Stressing over structure

When you write, are you consciously aware of structuring your screenplay, or it is something that is more instinctive?

– Brian
Galway, Ireland

When I was first starting out, I was paranoid about structure — but that’s because I didn’t know what it really was.

I had of course read Syd Field’s book, and I worried that if I wasn’t hitting my act breaks at exactly the right page number, I was a dismal failure. Then at USC I was introduced to a “clothesline” template, which was baffling. People smarter than me would talk about eight sequences, or eleven sequences, and I would nod as if I understood.

And now I do: It’s all bunk.

At the risk of introducing another screenwriting metaphor, I’ll say that structure is like your skeleton. It’s the framework on which you hang the meat of your story. If someone’s bones are in the wrong place, odds are he’ll have a hard time moving, and it won’t be comfortable. It’s the same with a screenplay. If the pieces aren’t put together right, the story won’t work as well as it could.

But here’s the thing: not every skeleton is the same.

Think about it in real-world terms.
Human skeletons are pretty consistent, but you also have gazelles and giraffes, cockroaches and hummingbirds, each with a different structure, but all equally valid designs. The standard dogma about screenplay structure focuses on hitting certain moments at certain page numbers. But in my experience, these measurements hold true for Chinatown and nothing I’ve actually written.

My advice? Stop thinking about structure as something you impose upon your story. It’s an inherent part of it, like the setup to a joke. As you’re figuring out the story you want to tell, ask yourself a few questions:

  1. What’s the next thing this character would realistically do?
  2. What’s the most interesting thing this character could do?
  3. Where do I want the story to go next?
  4. Where do I want the story to end up eventually?
  5. Does this scene stand up on its own merit, or is it just setting stuff up for later?
  6. What are the later repercussions of this scene? How could I maximize them?

If you answer these questions at every turn, I guarantee you’ll have a terrifically structured screenplay. It might not hit predefined act breaks, but it will be consistently engaging, something that can’t be said for many “properly structured” scripts.

New CSS template for screenplay formatting

UPDATE (2/26/09): This is an early draft of what would later become Scrippets. Check out that site for more up-to-date information. And you’ll notice that I ultimately did go back to using paragraph tags, rather than list items.

One frustrating part of discussing scripts on the internet is that the formatting is always wrong. Changing the typeface to monospace (such as Courier or Monaco) helps a little, but the indentations are still wonky.

Beginning with yesterday’s post, I’m using a new CSS style template I created to handle screenplay markup on the site. If you know know about CSS, it’s the way modern web pages are built, separating content from formatting. The rest of this post gets kind of technical, so you may want to bail out now.

Okay, geeks who are still with me:

Doing screenplay in CSS seems pretty straightforward. The base class (Screenplay) would handle the width of the virtual page, and make everything 12pt Courier. The individual elements would be .sceneheader, .action, .character, .dialogue, .parenthetical, and .transition.

My first instinct was to handle the elements with paragraph styles, like this:

<p class="sceneheader">INT. BOB'S DINER – NIGHT</p>

Unfortunately, paragraphs carry with them a bunch of problems. First, they’re the bread-and-butter of blogging programs like WordPress, so odds of choking the interpreter seem pretty high. And in order to use them, I would have to wrap them in <div> tags, which is another potential boondoggle.

So instead, I decided to define a new class of unordered list for the container class, and define each of the elements as list items. One issue that quickly comes up is line spacing. For screenplays, you need one blank line after a line of action or dialogue, but none after a character name.


Susan is on a cell-phone call. She smiles at Melissa, who walks by with two cups of coffee.


Right now, this is probably our top pilot. But things change.

In markup, this looks like this:

<ul class="screenbox">
<li class="sceneheader">EXT. FOREST / ELSEWHERE – DAY</li>
<li class="action">Susan is on a cell-phone call. She smiles at Melissa, who walks by with two cups of coffee.</li>
<li class="character">SUSAN (V.O.)</li>
<li class="dialogue">Right now, this is probably our top pilot. But things change.</li>

Here’s the CSS code that does the job:

.screenbox {
    list-style: none;
    width: 420px;
    background: #eee;
    border: 1px solid #333;
    padding: 5px 14px;


.screenbox li { font: 12px/14px Courier, fixed; }

.sceneheader, .action, .character { padding-top: 1.5ex; }

.action { padding-right: 5%; }

.character { margin-left: 40%; }

.dialogue { margin-left: 25%; padding-right: 25%; }

.parenthetical { margin-left: 32%; padding-right: 30%; }

/* special case: dialogue followed by a parenthetical; the extra line needs to be suppressed */

.dialogue + .parenthetical { padding-bottom: 0; }

.transition { padding-top: 3ex; margin-left: 65%; padding-bottom: 1.5ex; }

I used a fixed width for the .screenbox (420 px), but the formatting looks okay for anywhere between 300 and 700 pixels. Everything else is handled by percentages for horizontal spacing, and ex heights for vertical spacing.

You’ll notice that .sceneheader is really no different than .action. I defined it so that if at some later date I decided to tweak it (for instance, adding scene numbers), the markup would already be there.

As always, anyone is welcome to use and modify this template as they see fit.

Avoid CUT TO’s in a busy sequence

I’m piecing together a climax sequence that takes place in a park, with dozens of cuts back and forth between four main characters as they perform different activities at different locations within the park. Is there an efficient way to format this without creating a new, full slugline for each cut, and without using too many CUT TOs?

– Joseph
Uppsala, Sweden

Make friends with the slugline. That’s a single line, all in caps, which tells the reader that you’re focusing on something new. Here’s an example from CHARLIE’S ANGELS: FULL THROTTLE:

(Note: If the following text has bullet points, you need to clear your cache. On the Mac, hold down the command key while you press the Reload button on the toolbar.)

All eight "real" RACERS attack the course like modern-day charioteers, SLAMMING down each hill and SPRAYING dirt like shrapnel.

Some OFFICIALS try to stop Dylan, but she ROARS onto the course.


Alex sloughs off her cotton candy and runs along the lowest walkway, trying to keep Dylan in sight.


Natalie grabs an available bike and helmet, ready to join in the race.


The pack is nearing the first turn. Emmers has the lead, with the Man in Black moving up quickly. Boxed in between two other racers, the Man suddenly


one guy out of his way. The unsuspecting cyclist crashes in the dirt. This is no ordinary race.

At the fence, Stern YELLS into his wrist-mike:


Carter! Kalakana! Get up here now!


reaches into his jacket pocket, pulling out an antique revolver. As he closes the gap on Emmers, he starts to take aim. With both cycles heading up and down hills, it's difficult to get a line-of-sight, but their jumps are finally synchronized.

Sometimes, even those single sluglines can be too much, so you might consider embedding them into paragraphs.

Also from Full Throttle:

As the truck falls, we move into SUPER-SLOW MOTION. There’s a lot to cover:

IN THE CAB, we watch as the truck’s nose tips straight down to the floor of the canyon one thousand feet below. Keeping her cool, Dylan grabs the glowing tube and climbs out her door.

IN THE BACK, Alex RIPS open a nylon duffel bag. She pulls out an armful of silk. Clinging to the truck wall, Natalie KICKS loose the wheel chucks. The mysterious fan unit floats freely in the truck.

ON THE DAM, the men watch as the truck falls. The angels may have escaped their reach, but they won’t escape their death. The ARTILLERIST aims the rocket launcher.

IN THE BACK, Alex lets the silk fly. It WHIPS out of her hands, unfurling as a small parachute. Natalie pulls a ripcord, which starts up the massive fan blades.

Dylan climbs into the cargo area.

Meanwhile, the small parachute begins to pull out a much larger canopy, a massive rectangular wing of fabric.

ON THE DAM, the artillerist has a bead on the falling truck. He squeezes the trigger, launching a WHISTLING RPG.

IN THE TRUCK, the angels grab onto handholds near the fan unit. They see the missile coming.

THE CANOPY extends to full berth, yanking taught a web of cables. The whole fan assembly flies out the back of the truck just moments before


The truck EXPLODES in a fireball that continues to fall towards the canyon floor. We LOOK UP to see

THE CANOPY, where the angels dangle from the crossbars of the suspended fan unit. We get our first good look at the vehicle, a type of ultra-light aircraft that resembles an Everglades swamp boat gone aerial.

ON THE DAM, the men watch with furious awe as the strange craft begins to fly up from the base of the canyon, catching the rising drafts. It’s heading into the sunset.

However you choose to do it, remember that you’re writing for the reader, not the director. You want to create the action sequence that feels most exciting on the page, even if the sequence of events isn’t exactly how you ultimately think a director will stage it.

Back from Austin

Austin BannerThe screenwriting portion of the Austin Film Festival was the past weekend, and I was happy to be a panelist. I was in three sessions. The first was about writer’s block; the second was the action genre; the third was on editing your script.

For the writer’s block panel, I referred to a book I’d read called The Midnight Disease. I couldn’t remember the author’s name, but with the benefit of web access, I can say it’s Alice Weaver Flaherty. It’s not a self-help book per se; it’s more an examination of the syndrome, along its mirror-condition, hypergraphia.

The action panel was fun, though part of me wonders if it’s really doing the world any benefit to talk about how to make expensive movies where stuff blows up real good. Hopefully, everyone who attended this panel also went to one about independent filmmaking or something character-oriented.

The final panel on editing your script was the most frustrating, both for the panelists and the audience. While it’s certainly a moderator’s right to stray from the assigned topic, his questions went so far afield I couldn’t even parse them half the time. So for anyone who sat through it, my apologies. And here’s what I probably would have said if asked:

  • Editing is not the same as rewriting. Editing is a constant process of finding the right words. Rewriting is changing the story, not just the commas.

  • Be careful not to over-edit as you’re writing your first draft. Many scripts are left unfinished at page 38 because the writer keeps going back and polishing the early scenes.

  • Have a plan before you start rewriting, or else you’ll get confused, frustrated and despondent.

  • Always ask yourself: What is important in this scene? Do you really need everything else?

On the whole, I liked the Festival. I met some great people, particularly other panelists whom I’d long admired. I only wish I’d had more time to socialize with them.

Writers Guild agreement reached

Suddenly, the five-month pause in negotiations between the Writers Guild and the studios has ended, with a tentative agreement announced today.

For those who haven’t been following the situation, film and television writers have been working without a contract since June 2nd. The Writers Guild walked away from the studios “last, best offer” because it didn’t address the principal concerns:

  1. Health plan funding
  2. DVD residuals
  3. Late payments
  4. Other creative issues, such as reality television writing

The idea was to wait until the Directors Guild started their negotiations, and piggyback on any advances they were able to make. (This isn’t as unfair as it sounds; the DGA traditionally goes last in the cycle after WGA and SAG, and benefits from increases the first two guilds win.) However, the DGA made their deal really quickly, and didn’t make any progress on DVD residuals. So there wasn’t a lot for the WGA Negotiating Committee to build on.

What did the writers get in this tentative agreement? Well, the health plan is the biggest thing, with about $37 million more pumped in to keep the fund solvent. There are also increases in pension and minimum writing fees. DVD residuals stay where they are, but there’s at least some token attention to late payments and reality television, which uses writers but calls them producers.

Also on the television front, there will be a new training program for educating writers about the business side of running a TV show. And to encourage wider viewing, networks can repeat the intial episodes of a series during the first two months without paying residuals. Both make sense to me.

Is it a good deal? Well, it doesn’t address the awful state of DVD residuals, but I really didn’t expect it would. You know how when something bad happens, people always say, “At least you have your health?” In this case, at least we have our health plan, which is certainly something to be happy about.