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.

An overabundance of words

word pile
First on the agenda – get them in order. Second – get rid of the ones that don’t belong.

April has been a most productive month for working on the new draft of the pulpy sci-fi adventure spec. This week saw me reaching the midpoint – page 73, which is about 18 pages more than it should be. (Not to mention that a spec script of approximately 150 pages is just ludicrous to begin with.)

Part of me wants to put the writing on hold and go back to page 1 to start editing and clearing away the excess, but I sort of like the idea of just pushing forward, finishing it. and THEN going back armed with the Red Pen of Doom.

When it comes to a first draft, I always tend to put in too much. More “kitchen sink draft” than “vomit draft”. Even taking a look at some previous pages, it’s easy to see where I’ve written more than what’s needed – of practically everything.

The silver lining here is that when it comes to rewriting and editing, there’s a lot to work with. Stuff thought necessary during that initial phase might prove otherwise, and out it goes.

My storylines can be a bit complicated – too many moving parts, so to speak. A combination of “I really want to wow you with this” and “there needs to be more here”. While the first definitely rings true, the second runs the risk of overdoing it and bogging things down – something I don’t want.

It used to be a lot tougher for me to kill my darlings, but time and experience have shown me it’s all about doing what you need to to achieve the end result. As much as I might like a particular something, if it can be cut (or at least drastically shortened) without any significant impact to the rest of the story, that’s fine by me.

If I can maintain my current pace of page output, there’s no reason to think I couldn’t be done with this draft by the end of the month, or maybe the first week of May. While I usually take a little break after completing a latest draft, the always-developing ideas for potential fixes and such may cause me to forego that and just jump right back in.

In the meantime, I’m just having a good time spinning what I can only hope will be an entertainingly ripping yarn.

Working my way forward

billion_dollar_limited

The process of writing actual pages for my pulpy sci-fi adventure is fully underway, averaging about 3-4 pages a day, which is just a smidge above average for me. I’m making a real effort to stick to this kind of output, and am hoping to keep it up for the duration.

There’s a lot of setup in the first act, and I was really concerned things would somehow get drastically out of hand and go on for too long , resulting in a script running something like 150 pages, but so far I’ve managed to keep it all in check. It’s all going according to plan. Still feeling confident to be able to keep it in that ideal target range of 110-120 pages.

And this is before any of the real editing begins. That comes after FADE OUT.

Speaking of editing, even though I was trying not to fall back into my habit of “write, edit, write some more”, there’ve been a few times when a few impulse decisions had to be made regarding whether or not something should be included. Since I was already concerned about too much material, many of them were cut.

In retrospect, they weren’t as necessary as I initially thought, so after they were cut, their absence had barely an impact on the story – if at all. Turns out they were in there more for my own benefit. I saw them as building up the key scene to which they were connected. I tend to overwrite during the outlining process anyway, so no big loss.

Working on both the outline and the pages has also made me realize that my talents seem to be a lot more suitable for this kind of thing. As much as I’d love to be a solid comedy writer, I feel much more at ease producing thrilling tales of adventure with some comedic moments thrown in.

They say you can tell a writer enjoyed writing the script because of how it reads. Like with all of mine that came before, that’s exactly what I’m hoping for with this one as well.

Taking it scene by scene

dufresne
Fortunately, I don’t expect this to take 17 years

The daily churning-out of pages for the first draft of the horror-comedy continues – still in Act One as of this writing – and now that November is underway, if I can maintain my current output of approximately 3 pages a day, there’s no reason the typing-out of FADE OUT couldn’t happen by mid-to-late December.

I’d probably be a little further along if it weren’t for my ongoing desire to keep going back and editing/revising what I’ve already written, which is a lot more tempting than you’d expect. But doing what I can to just write a scene and move on to the next one. Once again, the more you do it, the easier it gets.

And since this is supposed to be a horror-comedy, I’ve also gotten into the habit of trying to make sure each scene features some element of each genre – something scary and something funny. Trying being the key word here. This is a much bigger challenge, but again, doing what I can. Also helping – recent touch-up work on my two other comedies.

With one of the definitive screenwriting mantras being “it’s a marathon, not a sprint”, I don’t have any problems with taking an evenly paced and semi-methodical approach. There are some writers who can sit and crank out a draft in record time, but I’m not one of them. I lean towards the “hope I can hit my page goal today” camp.

But most importantly, I’m just trying to not stress about it and enjoy the whole process. It’s a fun story, and I like the concept, so why not make it a positive experience rather than fret and obsess? That way, it seems a lot less like work and more like “here I am having a blast being a writer and stuff”.

Because I’ll take that mindset any day.

All that on a single piece of (digital) paper?

bad 1st impression
It can only go downhill from here

You only get one chance to make a good first impression. And that also applies to a screenplay. If your first page doesn’t make us want to keep going, why should we? Chances are the rest of it is exactly the same.

The first page is your golden opportunity to start strong straight out of the gate. Show us from the absolute get-go you know what you’re doing. A lot of the time, I’ll know by the end of the first page what kind of ride I should be expecting.

Just a few items to take into consideration.

-First and foremost, how’s the writing? No doubt you think it’s fine, but face it. You’re biased. You want a total stranger to find it fault-free, so look at it like one. Is it easy to follow and understand? Does it flow smoothly? When I read it, do I get a clear mental image of what you’re describing? Does it show, not tell?

-Is there a lot of white space? Are your sentences brief and to the point, or do they drone on and on with too many words?

-Do you point the reader in the right direction and let them figure things out, or at least get the point across via subtext, or do think it’s necessary to explain everything, including what a character is thinking or feeling? Yes, that happens on the first page.

-If your protagonist is introduced here, are they described in the way you want me to visualize them for the next 90-110 pages? Does a notable physical characteristic play a part in the story? Are they behaving in such a way that it establishes the proper starting point for their arc? Are they doing something that endears them to us, making us care about them?

-If your protagonist ISN’T on the first page, does it do a good job in setting up the world in which the story takes place? Do the characters introduced here play any kind of role later on in the story?

-Are there any mistakes regarding spelling or punctuation? Are you absolutely sure about that? SPELLCHECK IS NOT YOUR FRIEND. A team does not loose a game, nor do I think they should of won either. Two glaring errors that your software will not recognize. But a reader will.

-Does it properly set up the genre? If it’s a comedy, should I be prepared to have my sides ache from laughing too hard? If it’s a horror, should I make sure the lights are on, even if it’s 12 noon? If it’s a drama, should I have a box of tissues within arm’s reach to dry the expected river of tears?

-Do your characters sound like people saying actual things, or are they spouting nothing but exposition and overused cliches?

Not sure about any of these? Read it over with as critical an eye as you can muster, or get help from somebody within your network of savvy writing colleagues. DO NOT go to somebody who doesn’t know screenwriting.

Think I’m being overly critical? Ask any professional consultant or reader, and I bet 99 out of 100 will say they know exactly what kind of read they’re in for by the end of the first page. And number 100 might also agree.

Then again, there’s also the possibility that the first page could be brilliant and it stays that way until FADE OUT.

Or the wheels could fall off anywhere between page 2 and the end.

Your mission, and you should choose to accept it, is to make that first page as irresistible as you can, grab us tight, and not let go. Make us want to keep going. Then do the same for page 2, then page 3, page 4, etc.  Make us totally forget what page we’re on.

Take a look at the first page of your latest draft. Does it do what you and the story need it to?

-Didja notice the spiffy new look? Had to make some behind-the-scenes changes, and this is the result.