Greatest Hits Or The Reader's Backflip
When I speak to screenwriters they remind me
of rules I wrote in my first screenwriting book. The following rules
- principles, actually - come from my 27 years chairing the graduate
Screenwriting program in the film school at UCLA: 1.
quite possible to succeed in what is in fact a thoroughly democratic
enterprise; from my perch in Westwood I see it happen all the time.
You must be willing to give it the time. 3.
you give your script to a producer or an agent he or she is actually
going to give it to a professional reader who will provide coverage
- a summary and a recommendation. Before even reading the script,
the reader flips backward through it. Certain clues immediately give
a script away as unprofessional and amateurish; others suggest the
script is worthy of further consideration.
Here are some
musical cues for screenwriting success:
Running On Empty
Screenplays run shorter and have fewer pages than they
used to. A screenplay at 99 pages isn’t too skimpy; 105 to 112 pages
is the norm. (Comedy is sometimes shorter than drama.) And the
readers who read your scripts prefer “shorter.” The reader holds the
script in her hand to feel if it’s too “heavy” (more pages to read)
or if it’s just right. If it feels like the right length it may be
an early indication that the writer displays craft. Of course, the
reader will have to see for herself when she reads it if it’s
compelling. Nonetheless, page count counts.
Stealing That Extra Bow
Title pages frequently swarm with too much ink.
Writers load them up with unnecessary information. All a title page
needs is the title of the script and writer’s name, plus a contact
number or email on the lower right. Leave off the Writers Guild
Registration, the date, the draft number, the copyright, “original
screenplay by,” and even “by” between title and name. A title can be
capped, or underscored. The writer’s name should be lower case
except of course the first letters of the first and last name,
exactly as you write your signature. Any legal disclaimers look
ridiculous. You can rejoice in having less ink on the page.
Experienced writers learn to love to throw things away. Cartridges
are expensive! Save ink! (And the reader’s time.)
sixteen more hits...
The Line Forms On The Right Babe
Avoid parenthetical directions. In your
screenplays, use no parentheses marks below the character’s name,
which describe the attitude, or anything at all about the character.
A character is what he says and does. Characters exist in the
screenplay without add-ons. Many writers think they need to show
more detail then they do. That’s what directors are for. Write the
lines. That’s a tough enough task. Your job is “give great read”
effortlessly. So rid yourself of those pesky parentheticals and your
script will look just right. When writers show me all the time how
working, saleable writers frequently use parentheticals I respond
with, “Perhaps, then, you can put their name instead of yours on
your title page.”
Sympathy For The Devil
Three basic rules for creating audience-worthy characters are: First, no
stereotypes. Make your characters different from every movie you’ve
already seen. The hooker with a heart of gold, the crooked
politician, the evil headmaster, the macho cop have been done ad
infinitum. Find a way to make these characters fresh. Second, render
everyone, even the foulest villain, sympathetic. Sympathy for one’s
characters raises a tale above the mindless equation in which
everything fits perfectly but is also quite perfectly dull. Third,
require your characters to grow and develop throughout the tale. In
Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Ratso in Midnight Cowboy,
introduced as a thieving, lying, rancid, skuzzy maggot; he finishes
the film caring, considerate and honest, if also dead.
I Am I Said
Exposition, the part of the script that we see,
gets written using active verbs, present tense. Writers should avoid
the verb “to be” (am, are, is), if possible. Your story takes place
in the present - here and now - whether it’s a million years in the
past or a million eons in the future. Whenever I read words like
being, be, are, or is, I’m reminded that the writer isn’t moving the
story along for the reader. The character “dances in the moonlight”
not “he is (or was) dancing in the moonlight” Also, words before the
true beginning in dialogue or exposition; words like “well,” “you
see,” “look,” “listen,” and noises such as “hmm,” “um,” “uh,” etc.
must be left out. Remember to leave out everything except what has
to be in (I apologize for using the verb “to be” but this is not a
screenplay that I’m writing here!). Less language allows for greater
appreciation of the scene, setting, story and characters. Less is
Back Door Man
No new main characters
introduced after Act 1. There is no such thing as new Act 2 and Act
3 characters. The writer must have at least ten ways to reveal
information about the “new” character if we don’t meet him or her
till later. This can be achieved by introducing the character
without the audience or the reader actually seeing him or her
introduced. Rethink how to weave your character into Act 1. Figure
it out with clever and fresh exposition, such as a flyer blowing
away that mentions a character we’ll meet later. The writer must
plant; it’s her job! The audience must feel satisfied and surprised,
not cheated or tricked. In The Sixth Sense,
tricked, just led.
And Baby You’re So Smart
The protagonist uses Deliberate Mental Cleverness (Liar, Liar;
) to resolve Act 3 dilemmas. Put Indiana in with
snakes, now you have to get him out. The protagonist must have
obstacles. Make all your settings different for the protagonist. It
must offer something and not be mundane.
All You Need Is Love
Avoid scenes in restaurants, unless they’re integrated.
Integration is the second most important component to tell your
story. If you’ll just put nothing on any page that isn’t integrated,
you’ll spin a solid yarn. For example, many writers over-describe
their characters. They say a character has red hair for no other
reason than to say it. All you really need to describe your
character is gender, and age (written numerically). Red hair on a
character is only relevant if it’s part of the story. For example in
the hair color of the character matters for
the story to climax and resolve. So writer Joe Eszterhaz is wise to
mention in the beginning, that the character’ a blond. It’s a lot
easier to describe a character then give a character juicy, nifty
dialogue, in fresh settings. The restaurant scene in My Dinner
was the entire movie. In Moonstruck,
restaurant scene gets Cher engaged, and in Mt. Rushmore,
protagonist learns that the object of his affection - his teacher -
is dating a doctor when she shows up with him at the restaurant
following the student play.
At The End Of The River, You’ll Find A Pot Of Gold
As Aristotle says, the beginning
(of the script) is the part before you need nothing. And the end is
the part after which you need nothing. Too many writers start their
stories too early and too many writers end their stories too late.
“I think” is before the beginning. It’s not necessary to have a
character start his or her dialogue with “I think.” Screenplays
model the idealized human life. Short beginnings, long middles, and
shorter endings. Spike Lee in Do the Right Thing
telling his story even after the clear ending where Mooky trashes
the pizza parlor. He runs ten minutes of text crawl with Malcolm's
words, and Dr. King’s words too. The story goes on even after the
end. A fine film is rendered just a little less fine, thereby.
I Said Over And Over And Over Again, This Dance Is Gonna Be A Drag
Don’t have characters tell us what they already
told us. Each scene must move story and move character. Don’t let
one character tell another character what the audience already
knows. In Scent of a Woman,
the young student, Chris
O’Connell, tells Pacino on the plane how they trashed the school.
The audience already watched all that happen in the previous scene.
This scene doesn’t move story and character. When trying to impress
an agent, you can’t repeat information.
I Write The Songs That Make The Whole World Sing
Don’t try to guess the trends
in Hollywood. Even if you could, they’d be long over. You must write
your own personal story. That is the most important component in
crafting a saleable screenplay. Write what you care about. There are
no trends. There are only two kinds of scripts - good and bad. Good
ones get you on the radar. Bad ones waste everyone’s time.
But I Can’t Remember When I Didn’t Know Then
Don’t write Charlotte “remembers” or Charlotte “realizes” she
left the gun in the drawer. You can have but two kinds of
information: What we see, which is the description, and what we
hear, which is the dialogue.
Just Knock Three Times And Whisper Low
Three questions need positively to be answered
for information to be tolerated in the script. Is there a purpose
for including the information? If so, is it a worthy purpose? And
again, if so, is this the best way to achieve that purpose? A
purpose that is worthy affects, steers, expands and enhances both
story and character. Only when all three questions are
satisfactorily answered is the material deemed worthy to reside in
Talk Talk Talk Talk All You Do To Me Is Talk Talk
Little things mean a lot. Like punctuation and
spelling. Avoid ellipses… Write declarative English sentences. Avoid
funny punctuation. Avoid long speeches in dialogue. Don’t
underscore. Let the words and language tell the story in perfectly
crafted, journeyman-like English. Don’t number your scenes. This is
a spec screenplay you want to write, and sell. Scene numbering is
for shooting drafts. Remove all the “Continued” from your software
program if it’s programmed. The word “continued” twice on a page,
times 105 pages, is 210 unnecessary words in the screenplay. You
have to get all the little things done, as well as the big ones.
Let There Be Peace On Earth
But let your characters argue. Conflict is the lifeblood of drama. Where do you
need conflict? Everywhere!
Oh, You’re My Best Friend
Try to keep phone calls to a minimum. You could argue how much
Ron Bass used them in My Best Friend’s Wedding.
But you can’t
write Ron Bass on the title page of your screenplay. So come up with
inventive ways to reveal exposition.
Climb Every Mountain
Not all scripts are for selling. Some are for
drill. For some reason, after an inexperienced writer writes a
script, he thinks he must sell it. If you swim, and won in a local
swim meet you would not apply to the U.S. Olympic Swim Team. You
know how much it takes to get there. Yet when you complete a script,
you trudge out to sell it. In this highly democratic endeavor, you
get read on the same weekend by a reader who’s reading experienced
writers, some with successful movie credits. It’s far more important
to make the work stand up to a reader’s scrutiny than to try to sell
it merely because you wrote it. Probably, as with all scripts, it
needs a couple of rewrites. Then, another polish. Then, you hire a
script consultant, or give it to your trusted “kitchen cabinet” for
their opinion. The last person to see it should be an agent, manager
or producer, not the first.
Will You Read My Mind Will You Take A Look
For a spec script, photocopy but one side of
the page as we’ve always done. Currently most agencies photocopy
their clients’ scripts on both sides of the page - in the interest
of recycling - but the jury is still out on whether you should
submit your spec this way.
The biggest mistake writers make
is: we write too much. The second mistake is: we show our work too
soon. Give yourself the time. Writers don’t fail in Hollywood; they
merely give up. If you give yourself the time, in terms of getting
the script ready and getting the career ready, you will