Ask the Expert: The Do’s and Don’ts of Screenwriting

Question: What are the industry standard do’s and don’ts of screenwriting?

As a producer, script consultant, and former VP Development for production companies at Sony, Universal and Disney — I have read thousands of scripts over the years and have had to make the distinction between those that exhibit a high quality of writing and those that don’t. Often I have heard pitches that sounded absolutely fantastic, and I was certain I would want to option the project based on the concept. But then after reading the screenplay, the execution fell short and what initially sounded like a definite sale became a definite pass. Execution has to do with whether or not the concept is successfully executed on the page in terms of character development, structure, set up and dialogue. There are tell-tale signs a writer is a novice who has not yet mastered his or her craft and lacks the skills Hollywood decision-makers seek. The following are tips on how to avoid certain red flags so you can become a better writer and establish yourself as a pro!

DO stay within standard script length — 108 – 114 pages ideally.  A 122 page screenplay is long but still acceptable.

DON’T turn in a script that is 139 pages!  Unless it’s an epic such as Dancing with Wolves, Bravehart or Seven Samurai and you are one of Hollywood’s A-listers at the top of your game, scripts should never be this long.

DON’T write scripts with 20 characters.  If you write a script with 20 characters, you dissipate focus away from your central character, the protagonist with whom we need to connect and engage.

DO write a central character with a strong point of view who will take us on a journey, seeing the world and experiences through their eyes, emotions, actions and reactions.

DON’T write character monologues that take up a whole page.  In fact, avoid writing a character monologue that takes up even half of a page.  This is a tell-tale sign you’re an amateur.  If you feel absolutely compelled to write a long monologue, break it up with visuals such as image motifs that correlate to what is being said and/or other character’s reactions.

DO write compelling, vivid, emotionally engaging, endearing, flawed characters when you first introduce them.  If you don’t care enough about your character to create an interesting portrait of who they are to hook your reader, chances are the person reading your screenplay (an agent, actor, producer, director, executive) won’t care about them either. Introducing a character and only including their age and the color of their hair is another tell-tale sign of an amateur.

DO take pride in your work, making sure there are no typos or grammatical errors and that your script is formatted properly.  How you present your work is a reflection of you.  Always present yourself as a professional and be meticulous.  If you are sloppy and do not care about your work’s professional appearance, neither will your reader and it will wind up in the trash.

DON’T write endless camera angles in your descriptive passages or stage directions with respect to dialogue and the manner in which your character should read a specific line.  Let the director decide how to shoot a scene and let the actor decide how to read the line.

DON’T write expositional dialogue where your characters state exactly what they are thinking and feeling. Human beings in real-life do not speak this way.  Often they are afraid to express how they really feel.  Sometimes they might be passive- aggressive or say the opposite of how they’re feeling.  Writing expositional dialogue or dialogue that is “on the nose” limits characters’ dimensionality and depth.

DO write subtext where characters do not state exactly how they feel.  Examples of great subtext can be found in Harold Pinter’s Old Times and the Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall classic To Have and Have Not.

DO use image motifs, awkward moments and even silent moments to convey mood and emotions.  For example, a lead character sitting in the middle of an empty square surrounded by tall buildings tells us about the character’s isolation, without the character having to actually state that he or she is lonely.  A picture paints a thousand words.  Movies are visual mediums.  Don’t be afraid to use pictures and images to help tell your story.

Content is King, but Execution is God.

For more advice on selling your script from Wendy Kram, get her On Demand Webinar, Get Your Script Sold: Selling Strategies From Script to Greenlight.

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10 thoughts on “Ask the Expert: The Do’s and Don’ts of Screenwriting

  1. Pingback: Ask the Expert: The Do's and Don'ts of Screenwr...

  2. Sophie B

    Got bored so I googled scripts and this website came up, the do’s and don’ts of screenwriting it makes screenwriting sound very difficult! But this is very helpful for people who want to start a career screenwriting, have a question how many scripts would a producer/ or a director get in a week? Or day? :-)

  3. Pete

    I read the bit about “screenplay length”… then I recalled something from the opening classroom scene in Dead Poets’ Society. Robin Williams and some sort of book, I think it was.

  4. Alan Jay Spector

    P.S. — Imagine a movie that is dealing with a romantic relationship. One person says exactly what they feel at the beginning of the movie: “I really am in love with you, but I’m afraid to say it now.” And the other person says: “Now that you said it, I know it and we can get married.”

    And they do. A nice, short, forty five second film.

  5. Alan Jay Spector

    On the nose dialogue might be sometimes necessary, mainly to give an accurate explanation of something that happens off screen. But generally, on the nose dialogue is B-O-R-I-N-G. Speeches are sometimes necessary, but often they are just flat and descriptive. Fiction is based on change, and change is based on tension. There is no tension if the answer is given right at the beginning of any situation. If everyone knows everything, there is no surprise, no change. For information exchange, we need direct, accurate dialogue. To express stress, struggle, change, even in a comedy, actors have to behave the way people do in real life — often indirectly and with metaphor and evasiveness based on apprehension. All an ACCURATE part of life and relationships.

  6. Rick

    A lot of folks complain about “restrictions” like these, but I find the boundaries freeing. And they make for better movies.

    One clarification I’d ask for: The casts of more than 20 you warn against – I assume that refers to significant characters, not including minor cameo-type parts, true?

    Great article. Keep’em coming!

  7. LuAnn Zettle

    This Wendy Kram is one smart lady! She smacked every nailhead on the wall of scriptwriting. I need to set aside writing novels for one year and return to rewrites on my script using Wendy Kram’s do’s and don’ts. As an infant in moviescriptdom I understand now where I’ve broken a few of her don’t, and will hereafter abide by her do’s — some of which I’ve hit dead on.

  8. Amy

    On The Nose dialog: When I was younger, I would watch movies and say to myself…I love the fact that the characters actually said what I wanted to say or hear in that moment. Why is On The Nose so bad? Why shouldn’t we be teaching our audience confidence in sharing what we really think and feel, rather than hiding behind saying what you really want to say is thin?
    Thanks,

  9. Frank Miles

    “I am Story. I AM your God. Thou shalt have no gods before Me!”

    Granted, you execute poorly, that’s gonna hurt your story. But so will gossamer thin characters, clunky plots, and OTN dialog. My point: execution is still in service of something. Most Gods are not much into servitude.

    Leaving that aside, great article, useful specifics, and thank you for your service to the writing community.

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