It’s happened to the best of us. We walk out of a movie theater thinking “I could have written something better than that!”. Or we see a story in a newspaper and think “that would make a great movie!”. However the thought pops into your mind, as a writer, every now and again, a little visual voice in the back of our heads say “Hey! Hollywood! Have I got a movie for you!”
So, for all you writers out there who have even a passing interest in writing a screenplay, this article is the A to Z guide to helping you turn your usual beautiful prose into a great script for a film:
Guest column by Michael Ferris. A former Hollywood Lit Manager, Michael started ScriptAWish.com as a way to help other writers get their foot in the door and has helped several writers sell their scripts (like Travis Beacham of PACIFIC RIM) and set up projects with producers like Academy Award Winner Arnold Kopelson. His new Studio Networking and Screenwriting Conference (StudioNetworkingConference.com) is a weekend event geared towards helping writers learn how to write screenplays and get direct access to producers, agents, managers, and other professional writers.
When I was a kid, my uncle showed me the script for Casablanca. Even though I was an avid reader, I thought I was looking at a foreign document. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before, and it made absolutely no sense to me. Over time, as I read more and more screenplays, I began to understand the ebb and flow, the rhyme and reason.
As authors, most of the rules we’re taught go out the window when writing a script. Do this, don’t do that, definitely don’t do THAT – all of that goes out the window. It can get confusing. So, allow me to assuage your anxiety. Let’s get into the nitty gritty details:
Every paragraph of action lines should be 3 lines or less.
No Tom Clancys allowed! Entire scripts, as a rule, are like poems. As such, you use the least amount of words possible, and don’t spend any time describing action or setting than we need to move the story forward. Every now and again, you can describe something that helps to round out a character, but keep it brief and rare.
Character backstory and motivations will come to be understood through their actions and dialogue, as opposed to in the prose of the description.
As well, remember to keep everything in present tense. This keeps things moving – which is really the only name of the game.
The best screenwriters keep their action description at two lines per paragraph throughout most of the script, while still describing a heck of a lot.
Remember, you should only describe the things we can actually SEE or HEAR onscreen. Anything else is superfluous, and in the interest of using as few words as possible, it’s encouraged for you to use short sentences with terse description. It’s encouraged for you to use evocative verbs that paint word pictures.
Here are some examples from the opening to the screenplay for SAVING PRIVATE RYAN:
The THUNDEROUS SOUNDS OF A MASSIVE NAVAL BARRAGE are heard. The power is astonishing. It roars through the body, blows back the hair and rattles the ears.
The ROAR OF NAVAL GUNS continues but now WE SEE THEM FIRING. Huge fifteen inch guns.
SWARM OF LANDING CRAFT Heads directly into a nightmare.
MASSIVE EXPLOSIONS from German artillery shells and mined obstacles tear apart the beach.
Hundreds of German machine guns, loaded with TRACERS, pour out a red snowstorm of bullets.
THE CLIFFS at the far end, a ninety-foot drop. Topped by bunkers. Ringed by fortified machine gun nests. A clear line-of-fire down the entire beach.
Notice how the verbs paint a vivid picture. “SWARM of landing craft”. “Tracers POUR OUT a red snow storm of bullets”. We can see the carnage in our heads, and all in very little time and page space.
Also notice how some of the sentences would be considered incomplete, or grammatically incorrect. While it might be a cardinal sin in a book, for screenplays it’s encouraged because we can SEE IT in our minds – which is the point.
This is how aspiring writers need to execute their script if they are to be taken seriously.
If you can use an arresting verb in place of a ho-hum or standard one, DO IT. For a simple example, it’s much more interesting to read, “The script slides across the table” than “the script gets passed across the table”.
Every single one of those four aspects is important (short sentences, terse description, easy to visualize and evocative verbs), so take each one into account and study how it’s done in the SAVING PRIVATE RYAN example. And though this is an action script, yes, these ideals apply to all genres.
As well, don’t be afraid of white space on the page. White space is your total BFF, and the key to an easy read. As long as you can balance action description that only tells us what we need to know with the dialogue, it will keep that speeding script on full throttle.
Only write what we can SEE or HEAR on screen – and nothing more.
This is where your normal prose writing differs most from what I’m suggesting you do when writing a screenplay. Remember, you’re not writing a novel – this is a screenplay. If you write wonderful prose, the audience won’t ever know it. You’re wasting the reader’s time on things that either won’t end up on screen anyway, or illustrate to them that you don’t know how to properly write in screenplay format.
Screenwriting 101 is about finding ways to convey character’s feelings, emotions, and layers through their actions – what they literally do on screen. This is an example I encountered when reading a script recently:
She’s hurting inside, and we can see it. She’s a fighter though, so finding her inner composure, she puts the journal down on the table.
That’s amateurish screenwriting for several reasons:
1: Have the character DO something. Movies are about the external, novels are about the internal. Remember the format, always.
2: This is a character’s turning point, and it’s not only lacking visual dynamics, but even worse, it’s boring.
An example of how this could have read:
She angrily wipes away a tear before slamming the journal down on the table.
This is more visually interesting and tells us much more about her internal feelings – all without dialogue. As opposed to a novel, where you have the time and ability to convey theme, characterization, plot, etc. in the prose, with a screenplay you can only convey these things in the literal actions of your characters. What your character DOES. And as we all know, what our character do matter far more than what they say. But, speaking of, let’s talk about how writing dialogue in a screenplay is different.
First, let’s touch on some basics:
Too Much Dialogue
A script is not a play – your goal is NOT to have dialogue that looks like a bunch of monologues.
Try to keep 95% of your dialogue lines to 3 lines or less.
Clever dialogue is found in quick back and forth exchanges, not prose-y speeches. Think about one of the best screenwriters known for his dialogue – Aaron Sorkin. Have you ever watched a scene from The West Wing? The characters talk in quick, snappy sentences. Back and forth banter that keeps things moving. And a fast moving script, like a fast moving story, is entertaining and – sometimes – it can move so fast that you don’t have time to realize whether it’s great quality or not. You just know you’re entertained. So, use this to your advantage. Keep the dialogue short, quick back and forths, and you’ll be golden.
Now, a side point I want to make about this, and what Sorkin does so well in one of my other favorite shows, Sports Night, is he uses quick back and forths to set up one brilliant monologue. You don’t get a whole bunch of monologues during the course of one show, but you get one that really sticks you in the gut. And THAT is how you use a monologue like a pro screenwriter.
Subtext is when a character says something and we (the reader or audience) can tell or know that there is something behind the words of what is being said. For example, let’s take a protagonist we know is hurting from a break up, and he runs into his ex on the street:
The weather’s pretty nice today.
Seems kind of cold to me.
Now, it’s not the world’s best writing. But you get my example. We, the reader, know there’s something behind the protagonist’s words. He’s making a dig at his ex, and referencing their break-up – all while on the surface talking about the weather. That’s subtext.
When it comes to dialogue and subtext, never ever have a character come out and say what he is thinking or feeling. Brilliant characters have us discover/uncover what’s going on inside their heads by their actions, or how they dance around important topics when they’re talking – not how they address them head on.
Characters Need to Sound Different
Now, unlike in books, where we have the time and space to set characters apart by how we describe them, or describe their inner thinking, or describe their actions and how they do them – in a screenplay, the main tool we have to set our characters apart is their DIALOGUE. How they speak, what they say, and how they say it. A common culprit that keeps screenwriters from making their work studio quality material is characters that all sound exactly alike. Remember, each character in your script is a living, breathing, thinking person with different wants, needs, and point of view from the others. And the only way to differentiate them in to make HOW they talk, WHAT they say, and WHY they say it different from each other.
A good exercise to fleshing out characters is to figure out what each character’s super objective is. It sounds like a hokey term, but in essence you figure out what a character truly wants in life (not necessarily in the story). These are the big things, the ones in our very core – to love, to be loved, to be powerful, to be respected, etc.
Once you figure that out, realize that this is JUST to determine their core character – how they approach every situation and character they encounter during the course of your story. It’s the foundation, and while it’s certainly the most important layer, there are more layers: the style, and the details.
A character’s style is not about their fashion, but about how, knowing their core, they approach life and other people. Things like humor, vanity, selfishness, selflessness, etc. You can think of a character’s style as a collection of their coping and defense mechanisms. How they get by on their day to day life.
The details are how, knowing their core and their style, what little actions they take frequently. For instance, if he drinks a lot, or is always fixing his hair or keeps a pack of cigarettes rolled up in his sleeve – even though he never actually smokes. Each person has their own unique tics – and as they say the devil is in the details.
Leaving the Obvious Out
I’m not going to get too deep into this, as it’s pretty self-explanatory. Basically, another aspect of great dialogue is about leaving the obvious out. This does go hand in hand with subtext, but it comes at it from a different angle. On its most basic level, it’s when we as an audience are expecting a character to say something… and then they dont. Maybe they give a look, or say something else, or don’t say anything at all, but we get it anyway. An easy example would be if we’re in a romantic scene, and we are expecting the Protagonist to finally(!) say “I love you.” But instead, he looks deep in her (or his) eyes and:
I want you to know-
I know. You too.
They kiss deeply.
3. WHITE SPACE
In stark contrast to a Tom Clancy novel, when looking at a page of a screenplay, the more white space you see, the better.
Aspiring screenwriters 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.
Whether it’s a consequence of our shorter attention spans or not, industry people have even less time than ever to read scripts from aspiring 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, 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. An industry vet can tell in the first couple pages whether “you’ve got it” or not – and it usually has to do with how your script PHYSICALLY looks on the page.
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.
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.
4. ENTER LATE, LEAVE EARLY
Again, for authors used to writing novels, where you have the time and space to get into the beautiful details, this may seem crazy. But, the name of the game when it comes to writing for movies and TV is to enter every scene late, and leave it early. So, what does this do? First, it helps to cut out any extraneous details. Second, if the audience is working to catch up, or figure out what’s going on in a scene, they are more engaged than it you spell it out for them every step of the way. If you give us just enough to help move the story forward, that’s the goal.
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.
5. SIMPLIFY YOUR STORY, COMPLICATE EVERYTHING ELSE
When it comes to novels, great stories can be as complicated internally (and externally) as you like, because you have the room to explore all wonderful themes, archetypes, characters, worlds, plot, etc. etc. etc. You can easily have 300+ pages of wonderful prose to explore every facet of your beautiful story. When it comes to screenplays, you have 90 pages (one page per minute of screen time), and THAT’S IT.
A professional screenwriting friend of mine, who I’ve always thought was unparalleled when it came to the technical aspects of writing a screenplay, for a long time wasn’t catching a break. He’d get excellent feedback on his writing, and people would keep asking to read every new script he churned out – but nothing ever stuck. If you read his work, you would think he’s the Michelangelo of screenwriters – no one else could describe so much with so few words, his dialogue was fresh, his characters unique, and his verbs were always so visual. In essence, his writing popped off the page. It was stunning. So why couldn’t he catch a break?
It took a long time, and a lot of people (myself included) to finally convince him that he was over-complicating his stories. If normal stories went from A to Z, his went way off into another alphabet. Plot twists galore, extraneous plot devices, too many great characters packed into a tight space – the list goes on and on, but what it boils down to is he was never confident enough in his story to just let it be; he had to pack more concept, more twists, more subplots in. To give you a silly (and not an actual script) example, it was like if someone wrote a moving, fast, awesome action movie about a bounty hunter who had to kill werewolves, which turned out were from outer space, so he ends up in a spaceship space battle with them to save mankind, and then falls in love with a werewolf, and finds out he himself is half werewolf. You had me at the first part of the concept, and lost me with all the unnecessary subplots and plot twists.
Finally, once we convinced him to keep his story simple and everything else complicated, he churned out an awesome, quick, grab-you-by-the-(neck) action film that was simple, with cool characters, great dialogue, and a whole lot of heart. It was elegantly simple, as it took place in one location, but again – it was the layers, the dialogue, the characters, and the vivid and snowy story world that made anyone who read it sit up and take notice. He made the story plain, and the characters layered, interesting, and unique. The structure was simple, and the dialogue and action lines were crisp, subtextual, and socked you in the face - they were that good.
That script went on to get him a studio assignment for Fox, and he hasn’t looked back since. It took him seven (plus) scripts to learn his lesson the hard way: Make your story simple – and complicate everything else.
6. 30,000 FOOT VIEW
The one thing I wish more writers thought about BEFORE they put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard was: “Who’s the audience?”
Are you asking yourself this question when you’re formulating ideas or inking out an outline? “Who’s going to plop down 20 bucks to watch this?” If you don’t have a definitive answer, or if your answer is a very limited market, like, say … sweatshop workers in Thailand, then it’s time to re-examine your idea. I’m not saying it’s time to change it, just maybe re-examine it and change an element or two that would make it appealing to a mass audience (say, males 18-45).
Let me give you an example:
A movie about the trials and tribulations of a sweatshop worker in Thailand.
Who’s going to watch that? Not a lot of people. What about this:
A movie about three Americans who rescue a sweatshop worker from his factory in Thailand.
Okay … now we’re getting somewhere. Now you’ve added a point of view that more audiences can understand (American), but … it still sounds a little … too depressing. In fact, it sounds like an interesting plot to a novel, which has page count and ability to take its time, and can explore a number of themes to their fullest extent. Which brings me to:
Are you asking yourself: “Does this need to be a movie? Is that the best medium for this story?” I can’t tell you how many great stories are crammed into the small square hole that is a movie script that would have been better served as a novel, or some other form of storytelling, and not in a screenplay. Many times, these scripts are about inner demons, or inner conflict, or a protagonist that is his own antagonist (with no other outside force or person that is a real “antagonist”), or a protagonist that never DOES anything, just thinks about it … etc. If you’re best, juiciest, coolest, most interesting bits are internal, and not external, this question is especially important to ask yourself.
Let’s try one more version:
When three Americans encounter a sweatshop worker during their blow-out bachelor party in Bangkok, they take him out on the craziest night of his life.
It’s The Hangover 2 if you replace “sweatshop worker” with “monk.” Kind of. Either way, you get the point. We started at A, and got to “comedy worthy of a movie.”
So make sure you’re always looking at any new ideas that pop into your mind through the eyes of a studio executive. Ask yourself “who’s the audience? Who will pay 20 bucks to watch this? Does this need to be a MOVIE?” and you’ll be ahead of the game.
7. AIM BIG
As we’ve covered, Movies are a visual medium. But more than that, studio movies are increasingly relying on things called Set Pieces – which are sequences that are high impact, and either big, interesting, captivating, hilarious, grandiose, or all of the above. In the Avengers, one of the biggest set pieces is the 3rd Act final showdown action sequence. In 21 JUMP STREET, one of the set pieces is the attempted drug bust early in the first act.
Film being all about the external, set pieces are the ultimate expression of this external-ness – and a newly necessary part of modern screenplays. And it’s not just the action movies that have set pieces either – think of Woody Allen’s MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. One of the set pieces is the first time the protagonist gets in the car and gets transports to 1920s Paris.
Some people might call these sequences “trailer moments”, and that helps to put them into perspective as to why they are quickly becoming increasingly necessary in screenplays. When a movie idea comes to you, your first thought should be “How in the world has a corporate owned studio that takes zero risks NOT made a movie like this yet?” That sounds silly, but your litmus test should be if you think a corporate fat cat, who doesn’t give a fig about story, or characters, would hear your idea and place a 100 million dollar bet on it. Because even “low budget” studio movies are costing way more than 100 million once you add up publicity and advertising costs. So this should be your bare minimum test to see if your idea has a chance at being bought if it were a script.
While that might be a great starting point for the sort of quick test for yourself when you come up with an idea, let’s dig a little deeper.
A prime example of a screenplay that has elaborate and interesting set pieces, but no explosions and little violence is one of my favorite movies: The Hangover. The Hangover, much like Wedding Crashers, has easily definable set pieces (in comedies they’re played for humor, rather than tension) that are sprinkled throughout the movie, and are integrated into the story in a believable enough way to keep the plot moving forward. The Mike Tyson set piece. The morning after set piece (with accompanying Tiger). And on and on.
In action movies, the set pieces are easier to pick out, as they are played for excitement or tension. Most of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a classic example, especially the first act.
In recent years, due to technology and CGI, set pieces have become more elaborate and interesting. With the imagination being the limit of what can end up on screen, the recent trend has caused both wonder (Avatar), and silliness (several Pirates of the Caribbean set pieces come to mind). There is a tendency lately to ‘go big or go home’ with some of the set pieces in today’s scripts, which leads to over the top, fantastical things hitting theaters. As the Pirates franchise is one of the biggest grossing in the world, with some of the silliest set pieces, don’t shy away from over the top. Soon there will be no such thing.
CAUTION: While I advocate letting your imagination go crazy when writing set pieces, it damn well better fit perfectly with the story, characters, and theme. If it doesn’t, going over the top will have a very detrimental effect on your material.