SPEC SCRIPT WRITING
An annotated example
by Charles Deemer
EXT. CITY - DAY
A SERIES OF SHOTS
--a clogged freeway at rush hour.
--a mall parking lot, full, cars roaming for a space.
--busy city streets. Buses, taxis.
EXT. MEDICAL CENTER - DAY
A full parking lot.
A public bus pulls up.
* Notice how stark and simple the writing style is. The camera, not the language here, will fill in the visual detail. The screenwriter writes only the essentials, providing the imagery but not mentioning the camera (i.e. how the images are shot) at all. Particular images may be written in more detail IF they have important dramatic function but never with the detail of prose writing, nor with specific information about camera angles and such. You are writing a blueprint for a movie. Write crisply and cleanly.
INT. CLINIC - EXAM ROOM - DAY
EMIL COLLINS, 70s, buttons his shirt after an exam.
Sitting with him is his DOCTOR. He hands Emil a prescription.
I'm giving you stronger pain
* Notice how the scene starts in the MIDDLE of an action. We begin at the point where the essential scene moment begins. We see a guy dressing, we see a doctor – we can figure out he just had an exam.
Emil takes the slip of paper.
Tell me straight, doc. How long?
In the best of worlds, three,
In the worst?
I can get you in a hospice, Emil.
You'd be more comfortable there.
In other words, any time after I
leave here. Does it come gradually
or do I fall over?
It's impossible to predict
something like this. I'll call
you later this week about the
* Bam! we immediately know the situation here: Emil has a terminal illness with not long to live. We’re off and running from the get go.
INT. CLINIC - PHARMACY - DAY
Emil sits waiting for his prescription. Flipping through a
* Notice you don’t have to write in complete sentences. Often fragments and dangling clauses are a screenwriter’s best friend.
WANDA, 50s, approaches.
Emil doesn't seem to recognize her.
Wanda McDonald. I took American
Literature from you maybe fifteen
How are you?
I'm fine. I want to tell you how
much you changed my life. I was
so scared coming back to school
after so long. You inspired me to
keep at it. You were so
Emil looks embarrassed.
* Important background info about our protagonist. We SHOW IT by the meeting here.
Well, I'm going to assume you
I went on and got my Masters. I
teach American Lit at the
community college. You're my
model of what a teacher should be.
VOICE ON SPEAKER
Emil stands up. He still looks embarrassed.
I'm glad it all worked out.
He heads for the counter.
INT. CLINIC - FRONT DESK - DAY
Emil starts toward the exit. He carries a small bag. He
passes the front desk.
* Notice the use of simple sentences. Write so you can be easily skimmed. In the real world, scripts are skimmed before they are read carefully. Your script must invite “an easy read.” Text density is the enemy. This isn’t prose. This is the blueprint for a movie.
ROSE, 20s, the secretary, sees him.
No poetry today, Professor Collins?
Emil stops and turns.
I almost forgot. Here's one. "As
long as you and I have arms and
lips which are for kissing and to
sing with, who cares if some one-
eyed son-of-a-bitch invents an
instrument to measure Spring
with?" E.E. Cummings.
* Another revelation about our character. His love of poetry becomes very important later and sets up the ending of the story. Here, this seems to be just a character revelation but in fact we are setting up something much more important. Your scenes should have consequences.
Now my day's complete.
Rose smiles as Emil exits.
EXT. CLINIC - DAY
Emil emerges into a sun-bright day. He takes a deep breath.
He closes his eyes. Another deep breath.
INT. TAVERN - DAY
Emil at the bar with WALLY, 60s, a friend.
* An image, not a complete sentence.
That's terrible news!
* Again, we begin in the middle of the scene. An amateur would have Emil telling Wally about his trip to the doctor: but we already know that! Don’t bore us with what we already know.
Sshh, I don't want the whole
galaxy to know. It's not as bad
as you think. I've lived a good
life, and the world's going to
hell in a hand basket. I'm ready
Don't say that.
I just did.
What are you going to do?
That's what I've been thinking
about. Maybe take a trip. I'm not
* An important clue. This is exactly what he is going to do.
EXT. NEIGHBORHOOD - STREET - DAY
A bus pulls to the curb. Emil gets off.
EXT. NEIGHBORHOOD - RHODES HOUSE - DAY
Upper-end homes along a shaded street.
BILLY RHODES, teens, is mowing the front lawn.
Emil slowly approaches.
Billy turns off the lawn mower.
Hey, Gramps! How'd it go?
I've got the heart of a linebacker.
You should've called. I would've
picked you up.
You would've, would you? How
would you manage that?
I'd take Mom's car. It's not that
far. And on the way back, you'd
be in the car, so driving with my
learner's permit would be legal.
Next time I have to get somewhere,
I'll let you know.
* Billy is the 2nd most important character, and we introduce him as soon as we can. Also, the learner’s permit becomes important later. Billy will be Emil’s chauffeur on a trip to Idaho.
INT. RHODES HOUSE - DINING ROOM - NIGHT
The family around the dinner table: Besides Emil and Billy,
Emil's daughter MARTI and her husband, DON, both late 30s,
and Billy's older sister, SARA, 19.
What did the doctor have to say,
I have the heart of a marathon
And a linebacker.
(winking at him)
Your blood pressure's good?
Nothing out of order?
Everything's out of order. It's
called old age.
I'm allowed to worry about you.
Change of subject. Are you
telling her or am I?
Telling me what?
* Two things are happening here: we meet the rest of the family, who become important when Emil and Billy disappear on their trip; and we set up (in what follows) the parents’ taking a week vacation, leaving the teenage daughter in charge, which will make it easy for Emil and Billy to escape. Every moment has consequences; every moment sets up something to follow. Everything fits together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. At the same time, the story must flow forward naturally, so that all of this architecture is invisible, hidden by our interest in the characters and story. The screenwriter is like a magician. You are building a trick but you don’t want the audience to see how you do it.