THINGS THAT PISS SCREENPLAY READERS OFF 3/6/09


This entry will be dedicated to three ways people overuse slug lines (the most annoying items we readers have to read). Actually, I and my tribe are quite surprised to come across some of these as often as we do since they should be taught in Screenwriting 101. Yet, they do still worm their way into script after script (think John Hurt in Alien).

1. When dramatizing a telephone call in which both characters are seen, please, please, I beg of you, please use the Intercut style. Do not change scenes with a different slug line each time someone speaks. For those of you who don’t know the Intercut style, it’s to introduce the first caller using a slug line, then introduce the second caller using a slug line, then say INTERCUT BETWEEN (the two characters) and then stop using slug lines. Also, please be sure to say END INTERCUT at the end of the phone conversation.

As a correlation to this, on occasion some writers will try to “direct” and “edit” the scene by where they place the slug lines (sneaky, sneaky). Do not, I repeat, do not do this. This is not your decision. This will be determined by a director and editor. If you do this, just to let you know, the director isn’t going to pay any attention to where you place the camera in the screenplay anyway. What they will do when they come across this is roll their eyes and have a look of pity on their faces.

This technique can also be used in other situations. If two people are talking to each other from two different rooms (say one’s in the bedroom and one’s in the sex room tied up in a sling), you might consider using the Intercut style. If you are constantly cutting back and forth between two locations (James Blond is trying to escape a rotary saw that is about to castrate him and Dr. Yes is trying to blow up every Starbucks in the world in a nearby office, say), you can consider using this style as well since these two scenes will eventually merge. But be careful in choosing to use this technique here.

2. When dramatizing a scene that takes place both inside and outside a car, use the I/E to start the slug line. If two people are talking to each other, one outside and one inside the car, do not use a separate slug line each time you switch character emphasis. In addition, if a character is inside a car and you have a narrative comment on something they see outside (they pass a billboard or see a farmer hack to death a horny teenager and his girlfriend), do not use a slug line for the outside scene.

There are other situations where this can be used. I wrote a scene that takes place both inside and outside a barn and used the I/E style so I wouldn’t have to switch back and forth every time someone spoke. If Character A is on a porch outside about to hang himself while talking to Character B who is inside a kitchen preparing a poisonous drink for Character A, etc., you might also consider using this style as well.

3. One fairly new method of being efficient on slug lines that has become more and more popular as of late can come into play when a group of scenes take place in the same location, i.e. a house. Instead of using a complete slug line every time someone goes from one room to another, it is allowable to only use the location name in the slug line. For example:

INT. JUDY GARLAND’S HOUSE-FOYER DAY

Judy, high on painkillers, enters her foyer. She takes another pill, then goes into the…

LIVING ROOM

…where she is startled to see the mangled body of a little person dressed in Munchkin garb.

She closes her eyes and clicks her heels together three times. When she opens her eyes, the little person is still there. She rushes into the…

KITCHEN…

…takes the phone and calls 911, asking for Detective Glenda Goodwitch.

LIVING ROOM-LATER

The living room is now a crime scene.

This can also be used in slightly larger locations, such as an office building.

Now, you may be wondering, why this is important. Consider the following:

1. It’s easier to read and the easier a screenplay is to read, the happier a reader is.
2. Not doing the above decreases tension in your screenplay because the reader has to slow down and read unnecessary words. Also, they might, for example, think you are starting a new plot thread, when in reality you are merely continuing the same one, which also slows down the reader and decreases any tension you have built up as he hesitates, trying to put it all together.
3. This will sometimes save you space and perhaps reduce the number of pages to your script.
4. It really pisses us off if you don’t do it.

Now, it’s true that the time a reader takes to regroup his thoughts reading an unnecessary slug line is often imperceptible, but it adds up and the more your break these rules (and other rules I will be talking about in the future), the more difficult a script is too read.

You’re probably saying that any reader who has trouble reading screenplays in which you break these rules is pretty pathetic. That may be true, but then ask yourself, how does that help you get that reader to pass the screenplay on?

And again, IT REALLY PISSES US OFF.

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