Friday, June 21, 2013

How to read a screenplay

by R.S. Mellette

Having as many novelist friends as filmmaking friends, I often find I’m handing a script to a novelist for notes, or the other way around.  So I thought I’d write this primer on how to read a screenplay.  I hope it helps you, because one day you may help me – and you know... it’s all about me.
The first thing to keep in mind when reading a script is that it’s not made to be read. Like an orchestra score, a script is a blueprint for professionals to use in the creation of the final product.  But, as a fellow writer and someone who has probably seen a movie or two, you qualify as a professional.  You know the hard part – story, characters, objectives, obstacles, etc. – this little outline will help with the easy stuff, formatting.
So, here we go:
Screenplays have seven types of formatted paragraphs: Scene Headings, Action Lines, Characters, Parentheticals, Dialogue, Transitions, and Slug Lines.

SCENE HEADINGS: This what you hear about anytime someone mentions a script.  They all start with INT., EXT., or INT/EXT., which stand for Interior, Exterior, and Interior/Exterior.  The latter is used almost exclusively for cars – inside a car that is driving outside.  “Inside” and “outside” are another way of reading these, but don’t sweat them too much.  Producers and Assistant Directors will cut and paste scene heading into a shooting schedule, so they generally need to know if the crew is inside or out in case of bad weather.

A full scene heading will look like:


That could also be written:


The DAY or NIGHT call out, again, are for production to help with scheduling.  Some writers will write MID-DAY, or DAWN, or EVENING.  That’s fine, but a confident writer will only call that out if it’s 100% important to the scene.

The thing to look out for if you’re proofreading a friend’s screenplay is consistency.  If John and Martha live in the house, you don’t want to call it “John’s House” in one place and “Martha’s House” in another.  Production will get confused.  Also, come hell or high water, the scene heading is one line.  Never any more than that.

SLUG LINES are scene headings that don’t start with INT. or EXT. and don’t have a time call out.  For example, in John’s house, a scene might start in the hallway outside of the kitchen, then move to:


Which would be written just like that.  Sometimes these will call out shots like:

JOHN’S POV of the kitchen

Notice how it starts in all caps, then changes to standard.  That’s a matter of fashion in writing.  All caps is more correct, but mixed is not wrong.

ACTION LINES:  This is the paragraph that tells us what happens physically in the scene.  Remember, the audience only knows what the camera sees or the audio hears.  Look out for a writer who puts a character’s feelings or thoughts in the action lines.  In a comedy, look out for jokes in the action paragraphs that will not translate to the screen.  Like head hopping in a manuscript, putting the wrong information in the action lines is easy to do and hard to catch.  Help your screenwriter friends by constantly asking, “how do you shoot that?”  You can’t film a thought or an emotion.  Films are 99.5% showing.  Telling is only allowed in dialogue, and even then, best avoided.

CHARACTER NAMES:  Easy.  Who is talking?  Make sure they are not centered, but left-aligned about a third of the way into the page.  An experienced reader’s eye will naturally fall to the same columns for each format type, so it’s easy to tell an amateur by their margins.

PARENTHETICALS:  These are to screenplays what adverbs are to novels – things that should be cut most of the time.  They are clarifying notes to the actor intended for that character only.  A good writer will NEVER put an adverb in a parenthetical.  If it’s not clear how the line should be said within the context of the scene, then that’s a bad comment on the writer’s skill – and telling an actor how to read a line is an insult.  Sure, sometimes it can’t be avoided, but almost always these should simply clarify who the character is talking to, or if it’s not clear, what they are referring to.  In the later case you’ll often see: (re: the cat) or (off Bill’s reaction). 

DIALOGUE:  This is the meat and potatoes of any script.  As a reader, you’re looking for the same things you’d look for in a novel: separation of character voices, honest lines, not hitting anything on the nose, etc.  I tend to not read the character names in a scene.  If I can’t tell who’s talking by what they say and how they say it, then there’s usually a problem.  Proper grammar is not a plus.

TRANSITIONS:  You’ve heard the phrase “Cut to the chase”?  The “cut to” part of that comes from the transition lines in scripts.  CUT TO: FADE TO: etc.  Decades ago these were put at the end of every scene.  The current fashion is to use them at the end of major scenes and not the vignettes.  A bit of filmmaking insider info: Some writers like to put SMASH CUT TO: or SLAM TO: etc., which junior studio executives find exciting.  An experienced filmmaker knows that there is no such thing as a “Smash Cut.”  Two pieces of film either cut together, cross fade, or now, digitally morph.  So a good writer, working on a script that’s in production, will limit transitions to what an editor can actually do.  That same writer, working on a speculative script, might use the more flowery transitions to help the junior executives get excited about the project.

The main things to keep in mind when you’re a beta reader on a screenplay are:

1)     Does the script jump off the page?  Can you see this in your head?

2)     Is everything on the page recordable, either with a camera or an audio recorder?  Picture and sound are all the writer has to work with.

3)     Just like a manuscript, does anything interrupt the read?

Volumes have been written on what make a script good or bad.  I won’t try to get into that here.  It’s only for you to say if it’s good or bad in your head.  This post should help keep the formatting from getting in the way of your interpretation of the story.

R.S. Mellette is an experienced screenwriter, actor, director, and novelist. You can find him at the Dances With Films festival blog, and on Twitter, or read him in the Spring Fevers, The Fall: Tales of the Apocalypse, and Summer's Edge anthologies.


Carolyn Charron said...

All good points! :D We writers do like to try new things.

I have heard from a couple of people in the industry that some directors don't like transitions for the same reason actors don't like parentheticals: they don't want to be told how to do their own job. Would you say that is a fair assessment? I've been trying to limit my use of them.

RSMellette said...

Funny. It is the script's job to tell everyone how to do their job - it's just a matter of doing it politely.

If a director has a problem with transitions in the script, then s/he probably needs to focus on more important issues. Sure, too many of them can get in the way of the read - but for the most part, they can be ignored by production. They're really more for executives and investors.

Carolyn Charron said...

Thanks for the feedback!

Debra McKellan said...

Ah, this takes me back to my Dramatic Structure class at UArts. Good times.