A screenplay is a blueprint, a technical document, that many people have to use – the producer to sell the film, the director to make the film, the actors to perform the film and the editor to piece the director’s footage into something sensible.
Every word on the page matters; if can be removed, remove it. Adverbs, redundancies, repetitions, passive tense. Get rid of them all. The more white space on the page, the better. As a writer, don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can show off your fancy prose chops. If you want to do that, write a novel.
When writing action think in terms of shots. One shot per paragraph.
Don’t use unnecessary crap like, “We see…” or “We hear…”. Keep it simple. Just describe what is happening. Also, avoid using technical jargon like “Medium-close up on…”. It’s the director’s and, later, the editor’s job to decide on shots. You can influence this with the one line per shot rule, as more often than not the description and context of the shot will be obvious.
Keep action to active, present simple tense. There should be very little ‘is – ing’. ‘Paul walks towards the shop,’ is quicker to type and has more impact than ‘Paul is walking towards the shop.’
Only use a parenthetical (wryly) if absolutely necessary. Actors like to have a little bit of leeway to choose how to deliver a line, and quite often I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the choices they make, which is different to how I imagined it when I wrote it and usually a vast improvement.
Dialogue should be sparse. The old adage, “show, don’t tell”, will never die. If you can find a way for an actor to act a beat, rather than spout dialogue, go for that every time.
Always read your dialogue out loud. It may sound amazing in your head, but quite often comes across as cliche or simply hard to get your tongue around in real life.
If you need to have Basil Exposition in the room, at least have him do something interesting while he’s doing his thing (this is a fun way to get subtext into the mix, where what the character is doing is contradictory to what they are saying). Make sure it’s more interesting than eating a peanut butter sandwich. If nothing else, it’ll keep the audience interested while you bore them with facts they need to know.
Tomorrow – How to improve…