Your world. We’re just visiting.

tour group
Ooh! That looks like a vital piece of exposition!

Since you’re the one creating the world of your script, you know exactly what’s going on within it. Or at least you should. This doesn’t just refer to the events of the story. It’s a bit more extensive than that.

You know the world in which your story takes place. We don’t. It’s up to you to show us how things work in here. Some writers write under the impression that everything we need to know is right there on the page for us to see. They do, so how could we possibly not?

Sometimes the information we need to follow the story is presented gradually, or it might be thrown at us all at once in one big info dump (which runs the risk of too much too fast, resulting in something being skipped over). There are also times when we get nothing, so we and the protagonist experience everything firsthand as it happens.

Who hasn’t read a script and found themselves confused about “how things work here” because it wasn’t there, or only got a fraction of what they needed? Without that, your reader’s going to spend more time playing catch-up while trying to figure out what’s going on, which will take away from them being able to focus on the story itself.

You don’t want that.

This goes beyond genre. While stories of a more fantastical nature will require a little more explanation and/or exposition, even a story that takes place in the present day with normal, everyday people will require some kind of “get us up to speed”-type scenes.

One counterpoint to this – the lack of filling us in is intentional. Part of the enjoyment of the story comes from the gradual learning of information. An ideal setup for mysteries, but that’s all I can think of.

Personally, I find it more effective to fill us in as we go along rather than just dropping us in the middle of this new environment with the attitude of “You’re on your own. Good luck.”

Make it as easy for the reader to be able to follow along with what’s going on in your story as you do. Potentially difficult, but not impossible.

The “sound” of your writing

eavesdropping
No! Find your own style of writing. Don’t copy someone else’s.

When somebody reads your script,is there something about the writing that they can tell you’re the one who wrote it? Do you have a certain style or “voice” regarding how your material reads?

Each writer develops their own particular way of not only how they write, but how that material comes across on the page.

When you’re just starting out, maybe you play it safe and keep things simple and straightforward. Or you might try from the get-go to emulate a script or writer you really, really like, because if it worked for them, then it stands to reason that it will undoubtedly work for you in the exact same way. This is occasionally referred to as the Tarantino Syndrome.

There’s nothing wrong with appreciating a pro’s style, but for crying out loud, DO NOT try to duplicate it. That’s how they do it, which is not the same as how you do it. It also smacks of laziness. You want to make a name for yourself, right? So how are you going to do that by writing like somebody else?

Find a way that works for you and stick with it. Hone your writing skills with each draft until every script you offer up is undeniably identifiable as yours.

The more you produce, the more comfortable you’ll get with how you write, along with becoming more confident in your abilities. You’ve put in the work learning the rules, so now you feel ready to see how far you can bend them (but not too much! They can be very fragile at times.).

Soon you’ll have no hesitation to start putting your own spin on things; little touches here and there. Although the usual challenges and obstacles will still be there, you might discover that your overall process of writing has gotten just a little bit easier.

An education most painful

scared
Please don’t make me watch that again!

Once again, your stalwart author makes the necessary sacrifices so you don’t have to.

This time around, I had the misfortune of watching an extremely bad large-budget movie from the semi-recent past. It was painfully obvious that a larger percentage of the budget should have been diverted to hiring quality writers, rather than on everything else. A pipe dream, I know.

But trust me. It was bad.

What made it so bad, you may ask?

Oh, where to begin.

My biggest problem was that too much of the story felt glossed over, with vital elements explained in a very lazy and haphazard way, if they were even explained at all. It felt like they were trying to force events to match how they wanted the story to play out, rather than deftly setting things up.

Reasons why something would happen, or were supposed to have happened, seemed to have simply been thrown against the wall, and whatever stuck, that’s what they went with. Did it matter if it fit within the context of the story?

Nosireebob.

Once again, there were too many questions raised that were never sufficiently answered. When this happens, it simply takes away from the movie-watching experience. The only reason I knew the film had to have been around the midpoint area was because of its running time, and NOT because of what had transpired over the course of the story.

I could say I had a vague inkling of what was supposedly going on, but was just never sure, since the story was being told in a very sloppy and unorganized way. It irked me to no end to be see such terrible writing so prominently displayed. And apparently I wasn’t alone in my opinions. The film was a major flop at the box office.

So what silver linings can we extract from this pitch-black cumulonimbus that stole away just under two hours of my life?

-Write a story that’s easy to understand. Keep it simple. This doesn’t mean dumb it down. Keep us informed, unless withholding that information is absolutely necessary.

-Let the story play out organically. Don’t try to force it because that’s what you want to happen. It’s easy to tell when that happens, and it ain’t pretty. If you didn’t put in the effort to figure it out, why should we?

-Have things happen for a reason. “Because it looks cool” is not one of them. Would it drastically change things if it didn’t?

-Set up, pay off. If something happens, we want to see what happens as a result. Don’t leave us hanging. And counter to that, don’t suddenly spring something on us out of thin air. It reeks of desperation. Audiences don’t like that, either.

One of the things I always strive for in my scripts, be they big or small budget, is to respect the intelligence of the intended audience. That is one lesson I believe the writers of this abomination should have kept in mind.

The unscientific term would be “gut reaction”

trust your feelings
Learn to trust your feelings. Even with the blast shield down.

I’ve had the experience of working with some writing, both my own and other people’s, that required a second opinion. For some of them, I was the second opinion, while the others involved my work being reviewed.

An experienced professional asked me to take a look at another writer’s script, accompanied with their excitement and enthusiasm about it. Upon reading it, I found it severely lacking in a lot of screenwriting fundamentals (bad structure, shoddy character development, etc.), and said so as part of my notes of what was needed to improve.

I like to read a script twice before giving notes on it, and it took a lot of effort to get through each one – especially the second time. That whole time I was wondering “Where is this enthusiasm coming from?” This person knows what a good script looks like, and this one, to me, didn’t meet any of the necessary criteria. And if they felt this way about this script, could I trust their judgment on others?

Last week I’d been given the offer to have my query letter reviewed. I put it together with the elements I considered vital: quick one-sentence pitch, logline, reputable contest results. As fast a read as possible.

The response read like something churned out by a machine. Their recommendation was to follow “their blueprint”, which involved a lot of fill-in-the-blanks, how it’s similar to successful films (the more recent, the better!), telling the story from only the main character’s point of view, and concluding with “why I think this will be a hit” OR the underlying theme. The end result is several big unappealing blocks of text.

All of this felt totally and absolutely wrong. If I were the intended recipient, I might start reading, but would most likely lost interest very quickly and be very hard-pressed to want to continue, let alone finish it.

(With no intention of ever actually using a letter written following their guidelines,  I put one together and submitted it for review, just to see what they would say. Their follow-up comments reinforced my doubts, but that is a topic for another day.)

As you probably guessed, I’ll be sticking with my original format.

The takeaway from both of these experiences is that a writer must not only develop their writing and storytelling skills, but also the ability to trust their instincts. Know what works, not only for you, but in an overall sense.

Don’t always assume the other person is in the right. Sometimes they’re not.

Everybody will have an opinion about something. You might agree wholeheartedly or think the other person has no idea what they’re talking about. It takes time to learn how to determine which is which. You will make mistakes and bad choices along the way, but make the effort to learn from them so you don’t do it again.

Like with writing itself, the more you work at it, the better at it you’ll become.

 

Ask an Astonishingly Productive Script Consultant!

Bill Boyle

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on writer-educator-consultant Bill Boyle of www.billboyle.net.

*editor’s note – Bill passed away in July 2018

Veteran screenwriter Bill Boyle has been involved in the film industry in both Canada and the U.S. for over 25 years as a writer, director, agent, producer, story editor, and mentor. Mr. Boyle has the rare honor that every screenplay and television series he has written has been produced or optioned. He currently has four screenplays produced and a fifth scheduled for production. Two others are presently under option. Additional information on the films can be found at www.billboyle.net or at www.imdb.com

In addition to screenwriting, Mr. Boyle devotes a significant amount of his time sharing his experience mentoring younger screenwriters. He teaches screenwriting at UCLA and has lectured throughout Canada and the United States.

Mr. Boyle is one of the most popular script consultants in the industry. He has consulted on over 1,000 screenplays worldwide. Creative Screenwriting Magazine rated him among the top 10% of screenwriting consultants. He is the lead proponent of a visual style of screenwriting called “The Visual Mindscape of Screenplay” that focuses on the visual and visceral aspects of screenwriting. His book of the same name was released in 2012.

1. What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well written?

I am a huge fan of Jo Nesbo’s novels. His visual exploration of the environments he creates are so visceral that once read it is impossible to ever forget them. As for screenplays, I recently read Nightcrawler and found it exceptionally well-written.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

If you mean reading scripts as a job, I was never actually a script reader. I was a manager in Canada and read many scripts that my actors were up for, as well as reading the work of my own screenwriters and playwright clients.

3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

It needs to be taught, but not taught as in learned; taught as in establishing the ability to connect fully with the writing and to remain focused. That ability and willingness to be fully immersed in the screenplay allows the reader the conduit into the rhythm, pacing and flow of the narrative. Sounds obvious, but it is my experience that the vast majority of writers ‘skim write’, which is to say they focus all of their attention on what they want the scene to say and little on the atmosphere and pacing of their scenes.

4. What are the components of a good script?

A good script is one that captures the visual and visceral imaginations of the reader. Actually, it’s a misnomer to say we’re writing for the reader, when actually we’re writing for the viewer within the writer. Besides being a visual expression of the story, a good script also expresses the proper pacing and atmosphere within each scene. These are the two elements most often missing in a screenplay.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

-Detailed Action

-Skim writing

-Blueprint Narrative lacking pace, atmosphere and visual expression

-Overwritten dialogue that lacks a pulse.

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

The two things that disturb me the most are how fundamentalist screenplay instructors and gurus have poisoned the creative minds of so many young writers.  This attitude of “my way or the highway”, or the ever-growing list of things a screenwriter must not do (Voiceovers, Camera Angles and Directions, Character Descriptives, Flashbacks, etc) is absurd.

For me the big one is the white on the page dictum. Of course, part of the art of screenwriting is the ability to tell the story in a succinct, near-haiku style. This form of brevity allows the story to flow and remain in the Absolute Present Tense. But this should never go beyond the point where it strips the narrative of its creative purpose.

I actually believe that white on the page is a way of devaluing the writer’s role in the filmmaking process. I seriously question when and why white on the page become more important that what is on the page.

7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

-Screenwriting is first and foremost a visual expression. Whether you choose to ignore it or not there is always and image on the screen.

-Establish pacing and atmosphere in your scenes so as to create a visceral experience within the reader/viewer

-Every action, element and scene of a screenplay exists in the Absolute Present Tense

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

A script by Canadian screenwriter Laura Beard called ‘A Quiet and Distinguished Gentleman’. It was about a French Catholic detective who must overcome the bigotry of an English Protestant city and police force to solve a brutal axe murder in 1930. There are things she does with that script that to this day I still use in my lectures. A brilliant and very clever piece of work.

9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?

I am not a fan of screenwriting contests. Before I explain why, let me make the distinction between contests and fellowships. I think the fellowships (Nicholl, Praxis, Disney, etc.) are excellent programs.

I swear to god I have never heard a ‘true’ story of someone having a script produced based on a contest, which, considering how many there are out there, is rather shocking.

This idea of letting the writers know that they have moved to the next tier and then the quarterfinals, semifinals, etc., is their rendition of Three Card Monte. They let you think you win for a while so that you come back for more. What other reason is there?

10. How can people get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?

Check out my web site www.billboyle.net. You can also sign up for my newsletter, blog notices, online course dates and when spaces open up for my Unlimited Script Mentoring Program.

11. Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

I will go for pretty much anything except the pie in The Help.