On Screenwriting – Part 3 – How to improve

Filmmaker Youtuber Script

Many people say you should read lots of screenplays. I say this is guff advice. Read some for sure, but in my experience, you will always be disappointed. They are nearly always (what I would consider) badly written, particularly the ones they release around awards season ‘for your consideration’, many of which are either verbose early drafts that ‘read’ better to the layman, or are just so full of the stuff I’ve told you to avoid above that they will make you cringe and wonder how on earth the film was ever made.

You’re better off trying to write your own version of scenes you like from films to develop your own style. This is also a good way to get into the director’s and editor’s heads. Why did they choose these shots? What do they say? How would you do it differently?

And beyond that, just keep writing. Write, write, write. When you hit a road block, keep writing, even if it’s utter bilge, or work on something else. The more you write, the more the brain is engaged in the process and ideas will present themselves from your subconscious (the little guys downstairs doing their work, as Stephen King says).

Follow the rules in the previous two posts and you’ll be streets ahead of the majority of Hollywood hacks. Unless they read this…

On Screenwriting – Part 2 – Economy

Screenplay Film Maker Filmmaking

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…

On Screenwriting – Part 1 – Structure

Sculpture Bronze Figure Aristotle

For Tom. Play by these rules and your screenplays will always be top class.

There are two key watchwords with screenwriting: economy and structure. Structure is the bedrock of any good screenplay, and there are several you can choose from. The classic is the three act structure (read Aristotle’s Poetics and Sid Field’s Screenplay or Robert McKee’s Story). Within that there are useful guides that can help; Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat is useful, if a bit overused these days. Todd Klick’s Something Startling Happens is also very useful, particularly for editing. Chris Soth’s six act structure is also fun, but ultimately it’s a subset of the three act structure.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the three act structure is passé. It worked in Aristotle’s time and it still works now. It creates a nice emotional arc and paces the story well. The second act is normally twice as long as the first and the third. Be careful not to rush into the second act before you’ve properly set things up in the first.

A good story starts at an end and ends at a new beginning.

Tomorrow – Writing the damn thing!