you always write the character’s age and a physical description every time you introduce them. Frankly, this is becoming obsolete and many writers don’t realise it. Yes, I’m trying to start you ahead of the curve again. Instead, try to write what the character actually is. You don’t need to state a gender unless their name is gender-neutral or the character is somewhere on the non-binary scale (most screenwriters won’t tell you about

You don’t need to state a gender unless their name is gender-neutral or the character is somewhere on the non-binary scale (most screenwriters won’t tell you about this, because it’s so new as a concept for society. I’m trying to keep this progressive!)

You don’t need to tell us the character is ‘pretty’ or ‘attractive’ – this is the movies. Everybody is pretty unless you state otherwise! You don’t need to say that a character is tall or fat or Asian or Jewish, either, unless it’s relevant to your plot.

Keep it simple. Just tell us their name and a few personality traits, along with their actions. For example:

  • This is DAVE; clumsy and impulsive, he’s carrying a traffic cone.
  • Meet JANE, a carefree schoolteacher trying to juggle textbooks and coffee.

Why do we do this? In the past, there was an almost overbearing trend of casting on the page. Everyone was 19, white and blonde or 85, black and walked with a stick. It never had any bearing on their character, though. Dave is clumsy and impulsive. Why tell anyone if he’s black, white or Martian or how old he is if it’s not absolutely vital? If you’ve said he’s a 25-year-old tall white guy, but the guy who can play the role best is Kevin Hart, why would you rule him out at the script stage? Leave the possible casting for your roles as open as possible. Same with Jane. If you give her a wooden leg and tell us she’s overweight, you’re limiting the casting pool. Without that description, maybe that’s the perfect role for Jennifer Lawrence. How many overweight, one-legged schoolteacher type actresses can you name? I’m waiting…

We’re trying to sell these screenplays. Don’t put up unnecessary roadblocks.

I guess we should talk about the actual exercise of writing action. Here’s what it looks like:

labor day action

Notice how it looks like prose but… badly written prose? Well, that’s kind of how it is, but it’s a fantastically written action passage. We’re trying to tell as much story as we can, in actions, in as few words as possible. That means we have to cut corners sometimes. Short, even abrupt, sentences peppered with descriptions. Describe as much as we can as quickly as we can.

The other thing to notice is that we always write in active verbs. Everything is happening now, not in the past-tense. Notice how the hand in the example above ‘goes’ through the closet? The clothes ‘are’ worn and a little dated? Imagine it like this: you’re watching the scene happen, not telling your friends about something you just saw. Take a look at this GIF:

giphy

Think about how you would describe that in prose, or if you were telling a friend about it. “Batman glided to the ground, lowered his cape and stared menacingly” or something similar, right?

Well, in a screenplay, we’d describe it like this: “Batman glides to a the ground, halting abruptly as he wraps himself in his cape and stares menacingly..”

It’s a simple change of tense, but see how that one tiny detail makes everything seem way more important, immediate and urgent? Try it yourself. Pick a movie scene, and write it in past and present tense and see which one you like the best. See which version you can imagine in your head.

And with that, I think I’ve covered most of the basics of how to do sluglines and action sequences, but – as always – if you have questions or if you’ve spotted anything I’ve missed, let me know in the comments below, or hit me up on Twitter (@chasinglamely) and I’ll try to answer as best I can.

Thanks for reading, and have a productive week!

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July 29, 2016 Posted by | Ideas, lessons, screenwriting, Theory, writing | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Letting Trends Set You


Okay, so it’s been a little while since I updated this little blog of mine with any kind of insightful hints and tips into the craft of writing and – as usual – it’s been birthed by my recurring and endless struggle with writer’s block.

So in today’s long awaited post, I’m going to be exploring some ways of finding inspiration through social media. Actually, I’m going to be doing it from a single source of social media (a social medium?) that we all know and love to hate: Twitter.

funny-twitter-facebook

Now, even though I haven’t blogged about this myself (because, as anyone who has read my blog *ever* will attest, I update about once every four years) a lot of the expert writing teachers are strongly recommending that all aspiring writers flock to Twitter. It’s supposed to teach us about engagement, character voices, brevity and all sorts of things that I’ve forgotten are things. Basically, the message is ‘tweeting good’ and you should take this opportunity to follow me on Twitter so that you can receive great insights like this from me on the daily:

Yep. Insights.

So why am I talking Tweeting today? It wasn’t actually to shamelessly plug my own feed, surprisingly, but to point you to the one handy tool that can help the blocked writer find inspiration: the list of what’s trending.

Now, as most of my audience is probably aware, a lot of what Hollywood does (or the publishing industry – I don’t want to forget the budding novelists) is trend-based. They’re either trying to follow one or set one at all times. Now, obviously, unless you’re a super-powered self-publishing novelist, your chances of getting your work out there whilst a trend is ongoing on Twitter are approximately similar to my chances of persuading Mila Kunis to let me film her playing NES atop Mount Everest. That doesn’t make them useless…

Most writers are familiar with the concept of a ‘word prompt’ contest; Writing.com offers one almost daily and the basic concept is this: Every day you get a word. You write a short story, or poem or haiku or ransom note based upon that word. Winner gets plaudits.

Think of Twitter like the world’s biggest word prompt generator. Instead of getting one a day, the trending function gives you unlimited, ever-changing prompts every second of every day. And you can use these to inspire you to write your way out of that block. Don’t believe me? Let’s see what’s trending right now, and we’ll see if we can’t find some loglines in there…

Trends

What should be immediately apparent is that you can’t and won’t be able to use every trend to generate an idea. For example, Pokemon and Shutter Island are existing properties. I don’t own the rights to them, I can’t use them outright… but maybe we can take Shutter Island as a concept, not a property, and do something. Things like “Bellator 158” are okay to discard out of hand, though. Unless you have a great sports movie in mind, of course. MTV Hottest, likewise, doesn’t spark anything great.

So what does that leave? Let’s take a look.

Life Lessons In Five Words sounds for all the world like it has the potential to be some kind of romantic comedy or romance novel; think “Silver Linings Playbook” or similar. Let’s think about it some more; what might those five words be? We could look at the trend and see what people are replying with, but that’s cheating our creativity. Let’s pick those five words:

Live. Love. Laugh. Dream. Believe.

I think those are five strong words we can use. They would even be title cards if we played five acts, or leitmotifs to draw from. So where’s the logline here? How about this:

Life Lessons In Five Words

“A cubicle worker is inspired in a journey of self-discovery by a cryptic five word note that he receives in his father’s will.”

I can see that movie. I already know how that could go. It feels almost like the beginnings of a Nicholas Sparks book, doesn’t it? Let’s try another…

Unmade Film Prequels could be interesting in some ways. Obviously, this goes back to the rights issue: we don’t own any film franchises, so how can we write prequels?

Well, simple. An idea isn’t something that you can own. Just because James Bond exists, doesn’t mean that a similar idea like The Bourne Identity can’t. So, let’s think of a film and figure out what happened before it, and how we can make that idea into something original.

Let’s try Rocky out for size, just for the simple reason that it’s a movie that everyone knows with a simple premise: An unknown club boxer gets the chance to fight the heavyweight champion of the world and win the heart of the girl he loves. But what happens before we meet Rocky Balboa for the first time?

Think about what we know about him: He’s a small-time club boxer, he’s involved as some kind of enforcer for a loan shark, he’s a labourer. He loves animals. That’s a lot of unanswered questions to work with. Why did he become a boxer? How did he get involved with the mob? Why does he love animals so much? Rocky’s backstory could be a great movie.

So, let’s turn this into a logline:

Unmade Film Prequel: The Boxer

“After witnessing his father’s murder, a young farm hand trains as a boxer in an attempt to infiltrate the mob family who killed him.”

This character isn’t Rocky, but I’ve taken just a few unanswered questions from his past, given them an answer and spun a story from it. It makes sense in the context of who Rocky becomes, but it’s original enough that nobody can sue for it.

Now, I’m going to semi-skip “Turkey” for good reason: they’re currently having a bit of a sticky political situation (a coup which might eventually be a movie in its own right) but I will say this: there’s one hell of a Christmas or Thanksgiving comedy that could come from that as a name itself…

Finally, because I’ve now written more words in this entry than I ever intended, let’s circle back to “Shutter Island.” Now, obviously, that’s already a movie: an outstanding mystery-thriller set on a psychiatric facility on the eponymous island. That doesn’t mean that’s all the title has to offer. It’s time to channel my best Ted Mosby impression.

“Kids, way back in the day, we had this wonderful invention that we called a Dictionary, which was sort of like spellcheck but with some work involved. A Dictionary told us what words mean. It had a companion book that was also useful, called a Thesaurus. That told us what words were similar to the words in a dictionary. Together, they allowed us to do more with the English language.”

The kids, naturally, shrug at this point and return to Pokemon Go. But we’re going to go old school: we’re going to put the words ‘shutter’ and ‘island’ into a dictionary.

So, we learn that a ‘shutter’ can be a cover for an opening, a person who shuts (or closes) something or it’s a mechanical part of a camera lens. Those are things we can use for inspiration. And an island? Obviously, we have the geological definition of land surrounded by water. But it’s also something isolated, it can be a kitchen work surface, something a fuel pump sits on or a clump of woodland. That’s a lot of possibilities from two words. Maybe there’s something interesting about a man who photographs fuel pumps? Perhaps there’s a story about a hidden island in there. Interesting places to start. Let’s see what our Thesaurus throws our way, shall we?

So, a ‘shutter’ could be replaced with a screen, a cover, a shade or a curtain… all things which we use to hide things. Suddenly we’ve got a theme developing. Maybe our guy who photographs fuel pumps is doing it to solve a mystery? That’s certainly interesting. Can we add to that? I think we can.

Take a long look at some of the synonyms of the word ‘island’ and remember, we’re not necessarily taking them at what they mean in context.

Key. Refuge. Haven. Shelter. Retreat. Bar. These are all very evocative, versatile words. Maybe that fuel pump thing isn’t the most interesting thing we can do with the word ‘island’ after all. What if we take our photography theme and our mystery that needs solving and find a logline that looks a little like this:

“A photojournalist investigating a mysterious murder takes shelter among refugees in the aftermath of a tsunami.”

Yes, it needs work. It’s imperfect. But there’s a story there. You know that one of the refugees is going to be the killer without being told. You know that he’s got all kinds of difficulties to prevent him solving it. It’s a beginning.

And a beginning is the one thing every story has in common.

Try it for yourself, and let me know in the comments (or on Twitter) if you manage to make this work for you. It’s worked for me – my block is gone (for now!) – and now I have a whole bunch of new ideas to work on.

Keep writing, keep smiling.

Kriss

July 16, 2016 Posted by | Ideas, lessons, screenwriting, specs, Theory, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment