Hello everyone! It is high time for me to post a new article about writing. Lately, I’ve been working with a group of aspiring screenwriters and doing a lot of critiques on their work. Not surprisingly, I find myself correcting almost the same errors in all of their scripts. So I thought this was good opportunity to consolidate my advice into an article.
I’ve been writing fiction in various forms since I was a kid, but screenwriting is a relatively new (and addicting) format for me. I love the streamlined format of the spec script; because so much is left to the potential director, cinematographers, costume designers, and so on, scripts really give you the chance to focus on the action and plot. And I love it.
For those of you who might also be looking to step into the world of screenwriting, here are a few pointers I’ve had driven into my memory, both through being well-taught and through reading too many scripts that had examples of what not to do.
1. Only Write What You Can See
Screenwriting is all about the visuals. Even though you’re putting words on paper, those words are not the end result; they’re the guidelines to creating a purely visual product.
This means that there is no point in writing what a character thinks, why a particular object is significant, or even anything about a character’s personality – unless you can show it.
For instance, you can’t write “Holly thinks Justin is handsome.” Write that Holly blushes when she sees Justin, or that she whispers to her friend that he’s cute. If you can’t tell something through visuals or sound, it can’t go in your script.
Also, don’t fall into the trap of writing lengthy dialogue scenes with no action description. Your script could exist without sound (um, silent movies?) but it won’t go anywhere without action – otherwise, the most we see is people talking, which is boring.
2. Break Up Those Text Blocks
As I’ve said, scripts are a streamlined format. They should be easy on the eyes, and that means lots of white space. Your action paragraphs should never be large blocks of text, and neither should your dialogue unless you have a good reason for a character to deliver a long speech.
Restrict your paragraphs to a couple of lines each. The “enter” key is your friend. Also, think about how you can use paragraph breaks to emphasize and sort your content. The sentence, “suddenly the bank robber enters,” is a lot more powerful if it’s in its own paragraph instead of bunched together with other sentences.
3. Beware of Too Many Tricks
Beginning screenwriters especially seem to enjoy playing with script elements such as voice over, dissolving or fade-to-black screens, and even text popping up on screen. The reason is that we’ve all seen these tools used in movies for great dramatic effect, and we want that drama in our scripts, too.
While there is a time and a place for all of these tools, be careful that you don’t overuse them. It might be best, when you’re writing your first draft, just to stick to basic action and dialogue scenes. Once you have the story in a good place, then you can go back and get more creative with the “extras.”
The main question to consider is, what tells your story most effectively? If it’s a voice-over, great. But it could also be a character speaking normal dialogue. Only you can figure that out.
4. Don’t Rely Too Much on Parentheticals
Parentheticals are those little “asides” you see in dialogue sometimes, between the speaker’s name and the dialogue itself. Parenthetical content I’ve seen before ranges from simple comments like (whispering) to elaborate ones like (looking angry enough to spit).
Here are the problems with parentheticals:
- They’re distracting and visually crowd your text (as if it isn’t hard enough to keep dialogue from looking blocky).
- They’re usually unnecessary. If your character is sneaking through a house at night, you don’t need to tell the reader that s/he is whispering because it’s obvious.
- They’re bossy. When an actor interprets your script to play a role, s/he doesn’t want to be told exactly how to say something. Make it clear enough through the surrounding action and situation that the actor can figure it out.
Most of the time, the content in a parenthetical should be written in an action sentence, especially complicated ones like (looking angry enough to spit). That’s just too much information for a parenthetical, and it doesn’t say anything about how the dialogue is delivered; it says something about how the character looks.
If you use a parenthetical, make sure the way you’re specifying the dialogue to be said is not immediately obvious. Only use them when they’re really needed for clarity.
5. Use Clear and Proper Formatting
I know, I know, you think formatting is tedious. Actually, if you use a screenwriting software (and there are some decent free ones out there, like Celtx), some of the simple formatting is taken care of for you.
The truth is, even though I find scripts freeing in many ways, they are unforgiving on format. If your script has slug lines with time descriptions like MIDDLE OF THE AFTERNOON instead of just DAY, or dialogue compressed against the left margin (instead of centered), or any text font besides Courier New, you are going to get penalized. The reader will toss your script aside and move on.
The good news is, screenwriting format is not particularly hard. It’s just a matter of knowing the right formula. There are a number of helpful websites on formatting that can be found through a simple online search, but of course, the number one resource you should definitely have is The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier.
Be tough on your format and your reader won’t have to be. 😉
Although I’ve been pursuing screenwriting for a while now and learned much along the way, a lot of these tips originally were presented to me through reading the 6th edition of The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier, the mainstay reference book of the screenwriting world. If you are serious about being a screenwriter, get a copy of this book as soon as possible and read the whole thing. It’s inexpensive, easy to read through, and full of valuable info.
Also, look for some real scripts to read and look at the way they’re constructed. It helps!