Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Writing your script for Chloe

From the morning mailbag comes this from Garrett Whelan:

I've learned from countless books, web sites and talking heads that when writing a screenplay you don't give acting and camera directions unless absolutely necessary. I've also heard that with 4 camera sitcoms this is thrown out the window and you do detail the camera angles and the actors delivery of dialogue. My questions would be 1) is this true and 2) if so, what about one camera sitcoms like "Arrested Development" and "My Name is Earl"? Is there a reasoning behind this difference?


1) Some of it is true, a lot of it is not.
2) There is no difference.

Here’s the key. You’re writing your screenplay to be READ not shot. Anything you can do to make the reader’s job easier will be in your best interest. Once you sell the script, a director ruins it and they’re ready to film, then they reformat it for production.

Remember, your script will more than likely be in a pile – some D Girl’s weekend read. Most readers I know will pick up a script and do two things – check the number of pages and skim through it to see if it’s dense. If they see 104 pages, a lot of open pages with single speeches and minimal stage direction you’ve got a fighting chance. If they see John Updike, you’re dead.

Only indicate shots and camera moves when absolutely necessary. And even then try to find alternative ways of saying them. Example: Instead of P.O.V, then BACK TO SCENE just say “Kathryn sees Bob approaching”. The less technical and more reader-friendly the better. Your D Girl may still be hung over from Karaoke Friday.

Never include scene numbers. It’s a rookie mistake.

Be sparing in your descriptions. Give the bare minimum to convey the visual. Example: You could take a full page describing the Cheers bar. I might say, “If T.G.I. Fridays were a sports bar” and leave it at that. And as the script barrels on describe even less. Nothing kills suspense like a half page description of a train station. If you’re writing an action script I suggest you check out any Shane Black screenplay. His scripts read even better than his movies play.

One trick I use is to sprinkle little jokes in the stage direction. Not enough to be annoying but just a few for incentive.

The goal is to create a flow. Be a good read.

As for acting directions, you are usually advised not to include them because they insult actors. I say “fuck the actors”. Again, your script is for someone named “Chloe” not an actor, and if an occasional indicator clarifies a possible ambiguous speech than do it. Chloe will thank you. “Margaritaville” is still pounding in her head.

But obviously, be judicious. When a character says “I hate you, I’m going to kill you!” you don’t need (murderous).

These rules apply to any single-camera formatted script, be it a feature or TV show. When I write a multi-camera show I rarely if ever suggest a camera angle. It’s pointless. Four cameras are filming at once. The editor/producer/director/studio/network will decide later which of the many shots they want.

In general, a good idea is to read your script aloud. If you lose your voice or fall asleep by page 60 get out the red pencil and start slashing.

Thanks, Garrett. I’m also available for dating advice if anyone has questions.


Anonymous said...

'dating advice'..sorry Ken I am married to my work station...great post

stu willis said...

Dating Advice?

Sure - how does a writer ever find a partner that's willing to put up with the foibles of a writer?

I guess its easier if you're a comedy writer, cause then there's the carrot that you may actually be funny in person too...

Anonymous said...

You could be Pastor Ken or Rabbi Ken - your script sermons are that practical. I'm enjoying these occasional lessons about avoiding common scriptwriting sins.

Anonymous said...

Dating Advice?!

Could I have your daughter's phone number?

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Dating advice? Is it okay to wear white shoes after Labor Day?