Is your script really ready to compete? The screenwriting business is a highly competitive environment that demands complete professionalism--and the only place to show that level of skill is on the page.
Guess how long it takes for an experienced writer, producer, director or development professional to determine whether your script is worth ready? About 15 seconds. That's it.
It doesn't matter what you look like, where you live or what kind of car you drive. The people who buy screenplays and put them into development or give them the green light for production only care whether your screenplay is of professional caliber.
Keep your script out of the slush pile by adhering to these 5 industry Dos and Don'ts for writing a winning screenplay:
Screenplay Do--Keep your structure simple
You're already very familiar with a 3-act story structure, that is, a coherent beginning, middle and end. Situate your story in the introduction, then build toward your climax. This is called plot complication, which is any aspect of a story that the protagonist or antagonist must overcome in order to move forward, ultimately reaching a resolution.
Screenplay Do--Use consistent tone
Make sure your tonality is consistent across the board with appropriate dialogue, character descriptions, scenes, plotting and structure matching the genre (e.g., comedy, drama, action, horror).
Screenplay Do--Pace yourself
Keep to the appropriate page count and include scenes that propel the action and move the plot forward. In a speculative script (i.e., spec script), pagination typically runs between 110-120 pages, with the rule of thumb being that 1 page equals 1 minute of screen time. Ideally, you want a balance between dialogue and action in scenes that transition logically.
Screenplay Don't--Include scene numbers
Scene numbers are easily spotted on the first page. Until your spec script gets financing, casting, a director and a production team, you don't need scene numbers. They are a distraction and carry no weight in a non-commissioned, unsolicited screenplay.
Screenplay Don't--List anything
Cast list. Location list. Props list. None of these contribute to your spec script being a good read--and your screenplay must read well before anyone will ever respond to it. Let the producers and the prop department make the lists.
Yes, your script is a blueprint for a brilliant film or television episode. But you're the architect, not the finish carpenter. Avoid cluttering your script with details that are better left for others during later stages of development.
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You have a great story to tell. You even have your Oscar acceptance speech ready. You’re thinking about entering our screenplay competition or even working 1:1 with an industry professional to get feedback on your script.
Writing a screenplay is tricky business. But you have the discipline. You’re willing to do the work. You can handle rejection. You’ll do as many rewrites as it takes. Do you understand the fundamental writing strategies you need to master before you get your hands on that gold statuette?
We've put together 10 tried and true screenwriting tips designed to help you improve your writing and get your script ready to pitch. Now, let’s cut to the chase, because you’ve got a script to write!
Screenwriting Tip 1--Spell flawlessly, write grammatically
Any professional reader will not read past your second or third failure. Sloppy spelling and grammar are stumbling blocks to fluent reading. Don’t depend on spellcheck or grammar check. Have someone who knows this stuff (if it’s not you) go through your script with a red pencil--then start revising.
Screenwriting Tip 2--Format per industry standards
Professional guidelines are easy to find. Follow them. Basics like ALL CAPS for character names above dialogue. Proper indents. Use formatting software if it’s all too complicated to absorb. Use Courier typeface, nothing else. Don't get creative or make up your own rules.
Screenwriting Tip 3--Kill clichés
That means everything you’ve ever seen or heard before in all your favorite movies. Archetypical characters are one thing, but they need to act like real people with genuine motivations and personal objectives. Without originality, your screenplay will never see the light of day at the end of the tunnel where no man has gone before (no extra charge for those clichés).
Screenwriting Tip 4--Outline your story before you start writing your script
Yes, we know you have a great story. Prove it by writing it down. Draw a line at your dramatic act breaks. Can’t find them? Then you don’t have a story or a narrative that will ever sell as a screenplay. In fact, you’ll be halfway through and wonder what’s next. Why is this scene here? Does it really move the plot forward? Only a straightforward outline can prevent that stumbling block. Save the brilliant dialogue until you know exactly where everything is going.
Screenwriting Tip 5--Screen directions don’t mean you direct anything
Those paragraphs of timeless prose where you describe how everything looks, how everyone feels, how the action plays out on the set... they stop readers dead in their tracks, interrupt the flow of your story, enrage directors and they get your script tossed into the circular file. Screen directions, better referred to as scene slugs, should just tell the basics: location, day or night, fundamental action (e.g., The car pulls to the curb and they get out.). Keep screen directions simple, direct and concise.
Screenwriting Tip 6--Get things going
Your opening sequences are critical to your success. Bore the reader with 10 pages of prelude and your story won't get read. Make your script impossible to put down by creating interest, action or urgency from the outset.
Screenwriting Tip 7--Don’t be too clever
Amazing denouements and surprise endings based upon information you don’t reveal until the last three pages are aggravating for the reader. Such trickery only proves you haven’t done the real work of foreshadowing or true character development. A reader (the audience) will stay with you only if you give them a reason to trust that what you’re telling them matters for a proper resolution.
Screenwriting Tip 8--Avoid on the nose dialogue
Real people rarely say exactly what they mean, and neither should your characters. That doesn’t mean you let them ramble on in oblique, pointless or redundant exchanges. Every line of dialogue should move something forward in the scene, but other than the obligatory “I’m going to kill you," your characters need to be subtle in expressing their motivations and objectives.
Screenwriting Tip 9--Let conflicts breathe
Without conflict, your characters have no reason to interact, and the reader won’t care about anything they do. Everyone in your script must want something, and your job is to make it difficult for them to get what they want. But don’t make it so incredibly arduous for any human to achieve those objectives. Sure, make your hero struggle to survive or to overcome odds. But don't make their hurdles too high or too low.
Screenwriting Tip 10--Take a moment
Put your finished screenplay down. Twenty-four-hour minimum. Read something else then read your script again with fresh eyes. Wait--did you really make all those typos and spelling errors? Wait--did you really have your heroine say something silly? A careful re-read will save you embarrassment and just might save your writing career. Do it. Then do it again.
Writing, and the world of screenwriting in particular, is not easy. But you’ll be much closer to achieving your screenwriting goals if you master these 10 screenwriting basics.
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