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Writing A Script

By Jay Staudt  |  09-Feb-2009

With the number of re-makes coming out these days, you'd think every original film idea had been used a dozen times. Not to say that it hasn't (the black-white "buddy cop" film has practically become its own genre.

Examples: Showtime (2002), Blue Streak (1999), The Man (2005), Money Train (1995) and Lethal Weapon (1987)).

The reason Hollywood films are often pushed toward cliché storylines is that it's a big risk for a production house to release something that's never been done before. That's how screenplays end up being so formulaic; since millions of dollars go into producing these films, and the majority of actors are paid regardless of how well or poorly a film does at the box office, no producer wants to put something out that he doesn't think has at least a small chance of being successful.

Why It's Good To Be Indie
Some indie filmmakers shoot movies because it's something fun to do with friends; I know I do. As an independent, realize that while you don't have a big budget to spend on jaw-dropping CGI effects or big name talent, you have something that's much more valuable: creative control.

This is the point at which you and Hollywood diverge. With a low-budget or no-budget film, the majority of your investment is your time. You can use weird camera angles and experiment with different effects, so long as you have the means to do so, and you don't have to worry about whether 8 million people will be willing to spend $12 apiece to go out to a theatre and watch it.

Directors are often under a lot of pressure from their producers and film studios to stay on schedule and within their budgetary constraints, while simultaneously making a movie that appeals to a specific target audience. The big studios need someone to sell to, because if every movie was Fun For The Whole Family™ the scope and subject matter of new films would become severely limited in scope.

So be glad, because as an indie filmmaker with no financial sponsors, you have the freedom to work at your own pace, make films about whatever topic you choose (within legal standards, of course), and spend as little
or as much time and money as you want in making your ideas into a finished piece of filmmaking.

How Movie Scripts Work
Scripts, like the films that are made from them, have to have several things to be successful. In a script it's the combination of useful formatting and camera/actor direction, good writing, and a captivating scenario or plot.

I can't pretend that I know how to teach you to write a script you can sell to a major movie studio, but for the purposes of your own filmmaking endeavors you can make it easier on your actors, crewmen, and even yourself, by creating a script that's both fun to read and easy to understand.

Script Format
In order to be taken seriously by an agent or producer, movie scripts are formatted in a very specific fashion. It's the same reason all of our traffic lights are red, yellow, and green from top to bottom - things are often easier to use when they're organized in a standard, recognizable way.

Some basic specs for a film script: the entire script should be in 10 or 12 point Times or Courier. Your cover page should contain only your film's title in bold, followed by several line breaks, the words "Written by", one more line break, and then the name(s) of the author(s), each on its own separate line if there is more than one writer.

There are some minor variations in what's acceptable, but script formatting usually goes something like this:

A valiant WARRIOR stands tall and proud in a field, with sword raised in the air triumphantly. The forest surrounding appears to be empty, and all is quiet in the cool morning air. Warrior appears to be alone, but begins to give an inspiring speech after a deep breath. As he speaks, a small and haphazardly arranged RABBLE of poorly equipped soldiers come into the frame.

Forsooth, my brethren! We must ride to battle, and conquer the fell fortress of our foul foes!

(Cheering, waving their weapons)

The time is now, my friends. Let us make haste, for fate wills it!

Script pages, starting with the cover page, are numbered in the upper right-hand corner from 1 to the end. Each scene number is surrounded by [square brackets] and bolded. The scene location is indented and also bold, all caps, and on the same line as the scene number. In the example above, it is EXT. FIELD - DAY. Use EXT. for an outdoor scene and INT. for an indoor scene.

The line that contains the scene number, location and time is followed by a description of what we see when the scene opens. This can be as general or as detailed as you want, depending on how much freedom the director is meant to have at the time of the shoot. Not all directors will go with exactly what's scripted, anyway, but this at least should get the writer's ideas across. The first time a character's name is used in the description of each scene it should be in all caps. Our two "characters" in this scene are the WARRIOR and his RABBLE.

Dialogue is indented further and centered within this area; the speaking character's name is in caps on its own line above the line or lines of dialogue. Any cues such as verbal tone or action are placed in parentheses below this line. In this case, we have added (Cheering, waving their weapons) below RABBLE because this is what they should be doing as they deliver their line. Other examples of cues could be (Sitting down in the chair) or (Smirking, shakes his head). You can also include minor camera direction and other specific instructions here if you would like.

Character Voice in Scripts
Ye Olde Character above has a medieval-ish way of speaking, because he's supposed to be the commander of a (modest) force of soldiers. When you get around to writing your script, you might be tempted to use certain catch phrases or terms because they sound good to you. But remember that every fictional character needs to have his own voice in order to be believable.

I've noticed a lack of differentiation between characters even in major motion pictures; you know, when more than one character uses a word or phrase in exactly the same way. This is sometimes overlooked when the same person is writing dialogue for multiple characters.

For example, let's suppose that you think it sounds really funny when your villain verbally abuses his minions, saying "You imbeciles!" Then later on in the screenplay, one of your minor characters is talking about somebody she knows and says "That guy is such an imbecile..."

Really. Would two characters who have nothing in common and nothing to do with each other really use that same word to describe someone they dislike? Sure, it could happen. But there are plenty of other words you could use to provide your audience with a sense that these are two different people, with two different lives and from two unrelated backgrounds.

Of course, the opposite could be true and the use of a word or phrase might work as a subtle foreshadowing where two characters are connected in a way that's unknown to the audience for part of the film. Otherwise, giving each character their own unique voice includes not only word choice, but their phrasing, tone of voice, and sentence structure. It's everything about the way they speak and act, and you have the ability to convey all of those things with your script. Now get writing!

Jay is a graduate of George Mason University's New Century College program, where he received a Bachelor of Arts in Multimedia Studies. He has over 10 years of experience behind the camera in production, editing, directing, visual design, voice acting, music composition and animation.

Currently working as a Multimedia Developer for a nationally recognized architectural engineering firm, Jay directs and produces high-definition video and streaming broadcasts for corporate information technology and marketing initiatives. He also runs Indie Filmmaking, a website housing dozens of articles and tutorials related to the production of guerilla and no budget films.

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