Screenwriting Crib Sheet

Here ya go! A useful handout. A REALLY useful handout.

This is based on my lecture in Screenwriting class last night. I spent two and a half hours going over student homework, pointing out where they drifted off course. A lot of it is about physical writing, but a bunch is about dialogue and storytelling.

One of my students, Mike Nomitch, took these notes. My hat is off to him for his careful note taking skills.

Your Screenplay Sucks! Screenwriting Crib Sheet

Colon after FADE IN
Need to tell us character’s name in CAPS and need a brief description of who they are (personality) Only time you can editorialize to the reader
Looks are only important if they are very important – don’t spend too much time with clothing
Scene description should more aptly be called action description
Don’t put ANYTHING obvious in there
Example “ Cody slashes at branches near by” – near by is obvious
What character loves to do/adores is a good thing for openings
“attempt” implies failure
Print to proofread – before turning in the homework, have a physical copy that you proof on – you will make far fewer stupid mistakes this way
“a large house” – you should be more specific when saying things like this. “a Tudor mansion”
Don’t give us too much detail or info
Don’t clarify things that happened two pages ago
Don’t forget sluglines when people change rooms
Kid goes from kitchen to dining room – this requires a new slugline
Anything that you can make visual – make visual
Whenever a new actor is introduced, their name/character is in caps
“a line of ADULTS”
“make their way” isn’t a good phrase
“look” – one of the seven deadly sins – sometimes this is okay, but always be careful
If the scene is in a classroom, don’t say “classroom chair”
If someone is at a desk, you don’t have to say sitting at the desk
Teacher are always at the front of the class – this is obvious, don’t tell us
Numbers are written out “thirteen” not “13” – very long numbers are okay
“212” might be said as “two twelve” or “two one two”
Sound effects in CAPS
To interrupt use two dashes and then don’t say “interrupt” in the next scene description
If a person doesn’t respond don’t say “he is silent” – we know that
You are not the director
Get rid of the movie in your head – just give us the shorthand version – this is responsible for tons of overwriting
“turn” a deadly sin, is a result of the movie in your head
Adverbs are a sin
Crucial info only!
Cut dialogue when an action will suffice
Instead of “yeah” give a nod or grunt in the affirmative
Most important word at end of sentence (95% of the time)
With jumps in time or flashbacks, remind us when you come back to the present day
“visibly” and “noticeable”– unnecessary
Screenplays are all in the present tense, nothing in past
Need to make every word count – try to use specific nouns and verbs rather than adjectives and adverbs
“written by” on your title page should have a lower case w
Final Draft doesn’t like this
Also, on title page, phone number and address should go in the lower night hand corner
Don’t put “Address: 1602 Camden Way” just say the address
Give reader every possible way to reach you
No line under title of screenplay
On page one, you’ve got the time to set the stage/mood/genre/setting of the story – This is the only time you have the opportunity to do this
Less dialogue and more mood on page 1
Don’t have to say “present day” but if it’s the past say that it is
“nearby” is often unnecessary
Make sure your image order is correct. If things are happening simultaneously, make sure you introduce them in the right order.
Names aren’t capitalized in dialogue
CAPS in dialogue means that the person is yelling
Parentheticals aren’t in the dialogue, there is a break for the parenthetical then dialogue.
Use contractions in dialogue – this is how most people speak
Automatic character continues (CONT’D) should be turned off
Don’t have any sluglines at the bottom of page
Always want two quote marks, not one
Get rid of “is” as much as possible
When writing a scene, think about what each character is feeling, if it matters and isn’t totally obvious what they are feeling, tell us – emotions matter
By cutting some dialogue, dialogue that is left becomes stronger
Staples should be in the right place and close to the corner of the pages
In sluglines make sure you have spaces between the place and the time of day
Saving lines is really helpful
You’re and your
Don’t hide the good dialogue in the bad dialogue
“Under the table, he clenches his fist” NOT “He clenches his fist, under the table” This is a good example of why image order is important and you should end sentences with the important thing
“looks” and “seems” – “Will seems angry” – is he actually angry? Or does he just seem angry?
“embrace” – does this mean hug or kiss?
Off-screen action is sometimes something you want to bring on screen
Don’t talk about the Zeppelin disaster, show it
Don’t talk about a mean dad, show him
Don’t overdirect the actors (in addition to overdirecting the camera or scenes)
“Nowhere” is one word
Don’t repeat info from the slugline in the action
Break big paragraphs up into smaller ones
“He exits” not “He then exits”
Pace of scene and story weight should be related to importance. Important things should take longer than less important stuff.
Don’t describe someone as woman and then girl, confusing
Don’t use a phrase to describe when a word will do
“dirty hair” is as good as “Hair that looks like it hasn’t been washed in days”
Same sentence or phrase shouldn’t appear twice on the same page
“of the” is a deadly sin – use possessive noun instead
Punches with fist – grin on face – both obvious
FLASHBACK comes before INT. or EXT.
With a flashback that isn’t actually the truth – explain that it’s not real, make it obvious
F.Y.I. or N.B.
Read Lethal Weapon or other screenplays by Shane Black
You need to find your own voice as a writer – it should be like you and nobody else – people are looking for a new fresh voice
JUNO is a good example of this
This isn’t a reason to be unclear or redundant
“both” is a deadly sin
Tell the character/functional name when we meet somebody, nobody should have two different names
No blank page after title page
Possessing is often a stupid word to use… especially when referring to body parts.
If a lot of time passes you need to have extra sluglines that say “LATER”
“, and” can often just be a comma
Don’t use hyphens for words that are split between lines
Get peek, peak, pique and piqued right. It’s surprisingly confusing
No commas in sluglines
Make sure products are spelled correctly – BlackBerry or DirecTv
Mr. should by mister when it is alone – (“yeah mister”)
After description, you must have a character name if someone is talking, even if they were just speaking
No spaces between parentheticals within dialogue, but do put it on a different line
Smile is a word you should be aware of – maybe you are overdirecting the actors – people use this a lot, often too much within one script
Give names only to people who need names
Think of edit points – the scene should end on an exciting note. “Girl shoots man and walks out of room” is worse than “girls shoots man”
Clothing isn’t as important as you think
Don’t describe dialogue in your scene description
First words in parentheticals are lower case
Describe visible action in scene description
“Nate runs back to his dorm room” would likely be impossible in one scene. “Nate runs away” is possible though.
All dialogue should move you forwards. If you can cut one exchange do that (unless is messes with rhythm)
“walks” is a deadly sin – there are better words
Don’t capitalize names multiple times
Question and answer dialogue is bad
Showing is greater than telling – showing and telling is doom
Yelling shouldn’t go in a parenthetical, the thing yelled should go in caps
If people are whispering, don’t say whispering before each line of dialogue. Say it once in description and maybe italicize it.
Look for opportunities to insert badass lines when possible
Champagne is spelled with a capital C
Optical effects go in CAPS – “FREEZE on Reggie”
Here’s a tough decision to make: When two characters are talking to each other, should you act like the viewer is there and explain things for the viewer? Or should you just let the people speak like they would with no one listening, the viewer be confused and finally figure it out?
Tough call – Akers likes letting people figure it out



Filed under Bad Writing, Dialogue, Rewriting, Scenes, Screenwriting

14 responses to “Screenwriting Crib Sheet

  1. This is great stuff. I read scripts that either leave out critical details or have too many superficial details.

    I wish writers would pace their screenplays more like movies. It’s ok to have a scene with 2 lines if you want to move the story along. It’s ok for scenes to get out of order.

    Dialogue should create the character. When I read the lines, the personality of the character should stand out.

    Hey you should number these points.

    Omar (Sell a screenplay)

    • yourscreenplaysucks

      I should number them. I really should. But I was so sick of teaching it for nearly three hours that I barely had the energy to cut and paste! Glad you found it helpful, even without the numbers. Now I wish I’d taped the lecture. Ah well…

  2. That was pretty damned awesome

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  4. Pingback: Seven Twenty-Five Deadly Sins « subtexter

  5. Thanks for these. I don’t care if they’re basic, until I’m highly paid & well known, I’m going to reread the basics frequently!

  6. Peace William,

    Wanted to say thanks so much for your efforts in your book (! notes everywhere on it) & this crib sheet have indeed benefitted from both! Forgive me I can’t resist a question, when you’ve the inclination, I haven’t found a clear answer for about multiple adjectives, for eg “a ridiculous irregular gait” can we cut the comma in screenplay format or put it?

    • yourscreenplaysucks

      I’d say no comma. Check out Hunter Thompson and see how he strings together adverbs and adjectives and adjectives… he does it better than anybody. Have no clue how he punctuates, though… Thrilled you like the book! Buy a copy for every room in the house!

  7. Bruce Tennant

    If you want to see a great example of pretty much all the above, read Tony Gilroy’s screenplay for Michael Clayton. Smart, fast, taut and keeps you page turning…..

  8. This is my first-time visiting here. I uncovered a lot of useful stuff within your blog especially the on-going talk. From the tons of comments on your articles, I guess I’m not the only one taking pleasure in reading through your blog. Keep up the excellent work

    • yourscreenplaysucks

      Welcome aboard. Tell your friends. I’m assuming you’ve got my book… I sort of assume that’s how people get here, is they read the book and come visit the blog. I could be wrong… Good luck with your writing.

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