Last time we discussed five different ways to make sure, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that your screenplay really sucks as much as possible. Let’s continue our strategy for making our readers tear their hair out, shall we?
Ignore industry format
Of all the scriptwriting “sins”, this is the one I encounter the most, by far. I don’t really understand it: if you wanted to be a racecar driver, you’d learn the terminology of cars and racing. If you wanted to be a computer programmer, you’d learn the programming language you wanted to work in. Yet the “language” of screenplays goes ignored.
Your screenplay really sucks because you decided to do your own thing without understanding why scripts are written in a specific format. Producing a movie takes a lot of money, time, and mental commitment. Any aspect of a production that jams up any of these three areas will result in somebody getting their pants twisted. When a script is formatted wrong, all three areas are inhibited.
A production will time the script. The rule of thumb is one-page-per-minute of screen time. Here’s the rub: that ballpark is contingent on the script following industry standard format. Margins, indent size, font choice – screw these up, you throw off the runtime estimate. And then somebody has to fix it. That person appreciates the extra work, I’m sure.
The production company will also break the script down into elements. Elements such as the locations the story requires. Each scene needs to be identified with a clear location and time of day. No location, or no heading altogether? You just inhibited the production that much more. Well not really – a missing heading probably results in the script going in the garbage.
If you care about somebody reading your script at all, they’re guaranteed to be confused if you don’t follow the standard. The basic format has arguably stayed the same for over 100 years at this point. Changing it would be like renaming all the parts of your car engine to whatever you’d like, then attempting to explain to a mechanic what you’d like them to do. Try that for an afternoon of fun.
Direct and edit on the page
This one really irks me, mostly because I know the message it sends to everybody downstream in the project: “Attention plebeians! This is my vision, and it shall not be deviated from!” Everyone loves working on projects like that, right?
Moreover, everybody loves reading scripts like this:
INT. KITCHEN – DAY
ANGLE ON Annie’s left hand on the fridge door. She opens it and touches the milk first, then the eggs. CLOSE ON the cheese, perfectly orange with dots of darker orange. Her eyes dart to and fro by a multitude of fractional degrees. She breathes at a cadence equal to the clock ticking. She grabs the gluten free bread in a purple plastic bag and walks across the floor at 150 steps per minute – she’s in a hurry. FOLLOW ON her white linen skirt SMASH CUT TO the third butter knife in the drawer and DISSOLVE TO LandOLakes butter. The camera zooms in to the empty O where the mascot used to be…
If your action block reads like Ikea instructions, your screenplay really sucks.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with writing/producing/directing your own material. In fact, it’s often necessary given budget and network limitations on indie film. But the actors, the cinematographer, the editor…this is where first time filmmakers often lose their confidence in collaboration completely and micromanage the production. When you write a script full of camera angles and obsessive character blocking, the project feels constrained and controlled in the eyes of the talented people you recruited to help you. And if you’re trying to sell or option a screenplay, forget it – the script is a chore to read and will get tossed on page 1.
The director directs the actors. The actors interpret the characters. The cinematographer runs the camera. The editor cuts the picture. Do you think any of these people want the writer to tell them how to do their job? Write a story, not a football play.
Make sure your characters never shut up
Another gem. Films where characters talk…and talk…and talk. Sometimes about the plot, or each other, or sometimes nothing at all. Movies are not stage plays. They do not confine themselves to one location from one view angle. They are moving pictures that enjoy the benefit of extensive edit sessions. You can take your audience anywhere you’d like in any fashion you’d like.
And yet for some reason spec scripts choose that journey to be a dinner table with two people who never shut the hell up. Perhaps the writer thinks they’re Quentin Tarantino, or Aaron Sorkin, or wittier and more charming than either. No. Your screenplay really sucks and puts readers to sleep.
But why? Aren’t monologues captivating? Aren’t snappy dialogue exchanges riveting? Yes, when done with precision and weighty context. The problem is that indie scripts often have neither quality.
First off, the monologue or conversation has to actually make sense. The burger conversation in Pulp Fiction has a point, even if it isn’t readily obvious. That’s why it works – because it isn’t obvious. The subtext and context is so rich that the audience is pushed in exactly the direction the filmmaker wants. And during the conversation STUFF HAPPENS. People move, grab things, react, and give a visual feast that the dialogue SUPPORTS. Not the other way around.
Do this test: think of your favorite monologue or dialogue scene in a movie. Guess the runtime. Then go watch and time it. I bet it’s a lot shorter than you think. Now transcribe it word for word in proper screenplay format. I bet it’s less than a page, probably way less. Less is more.
Talk about “We” and “us”
Who is “we”? Well we the audience, of course! It looks like this:
EXT. OUTER SPACE
We see a shape in the distance moving closer. It’s almost upon us. A spaceship!
Screenwriters write in 3rd person present tense for a reason. As you read, the script gives you the image of the movie playing in front of your eyes. There is no WE in the film you are watching, just THEM, the characters. So until artificial intelligence virtual reality films become possible (actually that’s an awesome idea), the reader is not an active participant in the film.
Writing in “we” and “us” is sometimes an attempt at voice, when really the voice of the screenplay should be shown through – you guessed it – visuals. Since, you know, films are visual. We don’t see a “we” on the screen. Shane Black did this in Lethal Weapon and probably all of his other scripts, so along with opening quotes and other cutesy stuff would-be writers put in their maiden works, I blame him. Just like I blame Tarantino for overly-long dialogue scenes and M. Night Shyamalan for “surprise” twists in amateur work. You aren’t these people, you don’t have pre-funded projects by a major studio, and your screenplay really sucks.
Once, I gave notes for a feature script that had you. That’s right, somehow somebody wrote in 2nd person for the entire piece. I guess the idea was somebody was actually explaining to me, the reader, what I was seeing. “Now you see the explosion erupt”. Although it was interesting, I couldn’t help but chuckle because the script had a sort of clairvoyant-ish read to it. Like the writer was telling me the film I’d see in the future. Now that would be a helluva arthouse film.
Be confusing as hell
Yes, this is real material I’ve read and given notes for. I’ll let the image speak for itself.