A few notes on formatting screenplays

This week a friend of mine asked me to take a look at his first-ever screenplay. He’s a novelist, with a succesful historical fiction series at a major publisher, and he was adapting one his novels into a TV pilot. Story-wise it was all pretty ship-shape, but the formatting of his script was a bit skewy, and I thought I would share some of the notes I sent him as it covers a lot of the basics when it comes to formatting your screenplay. Some of the details have been changed to protect the innocent…

 

Formatting:

You’ll hear all sorts of dictatorial “rules” about how you should or shouldn’t format a screenplay, and there are certain people out there who make lots of money running expensive screenwriting courses who will tell you how your screenplay will be instantly rejected if you ever break one of these sacred rules…

This is, of course, bollocks. All that matters is clarity.

So, when reading what follows, always remember that these are not hard and fast rules. But there are some principles that you should observe if you want to set yourself apart from noob screenwriters.

Scene numbers: Don’t bother with these quite yet. They’re usually added by a line producer just prior to going into production. The screenplay is then locked and any subsequent scene number changes will need to be logged. For example, a scene that’s added between scene 27 and scene 28 will be logged as 27a. However, for the purposes of my feedback I’ll refer to them now, but you should probably delete them before you submit them to your agent or production companies.

Same goes for the (CONTINUED)s at the top and bottom of each page. Most people don’t bother with these, but some screenplay apps have them as a default, so it’s your call if you want to keep them (I find them clunky).

Scene 1. You’ve split LONDON 1792 over two lines. Any titles or subtitles should ideally be on one single line of text.

When introducing a character for the first time put their name in CAPS. This helps the production team identify when a new character appears in the script. It helps to remember that so much of what you put in a script is there to make the lives of the cast and crew easier. It’s also generally accepted that you should really only put the name in caps when the character first appears, and not all the way through the script.

Any sound effects should really be in caps, too. This helps the director, editor and sound designer note when noises will need to be added in post-production.

A note on Wrylies. These are the little bits of direction in parentheses…

ALFRED
(mutters in annoyance)
Bloody fool.

Lose ’em. All of ’em. Okay, maybe allow yourself one every ten pages. Writers put them there to give the actors on guidance on how to say a line, but actors generally hate being told how to act (especially by the writer!) and they should be used very, very sparingly and only when there’s a point of clarity to be made, usually when a line could be read as either straight or sarcastic. That’s why they’re called wrylies… he said wryly.

I can understand that in your case that you’re trying to preserve the intention in your novel. When writing dialogue in a novel you have far more control over how that line will be interpreted. But in film and TV you’re going to have to learn to trust the actor and director, and they’ll surprise you and will often bring something new and wonderful to the line that you might not have thought of.

Sluglines

Scenes 3, 4, 5 and more simply say CORRIDOR or STAIRWAY. Yes, these scenes follow on from one to the next, but remember that these are used as guides for the reader and the production team and will sometimes be read in isolation from the rest of the script. So maybe go with:

INT. CORRIDOR – CONTINUOUS

This lets the reader know that that the scene is set inside and continues from the previous scene.

However, with a pre-production draft I think it’s it’s fine to leave them off if you think it makes the script a faster, easier read. But when you go into production the sluglines will be made to work harder.

When I started out I found The Screenwriter’s Bible to be helpful on formatting, but to be honest why not just read a whole bunch of scripts for free? One of the best resources is the BBC Writers’ Room Script Library. Hundreds of free TV, film and radio scrips all available to download legally and freely. You’ll learn tons!

And, for variety, why not check out scripts by the likes of Tarantino or Wes Anderson. They ignore a lot of screenplay conventions and they seem to be doing pretty well for themselves.

Caveat: there are no rules, only principals, and what matters most is clarity. If you can, try and wangle a day on a film set. Watch how everyone works with the script, and when you’re next writing, try and put yourself in the shoes of the director, the actors, and the production team. Good luck!

 

While you’re here, check out my new grimfun fantasy novel The End of Magic

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Want to be part of an epic fantasy adventure…?

Hello – I’m very excited to announce that my new book, a fantasy novel called The End of Magic will be coming soon from Unbound Publishing!

Watch this clip of me being all windswept and David Starkey to discover more…

Unbound are amazing. It’s essentially a Kickstarter model, and YOU – yes YOU! – can be a part of the book’s publication. Simply pledge and get your name in the book as a patron, or go really crazy and make yourself a character in the book (you could die a glorious death!), or get feedback from me on your novel or screenplay, or even take a trip to the coast and talk toot the whole day!

This book is a big passion project for me. It’s a combination of the kind of fantasy I loved when growing up, combined with the sort of grimdark I enjoy today. I’m calling it GrimFun (you’re welcome) and I really hope you can join me on the adventure.

And here’s the cool bit –

You can get a 10% discount on your pledge using the discount code bestsellerxp

Do please SHARE with anyone you know who loves a great read, in the meantime enjoy the book’s awesome theme tune composed by Dominic Currie…

Five tips for writing around a day job…

Writing while holding down a full-time job can be a bit of a ‘mare at the best of times. Some authors write late into the evening, some get up at the crack of dawn. I’m lucky enough to be able to weave into my working week, and I thought you might want to see what my typical writing week looks like, followed by five tips that you might find useful. Firstly, here’s what this past week looked like…

MONDAY
AM
I live out in the sticks now, so on a weekday the whole family is up at 6, out the door by 7, and on our various busses and trains by 7:30. My commute into London takes about an hour and forty minutes. Plenty of time for writing! I’m fed and caffiened by this point, and raring to go. I generally get my best stuff done on the morning commute.

This particular morning, I was working on my first Woodville book. I’m currently about halfway through and it’s like wading through treacle, but progress is progress.

LUNCH
Mondays are podcast launch days, so I spend my lunch break on the social media for the new episode.
My wife Claire is a gardening blogger and author, and I worked on uploading her new gardening eBook to KDP.

PM
I’m working on a couple of projects with Jon Wright at the moment and he had been tweaking a pilot script we’re working on, which I reviewed on the train home and made a few light edits.

TUESDAY
AM
More Woodvile work. Averaging about 500-800 words each morning.

LUNCH
More Bestseller Experiment social media and I also send a newsletter out on my mailing list with details of the show.

PM
Worked on formatting Claire’s new eBook on Parsnips… very different to my usual stuff, but it’s nearly sowing season and she needs to get these online pronto!

WEDNESDAY
AM
Woodville – good progress. About 1000 words.

LUNCH
I added hyperlinks to Claire’s eBook. She links to seed companies and her videos on Youtube, so there are loads of them! Far more than any novel. I also worked on tweaking the keywords and metadata for Back to Reality and that afternoon I got a telling off from Amazon for adding a subtitle that has text that isn’t on the cover art. We were threatened with having the book removed if we didn’t amend it. Grr.

PM
Script rewrites on the train home for the thing Jon and I are working on. Really good fun as these are light changes, as opposed to the first draft slog of the Woodville stuff. It’s tempting to stick with this tomorrow morning, but I must be disciplined!

Mr. D and I had planned to record the podcast tonight (we usually record on a Monday), but due to all sorts of extenuating circumstances (and Canadian weather!) we’ve have to postpone it. Will we get an episode out in time for next week…?

THURSDAY
AM
Woodville. Hitting my stride with this noise. Daily word count is improving.

LUNCH
I listen to the interview I recorded with next week’s guest, making notes in anticipation of recording the pre- and post interview stuff with Mr. D. Also make further tweaks to Back to Reality’s metadata. Claire and I also got our PLR statements. In the UK, every time a book is taken out of the library the author (and illustrator if applicable) gets 8 pence! My statement could pay for a takeaway pizza. Claire’s could pay for a nice weekend away!

FRIDAY

A day off from the day job at Orion. I spent the morning at home and Jon popped round to make the final changes to our pilot script before sending it off to our agent. We read it aloud, acting out the parts and pising ourselves laughing. Very good times.

In the afternoon, the Canadian weather eases and Mr. D’s power is back on, so we record Monday’s episode, plus the Deep Dive episode for Patreon listeners. Poor Dave our editor only has a few days to cobble our witterings together!

SATURDAY

Dave sends us the rough edit of the podcast and I listen back, making notes and suggestions for edits, as well as writing the description you read on the website/iTunes etc and the keywords we use for the blog.

No other writing done today (apart from the first rough draft of this blog!)

In the afternoon, I read an excerpt from a friend’s book and send him some notes.

SUNDAY

Today is our wedding anniversary, so me and the family went to see a movie and had a cheeky Nando’s for lunch, and now I’m writing this blog, but I’m already thinking about what I’ll be writing tomorrow…

 

Five tips for writing around a day job:

  1. Spot and schedule: Spot those spare moments in your week and schedule those as writing times. They don’t have to be long. We’ve had guests on the podcast who can work in fifteen minute bursts. Little and often works best. Set reminders in your calendar and stick to them. There’s a temptation to be flexible with these times as it’s not a “proper job”. I’m very protective of these slots and treat them with the same weight as meetings scheduled for my day job.
  2. Shut out distractions: You might be working on the train, or the office, or a busy home. There will always be noise and distractions and, if you’ve only got half an hour in which to write today, then those distraction will eat that up in no time. Find a quiet spot and shut the door. Make it clear to your colleagues and loved ones that you’re not to be disturbed. If you do work in an office, get away from your desk if possible. Otherwise, you’ll have colleagues interrupting you with work queries in your break. At work I’ve been known to stick a Post It note on my headphones with “Sorry, can’t talk: Writing” written on them… It works! Your colleagues might think you’re mental, but it works. I love a pair of comfy noise-cancelling headphones for my train journey, and I currently use an app called Scape which plays woodland noises etc, which I find really conducive to productivity (I still have music playlists, but are finding them a little too distracting at my age!).
  3. Finish mid-sentence: If you’ve only got a short time in which to write, there’s nothing more likely to eat into that time than you sitting there, staring into space, wondering what to write next. I try to finish any session mid-sentence, so when I return to writing I simply finish that sentence/thought/scene/paragraph and I’m already up and running.
  4. A.B.T: Always Be Thinking. You might not be able to write all the time, but you should engage your brain for some good, solid thinking as often as possible. Five minutes on your hands? Skip back to what you were last writing: what were the problems? How can they be solved? What happens next? And whatever you think of, for the love of criminy take notes! If you’re anything like me, you’ll have forgotten everything by the time you get back to writing.
  5. Write early, edit late: This is a personal one, and perhaps more to do with being middle-aged and sluggish, but I work on new stuff in the morning when I’m bright and breezy, and edit that same work in the evening when I’m lacking buzz and energy. I also have a method that I call Be Kind Rewind: whenever I get stuck, I’ll go back and edit/rewrite the previous 500 or so words. By the time I’m done working on them, I usually have enough momentum going that I crash through any block that I might’ve had when I started.

If you found those helpful, please share with your fellow writers. How do you work around the day job? Please leave your comments below…

In Defence Of Plot Holes

There’s been a lot of chatter online regarding a certain new space opera movie. I forget what it’s called. Flash Starkiller and The Laser Sword of Doom or something. In amongst all the manbaby cries of “You ruined my childhood by making it for girls!” there is a common criticism that actually carries some heft. Here’s when one reply I got when I blogged about how much I liked the film…

It can’t be denied that the film has plot holes. One occured to me only this morning: if Luke flew his X-Wing to Ach-To, how did he do it without Artoo? I didn’t think you could fly an X-Wing without an astromech… okay, maybe you can, or because The Force, or whatever?

That’s just one of many little niggles in the story, but here’s the thing, and you might want to be sitting down for this one… Ready? You sure…?

ALL OF THOSE SPACE LASER SWORD MOVIES ARE FULL OF PLOT HOLES!

All of ’em. Here’s a few that come to mind…

  • Just how long was Luke traning on Dagobah? The weeks/months/years it takes to become a Jedi, or the few hours it took the Falcon to fly to Bespin?
  • Why would Obi Wan take a baby Skywalker to the planet where his dad was born and not bother to change the kid’s name?
  • Why did the Death Star come out of hyperspace so far away from Yavin and give the Rebels so much time to prepare?
  • Who did Leia’s hair and makeup in the Ewok village?

And that beloved saga isn’t the only one suffering from holy story syndrome:

  • How did Andy’s poster get back on the wall in his cell in The Shawshank Redemption?
  • Who heard Charles Foster Kane say “Rosebud”?
  • What was Bruce Willis doing in his downtime when he wasn’t hanging out with the kid on the Sixth Sense?
  • Almost all of the finale of Ocean’s 11
  • Every Bond film ever made
  • Just how did Tom Hagen cut that horse’s head off in the Godfather without waking anyone? And I’ll buy lunch for anyone who can explain the plot of The Godfather II to me without hesitation, repetition or deviation.

Most, if not all, stories have plot holes in them. I would go so far as to say that life itself is full of plot holes, but this isn’t a post-Brexit therapy group so let’s move on.

We’re willing to gloss over plot holes because WE RESPOND TO STORIES ON AN EMOTIONAL LEVEL. And boy do we get emotional when we talk about beloved series and characters. And because they’re so beloved they’re put under far more scrutiny than those lesser movies we might watch once and then forget.

As a writer, this doesn’t mean you now have licence to fill your script with gaping plot holes. We all vary in our tolerance of plot holes, and you need to work hard to ensure that your story makes sense. When you spot a hole you need to fix it, and don’t just paper over the cracks hoping we won’t notice.

Always work under the supposition that your audience is smarter than you are.However, it’s inevitable that one or two might slip through, no matter how rigorous you are, especially if you’re writing science fiction and fantasy where you’re working with magic and hyperspace and other wonders that don’t exist.

But ask yourself what’s more important: a watertight logic puzzle, or a fairytale that punches you in the gut? I know it’s not an either/or situation, but I know which end of the spectrum I veer towards.

May The Force Be With You and Toto’s still going to be put down by Mrs. Gulch when Dorothy wakes…

Until next time, happy writing!

Mark

PS. Don’t get me started on people who think they’re clever pointing out petty continuity errors in movies.

PPS. That novel I wrote with Mark Desvaux doesn’t have a single plot hole in it. Not one. I dare you to find one. Grab your copy here and prove me wrong.

PPPS. Oh, and if you want to support our work on the podcast, we now have a Patreon. Do please support us and we can keep this train rolling.

Subscribers to my newsletter get this kind of stuff before anyone else, the lucky things. You can join their ranks by signing up here (and you can choose a free eBook while you’re at it!)

Your favourite episodes of The Bestseller Experiment (part one)

In an act of seasonal optimism/hubris (delete as applicable) we released a new episode of the podcast on Christmas Day this week. It’s the first of a two-parter in which we reveal the top ten favourite episodes as voted for by our listeners… and in typical Bestseller Experiment style, our top ten is actually a top twelve. Oh well… Have a listen here and let me know if the episode you voted for is here…

 

In this episode you will discover…

  • The most important lessons we’ve learned from our guests
  • Which author we were most nervous about interviewing
  •  How Donald Trump was key to our success
  •  The names of those on Santa’s “Nice” list

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN NOW

If you liked that and want some more, we’ve started having post-podcast deep dive discussions for our Patreon supporters. You can support us and get the extra content here.

And if you’re looking for something to read over the Christmas holiday, then grab a copy of our novel Back to Reality on Kindle now!

Back To Reality quote sheet.008

We got Mike and Linda Carey on the podcast!

I first met Mike Carey about ten years ago. We shared the same agent at the time, and have to admit I struggled to reconcile this friendly, soft-spoken man with comics like Lucifer and Hellblazer, but I soon learned that people who write horror stories tend to be the nicest and most well-adjusted creative types out there. Having written a few horror scripts myself, you soon find that you can put all your anxieties and dark thoughts on the page where they belong.

I was delighted to finally interview Mike and his wife Linda for The Bestseller Experiment podcast, and we cover some key topics, including…

  • How comics can help you structure a story, and the key differences between comics, novels and screenplays
  • How co-writers can find a single voice with harmony and negotiation
  • How your short story can evolve into a full-length novel
  • How sequels can evolve from the negative space of the first story

You can listen now here!

If you liked that and want some more, we’ve started having post-podcast deep dive discussions for our Patreon supporters. You can support us and get the extra content here.

And if you’re looking for something to read over the Christmas holiday, then grab a copy of our novel Back to Reality on Kindle now!

Back To Reality quote sheet.006

Why so many writers want to be in a band

Stephen King had the Rock Bottom Remainders with its roster of bestselling authors, Ken Follett still plays in Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, and whenever I’ve had a Skype conversation with another writer there’s always a damn guitar in the background.

Writers wanna be rock stars*.

I had a great seat for a Squeeze** gig at the Royal Albert Hall the other night (courtesy of publicist and gentleman Mark McGinlay). I was so close to the stage I was able to offer some constructive criticism as they played…


I love watching bands play. Not necessarily the lead singer, but the rest of the group as they interact, keep the beat and, most crucially, stay in the moment.

You might think that writers want to be in a band for that sense of camaraderie, and, yes, there may be some truth in that. But they don’t want to join a band to meet people! Especially people they might be forced to share a tour bus with. Yikes. No. If they want to meet people they can invent their own and keep them on the page where they can torture them like the control freaks they truly are. Writers wants to be in a band for very a different reason.

Writers secretly envy musicians.

Musicians dare not do the thing that most writers do as habit: every thirty-seven seconds a writer will look up from their keyboard and stare out of the window while wondering if it’s time for another cup of tea and a chocolate hobnob.

Squeeze played for two hours straight, and the musicians closest to me — the drummer, percussionist and bassist — never missed a beat. They were relaxed, smiling at one another, having a great time, but they never once forgot that they were playing before over four thousand paying punters at the Albert Hall and any mistake would be laid bare to eight thousand eyes staring at them.

If only we writers could sustain our concentration for that long.

So, today, when you’re writing, make your hero Yolanda Charles, bass player. She was the musician playing closest to me and she never lost concentration once. She was always in the moment. She never even contemplated leaving the moment. She kept the moment in its place. And she knew that the moment was a living, breathing thing that had to be constantly fed or it would leap up and push her off the stage.

Happy writing – now get back to work… and concentrate!

Oh, and if you love rock and roll (with a light touch of time travel) I just wrote a novel that you might like.

And if you want to support our work on the podcast, we now have a Patreon. Do please support us and we can keep this crazy train rolling.

*Sportsmen want to be in bands too, but that’s because they’ve spent so much of their lives getting up at the crack of dawn to run/swim/drive in circles that they’re boring and don’t have any real friends and are looking for a sense of belonging… but that’s a rant for a future newsletter. 

**And if you don’t know who Squeeze are, you’re in for a treat: catchy songs with the most sublime lyrics that are able to summon up characters, places and tell stories in a way that many novelists struggle to evoke in ninety-thousand words. Listen and learn. The use of tenses in Up The Junction is a masterclass in how to break the rules and make it work…

 

 

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The Death of a Goldfish (or, how to let go of that novel you’ve just written)

There comes a time when a writer must release their book into the big, bad world for people to read, praise, critique and ponder (or tell you how they would have written a different ending*).

You’ve lived with this book for some time. At least a year, if not longer. You’ve come to love the characters, their surprising quirks, their voices, and how they overcame seemingly impossible odds to find themselves at the end of the story a better and more complete person. Much like yourself, because we all know the writers are the real heroes, right?

Of course, the book isn’t perfect. None of them are. And the temptation is to continue to tinker, but the seasoned writer knows that sooner or later, like Queen Elsa of the ice kingdom Arendelle, they just have to let it go.

I’ve heard some writers compare finishing a book to the passing of a loved one, but that’s probably a tad insensitive. I’ve certainly experienced mournful feelings as I realise that I won’t get to spend time with these characters, but it’s nothing like proper grief, it’s more like… the death of a minor pet. Maybe a goldfish. Yeah, you’re sad for a bit, but then you realise the garden centre has loads more finny friends in their tanks.

So the key is you have to be brave enough to bury your goldfish.

Put that on a meme and see how far it gets…

Anyhoo, this is a long-winded way of telling you that I have finally “let go” of the novel I wrote with the Majesty of Motivation, Mr. Mark Desvaux! This is culmination of a fairly intense year of The Bestseller Experiment, the weekly podcast where we discover what makes a bestselling novel while trying to write, publish and market one in just a year.

I won’t lie to you, there were times when I thought this would be a complete and utter car crash, but here we are, with what I reckon is a really fun, page-turning adventure with characters you’ll love! Here are some amazing quotes…

 

 

So CLICK HERE to grab your copy now.

And in the meantime… I’m feeding another couple of goldfish.

 

 

*Yes, this happened to me recently… Two years after said book was released. ‘You’re a bit late, mate,’ I told him.

 

Four days to go!

And in today’s daily podcast we talk reviews and launch teams. We’re basically begging at this point: please buy our book (BACK TO REALITY, out Monday October 16th!!), and please give us a review… any review… stopping random people in the street counts as a review at this point.

This is longer than most of the other mini-episodes. Mostly we repeat ourselves as the mania increases, we give a big shout out to our amazing launch team, I namecheck a couple of author friends, Kit Cox and Graeme Williams, and then I get a little ranty at the end about mailing lists. CLICK HERE TO LISTEN NOW