A few takeaways from 40 scripts

Well, that was an experience.

As 2020 wound down, I’d already made the decision to devote 2021 to focus on improving as a writer.

In addition to writing more, that also meant reading scripts more.

I wanted to really work on developing my analytical skills, so on the last day of the year, I put the word out on social media. Want notes on your script? For free? Let me know.

And let me know the screenwriting community did. And then some.

Out of the 75 or so people who responded “Yes, please!”, 40 actually followed through and sent their scripts.

(Apologies to those who missed out. That window is now closed)

It was a fair mix of shorts, pilots, and features.

Since I also wanted to still work on my own material a bit, it all came down to time management. How much time could I dedicate to each script? It worked out to one a day, and about three to four a week.

Granted, these were not the most extensive of notes. Some general observations, questions and comments about the story and the characters, and an insanely large amount of inadvertent proofreading.

I also made sure to preface my notes saying that these were just my thoughts and opinions, so the writer was more then welcome to use or ignore them as they saw fit.

For the most part, the reactions were positive.

“Thank you so much! These are incredibly helpful! This will really help my next draft get to the next level!”

No comments wishing me bodily harm or proclaiming I was an idiot who simply couldn’t grasp their genius, so going with the theory that they approved of what I had to say and just never got around to saying thanks. I’ll ignore this horrific breach of etiquette and still count it as a win.

There was a wide variety of genres and story ideas to be found. Some truly unique and original stuff, as well as more than a few “familiar, but different” approaches to some classic concepts.

What was probably the most surprising result was that the same comments applied to a majority of the scripts, including:

WHAT’S THE STORY?

Since there are no definitive “rules”, I do like to adhere to some strong guidelines regarding structure and plot points.

If I get to around page 25 or 30 and still don’t know what the main story or the protagonist’s goal are supposed to be, there’s a problem.

The writer was too focused on minor issues and details that the main storyline got lost in the shuffle.

SHOW, DON’T TELL, or HOW DO WE KNOW THAT?

A lot of writers would explain what something meant, or what somebody was thinking, or why they were doing it, rather than portraying it visually.

For example, a scene might say something like “Bob stands at the sink, washing dishes. He thinks about the girl he took to the senior prom and how she dumped him to run off with a plumber and now they live in Dayton with four kids and a cranky Pomeranian.”

You know what we’d see on the screen?

Bob washing the dishes.

Or “Jim was lonely.” How would that look?

There was a lot of reminding the writers that film is primarily a visual medium. Describe what we’re seeing and hearing, and let the characters’ actions and words do the heavy lifting.

A subcategory of this is TRUST YOUR READER/AUDIENCE TO FOLLOW ALONG AND FIGURE THINGS OUT

By explaining what we’re seeing or what’s going on, you’re denying the reader/audience the pleasure of figuring things out to help move the story forward.

This might also count as a subcategory, but there were quite a few times a line would say something like “Bob looks to Mary. He apologizes.”, followed by Bob’s dialogue of “I’m sorry.”

I can’t help but think this is because the writer wants to make absolutely sure that you understand what’s happening, so they tell you, and then show you.

Something else a lot of writers fell into the trap of was OVERWRITING (aka BIG BLOCKS OF TEXT)

There would be 4 or 5 lines at a time to describe what was happening in a scene, which for me, really slowed down the read. I want to be zip-zip-zipping along, not taking my foot off the gas to make sure I don’t lose my place.

“The more white space on the page, the better.” Can that paragraph of 4-5 lines be done in 3? 2?

There was also frequent use of “one the best pieces of writing advice I ever got was WRITE AS IF INK COSTS $1000 AN OUNCE” (shoutout to Richard Walter at UCLA) Try to say the most on the page with the least amount of words.

A lot of writers would go into exquisite detail about things not relevant to the plot, such as the decor of an apartment that’s in one scene, or what the extras in the background are wearing, or what happens to a random character in a fight scene. These sorts of things would distract me from following the flow of the primary storyline. I’d read it and wonder “what does this have to do with ____’s story? Would it make a difference if it wasn’t there?”

This one can’t be stressed enough – SPELLCHECK IS NOT YOUR FRIEND!

I get that not everybody has amazing spelling skills, and your eyes might be kind of tired of seeing the same text over and over again. But any writer should really know the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re, ‘there’, ‘their’, and “they’re”, and so on.

But when I read that a character “sets down a bag of frozen pees on the kitchen counter”, it makes it kind of tough for me to concentrate on the rest of the story. How can I think about anything else for the next 60-70 pages?

Not sure about spelling or punctuation? A lot of writers make for good proofreaders, so don’t hesitate to ask around for some help.

Friendly reminder – there is no apostrophe in “sees”. It’s “Bob sees Mary,”, not “Bob see’s Mary.” That popped up more than a few times.

Question for anybody who’s ever written a screenplay: do you ever read it out loud? Especially the dialogue. This really helps you get a grasp of how it should sound.

DOES THIS SOUND LIKE SOMETHING SOMEBODY WOULD ACTUALLY SAY?

You don’t want to run the risk of your characters sounding flat or dull, or too “movie-like”, which can include pure exposition (“As you know, I’m the wealthiest man in town who moved here sixteen years ago after striking oil in the Yucca Salt Flats, and now my twin daughters are running against each other for mayor.”) Let your ears be the judge.

Read it out loud. Host a table read (via zoom or eventually in person)

And speaking of dialogue-related items, I try to limit my use of parentheticals as few per script as possible. A lot of the time, they’re either not needed, or can be replaced with an action line (Bob points.) preceding the dialogue (BOB – “Look over there!”).

The context of what the character is saying should convey the appropriate emotion or interpretation. If I had a dollar for every time I saw the use of (sarcastic), I’d have…a lot of dollars.

As has been stated many times on this blog and throughout the screenwriting community, it takes a long time to learn how to write a screenplay, let alone a really good one. I’m not saying I’m an expert, but I believe I have a pretty firm grasp of what it involves, and am glad to have been able to offer my two cents to help other writers improve both their skills and their scripts.

Since this was a pretty significant undertaking, it was also a bit exhausting, so I don’t think I’ll be making the blanket offer again. I’m still open to reading scripts, but am taking a little time off to recuperate and recharge, so drop me a line after 1 April. Schedule permitting, we can work something out.

And a HUGE thanks to everybody who offered to read one of my scripts, which I might take some of you up on as the year progresses.

Okay. Back to work.

Only include that which serves a purpose

redacted
Exactly

A just-starting-out writer had contacted me, asking if I could take a look at their spec.

I did. It wasn’t easy, but I did.

The script had a lot of the usual problems. On-the-nose dialogue. One-dimensional characters. A story that was more a jumbled collection of random events rather than a cohesive series of scenes and sequences.

But even with all of that, what really stood out was the excessive overwriting when it came to setting up a scene, with excessive being a major understatement. The writer seemed to feel the need to provide an extraordinary amount of details – for just about everything.

Just to name a few:

-What kind of furniture is in every single house or apartment
-What kind of food is on the table during a dinner scene
-Why a character, who’s only in one scene, is wearing a particular item of clothing, along with what it looks like
-A detailed list of all the items of clothing a character removes when getting undressed
-The direction a character is driving, along with street names

Did any of these have anything to do with the story?

All together now – of course not.

Then why is it in there?

I posed this question to the writer as part of my notes. They haven’t responded yet, but it’ll be interesting to see what they say about it.

I can’t remember the specific joke/comment about sculpting, but it’s something along the lines of “Start with a block of marble, and then chip away everything that doesn’t look like a (whatever you’re sculpting).”

Screenwriting’s very similar. While it’s true you should describe what we’re seeing, there’s no need to drastically overdo it. Some writers don’t know the difference between “painting a picture with words” and “overwhelming us with information”. Or worse, think they’re more or less the same thing.

They are most definitely not.

Everything on the page should have a reason for being there. If it doesn’t, take it out. Trust me, it will not be missed. If you argue that it should stay, you better have a mighty good reason why. Helpful tip – saying “Because I want it to” or “Because I like it” will totally invalidate your argument.

When the writing goes into Overly Descriptive Mode, it simply slams the brakes on the momentum of the story; things really do come to a screeching halt. Wouldn’t you rather the reader stayed interested in what’s going on, and not think “Hold on a second. Why is this here? Is it relevant?”

For a lot of writers starting out, they think they need to cover all the bases and include as much info and detail as possible.¬†Only through constant self-educating will they eventually learn what they should and shouldn’t be doing.

I sincerely hope this writer takes my notes to heart and is able to figure out how to transition from the latter to the former.