Screenwriting Tips from a Screenplay Contest Judge
After cracking hundreds of screenplays sent into the BlueCat Screenplay Competition, the same problems in the execution of the story and script continue to emerge. Here is a general overview of these persistent issues.
Do you realize what you're saying??
In the theatre, they read plays aloud over and over in the process of script development, and one of the reasons they do this is to hear the dialogue. When I hear dialogue in my head, it might sound very good, but then when I hear a person actually speak it, I often have an impulse to jump in front of a bus. And over and over and over and over, when I read screenplay entries to BlueCat, I am immediately dismayed when the characters start speaking. Excellent everything else, awful dialogue. And I often wonder if the writer has actually heard the lines they have written for their characters out loud. Either read the whole thing aloud to yourself, or even better, get a group of your friends to read it. You do not need professional actors to evaluate dialogue. Just people excited to help. Videotape it. I have videotaped readings, and then sat down and worked out an entire rewrite off the tape, addressing every single line that bothered me. Which leads me to another thing.
It's hard to pass a screenplay on to industry contacts if an unfunny joke is sitting in the middle of page two. It’s highly difficult if there’s twelve by page five. You might have a payoff in your third act that would break my heart, but if your jokes are poor, the heart of your audience will be shot, probably resentful, and your work will be recycled. Please try your humor out. If your beats aren’t funny to some people, rewrite. Trust a truly hilarious bit is coming. Think of the patience you need to muster through this writing process as courage, because it is.
If you find you are not funny, write a script that is not funny. Many, many great scripts are not funny, as we all know.
Do you think the development people in Los Angeles, basically the smartest people in the film industry, will not be annoyed and continue to read your script when you have misspelled three words in the first five pages? Perhaps. How do you feel when you're reading something and you find misspelled words? How does your attitude shift towards the author? Exactly.
If you don't think many scripts have this problem, start a screen writing competition.
OKAY, WE GOT IT!
Try to limit your scene description. When a person opens your script, how many INCHES of action slug are they looking at on page one? Is there anyway you can convey what you want us to SEE with less words? I always go back and CUT CUT CUT to prevent my screenplay from fatiguing my reader with excess words as they try to listen for my story. Do we need to know what necklace someone is wearing? We all understand making motion pictures is collaborative. I strive to let the art department and the costumer and the prop master and so on DO THEIR JOB by not making their decisions in the screenplay, because I have little passion for it and don’t do it well. They will make their own choices, and most likely better ones, so why bother? Always use fewer words to say the same thing.
It's not show and tell, it's show not tell.
I constantly find myself being told something by the screenplay the viewer of the film will not be aware of. Screenplays are not literature. They are words assembled to describe what motion pictures will play out on the screen. Telling us a character is a jealous person is passive and dull. Showing a character in an act of jealousy is more effective and essentially cinematic. Let the words and actions of your characters carry your story. This is not easy. You want the actor or director to understand what you want and what you mean. Allow the description of physical actions and the recording of spoken words reveal the narrative to the filmmakers. The script will read faster and offers the reader a richer opportunity to imagine and discover.
The Joy of Making Things Up.
I really cherish the idea, that as a writer, I can make things up. If I want the guy to say something, all I have to do is type it. But I have to fight against creating characters and interactions amongst characters derived from movies I have watched and television I have seen. I often find myself writing a scene only to realize I'm not drawing from my imagination or my own life experience or my observations of people, I'm drawing from the millions of hours of observing actors play human beings on television and in movie theaters. And because I’m writing a “MOVIE,” it is even more difficult, because I’m fighting against a subconscious or unconscious observation that this is "how people act in movies." Stop yourself and ask, would this happen on planet Earth? Do I know how people from Miami really speak? What would a person actually say if they had a gun in their face? Can you possibly imagine what could happen? This is your opportunity to be truly imaginative. Answer your own expectations of original work. A mature writer develops a strong capacity to recognize and reject the false.
Forced exposition. This is when a brother tells a sister on page two that he will be attending a school which dad wouldn't pay for because he bought a farm that the whole family will be moving to tomorrow because he found that the city was a really bad place to live in after mom was really scared because of that mugging thing that happened after they came back from the sister's graduation from high school. When characters engage in an unbelievable conversation about matters in which they would be familiar with, or when they proclaim something completely out of nowhere simply to inform the audience of key facts crucial to their understanding of the movie, you have a problem. This awkward exposition will not be seen as genuine human behavior and will detach your audience from the emotional current of your story. Exposition is necessary and difficult to execute. Be careful how you offer information crucial to your story at the start of your screenplay. This is a common problem in early drafts. Exposition needs to be seamless and graceful.
You know what? Go get a script and copy what you think it looks like and you'll be fine. Trust me. Spec scripts are sitting on desks all over Hollywood and their format is not consistent at all. Getting crazy about format sells screenwriting software. I use two tab settings and copied stuff from a book and not one person in the film industry has ever said a thing to me in ten years. But if your script looks like a book, or a poem, or a magazine article, your screenplay format is wrong. Just make it look a little like a movie script, and if it kicks ass, guess what.
So do you.
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