Magic Bullet: Three Tricks to Get Your Writing to the Studio Level

In this edition of Magic Bullet: Articles That Help You Kick Screenwriting Butt, it’s going to be a bit of a smorgasbord. I’m going to go over three simple tips for making your screenplays LOOK, READ, and FEEL like studio level material.

Ready to go? Let’s do this thing:

1. Make White Space Your Best Friend

In today’s spec market, unknown writers can impress by doing one thing: writing a “fast” read. Sometimes, this can compensate for lack of things like character arcs, or the occasional on-the-nose dialogue. Mind you, this won’t fix poorly plotted or structured stories, but writing a fast or “quick” read can make you seem like more of a seasoned pro than you might be. If you read scripts from the 50s, for instance, it will be light years different from the type of scripts written nowadays, and one of those key differences is how the physical pages of the script look. Back then, they looked much more like novels.  Now, they look like someone took a chop shop to a novel, and left the body of the car on bricks.

white space

White Space - your new BFF

Whether it’s a consequence of our shorter attention spans or not, industry people have even less time than ever to read spec scripts from unknown writers. One of the ways to set yourself apart and become their best friend is to give them a “quick” read. So what does that mean?

On the physical pages of the script, if you’re looking at it visually, you never want the page weighted down with heavy action lines or with heavy dialogue, as this “slows down” the read. This is the biggest culprit to distinguishing between an aspiring writer and a professional one. I’ve said it on these blogs before, but an industry vet can tell in the first couple pages whether “you’ve got it” or not. They have to be adept at sorting through all the bad scripts quickly because there’s a never ending cycle of scripts that hit their desk. In fact, many times industry players will just flip through a script to see how it looks visually to see whether it’s worth their time to read. Don’t give them an excuse to miss reading your work, so make it look good (see: easy to read) visually on the page.

double rainbow

You don't know why this picture is here... yet. But boy will you soon find out.

So, what’s the fluff to cut? You want to cut:

1. Anything we can’t HEAR or SEE on screen

2. Cut anything we don’t need to know to move the story forward

3. Cut anything about your characters or their actions that doesn’t add depth, layers, or insight into their state of mind. I don’t care if they take a drag on a cigarette. I do care if they take a drag on a cigarette in order to impress someone/blend in/etc.

Okay, I know you guys are smart. So I know you got all of that.

Now, here’s where it gets tricky: you also don’t want your pages to look too sparse, where there’s too much white space on the page (for instance, if you have snappy dialogue line after snappy dialogue line with little action breaking it up).

Remember, you’re writing a SCREENPLAY, not a play. We (the reader) and they (the actor/director/producers/etc.) need to know what is actually going on onscreen in between those snappy dialogue bits. Think of the action as a window to show the actors and director what’s going on beneath the surface for each character, and as a way to supplement the subtext in your dialogue.

So you want a good, quick balance of both dialogue and action. My rule of thumb is to always try and stay 3 lines or less with action, and 3 lines or less with dialogue, back and forth, back and forth, and keep it MOVING. This is how you get to “quick” read status.

2. Be Late for the Party, and Then Leave Early

late to the party

The White Rabbit knows this feeling all too well

You may have read this in other places before, but seriously, in EVERY. SINGLE. SCENE. you want to enter late and leave early.

This goes hand in hand with what I was just saying about writing a fast read, but at the end of the day, you don’t want to describe every little thing. Whether its setting, or character actions, or anything else. Give us just the essentials – and no where does this apply more than to entering late and leaving early.

For example, if I had a scene that read:

INT. BARNYARD – MORNING

Brad’s truck pulls to a stop in the yard. He wipes his sweaty brow and puts his handkerchief inside his pocket before getting out of the truck.

Walking across the muddy fields, he squints, looks back at the truck. He takes his handkerchief out of his pocket and wipes his brow again.

The description is entering too early and leaving too late. Instead it should read:

INT. BARNYARD – MORNING

Brad steps out of his truck, sweating bullets. Walking across the open field, he takes a look back at his truck before trudging on.

So you see how all unnecessary elements are eliminated?

I could have cut that down even further, but you get the point. One benefit of entering late and leaving early is that the audience has to catch up with what’s going on, thus engaging them. They’re trying to figure out what they missed before they got to the scene, and maybe even what they missed when they leave a scene early. Creating this mental intrigue may only affect people on a subconscious level, but regardless it makes you look like a pro.

And finally, the granddaddy of tricks to looking like a pro:

neil patrick harris unicorny

You don't yet know why this picture is here...yet. But soon, my friend. Soon.

3. Transitions, Transitions, Transitions.

One of the most overlooked methods of making a script look like James Bond in the Monte Carlo casino is great transitions. It’s not only important to keep the story moving quickly, but how you string and connect scenes together is vital as well. Mastering not only which type of transition to use is just step 1 – even more, knowing WHEN to use them is more valuable. If you put a script in front of me that was chock full of transitions, and then one that placed them ever so perfectly, script B will win every time because too many transitions makes a script look choppy and amateurish.

Transitions aren’t just how one scene flows into the next. There’s method to the madness, and to pick the wrong transition or use it at the wrong time will make it seem like you, the writer, are stepping out in front of your script and smacking me in the face. Instead, you want to place them in such a way as to get the story FLOWING, and for industry vets like myself to go “this guy/gal can really WRITE!”.

It’s almost like the difference between dialogue with subtext, and dialogue that’s too on-the-nose. We may not notice A, but our opinion of the writing falls like an acme anvil when we encounter B. So, for lack of a better term, be subtextual with your transition usage.

So how to decide when to use a transition? Well, first of all, when action A happens, it should naturally lead to Action B, which should smoothly transition to Action C. A poorly used transition feels like HERE IS “A”. OH, THIS MUST MEAN WE DO “B”. OKAY THEN, NOW WE SHOULD DO “C”.

Say what you will about the movie itself (and the creator), but a great example of interesting transitions is the opening 10 minutes of the movie GARDEN STATE. He’s alone in his apartment, he’s at work, and then he’s at the airport, and then he’s halfway across the country – all in a very short time period. That would normally seem choppy, but they use transitions like a voice over of an airport announcer while he’s in the restaurant to transition from one scene to the next. It probably went something like this:

Zach Braff looks depressed and dopey in his waiter uniform.

AIRPORT ANNOUNCER (V.O.)

Flight 765 from Los Angeles arriving in gate B6.

INT. AIRPORT BATHROOM

Zach Braff looks depressed and dopey and turns on some automatic faucets or something.

Okay, so now that we’ve shown you a good transition, let’s talk about some different types of transitions:

  1. An O.S. (off screen) bit of dialogue from the following scene that starts in the previous scene.
  2. An O.S. sound that starts in the previous scene but comes from the next one
  3. A V.O. (voice over) that connects scene A and scene B
  4. Characters making a comment or asking a question about something or someone in the next scene
  5. Visual images that are at the end of one scene and the beginning of another – a bridge, a bird, a table, a shape, anything.

So, the GARDEN STATE example showed what #1 would look like in script format.  Let me show you how the other four would look. Number 2:

Michael starts to write on his computer. The first few notes of “If You Believe In Magic” carry us into…

EXT. DOUBLE RAINBOW MOUNTAIN – DAY

Neil Patrick Harris rides in on a unicorn of awesomeness, belting out “If You Believe In Magic”.

Obviously, there is an argument to be made for not putting actual song titles in your script, but I x-nayed that for the sake of having NPH on a unicorn. Okay, so here’s number 3:

Michael starts to write on his computer.

MICHAEL (V.O.)

Little did I know, what craziness I would create on the page that day.

EXT. DOUBLE RAINBOW MOUNTAIN – DAY

Neil Patrick Harris rides in on a dragon of awesomeness, holding both middle fingers up to the heavens.

I’m having too much fun with this, as you can tell. And while my examples may not be the best writing ever, they do illustrate each transition on the page. Okay, so here’s number 4:

Michael starts writing. Megan looks in over his shoulder.

MEGAN

You’re not really writing Neil Patrick Harris into your Double Rainbow epic, are you?

EXT.  DOUBLE RAINBOW MOUNTAIN – DAY

Neil Patrick Harris rides in on a mythical land manatee – or “Lanatee”.

Obviously, I need to not drink heavily before I write these columns. Okay, so here’s number 5:

Michael starts to write. His right hand starts tapping a rhythm on the desk.

EXT. DOUBLE RAINBOW MOUNTAIN – DAY

A hand on a saddle taps the same rhythm. It’s Neil Patrick Harris, and he’s riding a unicorn of aweso….who cares what he’s riding, there”s a double rainbow!

Now, silliness aside, all of these are fun, little tricks – but if you use them too much it will seem obvious and trite and choppy.

On a side note, you want to stay away from using voice overs in just a spot or two – either you go all out, and you have voice over throughout your script, or don’t have it at all. Many people say that Voice Over is a lazy way to write, or that it’s out of fashion, or any number of other spells of doom. I believe that in some cases, it can be used fantastically – and I’ll leave the VO argument for other people to do what they wish.

So use transitions sparingly, but they are a great way to skip time frames (later in the day, day to night, day to a different day, etc.),  introduce new places we haven’t seen the characters in before, or introducing new characters to the audience.

Despite my flights of fancy with these examples, I hope you got the usefulness of transitions and ideas for different types of transitions to use. In the comments section, if you have other great transition ideas, please share them! I’ll write about them in a future column,  which will hopefully be devoid of NPH and his diabolical double rainbow mountain valley.

As always, if you ever have any questions, please feel free to email me at Michael@scriptawish.com. I’m always happy to help.

Your Four Quadrant High Concept Inspiration for the Day.

Magic Bullet

Dammit blog, not the kind of "magic bullet" I'm talking about. More like a "back, and to the left" kind of thing. Geez.

How to Get Your Script Read By Industry Players

How to Write Studio Quality Dialogue

How to Write Studio Quality Action Lines

How to Write an Industry Bait Logline

How to Write an Industry Bait Query Letter

How to Determine if Your Movie Concept is Commercial

Need Editing Tips? Get 5 Top Reasons to Take Rewriting Seriously plus our FREE Rewrite Checklist Download

get-my-free-download-blue

12 thoughts on “Magic Bullet: Three Tricks to Get Your Writing to the Studio Level

  1. Pingback: 3 Tips for Getting Your Script to the Studio Level | LA Screenwriter

  2. Sam Mills

    Here’s a transition from my notebook:

    The beard “paste” in a man’s safety razor goes from black to salt ‘n’ pepper to gray to white – this spanning a lifetime. Might use it in a story like THE NOTEBOOK to come out of the flashback story into the framing story.

    In a horror script of mine – A woman reading in bed – when in XCU, we see a MOSQUITO fill with blood – and the woman’s HAND SLAPS it – which becomes the SLAM of an open window in the living room. But it’s night now, and her eyes are big and white with fear as she looks around the dark, first-floor room. Is someone in there…?

    Sam Mills
    Author
    THE MONEY TREE

  3. Michael FerrisMichael Ferris

    @Anika

    Thank you so much! As a fan of The Simmons (as he’s known around my household), that’s very flattering. Feel free to check out the articles on dialogue and action lines if you want to get into the more nitty gritty of how to polish your script down to 3 lines and 3 lines.

  4. Anika Contos

    Bill Simmons…Is that you?!
    GREAT article, the best advice I have received to date (that wasn’t helping me make my football picks!). I am in the habit of writing screenplays like a novel, and didn’t really know how to combat this until now. How perfectly put: 3 lines of dialogue, 3 lines of action. I love it, and am going to go beat my script down right now. Thank you for such a comprehensive and entertaining article!

  5. Bob Woods

    I’m becoming a real fan of yours, Michael. I really like your technique of using examples to illustrate the points you’re explaining in your articles. I’m a new screenwriter in an old man’s body, so your easy to understand advice is a big help.

    Keep up the good work!

  6. K.Rowe

    Oh my, sounds like some of my blogs- and I do tend to write with beer in hand! But good advice. The little things are so important, and we often overlook them.

    I’m off to NYC tomorrow for a screenwriting seminar. Hope I can learn a few more things and network some. Don’t have a completed script, but a completed novel ready to adapt.

  7. John Washco

    Nice! Just what I needed to put the final tweeks (hopefully) on my Screenplay. Adam did a great job on the Studio Notes for the first draft and gave me valuable advice to really tighten it up. I’m getting better at making the transition from 20 years of Police Reports to Screenplays. Thanks again for all your valuable information.

COMMENT