On The Use of Music in Your Screenplay and Other Faux Pas . . . by Peter Fox [MAY – 2012]

The age old question of whether or not to include music in your screenplay is one that refuses to go away. There are arguments for including music choices, and excluding them. However, there are several facts which every screenwriter should remain aware of when writing a spec screenplay.

The first is that if you are writing your screenplay on spec, that is, on the speculation that you are going to sell the work to a production entity that will finance the film, it is not okay to include music. The inclusion of music choices in a spec screenplay is the mark of an amateur. It shows the decision makers that you have not thoroughly worked out your story, and that you are relying on music choices to create atmosphere in the story. That is, the emotional atmosphere of the story needs to be present in your descriptions. It cannot be artificially propped up by the inclusion of a reference to a certain song.

There is one singular exception to the rule that music choices should not be included in a screenplay. The exception is that when a piece of music is central to the plot. Meaning, the story will not work if the music choice is not included in the screenplay. An example of this can be found in the movie SE7EN, commonly known as SEVEN, starring Denzel Washington. In the film, his character is a serial killer. Before each of his crimes, he will either hum, or sing the song Time is On My Side by The Rolling Stones. Without the inclusion of this piece of music, the character is missing something. The context of the story, without the inclusion of this piece of music, is incomplete. In this example, it is okay to include music choices.

To tip toe around this issue by merely suggesting a type of music, or certain tone of music, is to commit the same sin. What this shows the reader is that:

1. You are unfamiliar with Hollywood standards.
You have no respect for the other creative entities involved in the process.
3. You have not fleshed out your story.

Another area of heated debate is the inclusion of parenthesis underneath dialog slugs. The inclusion of parenthesis should be used no more than twice in any screenplay. The repeated use of parenthesis shows the reader several things. The first is that you do not know how to write descriptions. Any direction included in the parenthesis should be written in stage directions, or, rather, in your descriptions. While reading screenplays for studio coverage, a reader will, before beginning to read, quickly skim through the screenplay to look for the inclusion of parenthesis. When the reader sees them, they will quickly surmise that they are about to read the work of an amateur. Parenthesis also shows the reader that you are guilty of one of the worst offences in screenwriting: direction from the page. Directing from the page is when the writer attempts to dictate the emotion that the actor should employ while acting out the scene. This, without the benefit of meeting the actor, meeting the director, becoming involved in a full cast read through, or being on the set, is something that will get your work quickly thrown into the trash.

I can hear some of you arguing that you have read screenplays that do include music choices as well as parenthesis underneath dialog slugs. There is a reason for this. The first is that you have downloaded a shooting script from the internet. Shooting scripts are not spec scripts. They have already been read by dozens of members of the creative team. They have been pored over and marked by line producers, cinematographers, sound editors, script supervisors, the director and last but not least, the lead actors. Only after countless hours and table readings are these inflections added to the screenplay. For this reason, when you read a feature length screenplay from a film that has already been produced, you are reading a screenplay that has already been through the development process. This is different than a spec screenplay. To obtain copies of earlier drafts of screenplays, contact Hollywood Book and Poster in Los Angeles.

Camera angles are another inclusion on spec screenplays that will get your work promptly discarded. The inclusion of camera angles in a spec screenplay is never okay. For the same reasons listed in the examples above, their inclusion will result in a pass mark on your coverage. The experience that a reader has when they encounter one of these offences is that they will not read the screenplay from cover to cover, as they know from having taken a precursory glance at the work that it is from an amateur.

Some writers, when making the counter argument to what is above, will say: “Well, I intend to shoot this screenplay myself. It is a shooting script. So, therefore, isn’t it okay to include the music, the parenthesis, and the camera angles?” Well, then yes. If you are financing one hundred percent of the project, have lined up all crew and creative talent, with the understanding that they will perform every line as the parenthesis under the dialog indicates, then yes. Also, that the cinematographer will shoot every camera angle as directed from the page, then again, go ahead. You see the problem with this. Even with a perfect screenplay, there is so much that is unknown to the project until everyone arrives on the set, that it is impossible to dictate what will happen on the page, months or even years before anything is shot.

Also, even if you are shooting the project on your own, chances are that you will be seeking financing from at least one or two sources in order to complete your task of making a movie. So, it is essential that you write your screenplay in such a way that there is nothing getting in the way of the story being told in a cinematic context. So, tell the story and then get the hell out of the way!

As a footnote, I recently met with techno music star Moby who has written dozens of film scores. He turned me on to a free website for filmmakers, www.mobygratis.com. The catch is that the music on the site can be used by aspiring filmmakers, free of charge, for short films or feature films which are not being commercially screened. If a film is subsequently picked up for distribution, the music must then be licensed. He is very supportive of independent filmmakers, and deserves our kudos. Be sure to check out his website and be sure to complete the registration process.

Peter Fox has been conducting The Inside Track for Story and Cinematic Structure for the past ten years. He holds an MFA in Screenwriting 
from the American Film Institute and has worked at Paramount, 
Universal, and SonyTriStar Pictures. www.peterfoxworkshops.com