Trainee Writer

Adventures of a screenwriter in training…

Screenwriting Basics #1 – Layout, Format and Elements


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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

 

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July 22, 2016 Posted by | lessons, screenwriting, Theory, writing | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment