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