Monday, 30 March 2009


The room is semi-decorated, like a half kept promise. STUART - 30s, devilishly handsome, slightly deluded - sits at his desk and taps away at a keyboard: the monitor screen shows Final Draft filling up with script.

Hmm. Scene headings are ugly.

He types some more, growing increasingly, but gorgeously, irritated.

Do I really really need 'em?


Good question, fake courier-12-point me. Like most of the regular readers of this blog, I write a good deal of script. Now, I'm still an emerging writer (love that phrase - I can't control whether that conjures images in your head of emerging from a cocoon, or emerging from some bushes, and I like that danger). And as an emerging writer (it's bushes for you, isn't it?!) most of what I write is designed to be read first, made (hopefully) later. For a script intended primarily to be read as a story rather than as a blueprint, by people wondering 'should this be made' rather than necessarily 'how the hell do we make this', a lot of the conventions of the screenplay format are at best meaningless, and are at worst in the way.

The 12-point courier thing, as a rule of thumb, makes a screenplay work out to be about a page per minute of action. But, as anyone who's ever operated an iPhone in a hurry can tell you: thumbs can be inaccurate things. Particularly with shorter scripts, I find it the page per minute thing can be way off. And of course, anyone can film a script as sloooowly as they like (particularly directors). But, even so, I would keep the 12-point courier and the spacing as they are. But scene headings? I would change them like a shot (pun intended).

How would I change them? I'd get rid of EXT and INT, and probably DAY and NIGHT too. Is this craziness? Possibly. I'm bound to be on to a loser trying to change things: the film screenplay format has been pretty much the same for fifty years or more. William Goldman writes scripts dispensing with the uglier slug line conventions. But he's William Goldman; and even he couldn't persuade anyone else to follow his lead.

So, we are stuck with INT and EXT, but what do they give us? They are ultimately a tool for line producers to budget scripts within a studio system. For anyone outside such a system, and even for a lot of Hollywood films, they are wildly out of date: an interior shot of a house is very likely to be shot on location, where an exterior scene might be filmed against a green screen in a studio. And for a story to be read, INT and EXT convey nothing that can't be covered in the location or scene description. If you're in a living room, you're inside. If you're in a field, you're outside. If there's any doubt, rewrite it until there's no doubt; that's got to make for a better script and a better writer.

What about DAY and NIGHT? Well, they're mainly queues for lighting, but outside of a shooting script they can be useful to show the passage of time. Again though, this can be used as a crutch. When I was a less experienced writer (a few weeks back!) I lengthened and lengthened my scene headings with extraneous detail: not only was it DAY in this scene, it was LATER, no sorry: MOMENTS LATER. THE SAME DAY. CONTINUOUS. I went hog wild, making sure people would get it. I wasn't necessarily wrong either, as plenty of pro film scripts use all of these. Someone somewhere must like them, but more and more I think they're unneeded, except for the first scene or if a major change has occurred. If the script has been written right, it should be obvious how much time has passed from the scene description and character behaviour.

If it isn't clear whether a scene's in or outdoors, or at night or in the day, you're better off not trying to address this in the scene heading, as I'd wager that most of the people reading your script will skip the scene headings anyway. We all do it, don't we? I certainly do, even with my own scripts. Because scene headings aren't very interesting. So, why not drop all these annoying things, and concentrate on what everyone's interested in: the story? As follows:


Stuart sits and types.


Stuart's son walks to the office door.

Get off Twitter and do some work, Daddy.

Why not? Well, it's usual reason: The Fear. The fear that an overworked script reader will think "No EXTs and DAYs - amateur - reject!" and put your script in the green crayon pile. Now, this fear is probably unfounded; or, if not, then you could use the argument that, if they're noticing stuff like that, then your script's lost them anyway. But if there's even the slightest chance that it could make a difference, why rock the boat? So, I'll be leaving all the EXTs and INTs and DAYs and NIGHTs in my scripts, and crossing my fingers. But, every so often, I'm dropping out a DAY or an INT here and there, to see if anyone notices, trying to bring down the system from within.

What about you? Do you hate these things too? Or am I over-reacting? Are they useful in some way I haven't considered? Or have you dropped them from your scripts altogether? Has anyone noticed? I'd love to know.


laurence timms said...

I only put all that int ext day night crap in when all other avenues have been exhausted and there's nothing else for it.

You know, after I have accumulated stacks of notes, arrays of text files, folders of random Word documents.

Once in scripty mode, though, one thing I'm learning is that everyone's expectations are different. The kind of thing that'd piss off a Script Ed. is the kind of thing that a Producer might shrug at.

Scripts are like CVs. You tart 'em up to suit the reader. If the recipient wants INTs and EXTs, give them INTs and EXTs. Bullshit your way to success.

I know I do.

Oh, and 'emerging'? From the mist.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Nicely discussed. What's with the whole courier 12 pt thing anyway? I'm sure there must be equally easy-to-read fonts. I guess it all goes back to the days of typewriters when courier was all you got.

I like Laurence's idiom - 'Bullshit your way to success'. I may just have to make that my family motto.

Stuart Perry said...

Laurence - cheers: good points as always. Isn't it frustrating though that screenplay formatting is at once so nailed down *and* so changeable? And the mist?! I love it.

Stevyn - thanks. I am not convinced that 12-point Arial, say, would be any less accurate at the ol' one page per minute thing. And I think you're right: it all comes down to what could be done on a typewriter many many years ago.

Phill Barron said...


Stuart sits and types.


Ah, so Stuart typed 'STUART'S HALLWAY:' for some reason did he?

A good reason for including INT/EXT. and - DAY/NIGHT is they flag up that line as being a scene heading as opposed to a random bit of shouting or, in this case, what the character is typing. They bracket the scene heading

Plus, whereas they are in no way necessary - scene headings look horribly unbalanced without them. When they're there I never notice them. When they're not it makes me stop and look around. Where've they gone? Did the writer deliberately leave them out because he's trying to make a rebellious statement? (The equivalent of wearing your tie the wrong way round at school. Yeah! That'll show those teachers! Bet they're sorry now.) Or perhaps he left them out because he doesn't know they're supposed to be there? Is that scene heading going to fall over because it's unbalanced?

Most people in the UK really won't care, a few people will get annoyed. The ones who don't care, don't care either way. The ones who get annoyed should get a fucking life - but since they haven't and your script is in their hands, why not make sure it's gone to the interview in a suit and tie as opposed to jeans and T-shirt?

Stuart Perry said...

Mister Barron, hello: useful input as always. Ta. Though I don't believe anyone would read that scene description as 12-point Stuart typing the phrase "STUART'S HALLWAY" I accept the fact that it might need some other convention to clearly define it as a scene heading. An underline would do this nicely without having something as ugly and outdated as the three letter abbreviation currently used.

I'm not advocating losing all the conventions: to further your analogy, I still want to go to the interview in a suit, I just think the style that everyone wears might have been updated a little bit in the last however-many decades (does anyone know, by the way, how long the screenplay format has been frozen thus? The oldest screenplays I've seen are from the 60's and it was established then).

But a good thing about the format is that it's democracy by usage: there's no one authority that could change it. So, for the sake of not blowing the interview, I will of course play ball. That doesn't mean I have to like it, however.

Good Dog said...

I'm just interested in the "queues for lighting". Does that involve lining up 60 watt bulbs?

Stuart Perry said...

Good dog - good spot; mea culpa. But I'm glad you found something about the post interesting!

Good Dog said...

I did mean to scribble a bit more but was up against the clock at that moment.

I can see what rankles you but there is something Canutish about it. Really, it’s finding that narrow balance between blueprint and prose. Having written for years on a typewriter, and still have a couple tucked away somewhere, I actually find it difficult reading scripts that aren’t in the Courier typeface.

It’s the same with scene headers, as Mr Barron says, without them it can lead to confusion. Has the previous scene finished? What’s happening here? What’s going on? You don’t want to have anything on the page that will yank the reader out of the unfolding narrative. It’s like throwing a wrench into a factory production line. Everything judders to a messy halt.

Interesting the Goldman comment. I like the guy’s writing but find the scripts... annoying, shall we say. Obviously you have some of the books of his collected screenplays. While he doesn’t follow the INT: OFFICE – DAY party line, almost every other line (to indicate a different scene) is CUT TO.

Have another look at some of his work and it’s CUT TO... CUT TO... CUT TO... And that’s the thing I find fucks with the narrative. And it can eat up a heck of a lot of lines on the page.

Because the format of the script is so ingrained in industry consciousness, is trying to change it a good thing? Do you really want to be the Martin Luther of script format?

One thing that I’m surprised folk still keep in their head is this page-per-minute rule of thumb.

I’m probably not surprising anyone who has read my blog that I’m an advocate of US drama, which is far better paced than the rather sluggish UK equivalents. A US network drama episode averages around 41 minutes. The scripts run much longer, anywhere from 55-60 pages to 70-80 pages for an ER script. Spooks scripts run toward that length and it’s reflected on the screen. One for one resides in languor.

Stuart Perry said...

Good Dog - I haven't got any of the script examples you mention to hand, but I wouldn't imagine that any of those TV shows would be using the strict film style that supposedly works out to 1 page per minute. TV formats are a different beast - and never the same twice seemingly.

I think it's a red herring anyway, TBH. Formatting is never going to be as important to pacing as style, and just trying to cram as much material into a running time as possible isn't a cure all. Plus, my post was about pilot/spec scripts to be read cold, not to fit into an existing show's house style of writing/directing. It would probably count against someone if they're presenting a pilot for their 60-minute TV series but they submit an 85 page script.