Monthly Archives: January 2013

American spelling and grammar

Let’s get one thing straight. I hate editing and proofreading. Hate it. With a passion.

Nor do I claim to have any expertise in the area of grammar, spelling, or punctuation. Or any skill, for that amtter. matter.

But I thought that all you budding British screenwriters who want to make it in the States might want to know some commonly misused phrases, together with some insights about American English, that I have learned on my journey so far.

First of all. Toward, or is it towards? And forward, or is it forwards?

Well, actually, it’s both. And yet…

American authors and editors seem to prefer “forward” and “towards”. As in, “to run towards” or “to go forward”. Maybe it has something to do with “forwards” being one of the dreaded adverbs.

Also, I’ve noticed some differences in punctuation.

In English English (if there is such a thing), we like to drop the final comma in a list. For example: “blue, yellow, red and green”. Not so in American English. Our cousins across the Atlantic like their commas. So in American English this would tend to be written as : “blue, yellow, red, and green”.

If I’m wrong about that, I’m sure someone will correct me.

Finally, some terms.

In America they don’t have rubbish. It’s either trash or garbage. It’s not a rubbish bin either. It’s a trash can or garbage pale (or dumpster if you’re hiding a body).

Nor do they go looking in the dark with torches. Torches in America are the burning staves you go chasing after Frankenstein’s monster with. Take a flashlight instead.

Other differences can include:

“-our” endings becomes “or” endings, e.g. “colour” (British) as opposed to “color” (American).

Ending that have “-ise” e.g. “organise” in British become “-ize” e.g. “organize” in American. Similarly with “organisation” (UK) v “organization” (USA).

Other favorite confusions include:

“aluminium” (UK) v “aluminum” (USA)

“tonne” (UK) v “metric ton” (USA)

“mummy” or “mum” (UK) v “mommy” or “mom” (USA)

An excellent article on the subject can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_and_British_English_spelling_differences

So these are just a few of the ways you can confuse or distract an American reader. I’m saying all this because that’s the last thing you want to do. You want the reader to feel comfortable that you know what you’re talking about (even if you don’t).

I’m sure there are many more of these. If I come across them I’ll let you know.

No commas were harmed in the writing of this post.

To Plan Or Not To Plan

Ah, planning. That bugbear of the novice writer. Why should I plan out my story? Did Hemmingway or Dickens plan out theirs?

Here are some thoughts.

Planning can be a necessity. For example, if you’re writing to an assignment. In that case, you may have no choice but to show your producer an outline of some kind. It may be in your contract/option/deal. Sometimes it may simply assuage their fears that you aren’t actually doing anything.

Sometimes a plan can be tremendous help. If you have a complex plot, mapping out the story can help keep track of the various elements. Sometimes a plan can help you with the structure of the story itself. It’s easy to get lost.

HOWEVER…

Some of the best work I’ve done has been done WITHOUT a plan of any kind. And I’m not alone. Guillermo Arriaga (Babel/Amores Perros etc.) never plans his stories out beyond a general idea. I can’t pretend to speak for him, of course, but in my own humble opinion, here’s why I think it works…

SURPRISE!

Yes, actual story surprises. Readers love them. Audiences love them even more.

Lack of a plan gives you the freedom to go anywhere, to do anything to your main characters, to employ any crazy twist, even to add someting new to the genre.

BUT

At some point I always go back and rewrite at least once (usually more then once) for structure, taking care to FORESHADOW all those great plot twists. Otherwise you get a “What the hell?” moment from the reader (or something like that).

WHICH IS BEST?

I can’t say. But I would always advocate doing what works for you. If you’re a novice writer, you may want to plan a few scripts before trying this out. If not, and you’re up for the challenge, maybe you should assemble your characters and strike out for parts unknown. Who knows where they will lead you…

 

Pouring some salt on Sluglines

So. Sluglines.

Okay, we all know what sluglines are (and if not, Google the term and find out!), but are we comfortable with using them? If you’re like me, probably not. But here are some things I’ve noticed.

In a lot of amateur scripts, sluglines are annoying things that you have to write to get to the good stuff (the action!). But sluglines can also be your friend.

Sluglines can be used to save time and energy describing things. For instance:

“INT. OFFICE – DAY

An office. Pens and pencils lie everywhere. Papers litter every surface. Overturned chairs clutter the floor. Smashed coffee cups decorate the desks… did I mention this was an office?”

Or you could just write:

“INT.  A VERY UNTIDY OFFICE – DAY”

Another way to save white space on the page (thereby writing less words and making your script more attractive to time-starved executives and producers) is to omit “DAY/NIGHT” after you’ve introduced an interior for the first time.

For example:

“INT. OFFICE BUILDING – DAY”

And then when you switch to another part of the building:

“INT. OFFICE BUILDING – CUBICLE”

And then for the next part of the same interior:

“BOSS’S OFFICE”

Although sometimes you might want to inform the reader that this is a slugline by inserting “INT.” at the start, depending on the number of sluglines you employ.

Putting all this together:

“INT. OFFICE BUILDING – DAY

A busy accountancy firm in full swing. Staccato chattering of TYPEWRITERS. Harried OFFICE WORKERS constantly trip over mounds of files scattered across the floor.

INT. BOSS’S OFFICE

MARTY, an office junior, quails before his red-faced BOSS. His boss’s tirade over, Marty turns tail and runs out through the

MAIN OFFICE

And into the

BATHROOM.”

Hardly Shakespeare. But you get the idea.

The main thing to remember is that nothing is set in stone. Although you could fill a library with everything that has been written on screenplay format, as long as you adhere to the basic principles concering the main elements (line spacing, indentation, capitals, etc) then I’m sure most experts would agree you’ll be fine. To make it easier, programs like Final Daft format these elements automatically. And if you’re not using screenwriting software by now, you should be. It will increase your productivity tenfold. The most important thing is that you do not present the reader with something they (a) struggle to read, and (b) are not familiar with in terms of style.

Hope this helps. As always, feel free to disagree!

Ten New Year’s Resolutions for Hollywood.

Making movies is hard. Making good movies is near on impossible. Making great movies happens almost by accident. But having taken a look at 2012 in review, I thought I would suggest some New Year Resolutions for Hollywood, as I’m sure the folks there could use the advice of little old me… followed by some good movies of 2012!

1) No more board game adaptations.

A pretty obvious one, especially after a certain movie sank without a trace this year.

2) No more stunt casting.

While we’re on the subject, pop princess Rhianna as a grizzled marine vet? No, I don’t think so either.

3) No more bloated SFX.

I had to ask myself if there was really a difference between the endings of two action blockbusters this year, the visual designs of the bad guy boss monster were so similar. I’m thinking of a certain flying mechanized dragon. Maybe the IT people were using cut and paste too much that day.

4) No more non-scary horror films.

Tired of eerily effective, thrill-laden iconic horror movies? Simply fill them with 30 minutes of bland cookie-cutter teens before inserting as many decapitations, screaming and computer-generated stuff as possible. And if it’s a remake that’s a plus, which leads to my next point…

5) Leave my classic movies alone!

Less uncalled-for remakes, please! The best way to destroy my precious childhood memories is to declare a remake, remove all the charm of the original film, insert as much ridiculous CGI as possible, and remove any iconic music whatsoever. And please don’t remake “The Birds”… unless you’re Alfred Hitchcock.

6) No more “reboots”!

The sneakier way to rip off an existing idea and remake a film that’s barely out of its diapers. This usually happens when actors in lucrative franchises get too old or run afoul of politics, but the results are rarely impressive. Let’s hope “Man of Steel” fares better than its predecessor. Super-babies anyone?

7) Fewer sequels and prequels!

Let’s face it, Hollywood loves sequels, and sometimes they can good. Superman II and Star Trek II being rare examples of sequels being better than the originals. But note that these are “rare” examples. Still sequels churn out of the celluloid mincing machine. There are 75 remakes, reboots and sequels in the works according to Den of Geek.com (http://www.denofgeek.com/movies/450292/75_movie_remakes_and_reboots_currently_in_the_works.html). Surely not every good story has been told!

8) More character actors!

This year we saw the sad demise of actor Charles Durning. One of the best character actors in the business, he graced small and big screens alike with his ability to make even the most unlikeable bad guys sympathetic. But who will take his place? Seems like every TV cop these days looks like they just stepped out of the salon. Where are all the fat, old people? Too many movies come from a parallel world where nobody is over 35 and everyone looks like they just came off the Atkins diet? Give me real-looking people.

9) Less misery!

On the other hand, you can have too much of a good thing. Too many “dark” movies this year made Dostoyevsky look positively frivolous by comparison. Why do thrillers have to be depressing? Lighten up, already!

10) And finally… A New Hope?

Feel free to ignore all of the above, if it makes a better movie. “The Hobbit” shows us that prequels can be great too. “The Avengers” proves that enormous levels of CGI can work if the action is fast-paced enough to keep us from thinking too deeply. “Amour” is the exception to the rule that reveals how films can deal with dark subjects without becoming depressing. Character actors turn up in “The Master”, starring two of the finest ones in modern American cinema: Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman. While my top scary movie of 2012 is undoubtedly the fresh and unsettling “The Innkeepers”, directed by rising star Ti West.

So maybe Hollywood is doing some things right. Maybe there are fine movies out there. For every mind-numbing CGI-fest there are heartfelt, personal or just plain exciting movies out there too. But remember it is you and I, the movie-going public, which ultimately decide what Hollywood produces. They are in the business of entertaining us, so vote with your feet. As for 2013, well, we’ll have to wait and see…