Screenwriting Part 1 – novels next
You spend up to six months writing a screenplay, then try to get others to buy it or even read it. You’re competing with 60,000 new screenplays submitted each year. If yours looks like a piece of crap, no one will even read it.
Hollywood, and most other producers, who risk at least ten million dollars on a production, depend on people who can do it right and do it well. It’s enough of an obstacle just not having been produced.
Many things mark the professional from the amateur screenwriter. As a senior development analyst with Writers Workshop in L.A., I surveyed a couple of hundred screenplay critiques and wrote two books on screenwriting. This is Part 1, the first twelve of the many boondoggles I found:
- Know what actors and directors do. I highly recommend doing acting for a while. Then you know what is essential to the action, and what are actor’s choices or “stage business.” If you say he “twiddled his thumbs,” or picked up a drink, that’s an actor’s choice and doesn’t belong in the script.
- Use the proper formatting and length. Generally comedy and action scripts are in the 90 page range. Drama goes to around 120 pages. After that it may be overwritten. You can find plenty of formatting information on the Internet.
You can use a template on any word processor – it isn’t necessary to buy a screenwriting program. You will likely submit your script electronically in PDF format, which doesn’t indicate which program it was written in.
- Avoid terms used only in production scripts. Reading scripts are Master Scene Script, and are for reading, not production. Formatting for production occurs in-house, so you don’t even need to write “Fade In.”
Don’t mention “camera” or any camera directions unless they are absolutely required. Directors and actors aren’t idiots – they definitely will see what the camera needs to show.
- Most conventions like “We see such and such” are not in vogue. Instead of “We see John forcing his way through the crowd,” just say, “John forces his way through the crowd ….”
- Don’t repeat action and dramatic action. Most of the audience will get it the first time. Repetition is boring.
- Don’t use authority figures to tell characters what to do. The characters should be self-motivated and solve things on their own.
- Don’t resolve problems with “Acts of God,” sudden gifts, the lottery, or special powers (except in fantasy – not good even then). Characters must resolve problems on their own through motivation, determination, and finding the answer within themselves.
- Characters don’t tell what the story is about or the moral of the story. The audience has to see that from the dramatic action. If they can’t see it then isn’t a “story well told.”
- Don’t use excessive foul language, sex, and violence. This is called “gratuitous,” and it isn’t appreciated, although younger adult audiences might eat it up.
- Don’t demean people, or feature gratuitous mistreatment of people, or mistreat animals. This places your script in the waste basket.
- Don’t give stage directions (tell character locations). This is the director’s job.
- Stories aren’t about coming, going, eating, saying pleasantries, and all the other things people do. The audience will assume they stopped to eat, and they used some mode of transportation.
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Action: The series of events that tell the story. When a director shouts “Action,” he means start acting the story events. It doesn’t mean physical.
Dramatic action: Refers to the more psychological actions expressed as the characters create the story.
Dramatization: The actions and dramatic actions used to tell the story.
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