Business of Screenwriting: Things a Screenwriter Should and Should Not Do

Decisions, decisions, decisions, there are so many of them that screenwriters must make to get to that perfect screenplay that will change their lives. Experience has shown me that writers often make huge mistakes in their myriad of choices.  Any one error can damage, if not altogether ruin, their chances of making the grade with those all important readers.

success-compass-iStock_000019895868SmallWhat makes these options so pressing is that the people who will be reading the material are constantly deluged by hundreds of mediocre, if not darn right horrible, screenplays.  The readers may be anyone from a reader to a major producer.  These people might be development executives, agents, managers and even lawyers.  You might be sending your script to a contest or to a consultant.  No matter the level of the reader or their background, these people are the watchdogs of the industry.  They are very, very important to you.  If you think that some of the problems are too small to be concerned with, think again.  If a reader has a huge stack of reading on his desk or coffee table, he is more likely to opt for the one with the right amount of pages, the right amount of brads as well as the right type set.  Let me help you with some of those big and the small choices that will help you get those readers into your movie and past page 5 of your script.

Common screenplay errors:

  1. Remind yourself that you are writing a “spec” screenplay, not a shooting script.
  2. Do not over describe your settings.
  3. Give approximate ages of the main characters only, i.e. 30’s, late 50’s, etc.
  4. Allow your characters’ dialogue to tell their mood.  Don’t tell us in your exposition.
  5. Keep exposition to a minimum.
  6. Keep the star of the script on every page.

Story:

  1. There are only a handful of basic plots.  Don’t let it bother you if your story feels a bit too familiar.
  2. Emphasize your characters more than your story.
  3. Complicate your characters.
  4. Simplify your plot.
  5. Make the reader feel some emotion about your main characters.
  6. Don’t make the story or plot points too vague.  You are taking us on a journey; make sure we understand the map.

Structure:

  1. If there is a fight scene in film, do not describe each punch.  Simply tell the reader that there is a protracted fight and the hero beats the hell out of the bad guys.
  2. Do not worry about making the budget too big.  If you sell it to a studio, let them worry about that.  Your script will be rewritten anyway.  Add in those car chases and blow up buildings, everyone loves those scenes.
  3. Do not “direct” your movie.  Lots of the choices you make in your descriptions of people, places and things will be changed by the budget and the actual director of the movie.
  4. If you are writing a comedy, make it funny; don’t tell me it’s funny.
  5. Do not add in extraneous characters.  If they aren’t really, really necessary, omit them.
  6. Don’t bother to describe characters that are only in the script once or twice.

Presentation:

  1. Always use two (2) brads not three (3).
  2. Use washers for the brads.
  3. Have a title page on the script that shows the (a) title of the script (b) the name of the writer, (c) how you can be reached via an agent or your own email and phone number.
  4. Make sure your pages are correctly numbered.
  5. Use proper script formatting.
  6. It is not necessary to use a script cover.
  7. Never submit a script that is over 120 pages.

Overview:

  1. Read lots and lots of screenwriting books.  They are plentiful and easy to get.  Be mindful of the advice you find in these books.
  2. Your first through third scripts won’t be very good.  This is a given.  You can’t fly a plane the first couple of times you get in one.
  3. Keep writing.  Your fourth and fifth screenplays will be much better.
  4. Don’t show your first scripts to anyone but your closest relatives, then don’t believe they know what they are talking about.
  5. Go to seminars where the speakers are accomplished writers, producers and agents.  Believe everything the writers say but not the producers and agents.
  6. If anyone tells you he or she is giving your project to the head of a studio who will read it right away, do not believe them.  Studio heads never read scripts, they only read synopses.
  7. You must follow-up with each person to whom you present your material.  Once every two weeks is the right timing.
  8. If you write comedies then you must read comedies, try stand- up comedy in front of an audience to see if your comedy is funny.  It takes many years to learn how to write a good comedy.
  9. If you are starting out, try to write contemporary pieces.  Historical fiction and futuristic sci-fi are very complicated.
  10. Do not write true stories if you don’t have the rights to those people and their lives.
  11. Do not write a script based on a novel written by another author.
  12. Not only have I been a professional screenplay consultant and an agent, but I’ve judged scripts for film festivals.  You might think that you have zillions of people in competition with you but that is not the case.  Yes, there are zillions of people writing scripts but very few of them are writing wonderful and saleable scripts.

Just keep writing.

Related Articles:

mind-your-business-michele-wallerstein_mediumMichele Wallerstein’s book: MIND YOUR BUSINESS: A Hollywood Literary Agent’s Guide to Your Writing Success may be purchased via The Writers Store and Amazon.com, in paperback and on Kindle, and local book stores.

14 thoughts on “Business of Screenwriting: Things a Screenwriter Should and Should Not Do

  1. Scott Wallace

    Dear Michele

    It took time, but I found an Arizona lawyer who deals with life story rights. I have an appointment with her on Thursday (the day we Australians refer to as Friday)–by phone, of course. Thanks for the advice.

    Dear Fred Forster

    You ask, “Do children or grandchildren of historical characters have any claim to life rights for their ancestors?”

    Claims can be made, and they can stand up in court, or not. But you don’t want to win any court cases: you want to stay away from courts entirely. I suspect that what you really want to know is, “How can I reassure potential buyers of my story that they won’t be sued?”

    Unfortunately the answer to THAT question may involve having to hunt up a lawyer!

    I wonder if Michele agrees.

  2. Fred Forster

    Thanks, Michelle – just wondering if you can answer a couple of other questions about life-rights (short of having to hunt up a lawyer!)

    Is there a time-limit to life rights? 75 years? Do the children or grandchildren of historical characters have any claim to life rights for their ancestors?

    Hope you can help!

    Thanks again.

    Fred.

  3. Scott Wallace

    Dear Michele

    Yes, Los Angeles is loaded with attorneys with life story rights expertise. But according to one of them, I can’t use any of them.

    She says I need a lawyer in the country where I live (Australia) or the state where the life story rights owner lives (Arizona). In other words, not Los Angeles and not California.

    The semi-good news is that she also says every state has lawyers who can deal with life story rights. If I can find them. She says, “Good luck.”

    Regards,
    Scott Wallace

  4. Art

    Michele, you’re exquisite in your article. I just read it. Your points are very concise and full of screenwriting wisdom. I think most of us thank you for your recommendations in writing.
    I thank Scriptmag executives for having you and the other great article writers on this section. You are the only food available for unknown aspiring writers.

    Thanks to you I enjoy writing. Many nights, while writing, I fall asleep and amazingly I continue writing on my dreams, but now it’s a real movie in my sleep.

    It touches my heart, Oh God!

    Art.

  5. Scott Wallace

    Thanks, Michele. Theoretically it’d be good to go with a completely original idea for another screenplay. But right now this particular true story is the only one that inspires me.
    No, I don’t live in the Los Angeles area: I live in Australia. Maybe I can find a suitable Los Angeles attorney and communicate with him/her by telephone and e-mail. Maybe even fax or snail mail.

  6. Michele WallersteinMichele Wallerstein

    Thank you Michael, you made me laugh out loud.

    Scott, do you live in the Los Angeles area? We are loaded with attorney’s who have the kind of experience you need. If not, you might want to move on to a completely original idea for another screenplay. As I mentioned these are the ones that are much better for starting a writing career.

    Michele

  7. Michael O'Daniel

    Well, that explains why my career dried up. I had just written and produced a prime-time network sitcom pilot that won its time period, and no one was taking my calls. Obviously word had gotten out in the industry that I was a 3-brad guy. And worse, without any washers! You can bet I’ll be first on line when Office Depot opens tomorrow…

  8. Scott Wallace

    I’m writing a screenplay based on a true story, so I’ve been trying to take your advice and find a lawyer to help me acquire life story rights. But my search keeps running into dead ends. Can you give me any clues on how to find a lawyer who can deal with life story rights?

  9. Brian Shell

    I really like the numbered steps of this article Michele… yet I have a question about the “Presentation” – in the past, I’ve been told to use a three-hole punch with brass brads.

    Now you’re telling us to only use two brads (with washers… which is a good idea… since it helps prevent the last-page tearing).

    So should I not use my three hole punch?
    Or can I use it… but not brad the middle hole?

    A bit of clarity on this detail of the presentation would be appreciated.

    Best regards,
    Brian Shell

  10. Patrick Mahon

    Thank you, Michele. I’m a fan of your book and appreciate getting the inside scoop from your perspective.

    Also, very inspiring to read: ‘You might think that you have zillions of people in competition with you but that is not the case. Yes, there are zillions of people writing scripts but very few of them are writing wonderful and saleable scripts.’

    All too often we aspiring writers hear nothing but million-to-one-shot odds and negativity, which can be overwhelming at times. Refreshing to hear an honest and informed pep talk.

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