Spec Killers #3: Day and Night

Anyone who has ever written a screenplay should know what a slugline is (aka scene header). It’s one of the first things a screenwriter will learn and one of the first things a screenwriter will make a mistake with.

The most common slugline mistake is the time of day. The mistake: substituting “DAY” or “NIGHT”. I see this mistake at least 1 out of every 3 scripts. Any script consultant will tell you the same.

Instead of:


The writer will write:



When all you need is “NIGHT”.

Now, there have been plenty of arguments about how substituting “DAY” or “NIGHT” is not a bad thing. That it doesn’t take away from the story and actually puts the reader more into the story.

Let me give you three reasons why not using “DAY” or “NIGHT” can potentially kill your script:

1) There’s no need to be fancy:

It may seem like “DAY” and “NIGHT” would bore the reader. They read those words two hundred times a day. In our spec screenplays, we need to spice it up a bit right?

Not really.

Using “TWILIGHT” or “MAGIC HOUR” almost feels pretentious. And there’s just no need for that.

Sure, it may not affect the story, but does it HELP the story? Does it tell the story better to know that it’s “AFTERNOON” instead of just “DAY”?

Your job as a writer is to let the reader know if the sun is out or not. And “DAY” and “NIGHT” will do that just fine.

There’s no reason to make it fancy.

2) You’re drawing attention to the slugline:
Sluglines for screenwriters are similar to the phrases “he said” and “she said” for novelists. If you have ever taken a course on novel writing, one of the first things they tell you is to write “he said” more often then substitutions like “he exclaimed”, “he screamed”, “he pontificated”, and so on.

The reason for this is so that the “he said” becomes invisible. The reader reads it quickly and then moves on.

Same with your sluglines.

When you read enough screenplays, your brain is trained to scan the slugline, extract the location and move on. “DAY” and “NIGHT” help make it a smooth transition.

Even a word like: “EVENING” can stall a readers brain. Bringing attention to the slugline.

You want your reader to know where your characters are and tell your reader quickly. The reader’s day is a busy one. Don’t let the little things make their day busier.

3) It’s not your job:

Here’s the big one. The time of day that each scene is shot in, is not the decision of the writer, but of the director of photography. Ultimately, you really have no say in the matter.

So if the DP wants to shoot a scene at “MAGIC HOUR”, that’s the DP’s call, not yours.

The writer writes the story and the DP decides how to light it. A writer who has a problem with this is a writer no one will want to work with.

Just like every rule, there are exceptions. There will be situations where an exact time actually helps the story.

Lets take a vampire story for instance:


This helps build tension. We all know what happens when the sun goes down in a vampire story.

Another example is if your story is told within a 24 hour period. It may prove useful to be more specific with the time of day.



You don’t need ‘em.

90 percent of the time, good ole “DAY” and “NIGHT” will do you just fine.

Put your creativity in your story. Not in your slugline.

If you have any questions or opinions, feel free to leave a comment or contact me at: support@readerproof.com


Bad Movies

During a discussion I had recently with a writer on Twitter, an age old screenwriting question was brought up:

"Why should we as screenwriters trust studio executives when they are the reason for so many bad movies?"

This one's a classic.

First, let's talk about the second half of the question: why they make bad movies.

There's a lot of them out there huh? Most of the movies you find in the theater today are horrible. How could something so horrible make it to the big screen? How could they mess up so badly?

Here's the bad news: they didn't mess up the movie.

You did.

The only reason that they changed something in your script is because you gave them the opportunity. They saw a hole in your through line and
jumped at the chance.

As writers we tend to blame the other guys. "It's not our fault, it's that damn producer!"

But look at it from their perspective. They're trying to sell a product. To the mass audience or to the independent crowd, it doesn't matter. No one is going to respect your original work if it doesn't
look like it will make them money.

And if it doesn't look like a money maker, trust me, they'll make it in to one. And there's nothing you can do about it. So you better do it on your terms and not theirs.

But here's the good news: If you nail the structure, your set. That's all you have to do. Structure is the skeleton of your script. If you have a well built skeleton, your story can never truly turn out bad.

Sure they can mess up the dialogue, delete your favorite characters, add stupid characters, create pointless "trailer moments" and horrible
set pieces. They can even take your name right of the script (most likely they will). But if you nail the structure, there's nothing they can do to ruin the core story.

This is where most writers make there biggest mistake. You must make sure that every event that happens in your script leads directly into the next. You must make it clear for anyone reading your script that if they pull or change one event in your screenplay, they will upset the balance of the entire screenplay and the audience will hate the

And that's why there are so many bad movies out there. Too many scripts floating with incomplete skeletons.

Scripts without act two and three breaks. Scripts without midpoints. Scripts without escalating roadblocks and obstacles. Scripts without aftermath and final images that endure the test of time.

That's the writer's fault, not the executives.

So let's tackle the first part of the question we started with: why should we trust executives?

Well, you probably shouldn't. No one messes up a script quite like an executive. An exec can spot a structure issue faster than anyone but at
the end of the day, they're not writers. They can find a problem, they just can't fix it.

And when they try to fix it... well we know what happens when they try.

It's best to let them worry about marketing your script rather than making the story better (so nail that structure).

However, don't write off all execs quite yet. Every once and a while they know what they're doing. Take "Date Night" for instance.

It's a fun movie that enjoyed a good amount of success. And it has a great structure. It's fair to say that "Date Night", is not a bad movie.

Now look at the original draft. It's nothing like what showed up screen! 90% of the draft got rewritten. All because the structure wasn't perfect.
Somewhere down the line, it was an executive who decided to have it rewritten.

It was a good call. If the original script was filmed, it would have been a bad movie.

It happens every day. Bad movies get made and stuffed down our throats.

But remember, you can't always blame the guy at the top. Story problems use originate at the bottom. The guys at the top try to fix them. They just don't know how.

So it's up to you.

Never forget that. Most writers do.

Only you can prevent bad movies.

Your Original Work

It's every screenwriter's dream to get their work on the big screen.

However, there's a huge misconception with this dream.

Most writers assume that whatever they write on the page will show up on screen

That their final draft will be the FINAL draft.

That every word they put down on the page will be an image put on the screen. That every line of dialogue they write will be spoken by the stars.


No, this will not happen.

In fact, you'll be lucky to find 40% of your movie put on the screen.
Even if you do everything right with your screenplay, you'll be lucky to find 60% on opening day.

The bottom line: you will be rewritten.

In most cases, there's no way around it.

There's only two ways to get your script on the screen without getting rewritten: one, you direct it yourself. Two, you're James Cameron.

Otherwise, that script you've been working on for eight months (or years), will be torn apart and be put back together by a team of screenwriting strangers.

They mean well, they really do.

Everyone is just trying to make a good movie. In theory, an unproven writer is limited in his writing abilities. Thus, they bring in more writers. More drafts. More polishes.

More ways to ruin the original.

It's part of the business. There's nothing that any screenwriter can do about it.

There are two ways to deal with this fact:

One, accept it. Write every script with a voice in the back of your head saying: "I know that most likely, someone will rewrite this. I will do my best to give them very little to rewrite."

Two, you don't accept it. If you choose to not except this fact, my suggestion is to stop sceenwriting now. You can write novels,
books, or even comics. But if your original work is that important to you, screenwriting is not for you.
Why? Because making a movie is a group effort. It may start with you and your script, but it ends with a crew of over three hundred people.

No movie is made by one person.

So if you're not a team player, this is not the business for you. It's best to get out now while you still have your sanity.

It all comes down to this: how bad do want your screenplay to end up on the big screen?

Are you willing to change your original draft to get your screenplay sold? Are you willing to surrender creative power to those who may not have much creative ability?

Are willing to be a team player?


Get it out of your head and...

"On to the Page", for the uninitiated, is the name of a podcast that is dedicated to the business and craft of screenwriting. The host of the podcast is Pillar Alessandra, a former script reader and current script consultant.

For the last three years, the "On the Page" podcast has been free of charge for all writers. Three years of some of the best screenwriting advice you can find.

In the next couple of weeks, the podcast will switch from a free podcast to a subscription podcast. Twenty dollars per season, a season being six months. So basically forty bucks a year.

Now, that’s a big change for content that has been free this whole time. I’m suspecting many listeners will refuse to pay for content that was free and stop listening to the podcast.

My advice for anyone who plans on doing this is: don’t.

"On the Page" is an excellent podcast. Every week there is something new, and every week it gets better. It’s surprising that this podcast has been free for this long.

So if you're a fan of the show, don’t cancel. This is the hardest time to crack into the spec market, and a screenwriter needs more help now than ever.

I know it’s forty bucks, but in the long run, that’s nothing. You might find something in an episode that will blow your screenwriting mind (for me it was learning how to network with Modern Warefare 2).

And if you’re not a fan already, go to itunes and search for "On the Page". You can still listen to the first hundred or so episodes for free and you can decide if it’s right for you.

I can only name a handful of screenwriting podcasts out there, and On The Page is by far the best.

Worth the forty dollars.


First Ten: Avatar

They say that a studio reader only gives a spec script TEN PAGES before they know if it’s worthy enough to be shown to their boss.

I don’t find this fair.

But life’s not fair and neither is screenwriting.

So I decided to turn the tables a bit. Instead of judging the first ten pages of a spec, let’s judge the first ten pages of a script that has already been sold.

This week: “Avatar” written by James Cameron

At this point, there’s been plenty of opinions throw around about this colossal movie. Both good and bad, everyone has something to say about Avatar.

I don’t want to rehash what has already been said. Instead, we’ll concentrate on the screenplay as professional as we can and pretend like James Cameron had to send the script out to studio readers (like that’ll ever happen).

The Link - http://www.mypdfscripts.com/screenplays/avatar

[If you wish, you may read the first ten pages of the script before reading this blog. There maybe many versions of this script floating around the internet. I chose this one.]

Page 1:

* “WE ARE FLYING through mist, a dimly glimpsed forest below.”

“We are very low over the forest now, gliding fast, the drums BUILDING to a PEAK --”

Two “we sees” on the first page. Neither of which is needed. These are two of the many examples of the use of “WE SEE” in the first ten pages.

Two “we sees” at the beginning of a script may very well bring up a red flag for the reader.

* Jake Sully’s name is in bold. Never bold anything in your screenplay. It just looks wrong.

* “The room is a tiny CUBICLE, prison cell meets 747 bathroom. Narrow cot, wall-screen droning away in the B.G...”

I really like that first line. It’s a good use of a simile.

The second however needs a quick fix. “B.G.” is another one of those “fourth wall breakers”. It’s hard to keep a story engaging when you’re constantly being reminded that you’re just reading a screenplay.

* The “PERKY NEWSCASTER” part can be cut for pacing. We already get that it’s the future, and if not yet, we’ll get it in the next couple of pages.

Page 2:

* “Jake laboriously pulls his pants off -- rocking to one side, pushing the fabric down past his hip, then rocking to the other, and so on.”

Just put:

“Jake laboriously pulls his pants off. It’s not an easy task.”

Something like that. On page 2, there is no luxury of dragging things out.


Not the kind of place you’d bring your mom.”

Here’s a nice quick description of a setting that works. It builds a picture in your mind easily and is exactly what you should strive for in your description.

However, I’ve read this line a good fifty times in amateur screenplays before reading it here. If you can modify this line to make it a little bit different, you’ll have descriptive gold.

* “CU JAKE, watching what he can’t have. Expression stony.”

Two things:

One, “CU” is never a good thing to use in a spec script. Another “fourth wall breaker”

Two, “Expression stony”? This is one of those times where it’s best to use the pronoun or at least a colon, “Expression: stony”.

I think anyone reading “Expression stony” will understand the intention, but quickly realize the mistake.

* “Let’s get it straight up front. I don’t want your pity. I know the world’s a cold-ass bitch.”

I know I said that I was going to treat this as professional as I could, but I have to comment on this personally.

Wow. Just, wow.

* “TIGHT ON JAKE’S HAND as he starts pushing the wheel of his chair. TRACKING WITH HIM as he rolls forward.”

No one gets impressed by your knowledge of camera work. Not the actor, not the reader, not the executive and especially not the director. Here’s a quick rewrite:

“Jake rolls himself forward. His eyes fixed on his target.”

What happened to the close up shot of Jake’s Hand? Simply put, you don’t need it. As the writer, you don’t get to chose the way your story is going to be shot.

The original sentence is like a slap to the face for the director. The rewrite let’s the director start thinking of ways to shoot it. Gets the director excited about the possibilities.

Also, if you can forge two sentences into one, do it.

Page 3:

* I like the “save the cat” moment presented here with Jake saving a woman from being beaten. It may seem cheap, but so far he hasn’t done anything for me to like him.

It’s hard to connect with someone who thinks that life is a “cold-ass bitch” (again, wow, just... wow).

Seeing him jump out of his wheelchair to protect someone helps.

I hope you realize you’ve just lost a customer!”

This doesn’t need to be underlined.

Page 4:

* By page 4 you really start to feel a disdain for Jake’s voice overs. They try too hard.

Pulling off a good voice over is one of the hardest things a writer can do. These first ten pages show why.

Page 5:

* “JAKE’S POV -- A TECH in medical scrubs FLOATS WEIGHTLESSLY toward us. Wherever we are, we’re not on Earth.”

This is the ultimate “we see”. There are so many other ways to be drawn into this mystery. You don’t need to break the fourth wall.

Page 6:

* Our first page without any dialogue.

Zoom this page out and study the blackness presented.

Do not do this.

* There is no need to bold the planet names, just put them in all caps. And I’m really not sure why “shuttles” is in bold.


For a spec script, it’s DAY or NIGHT.

Unless it’s important to the story to know what exact time of day it is (in most cases it’s not), let the DP light it how he wants.

* “FLYING OVER A LANDSCAPE of massive cliffs and towering mesas carpeted in rainforest.”

Here is an excellent way of drawing a reader in without using “we see”. He could have easily wrote:

“WE ARE OVER massive cliffs and towering mesas...”

But he didn’t. He drew us in by putting us right there in the thick of it.

If I was James Cameron's script consultant (yeah, right) I would tell him to replace every “we see” with something like this.

Page 7:
* “ A BLUE INHUMAN HAND reaches INTO SHOT, parting the foliage to reveal the shuttle hover-taxiing across the compound.”

Our first big story moment. The mystery of the Navi. Page 7 is a good place for this moment.

* “Everybody except JAKE, who’s turning his this way and that trying to figure out the straps.”

How about just:

“Everybody except Jake, who struggles with the straps.”

* “Remember people, you lose your mask you’re unconscious in 20 seconds and you’re dead in four minutes.”

Here we have one number spelled out and the other not.

Be consistent with spelling out all numbers in a screenplay.

* Again, only underline dialogue that is IMPERATIVE to the story.

Page 8:

* “Beyond the tractor, two VTOL vehicles take off. Armored and heavily armed, they are AT-99 “SCORPION” GUNSHIPS.

MITSUBISHI MK-6 AMPSUITS -- human operated walking machines 4 meters tall -- patrol the perimeter. They are heavily armored, and armed with a huge rotary cannon called a GAU-90.”

Here we have some unfilmables. How will the audience know that it’s a “AT-99 Scorpion” gunship? Or that the ampsuit is a “Mitsubishi MK-6 with a rotary cannon called a “GAU-90”?

Unless this information is printed on the sides of these machines, the audience will never know. And why would they care? It doesn’t move the story at all.

When writing a sci-fi screenplay, this is a mistake that I’ve found is made by most writers. Too many “futuristic” details.

It’s always best to just describe what it is, and not give it a name (unless the story demands it).

Page 9:

* “The MAN raises his masked face to look at the sky. He eyes are an icy steel gray.” - his eyes

* “You are not in Kansas any more...”

Much like “say hello to my little friend”, this is a phrase you can never use in a screenplay again.

Page 10:

* Quaritch’s speech may seem corny, but it actually works. The threat of Pandora is established well (although a little reworking of the dialogue wouldn’t hurt).

The Verdict: would a reader continue to read past page 10?

I would say no. Sci-fi movies are a tough sell. In the first ten pages you have to hit them with something big to keep their interest. There’s just not enough here to do that.

This is a 152 page script (the number one reason a reader won’t read the whole thing) so the big stuff won’t happen until much later.

My suggestion to cure this problem, not just for a sci-fi screenplay but for any screenplay, is to make sure you have a setpiece in your first ten pages.

It doesn’t have to be a whole setpiece, even just half of one should be enough to show the potential of your story.

You can argue that the bar fight was the half setpiece used in the first ten pages of this script, but that was more of a showcase of his character. Not a showcase of the world, theme or concept.

There’s a reason why that scene never made it into the movie.


Overall, this is a screenplay written by one of the most powerful people in Hollywood. He hasn’t worried about readers since the 80’s.

Plus, he directed the movie, so all those “fourth wall breakers” seem natural to him.

But we as spec writers can still learn from this script. The lesson here is: leave the camera angles to the director. And if you are the director, leave the camera angles to yourself.

Just focus on the story.

Next on the First Ten: A legendary script for the 90’s. With an opening page that gave new meaning to “inciting incident”.

If you’d like to get the first ten pages of your script Reader Proofed, email your script to support@readerproof.com