Formatting text shown on screen

First, it was such a pleasure to meet you in Austin last year. Hope to see you next year, too. I had a question that I’ve never gotten a straight answer on.

How do you format it when you’re trying to show text being written on a computer monitor, specifically showing the exchange between two people in an internet chat room (a la “Closer”, but I haven’t found that script)? I’m guessing INSERT: COMPUTER SCREEN would be a start, but what’s after that? Would the same be used to show the text message on a cell phone?

– Derek

Your instincts are right. I might choose slightly different words, but the net result would be the same:

With a glance back over her shoulder to be certain no one’s looking, Sydney quickly types in the search parameters.


Bank records scroll past at unreadable clip, finally arriving at a single matched record:



She GASPS, recognizing her former faux-employer.




I used a separate slugline (“ON SYDNEY”) to get us out of “ON THE SCREEN.” If you were crunched for space, you could probably omit it; it’s pretty clear in context.

I don’t often use “INSERT:” or “ANGLE ON:” in screenplays. They feel fussy, and rarely offer anything more than a single slugline in uppercase would.

And as far as a cell-phone screen, there’s really no difference:

Hearing a strange CHIRP, Chloe digs out her cell phone. She’s gotten a new text message.




grimaces, frustrated. Starts to dial.


(to Ruth)

I swear, your brother could get lost in a closet.

Keeping motivation after four drafts

When starting out did you ever have trouble finding motivation to keep working on rewrites? Doesn’t the same story lose its interest after about four drafts?

– Brannek Gaudet

Good guess. Four drafts is about the right number. The first draft is exciting, bewildering and fresh. For the second draft, you have all sorts of brilliant new ideas and suggestions to try out, so that keeps it interesting. The third draft is generally damage-control from the second draft, where many of those good ideas ended up not working. The fourth draft, well…

The fourth draft sucks. By this point, the intractable problems of your script are readily apparent, and you’re faced with either (a) writing around them, or (b) trying to tackle them head on. In my experience, while you should choose (b), you generally choose (a).

It all boils down to two related questions: What script did you sit down to write, and what script did you end up writing?

At this fourth draft stage, you have to really decide between Great in Theory and what Actually Works. If you approach it this way, you can sometimes gain fresh eyes on your script. Read it as if some other, lamer screenwriter wrote it. What would you do differently?

Then, do that.

Character depth in a short film

I’m in the midst of rewriting a short drama that is to be shot in about two months. I’m having trouble injecting character depth into it and I don’t know how to fix it. Everytime I try to make it more about the character it gets longer and longer, and it must be around 10 minutes (for university assessment).

– Eva Fitzroy

Character depth may be a false goal. With only ten minutes, you’re not going to be able to make CHINATOWN. Nor should you try.

Rather than cramming in extraneous character information, strive for economy. Is your protagonist a one-armed professional accordion player nervous about meeting his birth father? Fine. Show us that information in the very first scene. If you can’t work in all those details, ask yourself what’s really important: that he plays accordion, that he has one arm, or that he’s nervous about meeting his biological dad.

You may find you have to omit or alter some aspects of the character for sake of getting the plot started. So be it. Think of it like writing poetry: you may have really wanted line two to end with “orange,” but if you’re setting up for a rhyme, that’s just not going to work.

Good short films tend to be about a Character facing a Situation who takes an Action and has an Outcome. Yes, that’s sort of a generic template, but my point is that most successful shorts don’t spend much of their time filling in the details about their characters. What you see is what you get. So make sure those first details we see about the characters are enough to sustain our interest for ten minutes.

Writing about what you don’t know

I have this idea of a screenplay that has to do with Navy SEALs. However I am not familiar with them. I have also heard that as a writer one should be more inclined to write what they know about.

Should I follow this advice or can I find ways of developing this idea through research? Is it necessarily that all screenwriters have an absolute clue about what their stories venture into?

– Andrew

If screenwriters only wrote about subjects they knew intimately, most screenplays would be about Tetris, television or getting picked last for team sports.

Write about what interests you. If you don’t know enough about Navy SEALs, research everything you can on them until you’re a pseudo-expert. Here’s the test for whether you’ve done enough research: have you annoyed all your friends and loved ones talking about all the interesting facts you’ve learned about Navy SEALs? Great. Now you’re ready to start writing.

A new year, new technical difficulties

I’m back from two weeks in Australia, a country that’s just as great as everyone makes it out to be. While I was gone, there was all kinds of behind-the-digital-scenes drama at, most of which hopefully wasn’t visible to Loyal Readers.

Basically, the webhosting company moved the site to a “non-production server” because we were suddenly using way too many processing cycles. I hadn’t changed anything about the programming in over a month, which leads me to believe it was an external cause — probably an automated attack by some ne’er-d0-well.

In the movies, Evil Hackers break into defense networks and bring down satellites. In reality, they overwhelm little sites on shared servers, forcing their screenwriter owners to spend Quality Beach Time in tiny internet cafes, trying to figure out what the hell is going on.

Oh, the villainy!

I’m trying to get the situation resolved. I’ll definitely be upgrading the underlying software, and may need to move to a different hosting company. In the meantime, comments will still be turned off (to reduce the load). If the entire site suddenly goes dark, please check back in a day or two. It will be back up shortly.

Happy New Year, everyone!

UPDATE: If you’re reading this, then the move to the new server is complete. Things will be a little wonky for a day or two, so please be patient while the Oompa-Loompas sort things out.

Other interests and hobbies

Do you play guitar, or do some other type of hobby in order to get inspiration for your writing?

– Jesse Leal

I don’t play guitar, though I’ve always wanted to learn. I tried to teach myself on my father’s guitar, but never even mastered tuning it, which made the rest of the process painful to the ears.

I can read music, and play piano and clarinet on a grade-school level. But I wouldn’t say either of them inspire my writing. So, for the truly curious, here’s a quick run-down of John’s Other Interests:

  • Gadgets Treo 650? Check. TiVo? Check. (Early Adopter points: I got my first digital video recorder in 1998.) Toyota Prius? Check. (We have two in the family.) Wireless Weather Forecaster? Check.
  • Languages I like to travel, but my interest in languages is borderline obsessive; I spent six weeks learning Japanese in preparation for a 72-hour visit to Tokyo. I’ve spoken Spanish since grade school, and French since high school. I’m fascinated by the evolution of languages, particularly how English lost its Germanic declensions and re-imported so much of its vocabulary from French (which resulted in having both ‘regal’ and ‘royal’).
  • Warcraft My name is John, and I have Warcraft problem. Kudos to the good folks at Blizzard for their digital crack.
  • Reality Television If I only watched The Amazing Race, no one would question my taste. But my TiVo also holds Big Brother, The Real World, and The Real World/Road Rules Challenge.
  • Home improvement I’ve renovated two houses in four years, by which I mean telling a contractor what I wanted and blissfully ignoring the actual labor involved.
  • Information architecture Beyond the work I do designing and running this website, I also love to keep up on XML, RSS and other emerging standards.
  • D.C. heroes I know there’s a lot of love out there for the Marvel pantheon, but I’ve always been a D.C. guy. Ever since I watched Superfriends as a kid, Superman and his brethren were my gods on Mount Olympus. I was never much of a comics reader, but somehow I learned all of the heroes’ mythology.