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NYC Screenwriters Collective Message Board › Breaking down scenes - Screenwriting Question.

Breaking down scenes - Screenwriting Question.

user 129573802
New York, NY
Post #: 1
Hi, I just joined the group and I've recently become very interested in screenwriting. I've been looking online for screenwriting tips and instructions as far as formatting to industry standards, etc, etc... unfortunately, sometimes questions are too specific to find especially when you don't know the correct terminology to use in your search. I know this group is not principally for screenwriting lessons and I hope I am not taking advantage of the knowledge that I know some of you can offer for free, but the FAQ says we can ask questions, so I hope this is acceptable.

... By the way, I'm going to preface this by saying I am generally very verbose in my explanation on web forums. I apologize in advance for the wordiness.

Now, everything I've read so far regarding writing a screenplay stressed greatly that it is vital that your script is to perfect industry standard. This has been hovering over my head in everything I've done to this point and it's starting to drive me insane the more and more real this script becomes.

I have a story overview and character backgrounds written for my script and I'm in the process of writing a scene layout so that I can arrange the flow of the script before I start writing. As soon as I started writing, I got stuck thinking about the first scene and how exactly it's going to translate to a scene in the script. The problem is the film opens with a narrated montage of sorts. It involves several shots in several different settings with several different characters. The best analogue I can think of off the top of my head, for some reason, is the scene in Shaun of the Dead where they are discussing the different ways of how they will regroup and secure themselves. The primary difference is the characters in my sequence will not be featured cast.

When I was bouncing the ideas around in my head and putting them to paper in a loose form outline, it seemed clear to me that this would be once scene... the narrator is giving a single contiguous monologue the entire time and the goal of the scene stays consistent throughout. Then, when I started to research how these scenes are supposed to be formatted in a script, it made things less clear. I'm going to have to describe these characters, I'm going to have to describe the scenery and I'm going to have to do this between the narrator speaking. This, to me, presents two problems:

One, I can write it on the script as a single scene and just use "CUT TO" and an action item to describe what's being shown as it changes. This works in the script, but do I have to, as the writer, be cognizant of the production and the fact that all of this little sequences in this scene might need to be shot on different days and such and break down the scene more appropriately for that?

Two, regarding the narrator's speech... suppose I want to cut to a different setting more or less right in the middle of a sentence, perhaps at a specific word... how to I split that up in the dialogue lines? Generally I end and begin a broken sentence with "--" when I write, but I don't know what industry standards expect.

Again, bear in mind this is the very first scene... meaning to say this is what the entire mood of the reader is going to be based around. I assume a script reader might just throw it in the garbage a few pages in if I don't do this as correct as possible. Does anyone have any advice on these two questions?

Steve W.
New York, NY
Post #: 19
Hi Bill,

Welcome to the group.

For formatting issues, I always go to The Hollywood Standard, by Christopher Riley.

That being said, I'd refrain from putting in directions like "CUT TO". The director and crew already know that scenes will be shot on different days, out of order, etc. (Also, I'm confused by your use of the terms "scene" and "sequence", e.g., "little sequences in this scene". A scene is the basic unit of a screenplay, defined by a location and time; when you change location and/or time, you have a different scene. A sequence is a series of scenes.)

As for dialogue, a broken sentence (e.g., the character speaking is interrupted) ends with "--". If the character trails off, the line ends with "..."
user 129573802
New York, NY
Post #: 2
Hi Steven,

Thank you for your response. I apologize for my incorrect use of terms. As you can see, I'm still getting my footing on the lingo and without it, it can be quite difficult to navigate the topics surrounding screenwriting. I'm going to need to find myself a screenwriters' dictionary.

To your response, I appreciate you correcting my understanding on "CUT TO" as it seemed like it would be important. I might have come to this conclusion simply because if you look at a tutorial on using Final Draft or similar software, it's availability is immediate explained without any real notation on how and when you should use it. I'll get a better grasp on how those things are used as I read more screenplays. As for my use of "sequence" vs "scene," I knew I was using the term "sequence" wrong. In fact, every time I wrote sequence it was me wanting to write "scene" but not knowing how to differentiate. In fact, I truly wanted to use the word "shot" but I knew I'd be using that wrong as well. Your explanation of "scene" being the basic unit of a screenplay only confuses the issue more for me and is really the heart of the confusion that made me ask this question.

You see, being a montage, it would require splicing several scenes together to form one scene. What I am confused with is how I would describe these spliced scenes on the script... Do I call it one scene? Do I call it several scenes? How do I indicate that, even though it's multiple scenes, the voice over is contiguous and there is no real pauses?

Consider a simple example of a guy explaining his morning in a single sentence. Something like, "I roll out of bed, brush my teeth, hop in the shower, get dresses, make toast, jump in my car and leave." Visually, over that sentence, they show a guy falling out of bed, a cut to the guy brushing his teeth, a cut to the guy singing in the shower, a cut to him hopping around with his pants half on, a cut to a toaster popping, a cut to a car door closing, and a cut to a tire peeling out.

How many scenes is that? It's literally one sentence and maybe 20 seconds of footage; Should I call each visual of him in a different place a separate scene? This also goes into the second question... if it's different scenes, how do I break up the sentence as dialogue if that sentence is being spread across a single sequence with multiple scenes? I can't write "--" every four words and expect the reader to understand the flow of the sentence.

Anyway... sorry if this is a weird question. Maybe I'm over thinking things. I'm just having trouble trying to picture certain parts of film translating to script. ... and now, in saying that, I might want to just consider checking out a few of the scripts where they do similar sequences and see how that writer did it.

Also, I'll check out that book. Thanks for the tip.

EDIT: I checked how the montage sequence was done in Shaun of the Dead and it was quite interesting. I tried to paste it here as an example, unfortunately mnvForum does not appear to offer a formatting tag that allows the spacing that their format would require. So instead, I'm posting a link to the PDF script. (Mods if linking like this isn't allowed, I apologize in advance) You can find the montage sequence beginning on page 50 of the PDF.

Steve W.
New York, NY
Post #: 20
You don't need to apologize for the question. Screenplay formatting is hardly intuitive. If it were, people wouldn't write books about it, and there'd be no need for programs like Final Draft. Also, reading other scripts to see what they did is never a bad idea.

A montage is a special case--a rapid sequence of several short scenes. The Hollywood Standard no doubt has examples of formatting a montage, but basically it's a matter of stating that there's a montage, followed by a bulletpoint-like list of the scenes.

As for your case, it's difficult to give a more precise answer without seeing the actual pages and being able to simply mark them up. However, I have to wonder if you really need the voiceover.

Every book on screenwriting, at some point, trots out the old cliche: "Show, don't tell." But it's a cliche because it's true--movies really are a visual medium.

Applied to your example, you could just show a guy rolling out of bed, brushing his teeth, etc. without a voiceover. It's not obvious to me that you get anything out of a voiceover like "I roll out of bed ..." while showing us the exact same thing.

And if your script is going to be choppy because of short voiceovers imposed over short scenes, then the best solution may be to show us what happens without a voiceover telling us about it.

For what it's worth, if I remember correctly, Robert McKee loathed voiceovers and was not shy about saying so in "Story". You may have a better script if you can find a way to tell your story without a voiceover.

Good luck!
user 129573802
New York, NY
Post #: 4
Thanks for all of the info, Steven. Yeah, in honesty, the example I gave was not meant to be taken as something you would see in a script. I just wanted to write an oversimplified sentence that I could then layout as image. In reality, the reason for the montage in the script is that the story takes place in a different world with some, arguably, artificial constraints that would take far too long to explain in complete scenes. The narration is more or less a cliff notes of what we're about to jump right into in the first scene with dialogue. Bear in mind, I'm not some foolish writer that thinks you have to explain a world through a bunch of preface voice-over. I'm trying to put as much exposition into the dialogue as I can, but my current opinion on the way I'm writing this is that not only would an opening monologue be able to say a lot of things that will need to be understood immediately to the viewer/reader, but it will also have the freedom of doing that explanation in a more interesting and attention grabbing way than simply throwing exposition into passing between two characters that really should understand the background of the world they live in.

To give a prime example: If you've ever seen Insomnia (2002; written by Hillary Seitz), there is a scene in it where Al Pacino and Hilary Swank are in a car, both playing police investigators, explaining procedures to each other that would be rudimentary to any cop. They're explaining it, of course, for the viewer's sake, but if the characters don't need the explanation, it comes off as unnatural and takes the viewer out of the scene. Michael Crichton was, in my opinion, the very best at making sure he always had a character in play that was ignorant to the philosophies and expertise of the other characters, even if that character was them self an expert in another field, so that he always had a means of writing believable exposition. This is what I'm trying to avoid by the opening narration; Bad exposition in dialogue. Perhaps as I'm writing it, I'll find ways to sneak more ideas into the dialogue... perhaps so much that I can do away with the opening montage entirely, but for now I don't see it and I don't quite feel like it would be in bad taste to have it.

If you disagree, I'd love to hear more. I love conversation and debate and I love to learn and all I see around me in this group is a whole lot of people with a lot of insight into a topic I'm very interested in.

Thanks again for your answers.
user 3341706
New York, NY
Post #: 197
Hey, I suggest you read this opening of American Beauty which also features a bunch of short scenes with V.O.:
Also 500 Days of Summer. Don't overrate the importance of formatting though. It can take 10 years to learn how to develop concepts, understand themes, structure etc whereas you can pay some guy $50 on Craigslist to conform your script to industry standard and have it back the next day...
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