Why Spec Scripts Fail: Script Formatting – Details vs. ‘Detailitus,’ Part 2

In our previous article, Details vs. ‘Detailitus,’ PART 1, we discussed how few words it takes to create a “fact-filled” opening scene. This time we will explore how minimal words can create a vivid picture and backstory in the mind of the readers that also invites them to turn the first page.

Before we delve into the remainder of page one from The Coldwater Conspiracy I would like to thank those who, by their verbose commentary / critique, proved the point of Details vs. ‘Detailitus,’ PART 1. The point is that cloying, obtuse, pedantic, self indulgent, sycophantic and verbose writing, that contains factual errors, can bore the reader (Now that was a lexicographic mouthful).

script formattingThank you, also, to the few that actually headed the request at the end of paragraph twelve and found some of those grammar and factual errors (there are more). Now you know how a reader feels when s/he encounters avoidable errors in a script or manuscript. It creates the impression that “If you don’t care about your script, then why should I?”

The article, as many supportive and private comments pointed out, was Show vs. Tell.

Before we continue with Details vs. ‘Detailitus,’ PART 2, it is important to provide an explanation of both a studio reader’s and private story analyst’s responsibilities.

Contrary to a comment to Part 1, both readers do not make or even enforce any “rules” isolated in an “ivory tower monolith.” A reader merely reflects the current requirements of those in a position to fund, package and produce a script or novel. What many self-appointed pundits do not realize is that the “the gate keepers” must follow a strict series of criteria provided by these paying client(s). Remember, that unless you are self-funded, first you have to get your tome past a reader. This reader is instructed to find scripts that meet a particular set of guidelines that may include up to 60 or more specific criteria or run into 50 or more pages of requirements.

These “requirements” evolve over time. To be stubborn and claim “I am a writer. In the truest sense.” indicates an inability or unwillingness to adapt to these ever-changing requirements. The era of multiple spec script mega $$ sales of the ‘90’s is diluted in direct proportion to the number of laptops and formatting programs sold. Now everybody is writer. This also means that many under paid and marginally respected readers have to slog through countless pages of unfortunate prose to uncover that one script gem. In the case of studio readers it is two or more scripts per day, including coverage. BIG HINT… make it easy for them to say yes!

Even in the fiercely individualistic and competitive environment of NASCAR, all drivers have to be proficient in their ability to turn left. Turn right if you choose, right into oblivion.

At The Readers Company (TRC) we continue to encourage writers at all levels to “find their own voice.” We caution them however, that if they want to experience continued success in “Mainstream Hollywood,” each has to discover their own way to play by the current “rules” (Sunset Boulevard wouldn’t pass muster today due to its ink-heavy first pages). At TRC we teach the current requirements.

It does not create a positive impression if you banally succumb to the easy target and shoot the messenger just because you don’t like the message. If you choose to do your own thing, and have the capacity and where-with-all, more power to you. We wish you long-term success. However, we also recommend that you do it from inside the system rather than flailing around at its edges. The sale or contest win of a script or two is no harbinger of continued success. It just means that at that time with that particular product the scribe hit pay dirt. Consider that over 70% of the current WGAw membership struggles to sell their next product every day. Welcome to the fleeting nature of writing success in all styles and genres for all but a very few dedicated scribes.

TRC accepts both emerging and established script and novel clients solely by industry referral. We work with them after we have read a sample of their script title and first page, or in the case of novel and short story scribes, after we have read their first 3 to 5 pages. At all levels each writer is treated with care and respect as the many publicly released positive website testimonials and LinkedIn recommendations reflect. Confidentiality is maintained for all others. This is especially true with our ghostwriting services.

We welcome supported opposing viewpoints for discussion. However, we find little, if any, value or satisfaction in the false elevation of self by the vitriolic denigration of others.

With regard to the couple of public and private comments regarding email addresses and the unintended negative impression they can make. It is the use of a pseudo production company name at a public email service that is the mark of an amateur writer. Emerging writers do not have production companies unless they have formed a company that produces some tangible media product. An individual writer may create a Personal Service Corporation for tax purposes. If you use PersonalName@PublicEmailService no one will form a negative opinion. A company email address is of the form Last.First@CompanyName.com or some variation thereof. A company, that has as one of its goals the creation of a successful image, does not use a public free email services for a variety of reasons.

As a reminder, here are a few of the more egregious amateur script signatures in no particular order.

• Calling out title and credit placement
• Explicit camera angles or shots
• Novelette length paragraphs
• Detailed scene descriptions
• Copious character details
• Incorrect format or font
• Directing on the page
• Excessive page count
• Directing the actor
• Cast of thousands
• Scene numbers
• Cut to
• POVs

Before we move on to this month’s thoughts, let’s revisit the first page from The Coldwater Conspiracy
Remember, scene numbers are not used in spec scripts. They’re included here just for our reference.

FADE IN:

         1     EXT. WESTERN IDAHO UNIVERSITY BUILDINGS, 1958 - DAY      1

               Imposing granite facades fade into view through the storm.

               The form of A MIDDLE AGED MAN in a well worn Native American
               style shirt and torn shorts, scurries toward ivy framed
               doors, limp papers in hand. His taped up wire rims fall.

We covered this scene in Details vs. ‘Detailitus’, PART 1, toward the end of the article.

The scene 2 technique is a hybrid of flashbacks and a montage. Note that there is no dialogue and, as long as the meaning is clear, complete sentences ARE NOT required. The director may request “walla walla dialogue,” but, as the writer, you are not concerned. It is your task to be a minimalist and succinct “conveyor of pertinent details.”

         2     FLASH TO LIGHTENING-QUICK IMAGES --                      2

               BRIGHT and VIBRANT with color.  Gallop by in SPLIT SECONDS. 

               TREES and DENSE UNDERGROWTH fall ahead of giant bulldozers.

               NATIVE AMERICAN MEN, WOMEN, and CHILDREN run thru trees.

               MARTIN LEVINSON(36) muscular, dodges ahead of the blade as a
               larger bulldozer culls him from the crowd.

               An obscured OPERATOR blows smoke rings as he puffs his pipe.

               It's utter destruction of a pristine WILDERNESS.

               People are less of an obstacle.

               BACK TO SCENE –

How much character and backstory detail can you glean from scene 2? In this “scene” there are actually six imbedded scenes. Take a moment to see if you can identify them.

Arguably the director may choose to combine some of them. However, see how the writer has identified “the shots” without “calling” the shots. Without the over use of exposition and in less than ten lines, s/he has relayed a significant amount of backstory and foreshadowing. The scene raises questions that must be answered a few pages later. It makes for a faster read even though “scene 2” will occupy considerable screen time.

The first two lines and BACK TO SCENE are administrative, i.e. where to start and stop plus a suggestion regarding how the writer visualizes the information without “telling” any of the other skills how to do their job. BACK TO SCENE also implies that we may have just been inside the mind of our “scurrying man.” It also shows that we are continuing with the previous scene and character descriptions.

The details of how each individual scene is represented and filmed are left up to the director to present in any manner that s/he chooses.

               TREES and DENSE UNDERGROWTH fall ahead of giant bulldozers.

This “scene” shows callous, wonton and large scale destruction of a natural habitat.

		             NATIVE AMERICAN MEN, WOMEN, and CHILDREN run thru trees.

These nine words imply that this wilderness is the probable habitat of indigenous Native American families who appear to be running for their lives. The fact they are described as Native Americans in a natural environment is a clue to the director and wardrobe department that native dress rather than “civilized clothing” is called for.

	              MARTIN LEVINSON (36) muscular, dodges ahead of the blade as a
               larger bulldozer culls him from the crowd.

The description of Martin Levinson is in stark contrast to the Middle Aged Man in scene 1. Here is a hint that these men may be the same person. The fact that a “larger bulldozer culls him from the crowd” indicates Martin is a person of interest and quite possibly a leader or, at minimum, a target of opportunity. Either way, now the reader’s subconscious asks which and/or why.

In this “scene” the reader also learns that a yet to be revealed character has a definite intent for the first named character, Martin. This named character should be the protagonist the audience has paid money to follow for the next 90 – 110 minutes.

               An obscured OPERATOR blows smoke rings as he puffs his pipe.

The behavior of the bulldozer operator indicates little regard for both human life and the environment. The fact this scribe mentions the “obscured” operator’s behavior lays the foundation for character recognition later in the story by behavior vs. exposition. If this person does not appear later, than this ‘scene’ constitutes unnecessary ‘detailitus.’ It does nothing to forward the story.

               It's utter destruction of a pristine WILDERNESS

The inclusion of this ‘scene’ is a director’s choice. It does reinforce the utter devastation of these Native Americans and their habitat.

               People are less of an obstacle.

The callous disregard for men, women and children as well as the destruction of nature closes out this series of shots. These 6 words also imply that some people may be run over by the bulldozers. The fact that these bulldozers clear trees, undergrowth and people with equal disregard begs the question, why.

		BACK TO SCENE

This housekeeping instruction returns the reader to the previous scene and character.

What follows in scene 3 is a new slug line, yet it restores the previous action and indicates that what just happened was an interruption to the present day activities. Scene 3 provides some more details about the ‘scurrying man.’

         3     INT. UNIVERSITY BUILDING - DAY                           3

This is a new major location. Note that the writer leaves the description minutia to the director, production designer or set designer. Most people have some idea what the inside of a university building looks like. Each of their recollections are different and will most likely trump any brief description you provide. As this has no bearing on the story, the details of what it looks like are of no importance.

               MARTIN LEVINSON (46) bursts through the doors and stumbles up the 
               stairs.

               He's late 40s, salt and pepper goatee, drenched, emaciated.

These two lines now identify the person who was running in the rain as the same as the one who “burst through the doors.” He is also shown to be in poor physical shape which is in direct contrast to the Martin who was culled out of the crowd in the previous scene. The inclusion of stairs help to reinforce Martin’s diminished physical health. The minimal character description only provides those items that reinforce Martin’s condition.

               THIRD FLOOR HALLWAY

This mini slug moves the action to the 3rd floor without providing any detail of how Martin got there. Everyone knows how to climb stairs. So now it becomes a director’s choice as to how much detail makes it into the shot(s).

               Out of breath, Martin pauses outside the Department of
               Anthropology office.  Wrings a puddle from his clothing.

Again Martin’s poor physical state is reinforced and the end point of his journey revealed. He begins a perfunctory clean up yet only succeeds in making a bigger mess on the floor. Note that it is NOT necessary to use complete sentences as long as the meaning is clear.

               He re-tapes his glasses, stares at the faculty listing.

The reader now gains more insight into Martin’s character based on his behavior. He either can’t afford new glasses or is too distracted or lazy to get them. These are the same glasses that fell in scene 1. His focus becomes the faculty listing. This listing requires a close-up shot but, the writer did not write “CLOSE-UP OF FACULTY LISTING.”

               Takes a courage sip from a hip flask.

This line speaks volumes about Martin’s character, flaw and backstory. He is an alcoholic (else why have a flask), insecure (requires a drink), or has no self confidence and about to tackle something that’s challenging. It could also be some combination of these and other reasons. We now have some idea of what he has to overcome, what his flaw is. This line provides insight to his personal demons that will plague him through the evolving story.

               Flips a right middle finger.

By action, Martin demonstrates his contempt for the faculty in the listing. It could also imply that he has low or no regard for authority.

                                   MARTIN
                         Goddamed mental cretins. Pompous
                         bastards.

This first line of dialogue reinforces Martin’s apparent contempt for authority as represented by the faculty. This dialogue also shows that he is seriously upset about something that is quite possibly represented by the soaked papers he carries.

This first page raises enough questions that any reader now wants to turn the page just to get answers. The writer accomplished a major goal.

Remember, that as long as the meaning is clear, it is not necessary to write in complete sentences. Minimalist writing reinforces the adage that ‘less is more.’ Rather than take up page after valuable page with reams of exposition the writer chose to SHOW the backstory and character flaw(s) in an economical manner.

Could there be a different choice of words? Sure. Why not? Are there other interpretations? That’s the reality of collaboration. However, the simple fact is that in scene 2, six ‘scenes’ took up only 7 lines with the knowledge that “screen time” will be much longer than “read time.”

The goal of a writer, beyond crafting an engaging story, is “to write compact” and in that way help the reader “play” the movie on the inside of his/her forehead. A person who reads your script has an imagination that far exceeds the ‘detailitus’ you feel you have to write in order to tell your story. Let them provide the details that mach their memory. Provide just enough of your own details to start your audience thinking about ways to complete your character’s journey. By skillful writing you then invite the other craft persons and professionals onboard to bring color and depth to your characters and their journey.

If you need some help with what you write, search for a company of auditors vs. self indulgent critics. Any no talent can be a critic and you will find them to be of little value to any writer’s psyche at every level. Remember, if your story is unique, engaging and compelling, most readers will overlook the occasional typo, grammar and punctuation errors. This is true, but only as long has these errors don’t yank them out of your story. Regardless, they will not appreciate over indulgent and suffocating ‘detailitus.’

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