Good screenwriting tips – really!

Note that this post is targeted to writers, especially budding or semi-experienced screenwriters. I don’t expect a ton of views, but that’s fine, I can make up for that later.

I’ve recently joined Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance, which I highly recommend to anyone who’s serious about writing – and getting better at it. Some members are screenwriters (including me). I hope to contribute what I know to the group, when the time is right.

Onward. 

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Recovery strategy…

Getting over the interminable presidential campaign and election results hasn’t been at all easy for most people I know, but I had my own personal way of dealing with it: to do a revision of my screenplay based on one of my novels, Place. If you’re writing and focusing tightly on the characters, the words, the form, etc., you’re far less likely to wallow in the pits of existential political despair. Saints be praised, it works! I finished the revision, and now it’s off to an agent for her review.

Am I qualified to help you write a better screenplay?

Just barely. I wrote several in the 1980s, a few of which found agency representation and got me one meeting at Paramount, and I also co-wrote (ghost co-wrote) a two-hour HBO special drama that earned an ACE nomination. But the best part is, I have a good friend who has all the credentials, movie credits, and know-how to be a significant help to me – and therefore, second hand, to you.

So here are some solid tips “from the top,” in no particular order:

Formatting

What the screenplay looks like really matters. So:

  • Use Final Draft as your screenplay application. It is the industry standard – the latest version is v. 10. It’s easy to learn and use, it imports from Word, it exports to nearly everything… just go get it.
  • The default font is Courier Final Draft – their own version of Courier – 12 pt. Use it.
  • Length: between 100 and 109 pages is optimal. If you’re new at this racket and send in a 120 pp. screenplay, you’re probably dead in the water.
  • Use Final Draft’s default settings for leading, spacing, margins and page lengths. If you’re running, say, a half or one page over your limit, you can tweak page lengths and margins a wee bit to hit your mark. But not too much.

General stuff…

  • Tell the story, don’t direct it. In olden times, it was okay to suggest camera moves like PAN, WIDE, TILT UP, CRANE DOWN, REVERSE ANGLE, ZOOM, RACK FOCUS and the like, but don’t do this anymore. Tell us what we’re looking at, what people are doing – as succinctly and simply as possible. A SCENE is a general continuous block of time, action, and location, so you don’t need to start a new scene (with a new SCENE HEADING) with every new visual element. Let the director figure it out. Here’s a sample:

PlaceSample

Another example of not directing is to offer a general description of what the scene could look like. In the sample below, I/EXT.  stands for both Interior and Exterior shots of the car on the highway – it’s the director’s call how to shoot it. Maybe they’ll shoot just Hugh and Abby in the car. But they may also want to throw in an aerial shot of the car zooming along:

Sample2

  • Show, don’t Tell: Well, after telling you to “tell the story,” I have to say now you shouldn’t. Show the story, whenever possible. If you want to indicate that a man and woman are on the outs with each other, you could do the whole scene without a single word of dialogue.
  • Every scene needs to propel story and character. There it is.
  • Keep scenes tight. The cliched rule of thumb is to get into a scene as late as possible, and leave it as soon as possible – as long as you get your point across.
  • Dialogue – fresh, crisp – or not. It’s possible to have scenes where people sit around a dining table blithering small talk or detailed accounts of their boring day at work, but only if you’re making an important point about the shallowness of their lives. If your characters are smart, witty, and original, work hard to make them speak that way. Keep it short – unless they’re going on a rant.
  • “Go rogue” – but not much. Break the rules, throw in something astonishing, but do it rarely and only if it helps reveal more about character or mood.

Story Structure

A feature film, a movie, a picture – is a story. Almost invariably, a story (or a novel, or a play, or a short story) has three acts, and you need to have these solidly outlined ahead of time.

Act One establishes characters, essential relationships, and the world they live in. It also includes the introduction of a serious problem or challenge. Act One typically runs the first 25-30 pp. of a screenplay.

Act Two is where lots of writers (I’ve heard over the years) struggle to keep things moving where they need to go. This is where conflict intensifies, complicates, surprises, reverses – whatever the story may involve. It’s easy for Act Two to slow down and go off track – but you can’t let that happen. Act Two typically comes to a close around p. 85 or 90, so it’s by far the largest chunk of the story.

Act Three accelerates action and movement in the direction of success and final resolution. There may be a surprise “wrench” thrown into the works, but in general the protagonists are racing along the right track to get where they need to go. Act Three usually runs about 20 pp.

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Finale…

For years, Chinatown (1974), written by Robert Towne, was considered the gold standard for story construction and screenplay design. It spawned a swarm of imitators… and then other excellent movies came out that broke that mold and went on to inspire still more imitators. And so —

Nobody knows anything.

Screenwriter William Goldman – with too many famous and highly praised movies to his credit mention – wrote a memoir called Adventures in the Screen Trade with the famous line “In Hollywood, nobody knows anything.” Lots of people will say that’s still true. Example:

Not many years ago, someone typed out the entire Casablanca screenplay, retitled it “Rick’s Cafe,” and sent it out to dozens of agencies to see what would happen. All but a very few rejected it for one reason or another, not recognizing such famous lines as “Here’s looking at you, kid,” and others. Only a small handful got the joke.

It’s also been said that selling a screenplay is nearly impossible – like winning the lottery. But then, you can’t win if you don’t play.

Back to food next time. And please visit my website, below!

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Ned White

About Ned White

Ned White is a writer, novelist, crossword puzzle constructor, humorist, traveler through 49 states, and at times a danger in the kitchen. He lives with his wife in South Thomaston.