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02/28/2006: Cactus Longhorn Beetles!
Yesterday, I was reading some interesting stuff over at whatsthatbug.com. You don’t know about whatsthatbug.com? Go there at once. It’s so cool. Anyway, I was reading about a certain beetle. It happens to look a lot like another beetle which can stand on its head and spray when threatened. The beetle that can’t spray, also stands on its head, bluffing. “I’m SO gonna spray you. I am. Because I’m that kind of beetle, I am.” Now, that’s putting some effort into an attempt to look like something else.
A spec script should look as much as possible like a produced script. Erin Dunlap, an aspiring writer who worked as writers’-PA-extraordinaire on Jake, has asked me some great questions about exactly how to accomplish that. She’s talking about the strange little technical stuff. She asks about when one should use “CUT TO” and what words to put in CAPS in the stage directions and when to use “ANGLE ON.”
The short answer is “look at the produced scripts and do what they do.” However, the things she has picked out are the ones that are often applied inconsistently. This is frustrating, but it should also be a clue that it’s hard to go too far wrong.
“CUT TO” is not usually needed. So why waste the space? If the show you’re emulating seems to use it sometimes and not other times, there may not be any pattern. Or it might be that they only use it when they want to imply a quick edit, such as when there’s a joke that relies on a cut. (You know the kind. The most hacky version of this is “I will NOT go to that party!” CUT TO: INT. PARTY - NIGHT). Using it this way – only when you want to call attention to the edit – is my default choice.
“CUT TO” is one of those things the eye tends to blip over anyway. I don’t usually encourage sloppiness, but in this particular case, chances are no one will even notice whether the CUT TO is there or not.
CAPS. If you’re writing a spec Two and a Half Men, you don’t have to worry about this. In multi-camera half-hours, all your stage directions are in caps. But in single-camera shows, some words in some directions are in caps. But which ones? Well, the first time a character appears in the script, their name is in caps. But other than that, the rule is fuzzy. Important props, actions, video effects, sound effects might be in caps. If your script were being produced, the main function of the capping would be to call attention to things that will need input from specialized professionals – stunt people, effects people, etc. Since it’s a spec, all you’re really trying to do is make sure that those elements aren’t missed by the reader, but it boils down to the same thing anyway.
Here’s an actual stage direction from one of my Buffy scripts:
Mr. Trick GRABS GILES. Giles gets in a good solid KICK, but Mr. Trick shakes it off. He grabs Giles. Then he THROWS him. Giles lands right at the T-junction... the entrance to the demon's tunnel. As Lurconis senses food on the dinner plate, THE RUMBLING BEGINS.
Here’s another one from the same script. The “she” here is Buffy, by the way.
Giles DIVES to one side and she aims the flame into the sewer pipe just as Lurconis' slimy head darts out. The flame catches it full in the face. LURCONIS is on fire. It pulls back and we hear its DYING SCREAMS.
Looking at this one now, I have no idea why “Lurconis” is in caps in this second one. It’s not the first time he appears. If I wrote this now, what would be in caps is “ON FIRE.” That’s far more important! Geez. What was I thinking? But you can see the rough logic on the other choices. Big actions, sounds. Stuff like that. It’s all very approximate. In a lot of my Buffy scripts I haven't used caps at all, except for character names and a few big "VAMPIRE POOFS INTO DUST" moments. Don’t sweat it too hard, and as always, mimic mimic mimic your example produced scripts. Spec scripts are non-spraying beetles, but that's all the more reason they need to stand on their heads, look in anticipation at their own rear ends, and give every impression that something big is about to happen.
I’ll be back soon with a discussion of when and how to use “ANGLE ON.” So you know that’ll be one wild ride!
Lunch: instant wonton soup that I added water to and then entirely forgot for like forty minutes. It’s the first and only time that the centers of the wontons actually got soft and delicious. Breakthrough!