Meet the Reader: Screenplay Formatting – On Sluglines and Other Matters

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When you read scripts for a living as I do, you notice an interesting phenomenon: certain common elements tend to recur in a majority of the scripts that you read in a specific period of time. These common elements can be premises and story concepts (e.g. after never having read a single script about female pilots during World War II, I’ll get three in a single week) or storytelling techniques (after months of nothing but straightforward narratives, suddenly every script I pull out of the slush pile is told in reverse chronological order or has a “voice of God” narrator or delivers its exposition using cutaways). These commonalities pop up constantly for months on end and then vanish, only to be replaced with a whole new set. I’m not really sure why this happens. When it comes to premises and story concepts, I suppose it is something floating around the zeitgeist; when it comes to technique, I suspect it is the result of writers attempting to ape the mechanics of a currently successful film or television series or being inspired by what seems to be surefire advice from the latest hot screenwriting book or guru.

chp_scrptongrassWhat is true for concepts and technique is also true for problems – at any given point in time, I will notice the same specific screenwriting format errors popping up in spec after spec. With that in mind, I thought I would use this month’s column to offer some helpful tips to address a number of issues that – based on my first quarter 2013 reading load — many of you out there seem to be struggling with right now:

1. The length of the script really is important. One constant piece of advice given to screenwriters by me and by every other screenwriting professional, consultant, and teacher out there is keep the length of your screenplay to 120 pages or less (or, these days, 110 pages or less). Despite the ubiquity of this advice, I regularly receive scripts that clock in at more than 120 pages — often considerably more: a few weeks back I received a script that was 199 pages long. Seriously, 199 pages. 199. 1-9-9.

It is not the excessive length itself that makes these scripts so problematic — although long scripts do have some definite drawbacks (their budgets are higher, they are harder to produce, and the final films screen fewer times a day than normal length movies, which limit their earning potential. Plus, from a reader’s point of view, they are a real chore to get through). However, a high page count is usually a sign that something is seriously wrong with the script’s storytelling – that the piece is unfocused (because it contains far too many narrative elements that require lots and lots of pages to service), that it is has too many characters (who also require lots of pages to service), that it is redundant, poorly paced, poorly structured, and/or that it contains far too many irrelevant details. It can also be a sign that the writer simply does not have a good understand of the medium he/she has chosen to write for — the average length of a feature film is two hours, which means that screen stories should run 120 pages (because that old rule of thumb – 1 page of script = 1 minute of screen time — is pretty accurate. One page of dialogue may run faster, a page full of action may run slower, but in the end a movie will usually run for as many minutes as there are pages in the script). If you are unable to tell your story in this amount of pages, then you may not have a handle on how to tell your story in an appropriately cinematic fashion.

As I’ve said many times in this column, I have never (with one exception) read a good spec that ran longer than 120 pages and I’ve never read an overlong script that couldn’t stand to have at least ten (and usually a lot more) pages chopped out of it. So, seriously folks, keep the page count down. Really.

2. Whenever you change locations in a script, you must indicate that change with a new scene slug. The failure to do this has always been an issue with aspiring screenwriters, but recently it has become something of an epidemic, with far too many of you out there penning scenes such as the following:

INT. BANK – DAY

The teller hands Johnny his money. Clutching the cash, Johnny turns and runs out of the bank, down Wilshire Boulevard and into his father’s jewelry store, where he deposits the greenbacks into the outstretched hands of a grateful Pop.

You have to remember, a slug is not just a storytelling tool, it is also a production management tool. You insert a slug into a script not only to let the reader know where a scene takes place, but to let the production team know that a specific location or setting is required for the scene. This information affects a lot of things – the budget, the shooting schedule, crew size, the camera, lighting, and grip equipment packages, how many days or nights the company will need to work, and so on. If you go by the slug, the scene above unfolds in a single location – the bank – when in fact it actually requires three: the bank, Wilshire Boulevard, and the jewelry store. This is a huge and costly difference.

Different rooms or areas in the same building are also separate locations, so if you move from the bedroom to the kitchen of a house or the lobby of a theater to the auditorium, a new slug is required – always!

A time change within the same location also requires a new slug, because, while the place itself remains the same, the change in time usually requires an entirely new set-up (the lighting and other technical aspects of shooting a daytime scene in a set or location are vastly different than those of shooting a nighttime scene in the same set or location).

To sum up: please folks; don’t be stingy with your slugs.

3. Do not use both INT. and EXT. in the same slug. This is another one of those constant issues that has really spiked up in recent months–slugs that read:

INT/EXT. BANK – DAY

Or

INT/EXT. CAR – NIGHT

Or

INT/EXT. WHITE HOUSE – DAY

Writers use the INT/EXT slug to indicate that they want a scene to play both inside and outside of one particular location, without realizing that the inside and outside of a place are actually two different locations (while the inside and outside of a store can both be filmed in the same real location, it is just as likely that the exterior will be filmed on location and the interior on a soundstage), a reality that should be acknowledged with the use of two separate slugs.

4. One last slug-related item: Montages are made up of individual scenes and should be written that way. Many inexperienced writers will describe the contents of a montage in a single paragraph, as if it is just one scene. For example:

MONTAGE

The Allies invade southern France: we start by watching the 1st Airborne Task Force parachute into France. We then witness the U.S. Seventh Army’s amphibian assault, followed a day later by another amphibian assault by the French First Army. We then see German Army Group G beat a hasty retreat to the Vosges Mountains.

The other way montages are often written is in short sentences, as if they were the beats in an action scene:

MONTAGE

The Allies invade southern France:

We start by watching the 1st Airborne Task Force parachute into France.

We then witness the U.S. Seventh Army’s amphibian assault.

A day later, the French First Army launches a second amphibian assault.

We then see German Army Group G beat a hasty retreat to the Vosges Mountains.

The problem, of course, is that a montage is made up of many individual scenes – each with its own specific set of production requirements and that will be filmed at different times — and those individual scenes need to be identified with individual slugs for the same production management reasons listed above. A more proper approach to writing a montage is as follows:

MONTAGE

The Allies invade southern France:

EXT. FRANCE – FIELD – NIGHT

One parachute appears in the sky, and then another and another. Soon, dozens of parachutes are seen drifting to Earth. One lands near us. An America soldier scrambles out from under the collapsing silk. A patch on his uniform identifies him as a member of the 1st Airborne Task Force.

EXT. FRANCE – BEACH — DAY

Men and amphibious machinery from the U.S. Seventh Army roll ashore, firing at retreating German troops.

EXT. FRANCE – ANOTHER BEACH — DAY

Men and amphibious machinery from the French First Army roll ashore, firing at retreating German troops.

EXT. FRANCE – FIELD – DAY

American and French forces advance on embattled German troops, who break off battle and begin a hasty retreat.

EXT. FRANCE – ROADWAY – NIGHT

The retreating German forces move down the road, heading for the Vosges Mountains, which can be seen in the distance.

END MONTAGE

5. A little modesty, please: Sex scenes are a staple of modern movies, but while they are plentiful, they are not explicit. Oh sure, there is sometimes a lot of skin, but when it comes to the actual doing of the deed, the mechanics of what goes in where and what happens when it does remain offscreen, hidden by some discreetly placed sheets or obscured by some energetic but not particularly revealing gymnastics. Matters of taste aside, there is one major reason why this is so – money. Any movie showing what really happens when two people love each other very much would be instantly slapped with an NC-17 rating, which would make it unplayable – and therefore unable to earn any money – in most major theater chains across the nation. Anyone that knows anything about movies is aware of this, but for some reason this doesn’t stop a great many aspiring screenwriters, especially lately, from penning sex scenes so explicit, so graphic, so hard core that even the editor of the Penthouse letter column would blush reading them. So, if you’re thinking about composing one of these XXX extravaganzas, don’t. If you write too many things into a script that cannot be filmed, then the people that might be interested in buying your script might come to the conclusion that the rest of your work should remain unfilmed as well.

6. “Fred is 28, but looks 50.” I’ve been seeing this one more and more lately and it never ceases to puzzle me. Movies are all about what we can see. If you tell us a character looks 50, we are going to assume that he is 50. And unless there is a line of dialogue in which someone says “Hey, I know Fred looks like he’s 50, but did you know he’s really 28,” we’re never going to not think that he’s 50. For some reason, however, scribes that write things like “Fred is 28, but looks 50,” don’t seem to like crafting lines that explain this discrepancy, since they almost never include them in their scripts. The other problem that I have with descriptions like this is that if you tell me that a 28 year old guy looks like he’s 50, I’m going to assume that this is going to be a major point in the story – that he has been through some incredible hell that has caused him to age this badly and that the story is going to explain this to us. And yet, most of the time, these descriptions turn out to be entirely beside the point and never play any sort of significant role in the narrative. So my advice here is that if you are going to go to all of the trouble to tell us that a character is something that he isn’t, then for gosh sake dramatize that discrepancy so that the audience can grasp it. And make sure that it serves a purpose in the story or else forget it.

7. Here’s another one that’s really common lately — scripts in which dialogue is indicated but not written. These scripts contain sections of text that read as follows:

  • Mary and Pete spend all night discussing their relationship and where it went wrong.
  • Joe and Fred huddle in the corner and have a heated discussion about particle physics and its implications for the fate of all mankind.
  • The TV reporter delivers a story about the explosion and how it tied up traffic and kept a kidney from making it to the hospital in time for a 12 year old girl to receive a much-needed transplant.

I have to admit that this one really stumps me. I can’t for the life of me imagine why any screenwriter, amateur or professional, would ever write down the idea for a conversation without writing out the conversation itself. Is it laziness? Fear? Complete and utter cluelessness? And I have to wonder who these screenwriters think is going to write the dialogue if they don’t? The director? The actors? The key grip?  Or have they read too many interviews with Judd Apatow and just assume that the company will improvise the necessary speeches on the spot? I’ve been seeing this one so much lately that I can only assume that there is some resource out there telling writers it is okay to do this, so let me be as clear about this as I possibly can – it is not. If you want your characters to say something, then it is your job to write down every single thing that they say. You’re a writer so, y’know…write.

Copyright © 2013 by Ray Morton
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4 thoughts on “Meet the Reader: Screenplay Formatting – On Sluglines and Other Matters

  1. Scott Wallace

    Your article didn’t help me with my writing at all, but it’s always a joy to read about mistakes other writers make–the joy of superiority and schadenfreude. So thank you very much.

  2. jbecket

    Very helpful, thank you. In my mind there is a bit of confusion with a ‘reading’ script so you won’t really jump through all the hoops with say the montage issue, but do it in single lines. And then if the reader is interested and of course as one approaches production the script does change to accomodate practicalities. The INT/EXT which I’m guilty of particularly in car on the move scenes, I’m not sure about.
    Thanks again and I guess you might as well do it right from the gitgo even if makes for a slightly slower read.

  3. Patrick Mahon

    This is invaluable. Especially to see the pitfalls before stepping into them. Thank you, Ray.

    On point 1, script length, I’ve got a final draft of DANCES WITH WOLVES that’s 132 pages long and that’s for a movie that 181 minutes long. It’s fascinating to see how Michael Blake achieves this and still provides an enjoyable reading experience

    In truth, the leading is very tight and the slugs are underlined, to help them stand out amidst some dense description, so there’s a little bending of the stricter rules. But there is also great economy of information and narrative focus. And this is for a vast epic.

    With so much information cleverly condensed, it’s a great lesson in economy of style. Rather than using an extra 50 pages to tell the exact same story!

    Personally, I made a big leap forward in my formatting when I changed from writing in Final Draft’s default template and switched to Warner Brothers format.

    At first it was a shock. 105 pages in Standard comes out as 117 in Warner Bros, adding an extra 12 pages without me adding a single word!

    But now drafting in the far, far tighter template has forced me to learn economy and focus by default. It’s harsh and unforgiving but well worth the effort.

    Every word costs. So every word has to count.

    1. filmjeff

      There are lots of examples of long scripts out there, available online or in bookstores. I have a “Casablanca” script at 158 pages and a “Chinatown” at 152 pages, both obviously classic movies we should all admire and emulate. But that’s not the point Ray Morton is making about length. We should value his advice about what is wanted TODAY. I think the most important factor we forget about is that what makes a selling script is a moving target. Most of the films we admire from the past (and by that I mean even from just a few years ago) would never be made these days. Just because we can find examples of certain formatting or writing from past films or scripts doesn’t mean we have license to continue those practices. If we don’t learn to write in a manner that readers, the studio’s first line of defense, expect and anticipate RIGHT NOW, then we’re not going to succeed.

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