Let’s take a look at this short story scenario:
Musa Joseph had barely finished his lunch when the emergency light bulb alerted him to the fire in Kuku Market. His job is defined – see the fire, quench it. He jumps out of the truck in his gears, along with the other fire-fighters, and pushes through the crowd. But unseen by Musa, an abandoned crate of eggs lay by the side of the walk and as he makes his way, “Hey, wait!” a young hawker yells, but those are words Musa never hears. He crushes the eggs over.
This may paint a clear picture in your head about what is going on in the scene and even what preceded it but this piece of writing above, if found in a movie script like that, is a production nightmare.
We need important information to execute the scene that those descriptions won’t give. You could never tell the time of day. Nor who Musa really is – Is he deaf? Is the market dark? What does Musa look like? The art department, for instance, would need to figure out what the character should wear.
So I figured that the singular most distinguishing trick in writing a brilliant script is not just mastering the format (which I would still share below) but to remember who is reading your beautiful idea. It is a filmmaker’s job to bring your story to life. If they can not SEE the story, they can not create the picture YOU see.
Paul Schrader has been quoted severally to say,
“I could be just a writer very easily. I am not a writer. I am a screenwriter, which is half a filmmaker. … But it is not an art form, because screenplays are not works of art. They are invitations to others to collaborate on a work of art.”
And technically speaking, he is 100% correct. So, let’s try to represent that same story in a screenplay format, and see if it becomes easier for others to collaborate on our ‘work of Art’.
EXT. KUKU MARKET – DAY
A computer store is on fire. Nearby marketers scamper around with their wares. The fire-fighters arrive. MUSA JOHNSON (28), an agile, pro-active bald firefighter drags along a giant red pipe on his shoulder. He wipes off food residue on his right cheek and pushes through the Onlookers making incessant noises around him.
From the crowd, a young HAWKER gestures desperately towards Musa.
Unaware of the crate of eggs lying by the sidewalk, Musa steps over, crushing a few under his strong black boot.
Anyway, this may not be the perfect script, but you’d agree the scenario is more explicit. We can tell where the scene takes place, an idea of the number of casts and vital props; We know Musa is a diligent fire-fighter and perhaps also socially awkward – this kind of information could be useful to the actor performing the character.
FORMATTING A SCRIPT – The Script Heading
The scene heading is the first part of a scene in a screenplay. It always has at least two of these elements:
- An interior or exterior indicator (INT. or Ext.)
- The location or setting
- And unless the scene is part of a continuous sequence, the heading also includes the time of day.
Note that there are just two acceptable times of day: “DAY” and “NIGHT.” Not ‘THE NEXT DAY’ or ‘AFTERNOON’ or ‘MIDNIGHT’. No matter when one scene takes place relative to another, all that’s evident on-screen is whether it is Day or Night. However modifiers like ‘DAWN’, ‘DUSK’ and ‘LATER’ may be added in parentheses.
FORMATTING A SCRIPT -Slugline & Action Line
Like we have rightly emphasized that screenplays, unlike novels, are limited to only what we can see or hear on the screen. A well-written script would create that vivid picture in the mind of the reader using clear and succinct terms to describe sound and images.
The action line can be used to direct attention to the important action taking place in the scene, point our eyes in a direction or heighten the pace of the scene, and to introduce a character. Each time a new character is being introduced, do so in ALL CAPS in the action line.
You might want to avoid editorializing by using adjectives and adverbs that express personal reactions such as ‘amazing man’ or ‘lovely music’ because how do you see ‘amazing’?
FORMATTING A SCRIPT – Character & Dialogue
In our makeshift screenplay above, the action line was followed by the character name shoved to the middle. And then the accompanying dialogue. Note that you should avoid introducing a character for the first time with JUST dialogue, without first establishing their presence in the action line.
Finally, you need to practise and keep reading scripts if you must master these ideas. There are a number of resources on the internet to get you acquainted with screenwriting but the most recommended I would share in a later post.
Photo by chuttersnap