A somewhat small undertaking

With all the writing-related stuff I already have going on, I’ve decided to add more one more item to my jam-packed plate.

Every once in a while, the idea for a short film will just pop into existence. Maybe just a concept, or a line of dialogue, or an image around which a story could be built. A few have been percolating in my noggin for a while, so why not start putting them down on paper – on a weekly basis.

I’m not going to say “one a week for a year!” or any nonsense like that. More like “one a week for as long as I can do it.” If it’s just a few months, great. If for some inexplicable reason it somehow actually does end up being a year, that would be amazing, plus I’d have 52 short scripts to show for it.

Nothing too big or overly ambitious. Most likely 5-10 minutes in length, and spanning a range of genres. But knowing me, there’ll probably be a joke or two thrown in.

Why would I want to do this? A few reasons. Like I said, sometimes I just come up with an idea and want to write it. Of the ones I’ve written so far, I think it would be pretty cool to produce at least a few of them (as well as quite the learning experience regarding filmmaking). The others I would make available to filmmakers interested in adding to their repertoire. Always seeing listings for that sort of thing, so why not give it a go?

I’d never really thought about writing shorts before, but after having done it a few times, I find it to be a great way to keep those writing muscles in good shape. All the same elements of a feature-length screenplay, but in a much more condensed version.

I go into this with no goals or expectations. It’s just something I’d like to try.

Let’s see how it goes.

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.

What’s stopping you?

handyman
The ultimate DIY project (film division)

I had the recent pleasure of connecting with a screenwriter who’s working on a feature script, but is also investigating the logistics of developing a short out of it, which includes them having begun connecting with other writers and filmmakers in their area.

I thought that was a great idea, and tossed out the suggestion that maybe they try to make it themselves, as in “just you”. Especially now that most smartphones can double as camera equipment, and film editing software is easily accessible (if not already installed on your computer).

They’d considered this, adding “But I’m just not tech-savvy”.

But you can learn.

If you’re reading this, you’re more than likely interested in screenwriting and/or filmmaking. When you first started out, it’s probably a dead-on certainty that your early works were awful, right?  Looking at some of my first scripts makes me cringe from how bad they are.

But we kept at it, learning and improving along the way. How does your most recent effort compare to that first one? Worlds apart, I’d imagine. You try something, you make mistakes, you learn from those mistakes, and try again.

There’s no reason you couldn’t apply the same logic to making your own short. Sure, there’s a lot more to it than simply pointing your phone and hitting ‘record’, but you gotta start somewhere.

Give it a go and write yourself a short script. Nothing fancy (but do try to make it a good sample of the genre). Anywhere from one to five minutes, spread out over one, possibly two scenes. Two characters, three at best. Try to keep it limited to one location.

Now look at it from the filmmaker’s perspective. Could you feasibly make this yourself? Like how a first draft of a script reads, the end result will not be pretty. At first, you’ll be thrilled at having done it. Then reality sets in and the flaws become that much more obvious.

But you will have done it. A short film, written and produced by YOU.

What you do with it now is up to you. Hopefully, you’ll embrace the learning experience and know what not to do the next time around.

My friend mentioned that once the short got made, which it sounds like they are very intent on making happen one way or another, plans are already being discussed about next steps, which included posting it on YouTube and/or submitting it to some film festivals.

Even though our conversation was solely via email, there was a certain tone to their words that indicated they were quite psyched about jumping into this new venture. I wished them the best of luck and asked to be kept updated as to their progress.

I think they’re off to a pretty good start.