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Screenplay Basics - Zhura 1/29/09 9:45 PM

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SCREENPLAY BASICS Back to Help

A ZHURA Compendium by Johnathan Carr

WRITING IN THE NOW


Traditional storytelling recounts past events, whereas screenwriting is locked in the present
- thus you may not deviate from PRESENT TENSE. You may also be tempted to describe
every inch of the world you're creating - don't! Take comfort in the idea that a screenplay is
not meant to have any literary value. As you're writing, be mindful to preserve only the
most important details: information that will advance the story.

FADE IN
At the beginning of a feature film script, often but not always, the first line will be: FADE
IN. Zhura defaults the first line to a SCENE HEADING, but you can always change the
element if you'd like to add FADE IN or something else.

BREAK UP ACTION
While you can write a longer ACTION paragraph, think about keeping it under five lines at
a time. Break up the paragraph at the start of a new beat to make for an easier read.

CAPITALIZATION IN ACTION
In the ACTION line, be sure to capitalize SOUND EFFECTS, CAMERA DIRECTION and
the first appearance of a speaking CHARACTER.

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PARENTHETICALS
Use a PARENTHETICAL to note an action the speaker is performing while speaking or if
you want to indicate whom the speaker is addressing such as addressing a new character in
mid-DIALOGUE. You can also use a PARENTHETICAL to describe the speaker's
demeanor if that information is important to the story. Limit PARENTHETICALS to no
more than four lines. Also, you would never add a PARENTHETICAL at the end of a line
of dialogue.

OFF-CAMERA DIALOGUE
Off camera (O.C.) and off screen (O.S.) are identical, which one you use is really a
personal preference. They indicate that a speaking character does not appear in the frame,
but is physically present in the scene.

VOICE OVER
The voice over abbreviation (V.O.) is used when a speaking character has no physical

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presence in the scene (voice on phone, TV, narration, etc.) or for the character's inner
monologue.

CAMERA DIRECTION
Describe specific SHOTS only when necessary, not every little bit of CAMERA
DIRECTION need be mentioned. Remember that a script is not meant to be a shot list.

One technique to get around explicit CAMERA DIRECTION is to hint at particular camera
angles by careful arrangement of ACTION. See how this ACTION line implies a two-shot:

Whereas here the action is broken to suggest a new camera angle on Tymon:

SHOW, DON'T TELL


Think subtext. Film DIALOGUE is typically sounds more natural than what you would
hear in a theatrical performance. The real thoughts and emotions are just under the surface.
You cannot write in a script what the audience can't see or hear. That is, you can't write,
"He thinks about his wife..." in an ACTION line or "(thinking of wife)" in a
PARENTHETICAL because we can't see or hear that. These would be examples of a note
from the director, or perhaps an actor's note to himself, which he would write into his own
personal printed copy of the script.

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However you are allowed to use non-visual commentary and even colloquialism if it
provides practical cues for performance and direction (can be communicated through body
language) and can substitute for pervasive description. Read any script by Quentin
Tarantino, he makes excellent use of cool, non-visual commentary.

KEEP IT TIGHT
Tighten ACTION by careful use of verbs in place of adverbs and simile. Instead of writing:
"Johnson quickly runs out of the room like a puppy dog," you could write: "He scampers
away."

ABBREVIATED SCENE HEADING


An abbreviated SCENE HEADING can be used when the new location is just another part
of the previous one. In this case, JOHNSON'S CUBICLE is just another corner of INT.
CORPORATE HEADQUARTERS.

IN AND OUT
For scenes taking place at locations that exist both inside and outside (like an automobile on
a highway) you would choose the SCENE HEADING abbreviation "I/E." indicating
INTERIOR/EXTERIOR.

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PHONE CONVERSATION
There are a few ways to handle telephone conversations and this is one example. If you
want to cut back and forth between the locations where your two characters are speaking
over the phone, you could write, "INTERCUT telephone conversation." Use this in place of
rewriting the SCENE HEADING every time you cut back to one or the other location.

DREAM SEQUENCE
A DREAM SEQUENCE or FLASHBACK can be written like a SCENE HEADING but is
underlined. Afterwards you must somehow indicate the sequence is over.

MONTAGE
One way to format a SERIES OF SHOTS or a MONTAGE is to write "MONTAGE" in a
SCENE HEADING and then write each shot as a new paragraph. Unless you specify
otherwise, the MONTAGE will end before the next SCENE HEADING.

UNDERLINE FOR EMPHASIS


You should use UNDERLINE when you wish to emphasize DIALOGUE and ACTION.
BOLD and ITALICS can get lost in poor print jobs as when photocopies are re-copied. But
if you're only making digital copies, Zhura provides the other font options.

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INTERUPPTED DIALOGUE
If a speaking character is interrupted by ACTION, but continues to speak after the ACTION
line, you could add (CONT'D) after the character name. However, modern screenwriting
standards have eliminated this practice except in writing for half-hour television sitcoms.

A NEW CAMERA ANGLE


If you need a new camera angle but aren't sure what the specific type shot should be, just
write NEW ANGLE and the director will think of something later.

SCREEN DIRECTION
In addition to CAMERA DIRECTION you should also note in capital letters the SCREEN
DIRECTION when a character enters or leaves the frame, but not when they emerge from
within the frame.

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SUPERIMPOSE
You can add SUPERIMPOSED text when needed by writing "SUPERIMPOSE:" as a
SHOT line followed by the text in quotations on another line. Optionally, you may integrate
the text into a line of ACTION and abbreviate as "SUPER: [Your Text]."

THE END
At the end of a feature film script, you will often see: FADE OUT. Just like FADE IN, this
isn't necessary. You may choose to write any TRANSITION.
After that write THE END centered and underlined which, for now, you will have to cheat
by making "THE END" a CHARACTER element.

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