After investing so much blood, sweat and tears into your screenwriting, your goal should be to get that script read! Unfortunately, as a Screenwriter, you have chosen to write something that nobody wants to read.
Okay, yes, people want to read your screenplay, but getting someone to sit down and read it is another issue. The problem is, most people who are making decisions, and making the deals to make movies, rarely have the time to read a screenplay.
Their offices receive stacks and stacks of scripts and they would never make a single movie if they read every script that came across their desks.
So what’s a busy Producer to do? They hire Readers to sift through the piles and assess the material. There are very few cases in which you can bypass a Reader, even if you “know people,” so the best thing you can do as a Writer is to make your script easy and enjoyable to read.
Here are some screenwriting tips to keep the Readers reading:
- Understand screenplay format
- Avoid exposition through dialog
- Don’t make a statement about how people “really talk”
- Make every scene count
- Make character descriptions about character
- Keep it brief
- Avoid redundancies
Readers come in many shapes and sizes. On one end, you have the highly-educated, high achieving lit major who is on track to be the next Robert Evans, or on the other end, you have an Intern who has no idea what she wants to do and is subconsciously envious of every Writer that sends in a script.
I hate to admit I was the latter. I was a twenty-something, unpaid Intern who was holed away in a bland office with no furniture — just scripts stacked against the walls. I was told what to look for and left on my own to make a dent in the hundreds of scripts that surrounded me and write a synopsis on anything that I thought fit the bill.
I had no business being there. What did I know about screenwriting with only two years of community college electives under my belt? Nevertheless, I got comfortable on the floor and read as many scripts as I could, no matter how dense or long. I will admit that it got exhausting and I understand why many readers look for a reason to put a script down.
Never assume that your idea is so fabulous, and your writing is so brilliant that readers will overlook bad formatting. You have software doing the major lifting for you, but there are a lot of rules and you should know them.
If you haven’t already, get your hand on a book and read more about it. I suggest The Screenwriter’s Bible. Readers can be forgiving, but there are some things that will definitely turn them off.
Make sure FADE IN is flushed to the left. All screenplays start with these two magic words. After that, don’t use any transitions such as DISSOLVE TO or CUT TO (they waste precious lines and I assure you that the Editor will cut from scene to scene.) You are writing a spec script, not a shooting script.
If you are new to this concept, The Screenwriter’s Bible or other books will cover it, but in a nutshell, you are writing a screenplay to be considered for production. It should absorb the reader and inspire visualization.
Camera direction, transitions, music cues or anything of the sort, distract the reader and take them out of the story; and that’s the last thing you want to do. The Director decides how to shoot a screenplay, not the Writer. Your job is to manipulate the Director’s vision.
Another mistake I see often is the use of a parenthetical to indicate action or facial expressions. A parenthetical should be used sparingly and should really be limited to things like “sotto voice” or to clarify something like sarcasm, and should avoid giving the Actor direction like “annoyed.”
Again, I highly recommend reading a book about formatting and keep it handy. It’s tricky and gets people prickly.
Screenplay writing is all about what you see and what you hear – but what you hear isn’t only dialog. Always try to tell your story visually and keep your descriptions to things that are visible on the screen or things that we can hear. Sounds can give plenty of clues.
For example, a cough can indicate someone is sick, or the pop of a cork can enhance a celebration. Don’t write that a character has social anxiety. Show it in his behavior. If it is crucial to the plot, then you may want to point it out, but try not to reveal it in dialog.
Any time you start to write story points into dialog, ask yourself if there is a way to do it visually. The same goes with character traits. Instead of having a character say another character is a kleptomaniac, show that person shoplifting. Is someone extremely OCD? Show it in the environment and in their actions.
Another thing I see a lot of is unnecessary chatter. Don’t do it. It will bore the Reader. All dialogue should push the story forward or reveal important information about character. Too much dialog will turn readers off if it leads to nothing new or interesting.
Okay, but what about Tarantino? His characters have ordinary conversations that have nothing to do with plot or character. Well, I’d argue they’re not that ordinary; there’s a lot going on in his conversations. Plus, it’s his signature. Instead of mimicking him, discover your own.
Readers are paying attention and assume that everything on the page, as I mentioned above, is important information. Don’t throw them off. Every scene — like all dialog — should either push the story forward or tell us something about a character or the world we are in.
Your scenes should be compact. Come in late and leave early. Unless it is absolutely critical, do not have entrances and exits and do not waste precious space on the page for “hellos” or “goodbyes” unless it is crucial to the story and is intended to establish relationships.
You should always try to come in at the meat of things and come out once you have given the important information.
If the point of a scene is that a mother tells her teenage daughter she can’t go to the prom, you don’t need to have the whole conversation leading up to it. Honestly, whatever that conversation would reveal is better shown through action in an earlier scene or scenes — like the teenager coming home after curfew or failing a midterm.
Your scene can start right in at, “I said, no prom,” with the teenager screaming back, “You’re ruining my life,” as she slams the door and throws herself on the bed crying. And guess what? It helps you avoid exposition through dialog.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The “hot guy” and “beautiful chick” descriptions say nothing about who these people are. What makes a screenplay interesting is characters and what happens to them. Give Readers something to care about, someone to relate to.
Unless looks truly affect the character, leave it out. The same goes for clothing. I have read some of the most detailed outfits that say nothing about a character. But if I read that a woman looks like she stepped off the pages of Vogue with the pace of a jaguar, or a woman is wearing a safari vest and camera around her neck, I know whom I’m dealing with. Descriptions should hint at who a character is.
This is the hardest lesson for first-time Screenwriters, especially those who come from a literature background and love to write over-detailed, beautiful descriptions. I did it. I took pride in my prose. However, a screenplay is more like poetry.
You can use fragmented sentences and single words to suggest mood and describe locations. So do it. Break all those grammar rules!
The goal is to get readers to see and feel things with as few words as possible. Yes, you get 6 lines of action but try to use as few as possible. And if you have a page of action, break it up as much as possible. There should be minimal black (meaning fewer words) on the page and it should flow quickly and easily.
You have a scene heading, action and dialog. Use one of those to give information. If you tell us we are at the church in your scene heading, don’t say it again in the action and don’t have a character say, “What a beautiful church.” If they have to comment, have them say, “Look at those frescoes.” It gives more detail.
I will admit that it is unfair that many Readers will give up even on a good script because of a typo or a small formatting infraction, but I understand that this is their coping mechanism. They usually spend their entire weekend reading scripts on top of a full-time, demanding job and most importantly, they have their own reputations at stake.
So instead of fearing them or cursing them, do your homework and show them you’re no amateur. Write something they can be proud of.
And like anything, rules can be broken, but master the basics before you even try.