Happy fall! This tip is for those who are getting near the end of their screenplays and anyone who wonders how you actually finish a screenplay so that it's ready to go to market. If you want to climb a mountain, you have to do it step by step. The same is true for a screenplay. You rewrite it word by word. When you are deep into a rewrite or polish you are so close to the work that it's easy to lose your perspective on the big picture of the overall structure. Getting the structure right is essential.
Bill Goldman wrote in Adventures In The Screen Trade, "Screenplays are structure. Yes, nifty dialog helps one hell of a lot; sure it's nice if you can bring your characters to life. But you can have swell characters spouting just swell talk at each other, and if the structure is unsound, forget it." (Pp.195)
How to overcome being too close to your work? Read it Aloud! A wise man once told me that in life there are always two choices: when you come to a fork in the road, you can take the right way or the long way.
The technique of reading aloud won't help you skip steps, but it will give you control over your work by helping you find a new perspective fast. Changing your point of view will give you instant objectivity, thus you will be able to see the overall structure of your script with ease. Once you get the structure right, then you can work in improving the dialog and action. Reading aloud will help you here as well, but begin with correcting the structure first. If you compared writing a screenplay to building a house, you would naturally want to get the rooms in the right places before you began decorating.
This first reading should be for you only. One of the core principles of my writing system is that we writers must create for ourselves first, and then decide what we'll present to our intended audience. I know from experience that reading the script aloud can save dozens of passes through the written text because when you hear something, you immediately know whether it's working or not.
Here's how to do it:
- Read the script aloud all the way through and tape it. You may already find places that need work. Make notes but don't change the written text yet.
- Once you have completed the reading, watch a movie that inspires you and is similar in structure to the one you are writing.
- Now listen to the recording in 10-minute page chunks, while rereading the corresponding pages in your screenplay. In this listening, you will focus on how the story is structured. Later, you re-listen focusing on the dialogue and action, but first get your structure right. Warning: hearing your own voice may be torture at first, but you will get used to it.
- Write out a list of the action as it unfolds.
- Compare the action list with basic 3-act structure and see if it fits. In my writing system, we use The Mythic Journey Map at this point to check that our scenes answer the question that needs to be answered at any point in the story, and that the action that needs to happen at that point, happens. The Map organizes screenplay structure into 12 smaller sequences within an overall 3-act structure. I like to work in bite-size chunks, but any method of structuring that works for you will do.
- Now ask yourself: How can I tell the story more simply? Have I complicated the story? Are there enough complications? How does the structure compare with the movie I watched in Step #2? Find the script for this movie and read it aloud, tape it and then listen to your recording reading along with the script. Since you know this film was a success, you can measure your own against it will easily see where your script matches, falls short, or is better!
You are now ready to finish your script. As you make revisions - read them aloud. Once you take the script as far as you can, I recommend that you organize a table reading. This is where a few people, be they actors or fellow writers sit around and read the script aloud, with one person reading the narration, the others reading the parts. This is the last step in completing any script. Keep tweaking it until you can't do anymore, and then, send it out.
Remember, reading aloud is the right way to finish your script.