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

Screenwriting Basics #1 – Layout, Format and Elements


hardatwork

Does this look familiar? You’re sitting in your curiously lavish apartment, wearing the jeans you’ve owned since you were fifteen (but refuse to throw out because of the memories) whilst your faithful dog stares at you expectantly, as if to say “you told me you were going to be a screenwriter, but your laptop isn’t even on. Come on, man, make with the typing already.”

Probably not, but I couldn’t find a free stock photo of the reality, which is probably of you, the Trainee Writer, sat in either a dingy coffee shop or your living room; laptop open, cursor blinking, pile of screenwriting books at your side and a dream of writing down your big idea… and wondering where to start.

Well, fear no more, for I was looking for something to teach this week and decided to fire out some screenwriting lessons for absolute beginners… just in case one happens to stumble across this little blog of mine.

As you’ve probably deduced from my extremely creative and catchy title, we’re going to go right to the very beginning and talk about the layout, format and elements that make up a screenplay. We’ll talk about what they are, what they do and how to use them.

Margins of error

I’m going to start by talking you through one of the absolute most common questions I see new Trainee Writers asking: “how do I set up my margins for a screenplay in Word?”

Simple answer? You don’t. Back in the olden days, when your choices were to spring for the cost of buying Final Draft or just forcing your way through with your custom margins in the copy of Word 98 that came with your PC, it made sense for the Trainee Writer to spend their time fiddling with these things (and, if you still want to, you can Google those measurements – have fun!) but, honestly, it’s really not worth it anymore. There’s so much great screenwriting software on the market – both commercial and free – that you really don’t need to ever dust off that copy of Word For Dummies to do this.

Let me get you started by talking you through some of the products that I’ve used and would personally recommend. You should feel free to do your own research, but these are the three that I’ve used personally:
final-draft-9-box-writers-store_medium

Final Draft has, for the longest time, been the absolute industry standard in the movie business. Anyone who wants to be taken seriously as a professional screenwriter owns a copy. That doesn’t, however, mean that you have to rush out and buy it. You’re a Trainee Writer. You’re learning. Just as nobody ever learned to drive in a Formula One car, you might not want to learn to write screenplays using the top-line software. After all, if you get to page ten and decide this writing thing isn’t for you, that’s an awful lot of money you’ve just thrown away.

Here are the basic, though: Final Draft is the best there is. When you’re ready to commit to this as a serious career pursuit, and I really hope you’ll decide that it’s for you, then you can buy it very easily by clicking here to make a purchase. The current asking price is $249.99, but this is my personal go-to as a writer. I’ve been using it for nearly a decade and, even though I’ve tried almost everything else at one stage or another, I always come back to Final Draft.

Celtx-logo

Celtx started out as a small freeware project designed for Trainee Writers like you and me. When I started using it way back in around 2004/5, it was the best free screenwriting software on the market. Versatile, easy to use and small enough to run easily on any of our antiquated PCs of the day. In fact, Celtx 1.0 is such a favourite that I keep the install file on me at all times (it’s saved on my phone’s memory card) just in case I’m not near a laptop of my own and need to throw something on the page.

Thankfully, they’ve now rendered my methods terribly old-fashioned, by switching to an effective and free cloud-based service. If you want to give them a shot, go sign up at Celtx.com and see it for yourself.

writerduetlogowonly512

WriterDuet is my final recommendation. It’s a rapidly up-and-coming contender in the screenwriting market and offers full compatibility with Final Draft, which is a huge plus. It’s completely free unless you want some subscription-based extras, and the developer, Guy, is an incredibly friendly chap who can often be found sharing his insights – as well as offering first-hand, first-class customer service – over on Reddit’s screenwriting subs. One of the great benefits of WriterDuet is that it allows for collaborative working, with multiple writers able to simultaneously view and amend the same script. Very useful if you’ve decided to work in a partnership with someone!

WriterDuet can be found by clicking on this link and signing up to the service.

Okay… software advice out-of-the-way – and I should now have convinced you to avoid the horrors of using a word processor – it’s time that I broke down each of those individual elements. So let’s…

fade-in

For those who have seen these mysterious words before, that’s usually the first thing we see when we open a screenplay. It tells us where the beginning is and should be immediately followed by a Scene Heading, which is most often referred to as a ‘slugline’ by most writers. Have a look at this example from the screenplay from Frozen, as written by Jennifer Lee:

Frozen slug

If you’re not yet used to reading screenplays – and I highly recommend you read some, because you really can’t be a screenwriter until you’ve read an awful lot of them – then this (and every) slugline gives us three very important pieces of information.

EXT. tells us that this is an exterior scene; that is, it take place outside. A scene held inside would be marked as INT. – shorthand for interior.

The second part tells us where we are exactly: the ‘snow-capped mountains.’ It doesn’t matter if we’re in an office, underwater, on the moon or over the rainbow. It’s vital information and it always forms the second part of a slugline.

Finally, you’ll notice that there’s a dash followed by the word ‘dusk’ – the third part of a slugline gives us the time at which the scene takes place. It can be day, night, dusk, dawn, morning, afternoon… whenever. I’ve seen screenplays use the exact time in the slugline. As a Trainee Writer, though, it’s best to keep it simple: stick to ‘day` and ‘night.’

You’ll notice, and this is very important, that it’s written all in capitals. A slugline is ALWAYS capitalised.

Let’s get into the heart of the story: the action. This sample comes from Jason Reitman’s script for Labor Day:

labor day action

That’s a small sample of what we call ‘action’ – we use it any time that we describe what’s going on in a scene and it’s the screenwriter’s best friend. This is what you’ll be writing, ideally, around 70% of the time. If anybody in any scene does anything, this is how you tell your reader. Characters are introduced in action lines, too – something that will be a little alien to you if you’re coming at this form the angle of being a playwright or writing long form fiction – with their name capitalised and vital details given. But I’ll explain how to write each of these elements in a future installment dedicated to the art of writing the action sequence.

Next on our list of screenplay elements is the one most people get excited about: the dialogue. Let me show you this sample from the wonderful Pixar animation Inside Out, written by Pete Doctor, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley:

inside out dialogue

For those who haven’t seen the film, or even passingly aware of it, Fear, Disgust and Anger are characters in the movie who live inside the head of a little girl and control her reactions to everything… it makes sense in context. Anyway, notice that Character names, which are listed as ‘character‘ in your choice of elements, are capitalised, whereas dialogue – marked as such in the elements drop down – is written similarly to prose. You’ll also see ‘parentheticals‘ listed in your drop down menu. These should be used sparingly, between character names and actual dialogue, if – and only if – it’s essential to indicate that the dialogue is said in a certain way. Please, please, please don’t use this unless it’s not completely obvious what the intent of a line is. Actors hate it. Directors hate it. I hate it, too.

Like action scenes, I’ll be dedicating an entirely separate post to the art of crafting dialogue in the near future. When I do, that’ll magically become a link to the page, too. You know, for ease of navigation and all.

There is one other element you’ll see listed in your drop down box that you will actually use when starting out. That one is transition.

Transitions should, like parentheticals, be used extremely sparingly. There isn’t an image from a famous screenplay that is going to make this any easier for you to understand, but it does exactly what the name suggests: it denotes the style of transition from one scene to the next. These are also always capitalised, and common transitions include ‘CUT TO:’, ‘FADE TO:’ and ‘FADE OUT.’ The meanings of these terms should be fairly self-explanatory, but I’ll go into it in a little more detail when we get further into these lessons.

That should cover all the basic elements of the layout and format of a screenplay. You’ll probably be wondering what certain terms in that elements drop down box mean that I haven’t covered. Depending on which software you use, you’ll have options like ‘shot,’ ‘act break,’ and ‘cast list’ among others. Ignore them – for now. They’re used in very specialised parts of the writing process and I’ll cover those in due course. For now, stick with the ones I’ve just highlighted and make sure you understand what they’re all for.

If you have questions, I’ll answer them in the comments below or on Twitter (@chasinglamely is my username) and see where we go from there. I next week’s lesson, I’ll be covering the use of sluglines and action in more detail, and as a bonus for the intermediate writers (and to give the new ones a bit of a head start) I’ll be teaching you how to make your action sequences and sluglines really tight in the process.

Until then… happy writing!

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Kriss

 

July 22, 2016 Posted by | 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

Looking after the pennies…


Inspired by a comment on Shades Of Grey by Jane Frost (Thanks, Jane!), I’ve finally found time – and a way – of talking about an oft-overlooked issue for the spec writer: budget. But this isn’t just about the cost of shooting your script, but the way everything you write on the page affects somebody on the production team and the importance of being aware of that. Ultimately, though, it all comes down to budget. Nobody wants to spend $100m producing a script by an untested writer – admittedly, there are a couple of exceptions – even if you have written the next Avatar. So in today’s lesson, we’re going to talk about the importance of making sure that your scripts are as production-friendly as possible. In an ideal world, a producer would love to see a script that he can shoot for free. He has more chance of finding a Golden unicorn ridden by a mermaid, of course, but the lower you can make the budget on your specs, the more chance you’ll have of someone producing it.

Making it as low-budget as possible should never mean you sacrifice quality, however. If your screenplay is a retelling of the 300 in space, it’s natural that we’re going to see massive fight scenes, lots of special and elaborate effects. I don’t see much chance you’d sell such a spec anyway – it’s a deliberately extreme example to illustrate my point – but always be aware.

So how do we tell the story we want whilst reducing budget to its bare minimum? Well, if you’re writing space-based sci-fi or the next Die Hard, I probably can’t help you too much. SFX will cost money and they’re genre staples. So here comes my first advice on that score: If you can write them, stick to the low-budget genres. What are the low-budget genres? They’re the ones that, when you walk into Blockbuster, you see hundreds of. (I’m assuming you still use Blockbuster. If you’ve gone strictly Netflix/LoveFilm you need to hunt down a Blockbuster and take a look sometime!) We’re talking horrors, psychological thrillers, comedies, romances, coming-of-age dramas and their crossovers and ilk. You see so many of these being made because they cost much less to produce. And people are making so many of them for exactly that reason: it’s good business. These genres have huge fanbases and a low-cost, which makes them infinitely profitable.

Interesting fact: Remember that scene in Swordfish where the helicopter is flying the bus around Los Angeles? That scene cost $13 Million to shoot. In The Bedroom (starring Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek and Nick Stahl, written by Todd Field & Robert Festinger, directed by Field and produced by Good Machine Films) was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture that same year. Its total production budget? $1.6 million. You could almost have made that movie ten times for what it cost to shoot that one helicopter scene. You don’t have to go big budget to make a big impression.

To keep your budget low, there are some pretty obvious things to keep an eye on. First, you need to reduce the ‘essentials’ as much as possible. Kevin Smith shot Clerks for $28,000. How? It has three locations, around six actors and no special effects. It’s also a classic, won two awards at Cannes, one at Sundance and was nominated for three at Independent Spirit and launched Kevin Smith’s career.  Again, an extreme example, but it’s exactly what producers hope for – a break-out hit that cost (effectively) nothing to make and made a 1000% profit. And guess what? You could easily write the next Clerks if you just keep an eye on your budget as you write.

A good grounding for writing low-budget spec features is to become a student of TV, especially sitcoms. Sitcoms have a core cast of four-six and three or four regular locations. You can test this for yourself if you wish – look at any sitcom and count the locations that appear regularly. Friends had four (five in later seasons), Cheers essentially had two, Frasier three, How I Met Your Mother had two for the early seasons. TV, for the most part, writes to a lower budget. That’s why the lessons learned there are so good.

So what have we learned so far? Keep characters and Locations to a minimum. But how does this affect the rest of the production crew? Location scouts and set designers are often paid by the day – per diem – the less locations you have to find or build and the less locations you have to dress, the less time you need to have these guys on the payroll. That saves money. You can save even more money by keeping the events that go on inside a set as neutral as possible. If you destroy a set in your script, you have to redress it if it appears afterwards. Another day’s money for the set designer. Likewise, if you keep the number of cast members to a minimum, you have to spend less time casting them. That reduces the money you’re spending on casting directors. Also, less actors means less actors salaries. And the two play into each other, too. Try and choose less populous locations for your scenes; a scene at Grand Central Station will require not just hiring the station for a day (tres expensive anyway) or building a replica but also filling it with extras. If each extra is costing $80 a day, that adds up. Nobody is going to believe your lead is at Grand Central in the morning rush if there are five people milling around. Always be considering how busy your scene is versus the cost of it if you want it to appeal to a producer.

Now, my next piece of advice goes against the grain. Assuming you intend to forge a career as a writer rather than having a one-shot hit (if you do, great, but it’ll take much, much longer) then your first sale is most likely going to be a production company you’ve never heard of, one you’ll Google a hundred times to check they’re legit, and they’re going to want the budget to come in just above zero whilst shooting in ten days. An easy way to achieve this is to fly against accepted technique – and it is technically very wrong in the world of features – and tell, don’t show. Obviously, if you’re submitting to top dogs or people who read too many screenwriting books without getting any real knowledge, they’re going to hate this. But here’s a simple home truth: Sometimes you can save money by having actors talk more. Again, Clerks is the best example of this. Rather than showing events that affect the story, the characters simply talk about them. Why? Because showing them required building an extra set, finding an extra location or hiring an extra dozen actors. You have to be skilled at this though. Don’t turn your film in to a monologue or have an extended scene filled with a conversation about ‘that time we were involved in that massive car chase where seventeen people died, that oil tanker exploded and half the LAPD smashed up their vehicles’ unless there’s a punchline. Because people would rather see that stuff. But in situations where you can save a scene by having someone talk about it, do it. I see a lot of writers using flashbacks to show trivial events and, yes, it’s great in theory. It adds colour. But shooting that insert gag where we see the guy running through the Mall Of America in a mankini being chased by dogs is going to cost money. And it’s just as funny as an anecdote in the scene you flashed back from.

Again, reduction of scenes, characters and budgets.

Assuming you absolutely must fulfill some latent desire to write the next Star Wars, I’ll give you a little advice regarding budgets and special effects: Minimise the use of special effects as much as possible, and always be thinking about their plausibility. I always wanted to see a film where the guy gets kicked off the space shuttle and his helmet comes off, forcing his head to explode. But you can’t just force an actor to put an M-80 in his mouth and film it. How are you going to shoot those pick-ups later on? Besides, I bet M-80s taste horrible. To do it more practically – and legally – you’re going to have to use CGI. CGI requires hundreds of man hours by animators and technicians. They don’t work for a daily rate, either – most charge by the hour. If that head-exploding scene needs a hundred animators putting in a hundred hours each at $100 an hour, that’s a million bucks you just added to your budget. I could shoot Clerks 33-ish times for that. Imagine you go more elaborate – Waterworld, for example. I know of several SFX experts who laughed when they heard about that film. Set designers panicked. You, as a newbie spec writer, cannot write that sort of film and hope to sell it as your debut picture.

You may not be a SFX guru yourself, but always be thinking of the plausibility of any special effects. Stunts apply here, too. As a golden rule, if you’ve never seen something similar done, assume it can’t be. It may not leave room for originality, but therein lies the challenge. Earn respect for that first work, though, and people will listen to the next one.

My final word on this – for now – relates to setting again. But not locations. Oh no. We’re going to talk time. See, you may have looked through the first few paragraphs and thought ‘Well, I’ve got a comedy, it has three actors, one location and no SFX. But it’s set in the 1720s.’ Guess what? That’s your budget through the roof. Period pieces cause untold hell for location managers, set designers, prop masters and costume designers. They now have to find or build locations that are architecturally relevant to the time period, design and make costumes that are period-appropriate and make sure that none of the props are anachronistic. Often these jobs cross over each other, causing chaos, confusion, extended production time and major, major headaches and budget problems. This came to mind as I have a passion piece I’ve been planning for a while; a TV teen drama set in the 1920s. I’ve wanted to try this for a while but, in my heart, I know I can’t sell it on spec. I can’t sell this until I have the credits to establish my credentials as a writer, a showrunner and (probably) a producer.  Will it stop me writing it? No. Will I be pitching it? No. Not until I have a reputation that means I can demand that agents, producers, networks and studios trust me with their time to pitch it. So there goes my final piece of advice for spec writers: Avoid period specs entirely.

I’ll be back as I think of more (maybe Jane will spot something I missed. Feel free to weigh in, Jane!) but, in the meantime, I’d like to invite you all to join my Writing Workshop & Forum. We’ve started slowly, but I’m eternally grateful to the eight members who’ve joined so far; we’re all welcoming enough that you’ll enjoy your stay, and don’t be disheartened by the lack of activity so far. We’re still taking baby steps, so come along, post whatever’s on your mind, ask questions and enjoy. Whilst I’m plugging things, I’d also like to recommend a new social networking site for industry personnel, aspiring or otherwise: Stage32. It’s basically Facebook for the film industry. Except without getting a thousand invites to join Farmville every hour.

On a very personal note, I’d also like to plug a favourite charity of mine, which you’ll see advertised in the sidebar to the right also. They’re called To Write Love On Her Arms, a charity that focuses on helping people – particularly young people – who are struggling with depression, self-harm issues, addictions and suicidal feelings. I’m pretty open about the fact that I’ve suffered with all four problems, and I wish there were more charities who were willing to reach out and help folk with them. I don’t want to guilt anyone into doing it or beg, but I would like to ask that if you’ve enjoyed my blog and found anything I’ve posted useful, please click on either the link above or the one to the right and help them out a little. Even if it’s only a dollar, I’m certain they can put it to good use. Who knows? One day I or someone you love could use their help. The work they do is so valuable, so important, and I cannot state my passion for helping them out strongly enough.

Until next time, in the words of Jerry Springer, take care of yourselves… and each other.

K xx

October 2, 2011 Posted by | lessons, networks, screenwriting, specs, Theory, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Shades Of Grey


Though the name might suggest I plan more discussion on characterisation, I actually want to discuss another grey area in screenwriting. The near-sale.

Just as there are three acts to a screenplay, there are three ‘acts’ to the career of a screen writer. Act one, as always, is the beginning.

In act one, our hero – you – has decided that s/he wants to write a screenplay. To do this, they have certain things they must accomplish before setting out on their journey towards success. They must learn the craft, the format and the art of storytelling. They must find their story and work out how they’ll tell it, planning meticulously as they do so.

In ‘act 3’ we find our conclusion as the hero finally makes a sale, finally sees some money in their pocket, their name in lights and earns the title of ‘professional screenwriter.’

My focus today is on the second ‘act’ of the screenwriter’s story, which I call the ‘grey area.’ As with a screenplay, act two is often the most torturous, emotional rollercoaster on the writer’s journey. It has highs and lows, twists and turns, brings happiness and heartbreak. The grey area is the longest part of our story, but it’s also the one with the greatest learning experience along the way.

The grey area covers that wonderful time between our initial education and our first sale, a time when we’re regularly completing scripts and trying to market them. How long does this period last, you ask? As long as a piece of string. Some get lucky, selling their first script within weeks. Others, myself included, wait years within touching distance of that first sale.

For years we plug away, knowing that what we produce is good enough. But still the producers don’t call, the agents don’t respond, the futures looks bleaker. It looks bleaker, but it’s an illusion. The future doesn’t ever get bleaker; we’re always learning something new to take us forward and make our futures brighter.

So why write this particular post? Hope, I guess. I wanted an excuse to renew my own, but also to give other screenwriters in the same position, who feel stranded in the ‘grey area’ a little hope of their own. To reach out and to tell you – all of you – that you’re not alone. That your frustrations are understood by your peers.

More importantly, I wanted you to know that, if you keep plugging away, that first sale will come. It will. That much I promise you. And should I ever sound like I’m losing that hope when I post here, I want you, all of you who read this, to jump on me and remind me of what I said.

September 20, 2011 Posted by | lessons, screenwriting, specs, Theory, writing | , , , , , , , | 4 Comments