SCREAMPLAYS! WRITING THE HORROR FILM – PART 3
By Lisa Morton
So, if you’ll recall from our two previous installments, we discussed the basic tools of screenwriting – software, books, dialogue and description – and it’s time now to move on to your building materials:
Although you could certainly argue that both books and screenplays use scenes to tell a complete story, the use and format of scenes may be the single biggest difference between script and prose. As we mentioned when discussing description, a scene in a book can last pages, but in a screenplay scenes need to be short and concise (remember, they ain’t called “movies” for nothin’ – they gotta move!).
By now you probably know how to format a scene (a simple one line header telling us where and when the scene takes place, followed by the description and dialogue that comprise the scene), so let’s talk about scene length.
A scene can be as short as one line of description. Here, for example, is a typical “establishing shot”, often used at the beginning of a group of scenes to establish one overall location:
EXT. GRAVEYARD – NIGHT
To establish: A full moon glows in a clear, cloudless sky above an empty inner-city cemetery.
Granted, that’s not much of a scene – no dialogue and no action – but remember that you’re both telling a story and writing a blueprint, so that establishing shot both sets a mood and tells a location manager what to look for.
Let’s say you now want to move your story forward by zeroing in on a man making his way stealthily through the cemetery. You’ve already used the “Ext. Graveyard – Night” header once, so what can you do now?
This is where the screenwriter gets to cheat a little: You actually can set up a shot that will serve as its own little scene. On paper it would look something like this:
CLOSE ON A MAN
The camera PUSHES IN to find a man moving among the headstones. The man is nervous, his eyes darting about; he carries a satchel in one hand. This is DR. KANE.
Just remember to use this kind of scene sparingly, because – unless you’re directing the film yourself – you don’t want to risk offending your director by trying to lay out the camera shots yourself.
This kind of scene (i.e., the camera shot disguised as scene) can also be useful to break up a very long scene. As a rule you should be avoiding long scenes, but sometimes it just can’t be helped – maybe your story is partly a courtroom drama, for example. If you have a scene that’s spanning multiple pages all in one location at one time, you might want to break it up with a few of these. Again, just remember to use with care!
Now a word about the montage. You’ve come to that point in your story where you need to cover a great deal of information in a very short time, and there’s no dialogue involved. For example: The afore-mentioned Dr. Kane is assembling body parts in his lab. You want to get to the introduction of the monster, so you don’t want to spend a lot of time on this part. You can use a montage, and here’s how it would look:
Dr. Kane digs up a grave in a moonlit cemetery; Dr. Kane emerges from the open grave with a severed arm; in his lab, Dr. Kane lays the arm next to a torso; Dr. Kane buys two legs from a medical student; in the lab, he places the legs below the trunk; Dr. Kane sneaks out of a county morgue, placing a head in his satchel; Dr. Kane places the head above the neck, and his body is complete.
There are a number of ways to get in and out of scenes as well. A good 90% of the time, a simple cut between scenes will suffice, and you don’t need to mention that. But let’s say you want to get a little arty, and you want to indicate a passage of time between two scenes. You might use a FADE OUT at the end of scene number one (at the far right margin, of course), and a FADE IN at the beginning of scene number two. Or you might use a DISSOLVE TO: at the end of scene number one. If you’re feeling especially pretentious, try a CLOCK WIPE TO: (but I really don’t recommend it!).
One last note about scenes: Your software will probably provide you with the capability of adding scene numbers, and you might be sorely tempted to use this function…but don’t, at least not unless you’ve already sold the script and the draft is locked. You’ll be doing lots of rewriting once that script sells, and scene numbers will be so shifted around that they’re simply not used in earlier drafts of the script (and it would tell a prospective buyer that you are somewhat inexperienced).
One other building block I’ll discuss briefly here: Acts. If you’ve read any screenwriting books, you’ve probably heard of the “three-act structure”, and this has become the standard for modern screenplay format. What this basically means is: Act One is the set-up, Act Two is the unfolding of the story, and Act Three is the resolution. Certain gurus have even come up with set lengths for each of these acts, but hey – this is one of those rules that was made to be broken. Only worry about acts if you’re writing for television, which is so rigidly formatted act-wise that it would call for a whole separate article.
That’s it: You should be ready to go off now and write your horror masterpiece. Run off and hit those keys, and when we come back next month I’ll wrap this series up by telling you what to do with that opus once you’re done with it.
Here’s a hint: You’re not done.
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