Musings on details

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  • Musings on details

    Many people rightly point out the importance of telling a captivating story. We are writing for the film company’s reader — not the director or cameraman or actors. We write spec scripts, not shooting scripts. So don’t give camera directions, or at least keep them to a minimum. The reader wants a story he can follow, a page turner, not a lot of technical clutter.

    When I tried to follow this good advice, I found myself writing something formatted as a movie script, but not actually a script. More like a novel. And people pointed this out to me. There is some magic here with eludes me.
    Yesterday I watched part of ”Absolute Power”. Here are three shots from a few minutes into the movie, as I would have written them:

    EXT. LUTHER'S HOUSE - DAY

    Luther, carrying some groceries, unlocks the front door.

    INT. LUTHER'S HOUSE - KITCHEN - DAY

    Luther enters. Neat, tidy, nice equipment. He puts
    food away.

    INT. LUTHER'S HOUSE - DINING AREA - NIGHT

    Evening. Luther enters carrying a tray with a plate
    of food and his sketch pad. He puts it on the table.


    Afterwards went to IMSDB and read the actual (draft) script for those shots:

    EXT. LUTHER'S HOUSE - DAY

    A terra cotta planter to the right of the front door.
    Luther shifts his packages, tilts the planter slightly,
    bends down, pulls out a key, inserts it in the front
    door.

    INT. LUTHER'S HOUSE - KITCHEN - DAY

    as he enters. Neat, tidy. A Cuisinart, a cheese slicer,
    lots of other nice equipment. As he begins putting food
    away --

    INT. LUTHER'S HOUSE - DINING AREA - NIGHT

    Evening now. Table set for one. A single candle.
    Beside the candle is Luther's sketch pad. Now Luther
    himself moves INTO VIEW, carrying a tray. He puts it
    down.


    Clearly the professionals have put much more life into the shots, than my version. Lots more detail, and practically everything in the script is exactly as it came out in the film.

    So I’m wondering: is this a shooting script or just a regular script? Granted, there are no instructions about close/wide shots, zooms or camera movements. But a lot of scenic detail.

    I’m meditating on the level of scenery I should describe. And details of action such as bending down to get a key. Before, I would have said ”describe only that which is important to the story”. The fact that Luther keeps his key in a flower pot, the neatness of the kitchen, the single candle… they may matter to establish what kind of a man he is. I would never have thought of using his home and the solitary dinner in this way. But it’s good.

    Read, read, read is probably the best advice anybody ever gave me.

  • #2
    Re: Musings on details

    You are overthinking. You are also writing from your own understanding which, as you admit, is limited. The only answer is thankfully short: read pro scripts.

    Pre-shoot and shooting. They will answer everything for you. And neither feature scenes anything like yours.
    SundownInRetreat
    Member
    Last edited by SundownInRetreat; 02-01-2018, 09:21 AM.

    Comment


    • #3
      Re: Musings on details

      Well, except that in both examples the final scene is headed "NIGHT" but the description repeats itself with "Evening" (duh), I don't see the big difference, but that's because I don't remember this precise sequence in the film.

      They're well into the story, right? So, if you wrap up and you're close to 120 pages, I'd think you should go back and edit to generate the first example. It's mid-story, so we should already be hooked by the plot and character.

      But, if you deem the details to be essential (and the hidden key seems important, vs. just pulling a key from a pocket, at least to illustrate character or lifestyle), the second one is fine too.

      Regarding the additional details, remember that the set designer, director, actor, costumer, cinematographer, etc. are all going to have a hand in how it comes out looking.

      But these example scenes seem to be more or less establishing shots. Keeping in mind script length and white space, I'd say keep the detail for the big set pieces that you don't want anybody to miss.

      My opinion.

      And things will change. You will change. My most recent polish took a script written in 2012 from 120 down to 107 pages, without deleting a single scene. It's all about finding precise and concise wording to say the same thing.

      Comment


      • #4
        Re: Musings on details

        When writing a reading (spec) script write them more like the second example. The object is to let the reader "see" the house and details help accomplish this. Your example reads like an outline or shorthand. We can't "see" the house. Little details give us hints about the place. "A Cuisinart, a cheese slicer, lots of other nice equipment ..." let's us see that is probably an upscale kitchen. Your ... "Neat, tidy, nice equipment ..." tells me nothing, except the place is neat and there's some kind of equipment involved. Your description is too sparse, we get no real visual – no mood.

        That said, do you write every scene like this? No. This is obviously an introduction to this house – almost like an establishing shot. Since Luther is reaching under the planter for the key, I'm guessing this is not normally where he stays. This is also not an action scene. Its purpose is to set a place and mood. I'm guessing something drastic will soon happen that will alter this set routine and invade Luther's "comfort zone." I don't know for certain, but I'm pretty sure it will because this scene's purpose seems to show Luther's current, comfortable (and, perhaps, lonely) life.

        When you've already established what a place looks like, when you get to action, then write more like how you've written. This is a matter of pacing. Action – by its nature – requires shorter, "punchier" sentences.
        STANDARD DISCLAIMER: I'm a wannabe, take whatever I write with a huge grain of salt.

        Comment


        • #5
          Re: Musings on details

          Centos: I agree. I guess my problem is that I have been too afraid of directing shots, too focused on things that happen. And not realizing that the setting also tells things, especially about the characters and their life outside the present story.

          Catcon: This is another thing I've been slightly annoyed at. There is not only night and day in our world. Sometimes it's important that something happens in the evening, at sunset, or an early morning with fog or long shadows from the sunrise. I don't think it's intrinsically wrong to mark this in the script even if The Law says that night and day are the only options.

          Comment


          • #6
            Re: Musings on details

            I think how you write is essentially what is considered your "voice." And that is not something that fits easily in a box. You can read a dozen scripts from a dozen different successful screenwriters and have none of them be all that similar, and all still good.

            Comment


            • #7
              Re: Musings on details

              *************************
              SundownInRetreat
              Member
              Last edited by SundownInRetreat; 02-01-2018, 06:49 PM.

              Comment


              • #8
                Re: Musings on details

                Originally posted by Merlin View Post
                Catcon: This is another thing I've been slightly annoyed at. There is not only night and day in our world. Sometimes it's important that something happens in the evening, at sunset, or an early morning with fog or long shadows from the sunrise. I don't think it's intrinsically wrong to mark this in the script even if The Law says that night and day are the only options.
                I've learned scene headings can be:

                - NIGHT
                - DAY
                - NIGHT (SUNSET)
                - DAY (DAWN)

                And use them accordingly, but the latter two sparingly (as you describe) to suit specialized needs. Any reader who passes on a script because they are upset at such things needs to be fired, immediately.

                Similarly, I had some notes from somebody once who gagged at my use of (SCOPE MATTE). He said that some readers may not know what that is, so I shouldn't have used it.

                I have never responded to notes, especially silly ones, because I can't be bothered with useless debates. But if a reader sees something and doesn't know what it is, wouldn't it be expected that s/he would look it up? When most of us read something and come across a word that's unfamiliar, don't we look it up? Or, is this asking too much?

                Google is our friend, I say.

                Comment


                • #9
                  Re: Musings on details

                  Originally posted by catcon View Post
                  I've learned scene headings can be:

                  - NIGHT
                  - DAY
                  - NIGHT (SUNSET)
                  - DAY (DAWN)
                  I don't worry about it. I consider scene headings "shorthand." I don't see anything wrong (in a reading script) with using ...

                  - MORNING
                  - EVENING
                  - DAWN
                  - DUSK
                  - LATER
                  - MINUTES LATER
                  - MOMENTS LATER
                  - CONTINUOUS
                  ... etc.

                  My understanding is that, by the time a reading script is converted into a shooting script, all headings will be either "- NIGHT" or "- DAY." But a reading script is not a shooting script. If using "- DAWN" saves one descriptive sentence in action by immediately setting the scene or mood, it's served its purpose.

                  A reading script could probably be compared to an architect's drawing (where imagination is allowed to run free), whereas a shooting script could be compared an engineer's implementation (where the nuts and bolts of the design take place). I think it's better to err on the side of creativity and not worry so much about practicality when writing a reading (spec) script. Let the "engineer" do his job down the line. (This is assuming that you're not also shooting your own script.)
                  STANDARD DISCLAIMER: I'm a wannabe, take whatever I write with a huge grain of salt.

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Re: Musings on details

                    Originally posted by Centos View Post
                    ...I don't see anything wrong (in a reading script) with using ...

                    - MORNING
                    - EVENING
                    - DAWN
                    - DUSK
                    - LATER
                    - MINUTES LATER
                    - MOMENTS LATER
                    - CONTINUOUS... snip... A reading script could probably be compared to an architect's drawing (where imagination is allowed to run free), whereas a shooting script could be compared an engineer's implementation (where the nuts and bolts of the design take place). I think it's better to err on the side of creativity...
                    or at least on the side of clarity, yeah. When I've read scripts/done notes I've had no problem with any of these or slight variations from the standard rules of formatting. It's STORY that counts. However, I will jump all over any inconsistencies in these formats within the same screenplay.

                    I say, once you learn a set of format rules/pick a method, stick to them.

                    And a few more things about reading produced scripts as models for our specs:

                    - Try to find production drafts or something other than the shooting scripts, which are unique animals.
                    - Scripts from writer-directors are different animals, too
                    - I get more out of scripts I've read when I haven't seen the movie. Otherwise, the visuals one remembers from the films are too hard to dismiss as you read the script, and it's far harder to evaluate the written form. IMO

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Re: Musings on details

                      It's tempting to color a scene with extraneous details especially in period and sci-fi scripts. Generally, scene detail should offer some kind of compelling conflict in the story and/or characters.

                      Originally posted by Merlin View Post
                      Many people rightly point out the importance of telling a captivating story. We are writing for the film company's reader - not the director or cameraman or actors. We write spec scripts, not shooting scripts. So don't give camera directions, or at least keep them to a minimum. The reader wants a story he can follow, a page turner, not a lot of technical clutter.

                      When I tried to follow this good advice, I found myself writing something formatted as a movie script, but not actually a script. More like a novel. And people pointed this out to me. There is some magic here with eludes me.
                      Yesterday I watched part of -Absolute Power-. Here are three shots from a few minutes into the movie, as I would have written them:

                      EXT. LUTHER'S HOUSE - DAY

                      Luther, carrying some groceries, unlocks the front door.

                      INT. LUTHER'S HOUSE - KITCHEN - DAY

                      Luther enters. Neat, tidy, nice equipment. He puts
                      food away.

                      INT. LUTHER'S HOUSE - DINING AREA - NIGHT

                      Evening. Luther enters carrying a tray with a plate
                      of food and his sketch pad. He puts it on the table.


                      Afterwards went to IMSDB and read the actual (draft) script for those shots:

                      EXT. LUTHER'S HOUSE - DAY

                      A terra cotta planter to the right of the front door.
                      Luther shifts his packages, tilts the planter slightly,
                      bends down, pulls out a key, inserts it in the front
                      door.

                      INT. LUTHER'S HOUSE - KITCHEN - DAY

                      as he enters. Neat, tidy. A Cuisinart, a cheese slicer,
                      lots of other nice equipment. As he begins putting food
                      away --

                      INT. LUTHER'S HOUSE - DINING AREA - NIGHT

                      Evening now. Table set for one. A single candle.
                      Beside the candle is Luther's sketch pad. Now Luther
                      himself moves INTO VIEW, carrying a tray. He puts it
                      down.


                      Clearly the professionals have put much more life into the shots, than my version. Lots more detail, and practically everything in the script is exactly as it came out in the film.

                      So I'm wondering: is this a shooting script or just a regular script? Granted, there are no instructions about close/wide shots, zooms or camera movements. But a lot of scenic detail.

                      I'm meditating on the level of scenery I should describe. And details of action such as bending down to get a key. Before, I would have said -describe only that which is important to the story-. The fact that Luther keeps his key in a flower pot, the neatness of the kitchen, the single candle... they may matter to establish what kind of a man he is. I would never have thought of using his home and the solitary dinner in this way. But it's good.

                      Read, read, read is probably the best advice anybody ever gave me.

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Re: Musings on details

                        Originally posted by Merlin View Post
                        Many people rightly point out the importance of telling a captivating story. We are writing for the film company's reader - not the director or cameraman or actors. We write spec scripts, not shooting scripts. So don't give camera directions, or at least keep them to a minimum. The reader wants a story he can follow, a page turner, not a lot of technical clutter.

                        When I tried to follow this good advice, I found myself writing something formatted as a movie script, but not actually a script. More like a novel. And people pointed this out to me. There is some magic here with eludes me.
                        Yesterday I watched part of -Absolute Power-. Here are three shots from a few minutes into the movie, as I would have written them:

                        EXT. LUTHER'S HOUSE - DAY

                        Luther, carrying some groceries, unlocks the front door.

                        INT. LUTHER'S HOUSE - KITCHEN - DAY

                        Luther enters. Neat, tidy, nice equipment. He puts
                        food away.

                        INT. LUTHER'S HOUSE - DINING AREA - NIGHT

                        Evening. Luther enters carrying a tray with a plate
                        of food and his sketch pad. He puts it on the table.


                        Afterwards went to IMSDB and read the actual (draft) script for those shots:

                        EXT. LUTHER'S HOUSE - DAY

                        A terra cotta planter to the right of the front door.
                        Luther shifts his packages, tilts the planter slightly,
                        bends down, pulls out a key, inserts it in the front
                        door.

                        INT. LUTHER'S HOUSE - KITCHEN - DAY

                        as he enters. Neat, tidy. A Cuisinart, a cheese slicer,
                        lots of other nice equipment. As he begins putting food
                        away --

                        INT. LUTHER'S HOUSE - DINING AREA - NIGHT

                        Evening now. Table set for one. A single candle.
                        Beside the candle is Luther's sketch pad. Now Luther
                        himself moves INTO VIEW, carrying a tray. He puts it
                        down.


                        Clearly the professionals have put much more life into the shots, than my version. Lots more detail, and practically everything in the script is exactly as it came out in the film.

                        So I'm wondering: is this a shooting script or just a regular script? Granted, there are no instructions about close/wide shots, zooms or camera movements. But a lot of scenic detail.

                        I'm meditating on the level of scenery I should describe. And details of action such as bending down to get a key. Before, I would have said -describe only that which is important to the story-. The fact that Luther keeps his key in a flower pot, the neatness of the kitchen, the single candle... they may matter to establish what kind of a man he is. I would never have thought of using his home and the solitary dinner in this way. But it's good.

                        Read, read, read is probably the best advice anybody ever gave me.
                        The key to your question lies in the very first line you wrote above --

                        "Tell a captivating story."

                        Now -- go back and read your version of those few scenes.

                        Were you captivated? Was there anything about the character, the location, the events, that would have drawn you in as a reader? Not me.

                        The first thing you (and I think a lot of other people have to get out of their heads is this notion of the difference between a shooting script and a "regular" script.

                        As far as I know -- and I've had something over thirty screenplays produced, the only difference between the scripts that I wrote in development and when they ended up being shot -- thus presumably "shooting scripts" is that they got locked, they got scene numbers and all the mini-slugs became full slugs and all the different ways that you referred to the same locations you had to go back and fix (so Bob's House and A House and Bob and Mary's House -- you have to fix it if so that you describe it all with the same slug line or else the production software spits it out as different locations).

                        Other than that, there's no difference.

                        Can I say that again?

                        There's no difference. Not more description. Lot less. Not shots added in or taken out. No. The director has his own copy the same as the other department heads and they will all make notes on their own particular copies relevant to their own needs. The Director is not going to write up his own draft with shots included that's going to be distributed to everybody. Why would he? Why would other people need to read a draft of the script with shots included?

                        So if you've read a script that includes references to shots or camera moves -- that's the way the script was written. If not, then it wasn't. You're not looking at an earlier or later version of the script.

                        Next -- your job as the writer is to make the script something that anybody who reads will want to read -- to make the experience of reading the script, as much as possible, as exciting, or suspenseful, or scary, or funny -- to the reader, as the movie will be to an audience watching the movie.

                        If a reader has to trudge through dull, empty prose -- guess what? He won't. He'll toss your script onto that big stack of other scripts that he hasn't bothered to finish and move on to the next one.

                        What was true back when I was working in development is even truer today -- and that is that people who work in development have enormously more to read than they have time to read it. If any script that I was reading gave me any excuse to stop reading it -- I would stop.

                        Usually, I got a sense that a script wasn't worth reading after two pages. If I got that sense, I'd read another few pages just to make sure. If those few pages confirmed that sense, I'd scan ahead, just to make sure -- if random pages were the same -- that was it. I was done.

                        Every script I read had to make me want to read it and had to keep making me want to read it.

                        There's an awful lot of focus on act structure and story structure and character development and theme and a lot of other things, none of which I'm suggesting aren't important.

                        But if, at the end of the day, you've created something that isn't connecting with your reader, that isn't memorable -- then none of that other stuff matters.

                        NMS

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Re: Musings on details

                          I've read for a few contests and you could tell within the first three pages if the script is potentially worth reading. The scene description in those made the details matter in a way that made you want to keep reading. Even though we had to read the entire script regardless of how captivating those first few pages were, never once have I personally come across a script that wasn't captivating in the first few pages that got exponentially better later.

                          Originally posted by nmstevens View Post
                          The key to your question lies in the very first line you wrote above --

                          "Tell a captivating story."

                          Now -- go back and read your version of those few scenes.

                          Were you captivated? Was there anything about the character, the location, the events, that would have drawn you in as a reader? Not me.

                          The first thing you (and I think a lot of other people have to get out of their heads is this notion of the difference between a shooting script and a "regular" script.

                          As far as I know -- and I've had something over thirty screenplays produced, the only difference between the scripts that I wrote in development and when they ended up being shot -- thus presumably "shooting scripts" is that they got locked, they got scene numbers and all the mini-slugs became full slugs and all the different ways that you referred to the same locations you had to go back and fix (so Bob's House and A House and Bob and Mary's House -- you have to fix it if so that you describe it all with the same slug line or else the production software spits it out as different locations).

                          Other than that, there's no difference.

                          Can I say that again?

                          There's no difference. Not more description. Lot less. Not shots added in or taken out. No. The director has his own copy the same as the other department heads and they will all make notes on their own particular copies relevant to their own needs. The Director is not going to write up his own draft with shots included that's going to be distributed to everybody. Why would he? Why would other people need to read a draft of the script with shots included?

                          So if you've read a script that includes references to shots or camera moves -- that's the way the script was written. If not, then it wasn't. You're not looking at an earlier or later version of the script.

                          Next -- your job as the writer is to make the script something that anybody who reads will want to read -- to make the experience of reading the script, as much as possible, as exciting, or suspenseful, or scary, or funny -- to the reader, as the movie will be to an audience watching the movie.

                          If a reader has to trudge through dull, empty prose -- guess what? He won't. He'll toss your script onto that big stack of other scripts that he hasn't bothered to finish and move on to the next one.

                          What was true back when I was working in development is even truer today -- and that is that people who work in development have enormously more to read than they have time to read it. If any script that I was reading gave me any excuse to stop reading it -- I would stop.

                          Usually, I got a sense that a script wasn't worth reading after two pages. If I got that sense, I'd read another few pages just to make sure. If those few pages confirmed that sense, I'd scan ahead, just to make sure -- if random pages were the same -- that was it. I was done.

                          Every script I read had to make me want to read it and had to keep making me want to read it.

                          There's an awful lot of focus on act structure and story structure and character development and theme and a lot of other things, none of which I'm suggesting aren't important.

                          But if, at the end of the day, you've created something that isn't connecting with your reader, that isn't memorable -- then none of that other stuff matters.

                          NMS

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            Re: Musings on details

                            Two pages. Three pages. Used to be 10 pages.

                            I've heard that readers often don't even get the original pitch, or a synopsis, from the executive who took the pitch.

                            It's just, "here's a 110 page script; read it and give us your report."

                            This true, from the experience of the past two posters?

                            If so, this is a bad idea and I further empathize with your task. Were you to have a synopsis (or at least the pitch) to accompany the script, you might be spared some crappy reads but you might also avoid losing out on some good reads.

                            It's difficult to measure the significance of subtext, but foreshadowing? You can't even see it until you're well into the script or movie.

                            It's that small stuff that makes you want to watch a movie over and over. It's where those irrelevant-seeming, obscure or insignificant things early on become "so cool" in subsequent viewings because you alone, and not your characters, know what's coming.

                            Imagine your favorite movie that used some of this technique, and imagine not having finished watching it because "the first 10 minutes was boring" (let alone the first 2-3 minutes). I'm not talking Bergman or Polanski material here, either; I'd say most movies have a little of it, if they're any good.

                            Sorry, if I've hired someone to be a reader, I'd expect them to read the whole thing - even if it's just a scan read. Otherwise? Out the door.

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Re: Musings on details

                              Foreshadowing isn't a synonym for boring or clumsy. You still have to draw the reader in, even if you need a more detailed set up.

                              A writer can see what the setting is and can see the people he puts in that setting. It's his job to make you see it too.

                              I know NMS said two pages, but sometimes you know much sooner than that. I remember one script I started to read that started something like this:

                              EXT. SIDEWALK - DAY

                              JIM (15), BOB (15) and FRANK (15) are talking.

                              It went on from there to them talking about their missing football or something. All three sounded exactly the same when they talked. And the unfunny jokes didn't help at all.

                              So what did I see? A sidewalk and three boys, surrounded by kind of a fog. I have no idea if they're in the city, in the suburbs, in a park -- whatever? The boys I see all look the same.

                              Next -- without telling us how they got there, the boys are crawling through a drain pipe that goes under a road. Like they vanished from the sidewalk and appeared in the pipe.

                              That's the first two scenes and the writer has already lost me.

                              Or there's this:

                              INT. APARTMENT - DAY

                              BILL (29) sits on the couch, watching TV.

                              Bill gets up and walks to the kitchen.

                              Bill gets a jar of pickles from the refrigerator.

                              Bill walks back to the couch.

                              Bill sits down.

                              Bill opens the jar of pickles.

                              Bill....

                              This is only a slight exaggeration of many scripts I've read. It's like the writer is directing a puppet and has no concept of what a pronoun is.

                              For sanity's sake I have to quit reading this kind of script. Maybe the writer had the greatest idea in the world. But, chances are "Nah -- he didn't", and I'm certainly not going to change my brain to mush to try and find out.

                              Also, NMS was in development. The scripts he quit reading were from people, hoping to sell them. He wasn't being paid as a script consultant.

                              I agree that if you are paying someone to read and critique your script, they should read the whole thing.
                              "I just couldn't live in a world without me."

                              Comment

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