Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Screenplay - What every Barrista in LA is Writing

This article is about the screenplay.  The screenplay is at the core of what we, writers, do.  The screenplay serves as the only means by which we show our ability as a writer.  It is the thing by which we are all judged.  While the resulting movie may be done well or done poorly, that does not matter: for the writer only the screenplay matters.

A speculative screenplay is structured very simply.  It only has a title page, FADE IN, FADE OUT, sluglines, narrative, and dialog.  It has one inch margins all around, no scene numbers, all the writing is left justified, and is never more than 120 pages in length.  However, like in life the devil is in the details.

Here are some ‘rules’ about sluglines, narrative, and dialog.  Yes, I know the word ‘rules’ in regards to screenwriting is a no - no.  How about ‘suggestions?’

The slugline identifies where the action and dialogue are taking place.  Once identified, all action and dialog must take place within that location.  Use the words DAY or NIGHT in the slugline.  There is no AFTERNOON, EVENING, or MORNING.  Describe those specifics in the narrative.

Start with the general and move to the specific; a city to a building to a room.  Add specifics to the slugline to further define the place and period.  To identify an historical period, use EXT. PARIS, FRANCE – DAY (1945).  For indicating a mobile situation use INT. JOE’S CAR – DAY (MOVING).  For inside a character’s mind use INT. JOE’S BAR – NIGHT (FLASHBACK).  Do not forget to bring the reader back to the present with INT. JOE’S BEDROOM – DAY (PRESENT DAY).  These are a few examples.  Continue to refine your sluglines so that you can get the reader to ‘feel’ the places in the story.

Sub-sluglines serve to even further define how you want to reader to view the story.  Sub-sluglines are used to change the reader’s focus but remain within the general slugline.  Sub-sluglines are used instead of the use of the words ‘WE SEE.’  For sub-sluglines, you can use ON TOM or ON THE HAT RACK.  You can even use such simple phrases as THE DOOR or THE TABLE.

Narrative, also called exposition, provides the reader the scenes’ action and instructions.  Narrative establishes the décor and props necessary for the scene.  It explains how the characters dress, behave, and interact.  Sounds other than dialogue are represented in the narrative.  Narrative is written in the present tense and standard prose.  Do NOT give stage directions.  This is a screenplay not a stage play.  Avoid use of “we see” or “we hear.”  Yes, I know Shane Black did it but you cannot.

Dialog is the words spoken by the characters.  Dialog only tells us what has happened or what will happen.  Do NOT repeat in words what has already appeared or is appearing in the action.  Avoid the characters providing the reader with biographical, psychological, or situational information unless you can find a visual means to do so in the narrative.  Keep your use of parentheticals in dialog to a minimum.  Avoid the use of PAUSEs or BEATs in dialog.  Build those into the Narrative.  After reading a script of mine, an actor friend told me to get rid of the ‘that extra stuff’ in the dialog.  He gets paid to act.  I get paid to write.

Here are some do’s and don’ts.  While the do’s are self - evident, pay attention to the don’t’s.

·                 Follow screenwriting rules;
·                 Use Courier 12 point font and one inch margins all around;
·                 Get the best print and photocopy you can;
·                 Use two (2) good quality brass brads to bind your script the cute washers from The Writers’ Store are optional;
·                 Register your script with the WGA;
·                 And, PROOFREAD your script.

·                 Create a title page with giant fonts, colored letters, or use colored paper (Come on.);
·                 Put a quotation on the title page (Sounds smart, but don’t, really.);
·                 Put a second page with the theme, main characters, or back story of your screenplay (The characters are going to come alive on your pages.);
·                 Put blank pages in the script to set things apart (It’s just a waste of trees and wasted on Hollywood executives.);
·                 Include any illustrations, music, or pictures (No music, please.  You may not own the rights and even if you do the prodcos are hiring a writer not a song writer.);
·                 Use anything other than 20 pound 3 hole punch paper (Office Depot, come on.);
·                 Expect to have your script returned to you (Not ever.).

There are five big, common mistakes writers make in their screenplays.

·       Mistake number 5 is on - the - nose writing.
When you write dialog that is exactly how the characters are thinking and feeling the audience quickly gets bored and believe me you do not want a bored audience.  They are being spoon fed and that does not require their attention or entertain them in any way.  You need to give them dialog with deeper meanings that adds interest, intrigue, and causes an audience to have to interpret, thus giving the audience an internal experience of the story.

·       Mistake number 4 is inviting boring characters to the party.
One of the many things that young writers tell me in my classes is that they have written the dialog just as the real people would have spoken.  If you want reality, go watch the History Channel.  You are writing fiction.  The truth of the matter is that ordinary people doing ordinary things are dull.  And writing a screenplay is not about lulling an audience into slumber.  Just don't.  You need to make sure there is something special about your characters, even if they appear to be ordinary.  Give the reader hints and foreshadowing.  In that way, you will make the journey believable for the audience.

·       Mistake number 3 is too much exposition and not enough real story.
I read a script for my class that had five pages of nothing but narrative exposition.  Give me a break.  I do not need the loading procedures of a 3” Parrot gun explained to me in a script.  Readers also do not need to be told all about the characters through unending dialog or narrative.  Give the readers some credit.  Giving all that information upfront is not entertaining. In fact, it is deadly boring.  Remember, you are writing a screenplay not a documentary.  Writing exposition is a balancing act, but anytime backstory is brought into the script just remember to make it interesting to the reader and enveloped with some sort of action.

·       Mistake  number 2 is thinking the details will save a bad story.
Screenplays are structure.  Story is structure.  Unfortunately, writers will start a screenplay based on a favorite scene, set of scenes, or singular idea rather than looking at the story as a whole.  A scene or group of scenes is only as good as the whole story.  Like the decorations in your house add to its character and detail, scenes stand as details and add to the character of your story.  If your house is in obvious need of repair, adding decorations just makes it clear that you are covering something up.  However, if your house is in perfect shape the decorations spice it up and emphasize its beauty.  Therein lies the problem.  There are so many poorly structured stories covered with the icing of quirky details.  In most cases, no amount of icing can save a bad story.  So, structure your story and all the magical details will shine even more.

·       Mistake number 1 is marketing a script before it is ready.
You know you want to.  You have done a first draft and it’s pretty darn good.  It’s ready to be marketed now.  The timing is right.  It has the concept that will cause the audience to plop down fifteen smackaroonies to sit in a seat for a hundred minutes.  Only the script needs a few more stitches here and there.  You say to yourself, “Look, if I just sell it because the concept is so good and timely the prodcos will pay me to re-write the script.  That’s how the pro’s do it, right?”  Wrong.  The pro’s submit their best work every time.  Whatever the concept, and concept is important, it will wait until you have written the best script you can write.  Your first draft, your second draft, are dreck.  Write it again and again.  Make the story pass.  Make the character pass.*  Just make sure that whatever you market is the very best it can be before you send it off.  Why, you ask?  Because people remember.  Readers remember.  They remember your name.  They remember your style.  Even if you change the script title and your name, the major prodcos keep detailed records and they remember.  So, just do the very best every time.


Talent, opportunity, risk, and luck all play a part in a writer’s life.  Through networking, a writer can establish the opportunities and weigh the risks of committing to an action.  The writer can also avail himself of the information flow and ‘make his own luck’ by just showing up.  The bottom line is that while all the foregoing is true, without the core aptitude, or talent, for writing the writer will not be successful.  Talent is not only the knowledge, acquired skill, of writing but an aptitude, innate component, of being able to put words to paper successfully.  While you can be taught how to write a screenplay, the innate nature of writing is in contrast to an academic achievement which represents knowledge or ability that is gained.  There is no ‘Q Score’ for writers.  To be a writer, you must write and you must continue to write.  You learn the skills.  Exploit the skills.  Talent comes from the love of writing and the doing of the art.  Some of you may never become ‘screenwriters’ in the William Goldman sense.  However, you can become skilled enough and love the craft enough to be able to pay the mortgage, buy diapers, and put food on the table.

Why are you reading this?  Go write!

John still practices screenwriting in King County, WA along with a small rat dog, a mortgage, and a great view of the valley.

*  Thanks to Pilar Allesandra at On The Page.

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