I recently guest lectured a class for Slamdance and Roadmap Writers on pitch polishing. We talked about common format mistakes I see as a contest reader, and looked at how story structure and character motivations feed into a log line and therefore a pitch.
One student asked if poorly formatted slug lines would keep her script from advancing in a contest. I said, “As judges, I think we’re all looking for a good story most of all. But poor formatting can be a tie-breaker. For every script I choose to advance, I have to believe it could win the whole contest. I have to be willing to stand up and defend it to my fellow judges. If the only format issue is that the slugs are off here and there, I can do that. If there are a lot of format errors, I’m not going to stand up for you. I’m more likely to give the writer notes and hope they submit a cleaned-up script next time around.” So while a wonky slug* won’t kill your script in contests, a wonky slug on top of misused parentheticals, wrong use of VO vs. OS or OC, mis-formatted intercuts or montages will. All those add up to a writer who hasn’t bothered to learn the language of screenwriting.
“Why does this matter?” you may ask. “I’m a bad-ass who doesn’t play by the rules, and I have a killer story so none of that should count.” Well, me too and bully for you. Screenwriting is a very particular writing discipline with very particular rules we all must follow. The script functions as a blueprint for building a movie, and it must be executed in the language that all the builders recognize. Good luck getting your killer story read by a busy executive who doesn’t have time to figure out that when you write, “INT. JOE – LATER,” you don’t actually mean we should set up a camera inside Joe (ouch!) but that we’re with him in the scene that is actually in a bar.
So here are the first seven of my top thirteen most common script formatting mistakes.
1. (Did you guess?) The Slug Line!
The slug line exists to tell us where and when a scene takes place. That’s it. The rules specifically are that it should contain: a) INT. or EXT., b) a location (not an event like JAY’S PARTY but where you want a camera crew to set up), and then c) DAY or NIGHT. Such as:
INT. A SEEDY BAR – NIGHT
Anything more specific like “The Next Day” or “Early Morning” can be in the action/description lines. We can tell if a scene is continuous from how one scene follows onto the next. So that doesn’t need to be in the slug line either. For example, if you show a bank being robbed and two robbers running for the door and the next scene is those robbers running down the bank steps, I can connect the dots. That’s obviously a continuous sequence so please don’t put CONTINUOUS in your slug line. When the script is shuffled into scheduling software, there won’t be any reference to what happens in the scene, so if all I can see is CONTINUOUS I have no idea when to schedule that scene. Keep the time designation to DAY or NIGHT.
You don’t need a new slug line if you’re in that bar with Joe and we’re looking at several different points of action. For that you can give us a:
and then his riveting actions. When the story shifts to what’s going on elsewhere in the bar, you can say so with a:
BY THE DARTBOARD
and then give us the actions over there. This also hold true for when you are in the same location but time has passed. You don’t need a whole new slug, just a:
and then the rest of the scene. This is also great for expediting scenes where you need us to know a lot of things have happened, such as a contract negotiation. We don’t need to see the whole negotiation as part of the plot, just the beginning and the outcome.
2. Character Introductions
I’ve seen it all, from characters introduced in a parenthetical, to never being introduced at all and just suddenly existing in the scene. Then there’s the “Woman’s Voice” who three pages later we find out is Angie. Your viewers can be surprised by that, but please just tell your readers it’s Angie from the get go. Additionally, in a script breakdown, Woman’s Voice and Angie will look like two different characters your casting director needs to find. What fun will ensue when you have to fire an actor you didn’t need hired in the first place!
When you first introduce a character, give us their name in all caps, even if they are minor. Then for more important characters give us their age or a range in parenthesis and a phrase of description. You get one chance to give us a taste of what makes this character tick. Use it! This is Hollywood, so go ahead and assume your actors will be beautiful. Why waste time with “TERRY (30s) attractive” when you can give me something like “TERRY (30s), every bar fight is a chance to work out his daddy issues?” That gives me such a fuller picture of who Terry is and what drives him as I read the script. I’m confident he’ll be easy on the eyes.
And those minor characters. How about making them visual and memorable? Instead of Kid #1 and Kid #2, how about Snotty Kid or Clumsy Kid or Shy Kid or Boisterous Kid? You’re a writer! Use your words! Tell me something more about this character that may be just background for the protagonist but has a world of his own. Besides, an actor would much rather play Star Trek Geek Kid than Kid #3.
3. Cut To:
There is a deceptive guide on the internet that fosters many a bad habit in a screenwriter: the shooting script. As you do your research reading scripts in your genre (as you should), you are likely to find more shooting scripts available and Google-able than original scripts. This is an issue because we, my friends, are writing original scripts. Anything like CUT TO, CLOSE ON, DISSOLVE TO, FOLLOW, and PAN are camera or edit directions. These belong in shooting scripts. A director reading an original script will often consider such things too much direction from the page. After all, she’s the person shaping your creation. It’s up to her to put a dissolve or a pan or—more power to her—a crazy follow shot.
Besides, by virtue of the fact that there is a new slug line, we know there is a cut. And because we are crafty, we can imply things like CLOSE ON by how we choose to showcase a shot in our action lines. Something like:
Kelly’s hand stabs at the buttons on the remote.
That shot will clearly be a close up on her hand but I’ve avoided writing it in a way that steps on the director’s toes. Instead, I’ve sidled up to the director and given her a firm nudge and then she can say “a close up on Kelly’s hand would be great here, what a fab idea,” and I’ll say “Yes, I know, because as a writer, I am the wind beneath your wings.”
While I’m at it: Another edit decision to leave out of your script is where and when the title sequence goes. You do not need to point this out. It will be designed later.
4. We See
Along those same lines of shooting script versus original script is the supremely irritating “we see” device. Nearly every contest judge I know has a special place of pet-peeve in their hearts for “we see.” I recommend you avoid this at all costs. We are not a “we.” Saying so tends to remind us that we are reading a story we are outside of rather than simply saying what we do see and taking us into the story that way. Think of the wasted line space!
“A camel trudges along a sand dune” is so much more visual and concise than “We see a camel trudging along a sand dune.”
5. We’re gonna need a… Montage!
Montages or series of shots can be great ways to show time passing or things progressing in your story. One mistake I most often see with these is this: “A montage shows Heather and Dean walking on the beach and getting to know each other.” And that’s it. You are writing a blueprint for building a visual story, so give us those visuals. If you want a montage, it’s up to you to define exactly what you want the camera crew to capture for that. So:
MONTAGE — HEATHER AND DEAN FALL IN LOVE
— Heather and Dean stroll on the beach
— Dean hands Heather a pretty shell
— They build a sandcastle together
— Heather splashes Dean as they let a wave catch their toes
— A giant asteroid kills them both
What are the visuals that you feel will tell us that story? Don’t make me or your camera crew guess.
6. VO / OS / OC
I see a lot of confusion on this one. Let me clear it up: VO means Voice Over, as in narration. You know, what you hire Morgan Freeman to do. You’re probably not going to have much VO in the average script, as it’s really hard to do well. (Voiceover is often a crutch rather than a necessary storytelling tool.)
More likely, you’re going to use OC, Off Camera or OS, Off Screen for speakers we hear but don’t see. You’ll use these if we only see one side of a phone call but hear both sides, or if we hear someone in another room, etc. OC has roots in TV scripts while OS is more from film but they’ve become used interchangeably for the most part.
7. INTERCUT WITH
If you’re doing a phone scene and you do want us to see both sides, you’re going to use an intercut. To do this right, give us the first person’s slug line, establish them in the action lines and maybe give us their first line of dialog on the call. Then you’ll do an:
Then give us the second person’s slug line, a quick phrase of establishing visuals, and their dialog. This allows the editor to make those choices about when to be on which speaker for the greatest emotional impact in the scene, and you don’t have to waste tons of lines going back and forth each time. Everybody wins! You can intercut simultaneous actions the same way. Easy peasy.
EXT. VILLAGE STREET – DAY
Jane stomps along, dials a number, yells into the phone:
What were you thinking?
INT. KYLE’S HOUSE – LIVING ROOM – DAY
Kyle sinks into the couch, phone to his ear.
I didn’t think you’d notice. It’s only a car.
I reported it stolen. I hope you go to jail.
We now see and hear both sides of that scene and the editor can choose what works best.
Tune in next month for side two of Common Script Mistakes!
* The Wonky Slugs are my new String Cheese Incident cover band.