Short cut-aways, and the value of BACK TO:

The script I’m writing has a character who is reconstructing past events. In several scenes, we cut away to these memories, always returning to the current scene.

There are several ways to do this on the page.

The first technique is to simply use full scene headers. (This example is made up just for this blog post.)

Roger squints in the glare of light.



ORDERLIES strap Roger’s forehead to the table. A DRILL WHIRRS as a BRIGHT LIGHT swings overhead.



Roger squats down, suddenly reeling.

That BACK TO: is your friend. It’s a reminder to the reader that you were in the middle of another scene, and it’s still happening. Yes, you could just use CUT TO. But it’s ambiguous. Are you still in the same scene, or is this a different place/time?

BACK TO: is also a huge help if the cutaway involves multiple locations — the finale of Big Fish, for example. It’s a signal to the reader that all of the cutting is done.

Doing less

If you’re cutting away to the same thing often, using the full scene header gets annoying. It’s like that guy at a party who keeps introducing himself.

We know who you are, Dave. You can stop.

In the example above, if we’ve been to that examination room scene before, I’m more likely to write it like this:

As Roger squints in the glare of light --

ORDERLIES strap Roger’s forehead to the table. A DRILL WHIRRS as a BRIGHT LIGHT swings overhead.


Roger squats down, suddenly reeling.

Removing the location and the transitions feels like cheating, but it better reflects my intention with the scene. This cutaway is meant to be a nibble, not a meal.

Setting it off with italics isn’t required, but it signals the reader to pay attention — we’re doing something special here. Bold or underline would also work. (If you use special formatting for flashbacks like this, don’t use it for any other narrative device.)

That BACK TO SCENE is also optional, but here I like it as a tiny speed bump to make sure the reader understands that we’re out of flashback mode.

Is it weird to have BACK TO SCENE without a CUT TO? Kind of. You could use a CUT TO: and even skip the italics. But it’s extra lines, and I don’t think the reader is likely to get lost.

In production

When it comes time to make the movie, everything needs a scene number. We generally think of scene numbers going with scene headers, but the reality is that anything can have a number attached, including the italicized action lines above.

There are different philosophies for how to number flashback scenes, but my preference would be to keep the copy room scene as a single scene number (e.g. 34) and group together all of the examination room scenes as a sequence (e.g. A900, B900, C900). This way, the copy room scene doesn’t get divided across a few strips, potentially confusing everyone.

Numbering scenes is a conversation to have with the director, A.D. and line producer. It’s a luxury problem, because it means your movie is getting made.

One-Handed Movie Heroes

Scriptnotes: Ep. 210

John and Craig discuss why movie heroes — unlike those in novels or musicals — generally don’t profess internally conflicting views. In reality, our feelings on a topic are likely shades of gray. On the big screen, characters tend to articulate a single point firmly.

We also discuss the last few things we do when getting ready to submit a script.

Then it’s time for three new entries in the Three Page Challenge, with Nazis, nukes and noir.

You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

UPDATE 8-13-15: The transcript of this episode can be found here.

How to Not Be a Jerk

Scriptnotes: Ep. 209

Craig and John look at best practices for screenwriters promoting their films, both in traditional media and online. We’re not subtweeting anyone, and neither should you.

Also this week: more on reshoots, Stretch Armstrong and selective editing of quotes in movie reviews.


You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

UPDATE 8-10-15: The transcript of this episode can be found here.

How descriptive audio works

Scriptnotes: Ep. 208

John and Craig take a deep look at how descriptive audio for the blind works, with clips from Daredevil and an interview with a woman who does it for a living. It’s a fascinating form of writing, with many of the same challenges screenwriters face.

Also this week: Capitals, capitalization, the WGA financial numbers, and answers to a bunch of listener questions.

If you have a Scriptnotes t-shirt design, the deadline is August 11th. Click the link below for details.


You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

UPDATE 7-31-15: The transcript of this episode can be found here.

Weekend Read gains new features, fixes an annoying bug

Weekend Read 1.5.4, available now, adds optional push notifications for new scripts in the For Your Consideration section. It also fixes a really annoying bug where the app might insist that your library was full when it wasn’t.

It’s a free update for all users.

We’ve been adding a lot of new scripts recently — but you could easily miss them if you’re not checking the app every day. With push notifications turned on, you’ll get a banner telling you the moment there’s something new to download.

And there’s a lot to download. Each Friday this summer, we’re putting up new scripts in the Featured Friday section. These scripts are only available for the weekend, so you don’t want to miss them.

Tomorrow’s theme is Pilots, and includes early drafts of shows you’ve seen plus unproduced work from the Black List.

Keeping count

For the past few weeks, nearly 100% of our support emails were a version of the following:

I love Weekend Read, but it keeps telling me my library is full when I only have one (or two, or zero) scripts in it. Help!

No matter what we did, we couldn’t reproduce the error. We could offer affected users a fix — delete the app and reinstall it — but that didn’t solve the underlying problem.

Nima finally figured out what was wrong. Because of an API change, scripts imported directly from Mail were getting double-counted. Even when they were deleted, the count was wrong.

The fix took several weeks, then several minutes, but now it’s done.

You can find Weekend Read on the App Store.

How descriptive narration gets written

On this week’s episode of Scriptnotes, I wondered aloud how descriptive narration for the blind was written, and whether those writers consulted the screenplay.

Several listeners quickly pointed me to WGBH, and this FAQ:

Closed captions and descriptive narration are created as part of a movie’s post production process. Once a film has been finalized, a script and a copy of the film are provided to WGBH’s Los Angeles production office.

While the screenplay is a good starting place for captions, descriptive narration really depends on the finished work:

Descriptions are written by specially trained writers called describers.

A describer initially listens to the film without watching it, in order to approximate the experience of a person who has limited or no vision. The describer pays close attention to what is already communicated by the soundtrack. The describer uses specially designed computer software to map out the pauses in the movie and then crafts the most expressive and effective description possible in the space available.

After a script is written, it is edited and rechecked several times. The script is checked for timing, continuity, accuracy, and a natural flow. Professional narrators then read the script while watching and listening to the program.

Thanks to everyone who wrote in. We’ll try to arrange a conversation with a describer for a future episode.