When I was younger, I always assumed that good movies were easy to make. All one needed was a good script and lots of money. I also assumed that good scripts were easy to write. After all, the plot of a good story looks effortless on the silver screen. But as I’m beginning to discover, a winning script is not the product of a creative burst, but of careful hard work. Of course, I haven’t yet actually written a 120 page screenplay (or anywhere close), but judging from the little I know of short scripts and the words of actual screenwriters, I know that good scripts require hard work. One screenwriting teacher said, “Writing a film demands the same creative labor in terms of world, character, and story as a four-hundred-page novel” (page 98 of this book). Not having done either of those things, I don’t know if that statement is true, but in the meantime here are some things I have learned that will improve your screenwriting.
1. Study the masters
A great place to start is www.imsdb.com. You don’t have to read complete scripts, but I found it helpful to see how certain elements of the story changed from script to screen (like certain scenes in Raiders of the Lost Ark). Also, read some books about screenwriting (3 good recommendations here). And listen to movie commentaries. Good directors can provide insight into not only the how but also the why of certain scenes in their movies.
2. DON’T WORRY ABOUT GIVING SCENE INSTRUCTIONS
Don’t fill your screenplay with notes like “Wide Shot” or “Dolly in towards actor’s eyes.” The purpose of the script is to tell the story, not determine how the story will be told. Technical details can be mapped out later with storyboards or a shooting script, perhaps.
3. DON’T OVER-DESCRIBE
In prose, long descriptions are interesting. They create an atmosphere for the story. They give the reader a sense of place. But with screenplays, scene descriptions need to be kept to a minimum in order to create an image in the director/producer/actor/crew member’s mind without forcing the setting to look exactly a certain way.
4. Write in the present tense
“Jake Weaver vaults over the fence, dropping 20 feet onto the moving bus” is better and more immediate for the purposes of a movie than “Jake Weaver vaulted over the fence. He dropped 20 feet onto the moving bus.”
5. Good Screenplays are the product of good premises
Also known as loglines, premises are a one or two sentence summation of the story of a movie. If one looks at practically any movie ever made, each story can be condensed down to a single sentence. Why is this important? It gives a story focus. See if you can identify the following movies by reading my hack-job summaries of their plots:
- A cynical weatherman trapped in a city which he hates relives the same day as he attempts to change his life (for better or for worse).
- Two co-workers who dislike each other carry on a secret correspondence with a “pen-pal.” They don’t realize that their co-worker is the other letter-writer.
- A young man receives a message from a distressed princess, motivating him to seek out a wise old hermit who helps him to save her.
6. Planning will not destroy the “magic” of your script
Really. I’ve read that lots of screenwriters use what is known as “The Board” to organize their stories. They write every plot point in the story on a 3×5 inch note card and then put all the cards in the order of the story on a bulletin board with tacks. They throw away, add, and change these plot points until they have around 40 cards (assuming this is a feature film script). Only then do screenwriters actually start writing the script. I’m not saying that every screenwriter must do this in order to write a good script (I definitely haven’t followed this rule rigidly), but having a good plan helps.
7. Revise many times
Don’t quit revising after the second draft. Continue cutting and revising until the last possible minute—in the case of Dead Men Hiking this was the first day of the shoot!
8. Don’t be afraid to let other people—even people “less educated” than yourself, read your script
I’ve always found it difficult to accept advice from my younger sisters, but I can’t deny that their perspective helped improve the script for Dead Men Hiking. Other people think of aspects/meanings that the original author cannot possibly have considered. Perhaps there are parts of the plot that make perfect sense to the author but need additional explanation to other people.
When I asked my younger sister to read over the script for Dead Men Hiking, she suggested that I have fewer flashbacks in the opening sequence of the movie. She thought it disrupted the pacing (or something to that effect). While I didn’t completely remove the flashbacks, I did adjust that sequence a little bit to have a slower pace, and I think that sequence is better as a result!
9. Don’t Over-instruct the Actors
Let the actors act. Don’t fill your script with instructions like “Jake sneers as he says…” or “Jake furrows his brow and says sarcastically…” or “Jake wipes his nose, examines his fingernails, and slowly opens his mouth to speak.” These instructions are probably unimportant and most definitely boring.
10. SHOW, DON’T TELL
I used to misunderstand this rule all the time, but an example cleared everything up for me. Compare the following two descriptions:
“He feels sad and heartbroken”
“His face contorts into a grimace as tears collect at the corners of his eyes”
Assuming both of these sentences are describing the same scene, which one is better? How would each scene look on film? The first one tells. But filmmaking is a visual art, and from the first description the reader has no idea what it might look like to feel sad and heartbroken. The second description, on the other hand, communicates emotional information indirectly by creating an image in the reader’s mind. This is what good screenwriters do. They show the audience what the characters are feeling—they don’t tell.
I hope this advice helps!