Despite what some may say, it’s actually kind of tough to get a gift for a screenwriter. Straight-up cash – for contests and consultants, of course – is always good, but Murray in the accounting department says Maximum Z’s budget only goes so far, so that’s not an option.
So I figured, how about the next best thing?
You guessed it. Guidance!
So in the spirit of the season, here are some helpful tips that can benefit any screenwriter. One size fits all, the color suits you to a T, and they never fade, run or tear.
WRITE SOMETHING YOU WOULD WANT TO SEE
You like comedies? Write one that could make you laugh out loud. Horror fan? Transfer the scares onto the page. Your taste runs towards small indies? Bet some aspect of your life would be a great foundation for a story like that.
When you go to the movies or sit down to watch something streaming at home, you want your money’s worth. It’s up to the script to deliver on that.
The writer’s love of the material should be evident on the page. The reader/audience will pick up on your enthusiasm for the material, so don’t hold back and have at it. You’re your own target for this, so what would you want to be included in your story?
WRITE AS IF INK COSTS $1000 AN OUNCE
You want the words on the page to really flow, to make the reader keep going and want to turn the page/see what happens next, right? Which do you think will do the job better? Two lines of tight, concise action, or five of excessive prose? I’ve seen both, and prefer the former by a substantial margin.
The subheading for this could be “the more white on the page, the better”. You want to make the absolute most out of that valuable real estate on the page, so why would you want to clutter it up with thick blocks of text? Grab that red pen, put on your editor’s hat, and jump in. Could this dialogue or action be trimmed down from four lines to three? Or two?
The more the writing flows, the faster the read, and the more likely you are to keep your reader’s interest. Try to use as few words as possible; the ones that make the biggest impact.
SHOW, DON’T TELL
You’d think this was a basic one, but I’ve seen a lot of scripts that include what a character is thinking, why they’re doing something, or what something really means.
In other words, “How do we know that?” Film is primarily a visual medium, so if you’re able to present information we can see that’s part of the story, do it!
Here’s an example I like to use:
“INT. KITCHEN – NIGHT
Bob stands at the sink, washing dishes. His mind drifts to when he took Mary Lou to the prom, where she subsequently dumped him and then ran off with a plumber and now lives in Akron with four kids, a cat, and a mortgage.”
What would we see onscreen? A guy washing dishes. That backstory info needs to be presented visually, or as much as can be.
SPELLCHECK IS NOT YOUR FRIEND
True story: I once read a script that included the now-immortal line “She sets a bag of frozen pees on the counter.” I had a lot of trouble focusing on the rest of the script after that. Couldn’t tell you for the life of me now what the story was, but I will remember that line until the very end.
When a writer asks me to look over their script, I’m not just doing story notes. I check punctuation, spelling, grammar, the whole shebang. Having a few goofs is pretty standard; anything more than that and it becomes a problem. Sloppy writing makes it look like the writer isn’t taking this as seriously as they should. Not a great speller, or tend to overdo it with the commas? No problem. I bet there’s a writer within your network who’d be happy to do a polish for you.
DON’T BE BORING
Easier said than done, right? It’s a challenge to make any story interesting enough to hold onto the reader/audience’s attention, but it all starts with what’s on the page. Is the writing flat, or does it really pop? Does the writer have a handful of verbs they use over and over, or have they given their thesaurus a real workout?
Which sounds more visual and intriguing?
He walks into the room.
He struts into the room.
Hint: it’s not the first one. Doesn’t imagining somebody strutting into a room feel stronger, more cinematic, than somebody simply walking in?
The script is your way to paint a picture in our minds using words, and words alone. It’s up to you to do that in as entertaining a way as possible, using the words that pack the most punch.
Does the writing in your script do that?
BE NICE TO PEOPLE/PLAY NICE WITH OTHERS
Another one you’d think would go without saying, but manners do count – especially when it comes to meeting people who could potentially have an impact on you establishing a career.
Which would you rather be – the congenial person who’s interested in what the other person has to say, is open to ideas and suggestions, celebrates somebody else’s accomplishments, and wants to help out, or the bitter, self-important person who constantly whines/complains about how they’re not getting the recognition they deserve, badmouths other writers, won’t change anything in their script because “it’s perfect the way it is”, and just makes it all about them?
This is an extremely tough business to break into, let alone thrive in, so wouldn’t you want as much support as you can get? And every other writer needs as much support as you do, so you should try to help them just as much. Plus, nice people are nicer to be around.
Also important – be honest. Don’t present yourself as something you’re not. If you weren’t telling the truth about one thing, why should anybody believe you about anything else? Sometimes all you have is your reputation, and you don’t want to have it work against you.
Those within the industry would much rather work with somebody who presents themselves as a team player, and not a diva. Cliched as it sounds, you really do only get one chance to make a first impression. Make sure that yours puts you in the best possible light, then you do what you can to keep yourself there.
And that’s it. Hope you get some use out of these, and feel to re-gift as needed.
Wishing you all the best for a happy holiday season that involves a slice of your favorite pie and at least a little bit of writing.