Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Screenwriting Mistake #31: No slug line when location changes

This is a simple rule that takes a bit of practice to get used to – every time the camera moves, you need to write a new slug line. When I was first starting to write scripts, it didn’t occur to me to pay attention to exactly where each scene was taking place. I would write a slug line each time there was a new master location, but then would just describe in action when the characters were moving around that location, such as, "Charlie walks outside and gets into his car." I didn’t realize that I needed a new slug line each time that the action moved around the same general place.

The most common ways that I see this mistake now are when characters move in and out of buildings, among different rooms in the same building, or in and out of cars. Each one of those transitions needs its own new slug line.

Alternatively, a great way to denote when you're changing locations within a single master location is to write just the name of the room that the characters are moving into. For example:


John and Diane stumble inside, pausing to tear each other’s shirts off and kiss in the doorway.


Diane drags John down the hall, kicking off her heels as she goes.


Diane shoves John onto the bed and launches herself at him.


Ronald watches John and Diane from behind the bathroom door. He flosses as he enjoys the show.

Did that last example have to be about sex? No, it did not. Did there need to be flossing? Yes, because oral hygiene is very important. Besides, gratuitous sex can add interest to a seemingly lackluster topic, which was hopefully all you needed to help you remember to write a new slug line or one of those mini-slugs every time the cameraman has to haul his equipment to a new location. And I'm serious about the flossing.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Screenwriting Mistake #30: Copyrighted material

One mistake that I see frequently is when people try to incorporate existing songs, TV shows and other movies into their own scripts. The most frequent way that people do this is by naming the songs that they want to play during particular scenes, usually over montages. While the Turtles have made more money in royalties from romantic comedy courtship montages that feature the song “Happy Together” than most groups will make in a lifetime, not every group wants their songs to be used in movies, and not every director will agree with your choice of songs. Plus, if you write a song into your movie, then the studio must pay the royalties for it, whether it fits into their marketing plan for the movie or not.

Another way that this problem comes up in screenplays is when characters are watching a certain TV show or movie. The times that I’ve seen this in screenplays have usually been when the author was trying to make an allusion to another story that is similar to his script, or sometimes to use a well-known scene to underscore a point that the author is trying to make. While this does sometimes make a scene extremely cute (such as when Elliot kisses the girl in “E.T.” while E.T. watches an identical movie scene), it’s better to leave this sort of thing out of a spec script because it will always count against you to some degree.

If you feel like you need a particular song or a TV or movie clip in order to tell your story, then chances are that you are leaning on existing works to help you tell your story instead of relying on your own creativity to make your point in a unique way. Being unique is always better, so try to take any elements of your script that incorporate copyrighted materials and turn it into something so unique and memorable that future screenwriters will be alluding to it in their scripts. Unless they’ve read this blog post, of course.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Screenwriting Mistake #29: No bookend scenes

You already know that in the opening 10% of your screenplay you should introduce your protagonist and show us the things that we will need to know about her personality and environment. One of the protagonist characteristics that you should show is how unhappy or unsatisfied she is, so that the audience will root for her to change over the course of the story. The best way to demonstrate her unhappiness is to put her in a situation that she is unable to handle effectively because of that pesky internal flaw of hers. When she fails at an attempt to deal with some small challenge that most people would find pretty easy, the audience will know that she has problems and will want her to overcome them.

It’s then a good idea to show how much your protagonist has grown by the end of the story by writing a bookend scene at the end of the script that demonstrates that she has overcome her internal flaw (if, indeed, she has). A great way to do this is to repeat that scene from the beginning of the script where she handled a situation poorly, but now that she has overcome her internal flaw, she handles it with aplomb. (Have you noticed that people don’t use the word “aplomb” enough? Or maybe I use it too much. Never mind, we’ll talk about that later.) Regardless of whether or not your protagonist has overcome her internal flaw, you can’t go wrong by including a scene at or near the end of the script to demonstrate the final state of her character arc. Audiences love it when you wrap things up in a nice little bow for them like this, so it will only make your script more attractive if you give that to them.