Thursday, May 3, 2007

Formatting, Resistance, and the Dinosaur Coffee Mug

You've just had a brilliant idea for a script. You wrote a lot back in college, but not so much since you got married and the real job. But now you've got some time and really want to get back into it. So you take the plunge. You get some screenwriting software, or copy the formatting from "Deadly Force 3: The Curdling", which you found on the net.

You write and write... everything's going relatively smoothly. There's joy and meaning in your life! Thoughts percolate in the back of your mind of moving to Hollywood and tapping out brilliant stories in a smallish bungalow at first, then a bigger place up in the hills as your career grows...

Then you come to a phone conversation. How do you format a phone conversation? Will they just know? What's going on? And what about when they're in the car, and then he's on top of the car, then he's back in it, but we're not on the road anymore -- how am I supposed to slugline that? And how can I add DAY or NIGHT when we're in outer space?

There's silence at first. Then the sounds of Youtube. The script is an unspeakable burden, then slowly pushed to the back of the mind.

It would be easy to just tell you how to format this stuff, but the real issue here is RESISTANCE. Writing a script is hard. Writing anything good usually means digging into your head and pulling out details, and that is often a painful process. Writers encounter resistance at every turn, and dealing with it is part of the job.

Many new screenwriters face resistance in the form of FORMATTING. I have had many a first conversation with a new client in which I lay out problems with premise or character sympathy or plot structure -- big stuff -- and get a question about whether they need to note that a particular location already exists, or just describe it for the reader. Do they need the MORE: and CONTINUED:?

You'll never get anywhere worrying about that stuff. And your subconscious knows it.

But your conscious brain needs to be conscious of one important fact: you're probably going to write and rewrite the scene five more times. And Coppola's not drumming his fingers waiting for you to put him to work. And he's not going to pass on a good script because of your unorthodox use of INTERCUT. Just write the story. Stay out of your own way.

A small anecdote about getting over the formatting hump. I had a great deal of anxiety about getting all the stuff right on my first production. One day the art director, who I found unbearably cuddly and adorable, was clearly annoyed with me. Why? Because I'd written a scene with the characters discussing the little dinosaurs on a coffee cup. I hadn't mentioned the prop at the top of the scene. And apparently that's where art directors, or this one at least, look when they build a prop list. Now he had to go BACK to the thrift stores the day before the scene was to be shot. After this herculean effort, he managed to find a coffee mug with little doggies on it, and we changed the dialogue to match. And I learned a big formatting lesson that day. You'll never get anywhere with the adorable art director unless you're clear and straightforward. Learn a bit about the jobs of the people you're writing for, and the formatting will fall into place.

And if you want to know how to format cell phone conversations during car chases in outer space, check out


The Moviequill said...

my first few scripts I didn't even worry about format, I mean I had the software to get the spacing right, but for the first rough draft I just want to get the story down and have a look-see, so I'd just write

BILL walks to the car

Bill turns on the radio

blah blah blah


worry about the INT. and all that jazz on the first edit run-through

A. Dr. Fibes said...

Interesting... are we talking putting all the props in the early part of the scene for a spect script or a prodution script or both?