Rebecca Norris is a writer and filmmaker with her production company Freebird Entertainment. Her award-winning self-produced feature film, Cloudy With a Chance of Sunshine, is currently on the festival circuit and will be distributed on Streaming and DVD in July 2017. Rebecca is also a busy script analyst who has read for multiple contests and production companies, as well as her own script consultancy, Script Authority. Follow Rebecca’s posts on Twitter at @beckaroohoo and at #ScriptTip!
Screenwriting contest and fellowship season is rapidly coming to a close, and, if you can believe it, next year’s contests are already primed to open in the coming months. As a script consultant and script reader, I’ve read many contest and fellowship-bound scripts, and have been tweeting some advice from the trenches at #ScriptTip on Twitter to help writers prep for success. (Read my earlier #ScriptTip article here.)
If you want to submit for that very last extended deadline for this year, or get your script in fighting shape for new deadlines in the fall, read on for more nuggets to help you get ahead!
#ScriptTip #4: Make sure characters have their own distinct dialogue. Read out loud to ensure they don’t sound the same.
In real life, does everyone you speak to sound exactly the same? Of course not. Everyone has a unique way of speaking, colored by his or her accent or regional dialect, inflection, and word choice. Not to mention his or her birthplace, environment, socioeconomic level, and social and familial situation.
Slang and catchphrases also vary from city to city, state to state, and country to country. My husband is originally from Canada, and has his own colloquialisms from his upbringing. He often misquotes American catchphrases because he didn’t grow up with them. (This has spawned many laughs and inside jokes in our household.)
Your character’s unique makeup will determine how he or she speaks. That’s why it’s best to come up with fleshed-out character bios before you start writing. That way you can help avoid falling into the “your dialogue sounds unnatural” and “your characters all sound the same” traps.
Another way to avoid those traps is to do table reads of your scripts before sending them out to contests and fellowships. Call a few friends over, supply some pizza, and have at it. If you can’t find anyone to help you out, simply reading your dialogue out loud yourself is a helpful way to hear if it sounds natural and differentiated. If you own Final Draft, you can use the Assign Voices and Speech Control functions to have the program read your script out loud for you.
#ScriptTip #5: When introducing characters, describe their essences rather than the outfits they’re wearing.
I touched on this in my last article, but it’s worth diving into further. Many writers struggle when they’re first starting out when it comes to writing engaging character descriptions.
Luckily, it’s relatively easy to improve these intros. Let me illustrate with an example:
ALISHA, mid-30s, walks into the room. She is 5’10” with long brown hair and hazel eyes. She is wearing a black gown, red high heels, and is carrying a red Prada purse. She is also wearing a silver necklace and matching silver earrings. She is also carrying a small dog.
Can you just see the A-list actresses lining up to play this role?
The problem with writing a laundry list of physical attributes and clothing is that neither is under the writer’s control. The writer has no idea who the studio, producer, or director will cast in the roles. The writer also has no idea what the costume designer will design. Therefore, narrowing the look of the character so specifically isn’t doing anyone any favors.
Additionally, it’s not entertaining to read introductions like this. It doesn’t tell the reader or audience anything about the character. And worse, it wouldn’t attract an actor to play the part. Actors want to play interesting and varied characters, and listing out every detail of the outfits they’re wearing isn’t exactly going to get them psyched about signing on to your project.
It’s best to instead provide the essence of the character’s personality, and hint at clothing choices if it’s needed for the scene. If a character is wearing a specific costume that needs to be addressed, then obviously, include that information. Otherwise, less is more.
Let’s see if we can rewrite our example with a little more pizazz:
The doors part and ALISHA (mid-30s) saunters in. A picture of elegance in her black gown, she easily commands everyone’s attention, especially the men’s. With her Pekingese in one hand and Prada purse in the other, she finds a seat at the bar and doesn’t waste a second before flirting with the gentlemen next to her.
Now we have a little more to work with. We have much more of a sense of the character’s personality and essence, and still get the point across that she’s dressed up without spelling it all out.
#ScriptTip #6: Read great scripts by pros (easily found online) to study action, dialogue, & format b4 writing your own.
Let’s say you had a lifelong dream of becoming a great painter. Could you buy some canvases and paints and throw something together one day? Sure. But you’d probably be better off taking a few classes, reading some books and blogs, watching some videos, and studying the work of the great painters to get an understanding of technique.
The same is true for writing, yet sometimes people want to skip past the steps of learning craft and technique and dive right into writing scripts and sending them out to contests, fellowships, agents, and managers. Like with beginning painters, those early scripts are unlikely to be your best work. It takes time to acquire a skill set and the tools and techniques that are ultimately going to allow you to succeed.
Luckily, unlike painting, you don’t need expensive easels, canvases, paints, and brushes to get started. You don’t need to pay admission to museums or art shows. All you need is the Internet, and you can study thousands of great screenplays and teleplays for free.
Want to read many of the Oscar-winning and Oscar-nominated screenplays for the last several decades? Check out SimplyScripts.com. Want to read TV pilot and series scripts from new and old series, both from the US and UK? This site here is an absolute gold mine for these often hard-to-find teleplays. For thousands of free scripts and transcripts for both film and TV, Drew’s Script-o-rama is an oldie-but-goodie resource that has been around since the 90s. You’ll find a ton of PDFs and transcripts that you can download or read at no cost.
If you live in LA, you can go to the WGA Foundation Library and read scripts for free. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, the organization that puts on the Oscars, has the Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills, which houses an extensive collection of scripts. It’s free and open to the public, so you can read work by the greats ‘til your heart’s content.
With an abundance of resources at our fingertips, it’s easy to study the technique and craft of screenwriting. There’s even free software out there to help writers format correctly, such as the basic versions of Celtx, WriterDuet, and Trelby.
Yet even with all of these resources, you’d be surprised how often I see improperly formatted scripts as contest entries. Almost every contest has a category for Format or Presentation. This is the easiest place to get points to help advance your script, yet many writers lose points here based on improper formatting or sloppy presentation. So be sure to read a screenwriting formatting book and professional scripts so that when you’re submitting to contests, your script stands out in a good way.