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The Art Of Words: So You Wanna Write A Screenplay
A screenplay (or play, teleplay, TV episodic script, etc.) is, simply put, a visual story told through words. You write down words to describe the settings and action, and dialogue for characters to say. Sounds simple, right? Well, writing in these arenas is deceptively difficult. A good story covers many more bases than just boy-meets-girl, hero-saves-world, girl-changes-her-life-for-the-better, etc. A good story speaks to many people in many different ways, and leaves an impression that (hopefully) can last a lifetime.
First question: why do you want to tell your story? There are many reasons to write a story, but whatever your reason, know why you want to write your particular tale. Is it a story that is personal to you? A story that you believe many people can relate to? A story you know in your heart people are dying to see on stage or screen? A big mistake a lot of writers make is the "writing to make a million" idea. This angle has bitten more writers, producers, directors, and studios in the behind more times than most are willing to admit. So be careful taking the "writing to make a million" approach. Know the reason you are passionate about writing your story, because as you commit days/weeks/months/years to a project, that passion will make the path to completing the story a little easier. So, now that you know why you're writing your epic, the next step is to -
LEARN THE CRAFT OF WRITING. Writing is a profession. To be taken seriously as a writer, you should approach it seriously. And if you're going to write a story to present to professionals, your story better look professional. Learn everything you can about writing, study how to properly structure story components, and what it really takes to make a solid, compelling tale. Think about the stories you like to read, shows and movies you like to watch. There is something inherently alluring about them, something that speaks to you on a deeper level than just visual stimulus, and a reason why you return to see, read or watch them again, and again.
There are so many good books, videos, seminars, produced scripts, schools, script reading services, script doctoring services (the list goes on), that I don't need to stand on a soapbox and say "Do it this way". How to decipher which to read or pay for is up to you, so do thorough research when looking for the right ones. A book you will hear a lot about in your research is Story by Robert McKee. It's an epic tome that lays out many of the best and most functional aspects of writing and the approach to writing. I recommend it, but I won't say it's the end-all-be-all guide on how to write. (A personal note - I don't endorse any book, video, seminar, etc., because everyone has different needs to develop their own writing style. I am happy to make recommendations).
Research and preparation are your friends at the beginning of the writing process. Use them well, and get that story off to the write start.
Learn to write - better.
Wait, what? Didn't I just say to learn the craft, do all the necessary research and preparation on which writing books/seminars/videos to read/view? Yes, I did. And all those things will help you get your script going. But -
EVERYONE has a learning curve when it comes to creative writing. Understanding this is crucial, especially when you're just starting out. Why? Because writing can be frustrating, infuriating, and discouraging. But if you realize that no one is brilliant right off the bat, and you know that the best writers from Hemingway to Sorkin have had the same struggles and frustrations, yet persevered and created the stories and films we all love, it makes the whole learning curve easier to endure.
The saying that "writing is re-writng" may be the truest statement ever made about the creative process. Why do we re-write? Because no matter how good our work is, it can be better. There's always a new idea or twist, or something that can be trimmed or re-worded. And this is because, with extremely rare exception, no one's first draft* is good enough to sell right away. Think of it as a painter whom constantly adds even the smallest of strokes to their painting time and again, because they know in their hearts the piece isn't yet finished. If you're honest with yourself, you'll know when your work is truly ready to present to agents, or producers. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
As I mentioned - be honest with yourself. Writing is hard enough without turning a blind eye to inherent structural flaws or thin character development. So be honest enough to know when something isn't working in the overall story arc. Honest enough to know if you've written too much or too little to tell your tale. Honest enough to know when a character isn't panning out, or when the B or C story isn't going anywhere and dragging down the pace of A story. Because when the whole story works together, you can have a great movie -
Example: Die Hard
A story: New York detective John McClane is forced into action when thieves at his wife's office party take hostages, including McClane's estranged wife.
B story: McClane came out to Los Angeles so he and his wife can try to work things out in their troubled marriage.
C story: A disgraced beat cop in need of redemption is McClane's only link to the world outside the Nakatomi building.
D story: A sleazy, opportunistic reporter tries to get the scoop of a lifetime on the hostage situation.
There are actually a few more sub-plots, but I limited it to these four to make my point. If you've seen the movie you know that each of these plots fully supports the other, and as you watch the movie unfold, the story as a whole works better because of it. If McClane's wife didn't care, or helped the thieves capture McClane, it would've been a completely different and unsatisfying movie. If McClane decided the odds against him were too great, and abandoned the hostages to call the police from the AM/PM down the street, the movie wouldn't work. If the reporter doesn't try to advance his career by taking a news van to the Nakatomi building, thereby alerting the police by broadcasting the gunfights on live TV, the story would end with the thieves getting the better of McClane. If the script's structure was lax or lazy, or if any of these plots don't fully support the other, the entire story/movie would fail.
* A helpful hint - DO NOT put draft numbers and dates on your scripts, until you are paid to do it. Producers don't care how many drafts it's taken you to get your work ready to show them. They only care about production drafts. That means, as far as a producer is concerned, every draft is a first draft until the script has been purchased.
There. The script is done. Not a single word more could possibly be added or removed... or could it? The story is tightly written and compelling and balanced... or is it? Let's find out.
Rule #1: Is it properly formatted? The script has to meet the industry standard, whatever the current standard is. Screenwriting (and writing in general) is an evolving art form, which means formats evolve, as well. If you've done your research, your format should reflect the latest standard. (A word of caution: if you are formating your story from a produced script - depending on when that script was written - the format may no longer be the standard. Also, there are commissioned scripts that are studio or film specific, meaning that particular script's format may have been rendered for that specific project). We've checked the format, now -
Rule #2: Are there any typos, misspellings, bad punctuation, wrong word usage (i.e. your vs. you're; there vs. they're vs. their; etc.)? Is the title page properly formatted (yes, the title page is also formatted)? All these items are part of the writing process, and should be addressed accordingly. The physical appearance of your script is as important as the story itself. Why? Because it's the first introduction an agent/actor/producer/director/studio has to your skill set as a writer, and you have to impress them right off the bat. I can't stress this enough.
Rule #3: Is the story really as good as you can make it? I recommend reading your script as many times as possible before you present it to anyone professionally. Have friends and family whose opinions you trust read it. You may want to have your script professionally covered, meaning a service you pay for will read it and critique it. Another option may be to have actors from an acting class/school/troupe/playhouse do a "table read". A table read can be helpful because you hear the characters say your words out loud, and it can help you decide which dialogue works and which doesn't. Many scripts have crashed and burned because they were presented before they were truly ready. Do all you can to avoid this fate.
Rule #4: Is your work registered with the Writer's Guild, or Library of Congress? Protect your work, protect your work, protect your work. And if you're still missing my point - PROTECT YOUR WORK. If you've spent any signicant time at all working on a story, you owe to yourself to take this step. There are other services that claim to protect your intellectual property, and they may well do that. It's up to you to investigate them. But I would, at the very least, register with the WGA. It's only $20, and well worth the peace of mind.
Here are a few recommendations that I believe will be helpful:
(Note: I have no affiliation with any of these entities.)
Poetics - Aristotle
The Elements Of Style - Strunk, White, and Angell
Story - Robert McKee
The Writer's Journey - Chris Vogel
Screenwriting: The Art, Craft, and Business - Richard Walter
Adventures In The Screen Trade - William Goldman
Writing Movies For Fun And Profit - Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon
Maverick Screenwriting - Josh Golding
Writing Screenplays That Sell - Michael Hauge
Tales From The Script - Peter Hanson
Writer's Guild Of America - www.wga.org - register your script!
Screenplay.com - www.screenplay.com - Movie Magic Screenwriter 6
The Writer's Store - www.writersstore.com - writing software, books, seminars, etc.
WordPlay - www.wordplayer.com - website of writers Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio
Zoetrope - www.zoetrope.com - Francis Ford Coppola's company website
Film Independent - www.filmindependent.org - for independent filmmakers/writers
JoBlo's Movie Scripts - http://www.joblo.com/moviescripts.php - film scripts
Simply Scripts - www.simplyscripts.com - library of produced and unproduced scripts
The Script Mentor - www.thescriptmentor.com - script mentoring and coverage
SpecScout - www.specscout.com - a spec script sales tracking service.
Recommended script reads (no particular order):
Pulp Fiction - Quentin Tarantino
Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid - William Goldman
The Godfather - Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola
The Matrix - The Wachowskis
The Bourne Identity - Tony Gilroy
The Dark Knight - Christopher Nolan & Jonathan Nolan
Alien - Walter Hill and David Giler
True Grit - Joel Cohen & Ethan Cohen
Shakespeare In Love - Marc Norman & Tom Stoppard
Shutter Island - Laeta Kalogridis
A few quotes:
Whatever you do, be so good they can't ignore you - Steve Martin
Writing is its own reward - Henry Miller
Prose is architecture, not interior design - Ernest Hemingway
I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil - Truman Capote
The reward of a thing well done is to have done it - Dorothy Parker
Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass - Anton Chekhov
We do not write because we want to, we write because we have to - Somerset Maugham
Don't let what you can't do interfere with what you can - John Wooden
Courage is resistance to fear, not the absence of it - Mark Twain
Never use a long word where a short one will do - George Orwell
Learn what you need to know, before you learn what you want to know - Charles Dalrymple
There are literally dozens more recommendations I could make about great books on writing, script services, scripts and more. But I would rather limit my recommendations to a choice few, and not overwhelm anyone.
I hope this information has been helpful. Best of luck.