Thursday, August 20, 2009

When to capitalize and underline

Mark writes in:

Time and time again, I am told not to include CUT TOs, musical artist names, word capitalizations, underlining, and the various other gimmicks professional screenwriters use to make their screenplays more engaging and readable, and yet, time and time again, I see these things used in spec. screenplays that have been optioned or sold or are making their rounds in Hollywood, including those by previously unproduced or unknown writers. What gives? Should these things be in a spec or not?

Hey Mark, good question and a relevant one for me this week actually.

First, I'd dispute the notion that CUT TOs, capitalizations, and underlining makes a screenplay "more engaging and readable." Often it does the exact opposite. "CUT TO" is one of those redundant directions if you think about it. If you're changing scenes, a cut is presumably going to be involved, right? I just read an egrigious misuse of CUT TO just this week. The writer not only had an average of four or five of them a page, he also put them in the left margin instead of the right. By p. 30 just the sight of a CUT TO made my eyes bleed.

The same goes for capitalizations and underlining. If you use them at all, use them sparingly. Here's a good rule of thumb - anything that makes the script harder on the eyes is bad.

WHICH is easier TO READ? A sentence WITH A LOT of capitalizations and LOWER CASE WORDS - plus some UNDERLINING.... (OOPS! Blogger APPARENTLY won't LET me UNDERLINE!)

Or a more conventionally written sentence that rarely employs those gimmicks, if AT ALL, and only for emphasis?

Yeah, I know the old rules used to say to capitalize every sound effect, prop, action, or motion. That's generally not done as much anymore.

As for musical artist names and the names of specific songs, I say don't do it. This is one of those "rules" that is bent on occasion, but writing "As they kiss, Feist's 1234 crescendos" will just make you look like an amateur. Now, I've actually read a few scripts recently that were centered on garage bands, which naturally meant a number of scenes where we were told the band was playing The Ramones, Bon Jovi and a few others. Technically the correct way to do this would be to say, "They play a rock song like Livin' on a Prayer or Born to Run." I'd say that as long as it's clear that this song could be swapped out for another song without affecting the plot, go for it.

What you don't want to do is have a scene where we're told that an Avril Lavigne song comes up on the jukebox at a particular time, and then inform the reader in an aside that this song also inspired your plot. (Yes, I have actually seen this.)

Basically, if it's easy to tell that you've been dying to put this "awesome" song in a movie and wrote the scene just to do that, we'll probably peg you as a clueless newbie. Programming anything more than two songs sets this alarm bell off in a big way.

Before I get a bunch of emails citing exceptions, I'll point out that good writing trumps all. No one ever got a PASS because they capitalized one too many sentences or dared to put "More Than a Feeling" in their spec. (But seriously, are you clueless? That song is nearly a million to license!) But you'd better be a damn good writer, because if you pull that stuff you pretty much burn any goodwill from the reader.

And usually the people who break these "rules" break them frequently. As I said, even though they have their place in screenwriting, they should be used SPARINGLY. The fools who specify outrageously expensive songs tend to list five or six specific songs; those who like to use underlining to draw attention to the point then use it every page, to the point where its value becomes meaningless, and so on.

Yes, guys like Tarantino can turn their work in scribbled in crayon on the back of a placemat and it'll still be treated better than the most perfectly formatted newbie script. But an aspiring screenwriter who commits a major writing no-no and then complains "David Koepp did it, nyah!" is really missing the point.

It's not surprising when some first-timers make these mistakes out of ignorance. They just haven't done their homework - even though some of this stuff is pretty basic. However, if you know that there are certain rules, why fixate on figuring out all the minute exceptions and how to break them?

Bottom line, ideally you won't put them in a spec. If you do, make sure it doesn't pop up enough that your reader goes, "Again? Have they ever read a screenwriting book?"

By the way, as I was typing this, I found a recent post dealing with capitalizations from Scott over at Go Into The Story. I don't agree with him 100%, but it's worth noting what he says about a selling script and a shooting script


  1. In my experience, I've seen capitalization limited to maybe two scenarios (acceptably), introduction of a character and physical descriptions that are of key importance. What someone is wearing (and that may be intentional and critical to the plot itself or to assist with establishing the physical appearance of a character) or an action (also intentional and critical, to describe the specifics, often found in horror, but other genres do find the benefit).

  2. Good point Alex! I completely forgot to mention capitalizing names upon their first introduction. This is a MUST! One of my big pet peeves is when writers forget to do this because then I'm stuck wondering "Did I just miss where this guy turned up before?" And it gets harder to skim through the script looking for that first appearance.

  3. Here's the only place where I use a CUT TO: When I'm cutting from a location to a close up. For example--


    Mob Boss pounds his desk as his tody cowers.

    Who's cracking my safes??

    CUT TO:


    As they crack yet another of the Mob Boss's safes.
    A smiley-face pinky ring, the only identifier.

  4. Never use "cut to." People are going to skip over them anyway.

  5. What if you use music as a joke.

    For example, in my script I have a masculine character ridicule another male character for liking Mariah Carey. Later, I have a scene where the other character is in the shower singing Mariah Carey. The premise being that no manly man would dare like Mariah.

    Should I jettison this joke just for fear of losing a script reader?

  6. Rabi - I'd worry less about that example. It probably wouldn't raise a red flag for me, largely because I'd assume if Mariah wouldn't let the performance rights go (which are cheaper than the synchronization rights) the joke could easily be replaced by a cheaper song... maybe something by Ashlee Simpson.

    Plus it's a throwaway joke as opposed to saying, "The entire climax is edited in time with 'Bittersweet Symphony'" and then including cut-by-cut instructions for what images go over what lyrics.

  7. What if you have a nite club scene that names one or two songs germane to the plot and also sets mood?

    Or if you use a diegetic song that functions as a synchronicity for a character's internal state?

  8. pearsonx - Same rules apply regardless of the context. If the song is that germane to the plot, you could be shooting yourself in the foot if you don't get it cleared. No amount of mood-setting is worth that.

    I should stress that this limitation is mainly for writers who've yet to sell a script. I wouldn't be surprised if Cameron Crowe's first draft of ALMOST FAMOUS specifically mentioned "Tiny Dancer." But he's Cameron Crowe. He doesn't have to prove himself. He's earned the right to bend the rules.

    Until you sell a script, you're nobody in this business - and that means that when you make indulgencies like including several songs you don't own the rights to, you look like an amateur.

    And if the best thing about your script is the soundtrack it will facilitate - no one probably will buy it.

    This is why I say it's best not to name songs at all. Say, "A song like 'Satisfaction' plays." Or make sure it's a case like Rabi's - a throwaway where the song can be swapped out for a thousand acceptable replacements.

  9. I know this is nearly three years later but I am writing a script that is essentially centred around its music. The music, while mostly incidental bar a few exceptions, sets the theme of the film.

    Think of 'Love Actually' and how there was a minute amount of specially-written music for it but the rest being actual songs. That's the way this one's written.

    I know Richard Curtis has earnt the right to do that in his scripts but this script wouldn't have the same impact without the actual pieces of music specified as they set the mood of the scene rather than being truly incidental.

    How would one get this around a producer?

  10. "WHICH is easier TO READ? A sentence WITH A LOT of capitalizations and LOWER CASE WORDS - plus some UNDERLINING.... (OOPS! Blogger APPARENTLY won't LET me UNDERLINE!)

    Or a more conventionally written sentence that rarely employs those gimmicks, if AT ALL, and only for emphasis?"

    You have no idea how much I agree with your reasoning here, Naughty Book Watcher! It still remains to be seen however whether it is valid advice. So sayeth the newb currently on the cusp...