20 Common Sense Script Rules, in No Particular Order

Note: These rules will not make you a better writer. They will simply keep you from annoying your average reader or crew member. You must learn these simple rules or consider another line of work.

1) FADE IN AT THE BEGINNING OF YOUR FILM. FADE OUT AT THE END.

  • Let there be light. Then let there be darkness. But don’t use fade in and fade out as a substitute for dissolves. A dissolve is a perfectly respectable transition and is no more or less poetic. Trust me.

2) THE SLUG LINE GIVES THREE PIECES OF RELEVANT INFORMATION:

  • Inside or outside (INT or EXT)
  • Location, location, location
  • Approximate portion of a 24-hour day (DAY, NIGHT, DAWN, MAGIC HOUR)

3) EXCEPTIONS TO THE THREE PIECES OF RELEVANT INFORMATION

  • When a car is moving. Then you add — MOVING — to your slug line, between the location and the portion of day.
  • If we’re in the same setting, but it’s LATER.(Which includes a FEW MINUTES LATER, A FEW DAYS LATER, whatever.) Then you put — LATER at the end of your slug line.
  • If you’ve been elsewhere and now you’re back to the same scene as before. Then you put — RESUMING at the end of your slug line.

4) SLUG LINES HAVE NO TIMES OF DAY

  • NO “afternoon,” “morning,”“midafternoon,” “evening,” etc. No “4:57 p.m.” If you must specify time of day, do so in action.“Writers do it all the time,” you say. Yes, we do. But before a script gets shot, “someone” has to change it to “day, night,” etc. So you may as well get used to doing it right the first time.

5) DON’T PUT YEARS, DETAILED LOCATIONS, ETC., IN THE SLUG LINE. THAT’S WHAT ACTION AND SUPERS ARE FOR.

  • Supers, also called Titles, give details such as ‘1959’ or ‘Howard’s First Day at Camp.’ Give them their own line below the slug line.
  • Action can bear the weight of more complicated scenarios: the fact that a town is ‘gritty’ or ‘bucolic,’ or what have you. In other words, the overall vibe of the place goes in action, not slug line.

6) AN “EXT”IS AN ACTUAL OUTSIDE.

  • The point of EXT/INT in the slug line is to tell the cinematographer what to light. Don’t piss off the cinematographer by confusing an indoor scene with an outdoor scene. EXT is not ‘outside’ in the hall, ‘outside’ another office, ‘outside’ sister’s room, etc.

7) ONCE YOU ARE BETWEEN SLUG LINES, YOU’RE IN REAL TIME

  • That means if it takes your character two pages to do something, that’s approximately two minutes of real time.
  • That means characters cannot take showers, put on makeup, floss, wait ‘a few moments’ for another character, listen to an entire record, watch an entire TV show, eat an entire meal, or ‘at times’ trip, hop, skip, or sing — unless we are also there watching the whole time, like an old Yoko Ono experimental film.
  • If a character says a line, and a second character responds, realize that any action between that first line and the response also counts as real time. So if Maggie asks Fred, ‘How are you?’ and Fred takes off his coat and shoes before saying ‘Fine,’ Maggie might be justifiably annoyed. Action, in other words, creates pauses between words. Use these pauses judiciously.
  • (If action and dialogue are concurrent and not consecutive, then you put Taking off his shoes and coat: with Fred’s line following.)

8) CHARACTERS DON’T DIE AND THEN RESUSCITATE BETWEEN SLUG LINES

  • Let’s say two characters are in the middle of a conversation and get into an elevator, or walk out a door. When we meet up with them again (an INT to EXT, say, or between floors), we have to assume that — just as in real life — their conversation has continued even if we weren’t there to witness it. In other words, they did not simply freeze in place for our benefit between one slug line and the other. YOU have to make the conversation sound believable while still giving us the information/conflict that we need. (Yeah, I know it’s hard. That’s why it’s an art form.)

9) DIALOGUE NEVER FOLLOWS A SLUG LINE. NOT EVER. ACTION ALWAYS SEPARATES THE TWO

  • Action tells the director and other interested parties (i.e., the entire crew) which characters inhabit this brand-new scene.
  • It doesn’t matter if your only characters in the script are Bob and Nancy. If you tend to be spare with descriptions, and it’s a time cut, you can say “Bob and Nancy, as before.” But you don’t just start in with dialogue.

10) IF YOU DON’T INTRO A CHARACTER IN ACTION FIRST, HE/SHE DOESN’T EXIST

  • Just as you can’t all of a sudden have a character dive into a swimming pool in the middle of a living room without establishing it first (you knew that, right?), you can’t all of a sudden give a character a name and dialogue without introducing her in the action. Intros don’t have to be elaborate; they just have to exist before the character speaks.

11) DON’T SNEAK IN HUGE SET PIECES WITH NO INTRODUCTION

  • If we’re in a forest, don’t all of sudden say, “George dips his toes in the lake” without alerting the reader that there’s a bloody lake.
  • If we’re in a desert, don’t all of a sudden say, ‘They arrive at the house’ without alerting the reader about ‘a house in the distance’ (usually with a helpful new POV or ANGLE ON).

12) DON’T USE ACTION TO GIVE US BACKSTORY ON CHARACTER

  • Seriously. Action is not the place to tell us that ‘Alan quit law school to go to work for the phone company’ or that ‘Gina is a lovely girl but sort of a slut.’ You will need to reveal this through dialogue, setting, character, etc.
  • Likewise, if the slug line says we’re in the living room, and a character leaves said living room, don’t tell us in the action that she’s heading for the bathroom. Just say ‘She leaves’ and then — if it’s important — show us where she’s going through the judicious use of a new slug line.
  • As a general rule: if a viewer can’t see it, it doesn’t belong in action.

13) DON’T EXPECT ACTORS TO INVENT THEIR OWN DIALOGUE, NEWSCASTS, COMMERCIALS, OR SONGS

  • If a character is ‘on the phone’ in a scene, the reader needs to know what that character is saying. Likewise, if there’s a TV, and a reporter is talking, and your character is engaged with it, you need to provide all the dialogue.
  • Yes, there’s such a thing as walla. That’s background noise, the indistinct chatter of others in public places. You don’t have to write that in. But you do have to write in anything in which your protagonist or character is engaged, and would therefore hear ‘in the real world.’

14) DON’T USE “CUT TO”

  • I don’t care if ‘people’ still use it or if ‘scripts you’ve read’ have it in spades. I am telling you that a reader will throw out your script for such a small and petty offense. Learn the proper way to do it, and when you’re world famous you can bring the ‘cut to&rsquo back into everyone’s good graces so that we’ll all wonder what we ever did without it.

15) DON’T USE “WE SEE” OR HAVE STRANGE REVEALS

  • Seriously. One ‘we see’ per script is plenty, and that’s only when you absolutely must, because you’ve exhausted every other possibility of explaining what we see without actually saying ‘we see.’
  • Avoid making us watch someone’s feet running, or only seeing a character from behind, or blurring someone’s face, or having her stand behind a fern. Yes, I know Quentin Tarantino did it in Pulp Fiction. But when we finally saw Marsellus’ face, it wasn’t that big a deal. So unless your character is actually The Elephant Man or Moses, stay away from fancy reveals, also because it usually forces you to use the annoying ‘we see.’

16) ON USING ACTORS’NOTES (SPARINGLY)

  • Use them as they were intended — as an aside for the actor that clarifies something not revealed in dialogue. Which means that if the dialogue says, “I hate you, Dad!” your actor’s note better say (smiling) and not (yelling) or (crying). In other words, assume the actor has a brain and is actually contributing to the reality of her character.
  • Actors’ notes are not the place for inserts such as (pulls out a gun from his pocket) or (slapping Helen across the face). The prop guy and the director will hate you, and so will I.

17) KEEP ACTION TIGHT

  • Don’t waste time with extraneous words. ‘Barbara looks sad’ beats ‘Barbara has a very sad expression on her face.’ In other words, unless Barbara has tattooed a frowny face on the back of her head, we can assume that whatever expression she has is on her face.
  • Stay out of the passive voice. ‘Bob likes the gift’ is better than ‘The gift is very pleasing to Bob.’
  • Don’t use past tense. Ever. No, not even then.

18) ON NAMING NAMES

  • Every character who is either essential to the script or who speaks must be introduced in CAPS and given an age. Caveat: if your lead character is a vampire, a zombie, or other undead, he/she is not 344 years old but rather the age of the actor that you envision in the role.
  • Unless the same actress is playing Peggy at 2, Peggy at 13 and Peggy at 33, you’ll need to distinguish the characters for the director, the casting agent, the costumer, props, etc., as well as the actors who will be hired to play the role. “BABY PEGGY” “YOUNG PEGGY” and “PEGGY” are awkward but essential differentiations.
  • Animals do not need to be introduced with caps unless they have actual lines.
  • Unless you’re writing a TV script, only CAP a character’s name (in action) the first time he’s seen, not every time.

19) ON SOUND EFFECTS

  • Every film eventually goes to foley. That does not mean that you are responsible for ensuring that every footfall and cough is highlighted. You can cap special sound effects if you want: those that in some way further the story. But don’t drive everyone crazy with caps. (She OPENS the fridge.’ ‘He WALKS back to the table.’) Like ‘we see,’ use that dispensation with care.

20) DON’T IGNORE COSTS

  • One of the main reasons that scripts are rejected (apart from lousy writing) is cost. While you’re describing castles and fairies and monsters emerging from lakes and flying contraptions of the like that no one has seen before (and you better be describing them well!), someone is totaling expenses. Items that raise cost include livestock of any sort, period pieces (yes, even the 1980s), hundreds of extras, special effects, wide open spaces, or any specific country or city. Avoid those. Especially in your first script.


These tips came from the workshop

Writing the Adaptation

Why would you want to write an adaptation? Many top films—including several Academy Award nominees—were sourced from fiction and nonfiction books, articles, or musicals. Also, there is a built-in fan base, which make the project more attractive to producers and executives. However, you have your work cut out for you. For example, a novel, on average, is 400 pages long. A film, on average, is 100 pages long. That means you are at the very least cutting 300 pages to cut before you’ve written even one original word. While this may seem daunting, this workshop will provide practical, step by step instructions on how to use source materials to create an original screenplay.

Learn more about Writing the Adaptation today!