Indievelopment: The Screenwriting Rules – Round 2

Last week, I wrote a column about rules and how they mattered, regardless of whether you were aiming for Hollywood or indie. By and large, people liked it. I got a lot of kind words, which was nice, and appreciated. But for a few folks, it caused some… discussion.

Some people just didn’t read the article, and those folks I don’t care so much about; the Internet is full of people looking for arguments. But some did and misunderstood where the article was coming from. I don’t mind disagreement, but it seemed like some were disagreeing with things I hadn’t written. I probably should have made it a two-part article so I could give more context; it was 2,000 words to start with, and that’s pretty long, so I didn’t have room to further elaborate and explain. So, to make up for a long one last week, here’s a short one to clarify.

That was about rewrites

I probably should have had this at the start of the previous article. Anything that talks about shaping writing style is not talking about first drafts. Sure, any style you work with will start to become automatic, but you shouldn’t consciously think of anything but your story initially. Seriously; blast it out. Pound those keys. Get your pages done. This stage isn’t about style; it’s about burying blank pages under an avalanche of words. If you put a big “NO -ING WORDS” filter on your first draft, you’ll probably get all tied up in knots. Let the words flow, whatever they are.

Enhancing your language in highly specific ways like the ones I mentioned is for your rewrite. It isn’t even really for your second draft; it’s final polish stuff. It’s putting the shine on the diamond, not carving off the facets. Get your characters down, your theme, your beats and arcs and symbols and pacing… then, just before you PDF it to send out, polish that language.

Don’t muffle your voice

If your individual voice consists of taking the reader on a roller coaster ride of “We see”, then go nuts. Have fun, knock ’em dead, write your ass off. Some people either didn’t read the article or didn’t understand that I said there was only one rule you couldn’t mess with: formatting. Everything else was don’t do this UNLESS YOU HAVE A GOOD REASON.

And “that is absolutely critical to my individual voice” is a good reason! In fact, it’s the best reason!

What is NOT a good reason is “It is absolutely critical to Famous Hollywood Person’s voice and I wanna be like them, so I’m going to do it too.” That’s a crappy reason. We already HAVE their voice; if all you’re going to do is imitate, save your time and ours. We want your voice, and don’t muffle your voice if that is truly a part of it. But… do take a look at it. Because maybe your voice can be better. Leaner. Stronger. (Cue Six Million Dollar Man music)

Some care about details, some don’t

Some people rush at the canvas, slap paint on it in a frenzy, and call it good. Others tweak every brush stroke, examine every bit of pigment. Both types sell paintings. When I write a script, I try to make sure that every word gives maximum impact. I haven’t always succeeded, but I try. Some people just don’t care about that. And some of those people who don’t care are readers, producers, big name writers. And yeah, a single “Joe is walking” will not get your script thrown in the trash. Neither will a dozen. And if it’s clear to the reader that your story is brilliant, then “We See” doesn’t matter.

BUT.

I think a script filled with immediate language, with well-constructed indications (rather than descriptions) of camera movement and scene establishment, with strong active actions is better than one filled with “is walking” and “we see”. I think it makes the story more immediate for the reader. I think it pulls us into the story and doesn’t make us feel like we’re ‘reading a movie’. I think a script where every single word is deliberate, when every image has been constructed by someone doing their very best at their craft, has value. When I see a lot of “is walking’ and “We see” and all the rest, I tend to think “amateur”. And yes, I really don’t care who wrote it. I don’t care if they have Oscars on their shelves. I really truly don’t; unless their writing shows me why they wrote it that way, I think they’re being lazy and I don’t give a damn what their box office was or what star director loves them. Sometimes, the laziest artists can be the richest.

My views on writing are based on my own experience, as a writer, as a reader, as a producer, as a director, as an audience member. They’re my own. And they don’t ever include me thinking “Well, an artist doesn’t need to keep improving”, and I hope the Hollywood folks don’t think like that too. So no one is immune from learning. Not me, not you, not Hollywood. (Given the crap being tossed into multiplexes, it seems Hollywood especially could benefit from learning, but let’s face it: ‘we see’ ain’t their problem at this point.)

In that column, I put forward specific examples explaining why I think the way I do, with reasons based on both language and drama. If you think differently, then more power to you. But don’t be lazy. If you disagree, know why. Understand your craft. Write well. In the words of Chuck Wendig, Art Harder. If you know a reason why you want to disregard everything I said, or anything anyone says, then by all means do so.

But do it for a reason.

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6 thoughts on “Indievelopment: The Screenwriting Rules – Round 2

  1. LisaChapman

    I found both the first and follow up on this really helpful. I was able to go back and clean up my work and definitely found it to read better after applying your advice. Thanks!

  2. Jeff RichardsJeff Richards Post author

    Agreed, it’s ill-defined. Part of this is because terms vary depending on who you talk to. For example, what one person calls an outline, another might call a treatment.

    A spec script is anything you’ve written without being hired to write it; you’ve written it “on spec”. Until you’ve optioned it, it stays a spec script.

    While my experience is in indie rather than Hollywood, there we tend not to use first, second, third draft. We tend to use dated rewrites. “Have you got the latest rewrite?” “Is it the November 12th one?” That sort of thing. There are reasons for that; the first is that rewrites can pile up and the “first, second, third” can quickly become unwieldy. The second is that people will judge a script based on draft numbers, and the window is narrow. First and second drafts are considered lousy, and once you get into sixth and seventh drafts, it sounds like you’re searching for the story and haven’t found it (even though I’ve done beyond seven drafts at times as projects have advanced and, for example, new directors are attached,)

    I’d love to say the rule is option, first rewrite, second rewrite, production draft and shoot, but unless the contract is iron-clad for that, I’ve rarely seen it work that way. Fundamentally, I think the terminology shifts depending on where you are, especially for indie, and so the books focus on writing the best script you can rather than nomenclature.

  3. ScifiAliens

    There’s far less information ‘out there’ about the different phases of a screenplay than a person might think. I’d devoured at least a dozen books by professional screenwriters before someone addressed the issue of a spec draft vs. the first rewrite (after the script has been been sold or optioned,) the second rewrite and the production draft. In that context, even a polished screenplay remains a spec script until it sells. (Correct me if I’m wrong. I’m willing to learn.)

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