Remember the thrill of sitting in a darkened movie theatre, the film about to start, and being surrounded by the spine-tingling sound of the THX trademark? It left audiences primed for the ultimate movie-going experience. Thank you, George Lucas.
Now have the THX experience in your home and even your car, but there’s nothing quite like the electrifying sensation of sitting amidst an audience, gathered in the dark, hushed and expectant, when suddenly that sound whooshes around the room.
While THX has disappeared from movie theatres, it’s hard to forget the distinctive glide from pitch to pitch. That rich crescendo known as the “Deep Note.” If it’s been too long for you to recall, take a listen here. Go ahead; I’ll wait.
Goose bumps, right?
To become a THX-certified theater, every seat had to offer undistorted sound, top-notch projection and an unobstructed, optimally angled view of the screen. THX became synonymous with an exceptional theatrical experience.
Let that high standard set the bar for your own work. Before your script becomes a cinematic masterpiece, it must be a piece of masterful writing.
Every page of your script should be an exceptional reading experience. Nothing should prevent your reader from getting swept up in the flow of reading and being utterly absorbed by your story.
Stop Fixating On Format Over Content
Many online writing groups have become forums for obsessing over page count, appropriate length of description, use of camera angles and more. If you don’t have these basics down, you don’t have a solid grasp of the fundamentals of how to write a screenplay. As they say in Monopoly, “Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.” Do not start writing before you have learned craft.
Use a respected screenwriting software program. Read contemporary, professional scripts. Keep it clean and crisp.
Let’s dispense with these debates, once and for all, so you can focus on creating a great reading experience that doesn’t force the reader’s eyes to cross.
Do NOT go CRAZY with CAPS
Once done to highlight sound effects for shooting purposes, “We HEAR a horn BEEP,” this is now considered dated and distracting. Occasionally, there will be something significant that merits all caps. OCCASIONALLY. If so, by all means, go ahead, but use restraint.
2 Do not use scene numbers 2
They are only used in a Shooting Script, so that it can be broken down into a shooting schedule and budgeted. You are writing a Selling Script. Like a fifth table leg, scene numbers are useless here except to call attention to a novice writer.
Do not make us struggle with who’s who
When a character is first introduced, their NAME appears in all caps in description – just that one time. We get it – a new character is on the scene. If they are a “one scene only,” minor character, then they can be a “FRUMPY WAITRESS.” If they are going to appear repeatedly, give them a name – even if it’s “NICK THE BARTENDER.”
Refer to your characters consistently. It should match in description and in sluglines. If he’s “Detective Miller,” then he should always appear as “Detective Miller.” I beg you, don’t switch from “John” to “Miller” to “Detective.” The only exception is dialogue. If his wife calls him “Johnnie,” then fair enough. Otherwise, keep it uniform.
Character names should not be extremely similar. It forces the reader to read every single letter on the page – and that’s just not how reading happens in the mind. Our eyes flow across and down the page, our brain sees part of a word and fills in the rest.
The names of your hero and of the major roles should be conscious choices that are appropriate to the character. This is another opportunity to make your characters distinctive.
Names take on even greater importance in an ensemble. The more similar the characters are, the more distinctive their names should be. No group of twenty-somethings named JOHN, JEFF, JOEY and JACK. Jeez…
Do not skip over setting the scene in description
“EXT. DIVE BAR – NIGHT”
Even if we do read that, l-e-t-t-e-r f-o-r l-e-t-t-e-r, one or two words are insufficient to set the stage. Your job is to put a picture in the reader’s mind. Without some description, we might not know where we are, or you may force our eyes to travel backward on the page to figure it out. Buzzkill for the reading experience.
Your choice of location should be a deliberate decision that enhances the scene. Please use the first line of description to adequately establish where the heck we are. A compact, yet vivid phrase creates atmosphere, establishes tone, boosts context and can even reveal character. “Tom swaggers through the doors of a sleazy dive bar, only to find it packed with weathered regulars, who turn to stare at the intruder.”
Do not buy into the myth that shorter is always better
Yes, I get a sinking feeling when I open a script and the page count is 128 or more. I’m in for a long read. But it could be a great read.
Over 140 pages and you’ve convinced me that either you are not writing a script for a theatrical film, or that you do not know how to do so.
Coming in at 90-something pages doesn’t automatically earn you brownie points either. Unless you’re writing a family film, where most of the audience won’t be able to sit still in their seats for a good ten minutes – much less an hour and half.
While lean is good, I often find in very low page count screenplays that the writer has cut the content and context to the bone. These scripts often feel thin and lack a sense of rich visuals, complex characters, and fully explored themes. Saddest of all – often they were there in the first place – in an earlier draft – but the writer cut what they thought was extraneous to ill effect.
Those of us who read scripts are more concerned with screenwriting and storytelling ability than page numbers. While you should keep the conventions of your genre in mind, we know that any script is going to go through a great number of rewrites, both in development and in production, before it hits the movie theater.
Dispense with the endless debates over formatting details and devote your energy to telling an engrossing story with engaging characters that draw us into their unique world and make us want to go along for the ride.
See The Forest And The Trees
Now we can focus on some of the most troubling writing problems I regularly encounter – even in scripts that the writer considers polished. Readers train themselves to overlook the minor missteps I’ve just described, but these flaws can be fatal to the reading experience — and the chance your script will become a movie.
Believing the audience is stupid
Chances are, you aren’t reinventing that circular object that revolves on an axle and is located below a vehicle, enabling it to move easily over the ground. If by chance you are, then the audience will figure it out pretty damn quick.
According to Glenn Gers, writer of Fracture, Mad Money and the upcoming Zorro Reborn, if your characters are explaining, you are already in trouble. “It means there is a hole or a mess somewhere earlier,” Gers says. He urges writers to aim for “revelation.” This is “a dramatic action – not an explanation.”
Say you’re tackling a variation on that familiar noir scene where the character hires a PI. “I’ve come here today, to your office, to hire you as a private detective because my husband has been acting strangely lately and I want to find out if he married me for my money and is having an affair with another woman.” I almost dozed off for a moment there myself.
What’s your alternative? Show us the moment sparks her suspicions. Ah, a reveal! Action and reaction tops telling.
On the set of the first Iron Man movie, shooting stopped for an intense pow-wow between director Jon Favreau, writers Mark Fergus and Hawk Otsby, and star Robert Downey Jr. They were at a crucial scene revealing how the new superhero would use his powers. This impressive group brainstormed extensively to come up with a scene to convey this to the audience. Then, when the cameras were rolling, Downey tossed out a single, improvised line and viola! Done.
Get it? Got it? Good!
Assuming the reader is psychic
More painful than overwriting is underwriting. It’s in your head, but it’s not on the page.
I run across this most often when I’m doing a script consult with a writer who has been working on their material for a long time. In our discussion of the script, I’ll point out something that I didn’t understand about the story, and the writer will say, “But didn’t you notice that the hero’s shoelaces were double knotted? It’s on page 12.”
Umm, not really, because it was presented as a minor, rather than a meaningful detail. Maybe if you had shown the character determinedly double knotting. I would never have made the leap from there to grasping that the character was uptight, high-strung and the product of a domineering mother – which, the writer explains to me, is because it is essential to interpreting the character. It informs their arc, which illustrates the theme, which is the heart of the story. Good to know!
These writers have spent so much time with their characters that they know them inside and out. They can tell you what their hero had for lunch the day before the story began. That’s great. But the reader has nothing to go on other than the words on the page – description and dialogue.
And then there’s the “cut to the bone” script. Trying to create a “fast read,” the writer strips out every extraneous word. The result is not a page-turner but a script that feels thin, flat and vague. There’s not enough description to make characters and settings distinctive. The entire piece is bland and colorless, when we’re longing for something rich and flavorful.
If it’s important, get it in on the page so it will be in the frame.
Thinking that shortcut writing cuts it
Writing is hard work. Keeping every element of your script at a high level of execution to create a consistently great reading experience is a daunting task.
After a while, you’re worn out.
Each and every scene should be your best work.
I recently did a consult where my client had worked very hard on some vivid and resonant scenes but skimped in other places. To help him understand, I gave examples of both from the script.
One scene stood out in my mind because it was cinematic, lean and yet very effective at conveying setting, tone and character. Bravo! Another scene ended with “Joe exits.” What is this, a play? The hero is leaving. Why? How? What is the meaning of his action? We can’t infer anything from “Joe exits.”
Your words are the blueprint for a film. Do the work and make every moment a visually moving and an emotionally moving picture.
Being a writer means plenty of heavy lifting. No short cuts, except for those unpaved roads that lead your heroes on an amazing adventure.
Want more No-Nos that keep you from looking like a pro? Check out what Dr. Paige Turner has to say on the subject of what ticks her off in a screenplay here. When it comes to pet peeves, Paige doesn’t pussyfoot around!
- More articles by Barri Evins
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