The art of writing screenplays is not easy. Unless you’re some kind of mutant freak, writing well really means re-writing…and re-writing…and – you guessed it – re-writing. Screenplays are deceptive, because you can write them relatively quickly, but perfecting them is another story. Only a fraction of the screenplays get made into movies and only a tiny fraction of those are excellent films.
There are good books, seminars, and college courses that are available to help you become a better writer, but rather than give you a reading list, or send you to school, I’m going to condense years of experience into seven and a half rules for great screenplays.
One: Like a boy scout, be prepared. Get to know your characters before you start writing the screenplay. Write short biographies on the characters. Where are they from, what were their childhood triumphs and traumas, what are their parents like, what foods do they enjoy? Who are they? Even though you might only use a fraction of the information in the actual screenplay, you’ll know your characters, and how they speak, and they’ll be a real person, not scraps of dialogue strewn together.
Two: Do your homework. If the plot line of the story revolves around nuclear fission, learn about nuclear fission. If it’s about hookers, learn the day-to-day reality of street life and hooking. If you can open the door to a world that most people don’t usually get to see – you’ve given your screenplay a hook – and it will stand out in an ocean of scripts.
Three: Cut the chatter. Dialogue should reveal the character’s personality, or the dynamics of a relationship, or things we need to know about the story itself, but it should never simply fill space or be idle chatter.
Four: No guests allowed. If a character isn’t important to the main story they don’t get significant screen time. Either a character moves the story forward or doesn’t. Red herrings are okay, of course, but make sure it is a red herring, not a detour that doesn’t contribute to the plot as a whole. The flip side of this rule is to try not to bring in major or pivotal characters too late into the story. A screenplay is like a deck of cards – you don’t start playing with the aces missing and then introduce them into the deck on the last hand.
Five: Train your ears. Pay attention to how your characters speak. Do people talk like that in real life? Say the lines you’ve written out loud. Do they flow and sound natural? Are they too formal? Are they too colloquial? Do they reflect the nature of the character? Do your characters sound alike? Each main character should have a specific voice, if they don’t go back to rule number one. Who are these people?
Six: Be your own whipping boy. A screenplay isn’t the Bible, Torah, Koran, or any other divinely inspired text. Write it. Put it aside for a week or two and come back to it with new eyes. Imagine you’re reading it for the first time. Does it make sense? Do people behave logically? Does every single element of the screenplay serve a purpose? Make necessary changes and put it aside again…and again…and again.
Seven: Only black holes occur in vacuums. Know your craft. Read screenplays, watch the films that were made from them, and compare the two. Educate yourself. Learn proper formatting – have the script checked for typos and grammatical errors. Poor formatting makes a script virtually unreadable. It doesn’t matter how great the story is – those are the first screenplays to hit the garbage can.
Seven and a half: Don’t flash your panties if they aren’t clean. Once you have the script spell checked, formatted correctly, and as good as you can possibly make it, have your husband, wife, friend, dog, or grandmother take a look at it. Now most friends and family will want to give you a medal for stringing words together on a page. Don’t let them get away with that. Tell them to be harsh. Ask if they’d pay to see the film? See if they’ve caught any typos or errors in logic that you’ve missed.
Maybe they have great insight and maybe they don’t, but at least you’ll have another viewpoint. Use their input – make necessary changes and only then should you show it to other film industry people or enter it in competitions. If the script isn’t as perfect as you can make it, you’re wasting everyone’s time. This may seem like basic information, but it’s amazing how many professionals make this mistake. I’ve had industry people submit scripts to me that were poorly formatted and filled with typos or half formed story ideas. Personally, I’d never agree to produce a film presented to me like that – because if they can’t even take the time to get a script right – what kind of nightmare would they be with several million dollars?
Okay I lied. I am going to share some resource tips with you. Drew’s Script O’ Rama is a great place to get free scripts on the Internet. Sid Field’s books are a good place to start learning the art of screen writing. Robert McKee goes into even more depth about the elements that make a fantastic screenplay in seminars throughout the year in major cities in the U.S. and around the world – and I’ve seen film industry insiders attend these seminars, as well as budding screenwriters. Colleges and Universities often offer screenwriting courses that are accessible to the public. Take advantage of the great resources available and enjoy the process. There is an old saying in the film industry, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” The only way to go the distance is to love what you do.
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