Tag Archives: sluglines

How to Write Hollywood-style action lines — part 1

Today, here are some tips on how to do the above – write action lines like the ones you see in Hollywood screenplays. Style can make or break a script, or turn a great story into a terrible script.

The main aim of all stylistic devices in a screenplay is… to get the reader to read yor script.

That’s it.

So how do you do that?

Create suspense.

Use short sentences.

Make it a vertical reading experience.

See?

 Here are some examples:

The “vertical” style was perhaps most famously used in “Alien”. Here is a sample taken from the revised script by Walther Hill and David Giler, based on the original script by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett:

“SOMETIME IN THE FUTURE:

INT. ENGINE ROOM

Empty, cavernous.

INT. ENGINE CUBICLE

Circular, jammed with instruments.
All of them idle.
Console chairs for two.
Empty.

INT. OILY CORRIDOR – “C” LEVEL

Long, dark.
Empty.
Turbos throbbing.
No other movement.

INT. CORRIDOR – “A” LEVEL

Long, empty.

INT. INFIRMARY – “A” LEVEL

Distressed ivory walls.
All instrumentation at rest.”

Pretty obvious why it’s called the “vertical” style, right? The aim is to make the reader’s eye naturally flow down the page thus causing him or her to TURN OVER and start reading the next page. Do that enough times and the reader will actually finish your screenplay.

But you don’t need to be so drastic. Back in 1978 that was fresh writing. Nowadays it’s more a throwback. Also, this tends to use up a lot of pages.

Here’s a slightly more modern example, from a draft of “Scream” written by Kevin Williamson:

“FADE IN

ON A RINGING TELEPHONE.

A hand reaches for it, bringing the receiver up to the face of
CASEY BECKER, a young girl, no more than sixteen.  A friendly face
with innocent eyes.

CASEY
Hello.

MAN’S VOICE
(from phone)
Hello.

Silence.

CASEY
Yes.

MAN
Who is this?

CASEY
Who are you trying to reach?

MAN
What number is this?

CASEY
What number are you trying to reach?

MAN
I don’t know.

CASEY
I think you have the wrong number.

MAN
Do I?

CASEY
It happens. Take it easy.

CLICK! She hangs up the phone.  The CAMERA PULLS BACK to reveal
Casey in a living room, alone.  She moves from the living room to
the kitchen.  It’s a nice house.  Affluent.

The phone RINGS again.

INT.  KITCHEN

Casey grabs the portable.

CASEY
Hello.

MAN
I’m sorry. I guess I dialed the wrong number.

CASEY
So why did you dial it again?

MAN
To apologize.

CASEY
You’re forgiven. Bye now.

MAN
Wait, wait, don’t hang up.

Casey stands in front of a sliding glass door.  It’s pitch black
outside.

CASEY
What?

MAN
I want to talk to you for a second.

CASEY
They’ve got 900 numbers for that. Seeya.

CLICK!  Casey hangs up.  A grin on her face.

EXT.  CASEY’S HOUSE – NIGHT – ESTABLISHING

A big country home with a huge sprawling lawn full of big oak
trees.  It sits alone with no neighbors in sight.

The phone RINGS again.”

This is a nice, flowing style that leads your eye down the page. Notice how the sentences are short. Clipped. And, in some cases, incomplete.

There is also far less detail than you think in these lines. The writers were adept at using minimal words to convey a setting. The reader’s mind fils in the blanks. In fact “Alien” uses only two words to describe a spaceship’s engine room.

So the next time you think about adding a ten-line paragraph to explain that this is a comfortable, well-furnished craftsman-style house that nestles on the edge of town surrounded by sycamore trees with a luxury car parked on the drive outside… think again.

Which brings me to my second tip .

Don’t overdo it.

Some sentences belong together. When you try to force them into a vertical pattern, you actually break the flow and make it more difficult to read down the page. For example, here’s a passage from the script of “The Bourne Identity” by Tony Gilroy, based on the novel by Robert Ludlum:    

INT. FISHING BOAT BUNK ROOM — DAWN — TIME CUTS

Transformed into a makeshift operating room.  A light swings
overhead.  THE MAN layed out across the table.  Sounds —
groans — words — snatches of them — all in different
languages.

GIANCARLO playing doctor in a greasy kitchen apron.  Cutting
away the clothes.  Turning THE MAN on his side.  Two bullet
wounds in the back.  Probing them, judging them.

Now — GIANCARLO with a flashlight in his teeth — TINK —
TINK — TINK — bullet fragments falling into a washed-out
olive jar.

Now — something catching GIANCARLO’S EYE — A SCAR ON THE
MAN’S HIP — another fragment — exacto knife cutting in —
tweezers extracting A SMALL PLASTIC TUBE, not a bullet at
all, and as it comes free —

THE MAN’S HAND SLAMS down onto GIANCARLO’S”…

This is still a pretty vertical read. However it would have been even more vertical to separate each sentence out onto separate lines, like so: 

“Transformed into a makeshift operating room.

A light swings overhead.

THE MAN layed out across the table.

Sounds — groans — words — snatches of them — all in different languages.

GIANCARLO playing doctor in a greasy kitchen apron.

Cutting away the clothes…”

And so on. But does this make it any better? No. Sometimes it’s worse to force the reader to look at a new line. The most important thing is to preserve the flow. I’ve read lots of amateaur screenplays where the writer thought they were doing the reader a favour by splitting lines up in this way. But  it actualy makes it harder to read them.

It’s a judgment call. And the best way to decide is to look at other scripts. There are plenty of them on the Internet these days. Break them down the way you would an Enlgiash Literature exercise.

And that’s exactly what we’ll be doing in Part 2.

See you then!

Advertisements

The dreaded telephone conversation

Why do I fall victim to this most horrific of plot devices every time I write a script?

Most screenwriting gurus say the same thing. For the sake of all that’s holy, DON’T include telephone conversations in your screenplay. Not only is the formatting a bitch, but it’s inherently undramatic to show two people talking in different places. For some reason, there’s something jarring about seeing onscreen what we all do on a daily basis.

But then, there are other things we do on a daily basis that I also wouldn’t want to see onscreen…

However if you’re like me and unable to write a single Act without that most unwelcome of characters making an appearance,  here are some formatting tips:

Voice-Over (V.O.) or Off-Screen (O.S.)?

I would say, if you must, V.O.

O.S. implies a character is in the same place but talking out of shot of the camera.

V.O. is when we hear the words spoken over the action.

Intercutting Scenes

The easiest way to avoid the above dilemma is to use “INTERCUT” in your sluglines.

For example:

INT. BOB’S HOUSE – DAY

Bob picks up the phone.

BOB

Hello?

INT. DAVE’S HOUSE – DAY

Dave on the other end of the phone.

DAVE

Hi, Bob. I hear you’re wrting a scene with a phone call.

INTERCUT. BOB’S HOUSE/DAVE’S HOUSE

Bob sighs.

BOB

Yeah, those things are a sonofa bitch.

DAVE

I hear ya.

Get the idea?

Remember to set your two locations up with a brief scene before you use “INTERCUT” as I have in the above example.

Another way of writing the last slugline would be:

“INTERCUT BETWEN BOB’S HOUSE AND DAVE’S HOUSE AS REQUIRED”

Don’t get hung up on this. Remember, correct format serves to convey meaning. Not the other way around.

However you should always include an action line immediately after EVERY slugline. The slugline is not a replacement for action but serves to inform us what location we are in.

AND

I’ll let you into a little secret. I find that if you have one character doing something that’s important, but which is hidden from the other character, this distracts the reader from the fact that you’ve ever used a phone call. For instance:

 INT. BOB’S HOUSE – DAY

Bob picks up the phone.

BOB

Dave? I hear you’re going to that High School reunion later.

INT. DAVE’S HOUSE – DAY

Dave on the other end of the phone.

DAVE

That’s right.

INTERCUT. BOB’S HOUSE/DAVE’S HOUSE

Bob laughs at a memory.

BOB

You remember that kid Brian who bullied you all year?

Dave loads a magazine into a gleaming 9mm Glock handgun.

DAVE

Oh, yeah.

Not Shakespeare. But you get the general idea.

So there you have it. You need never have nightmares about writing telephone conversations in a screenplay again.  Unless, like me, you can’t avoid writing them in the first place.

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!