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Monday, May 10, 2010

What to Worry About

DO: Worry about the story. Is it entertaining? That’s the big question. Never ever give them a reason to put your screenplay down because you never know when they’ll pick it up again. If everything else goes wrong, a great story can still save your ass.

Worry about the logline/pitch. Having an entertaining story is great. Having an entertaining story that you can easily sell, that’s gold. The next big hurdle after learning how to write well is learning how to write something that other people will actually pay money for. And it’s not about collecting a bunch of adjectives or using active voice. It’s about those few sentences that paint a visual, dramatic picture that is unlike anything else out there. I wish it were true that any well written story were automatically sellable but it isn’t. Quite often these scripts are exceptionally well done versions of movies we’ve already seen countless times or things so far off the grid there’s no point of reference.

Worry about the characters. Usually a compelling story and a great logline means you have great characters, but it isn’t always so. Characters are the doorway into your script. People follow characters, they sympathize even love them. And they are a real benchmark for a writer’s talent. Do you produce flesh and blood three dimensional characters or fall back on well worn archetypes and clichés?

DO: Worry about the dialogue. Great dialogue writers are the ones who get all the ink and all the attention. They’re the ones who get the nominations, who the A List actors want to work with. They’re the ones who get called in when a tentpole script “just isn’t working.” Your dialogue should sound like real life only better. It should be what people wished they said. It’s never “realistic” but it could be performed realistically. It’s not an easy skill to acquire which is why it’s so sought after.

DO: Worry about the basic formatting of the script. Right format, right font size, right spacing and margins, right use of headings, tags and slug lines. It’s so easy now with all the screenwriting software that does all this for you. You don’t want to look like an amateur. This is probably the last thing you should be really concerned about but it’s the first thing readers notice and it will mark you at the beginning as either someone to take seriously or not.

DON’T: Worry about the advanced bells and whistles in Final Draft or the other programs. Most of those are for pre-production. Case in point scene numbers. There shouldn’t be any scene numbers on a spec script. Scene numbers are for the unit production manager when he’s preparing a budget and schedule. If you’re not in pre-production there shouldn’t be any numbers.

Worry about every little head tilt or intake of breath your characters make. That’s for the actor to decide with the director. Some writers have a nasty habit of directing their character down to the millimeter. This not only wastes space but it also is used as a cover for dialogue or scenes that may be a little flat. If you’ve done your job then all the drama should be in the scene with you having to circle and underline everything. The actors should be able to get the spine of the scene and build accordingly.

Do the director’s job either. Unless you’re going to direct yourself stay out of the director’s chair. Let the DP do his thing. Ditto the editor and all the others. Maybe the director thinks it’s better to open with an in depth staging shot rather than a quick cutting montage. Maybe a long tracking shot is required instead of a Dutch Angle. Again this wastes space in a script and often covers up dull or uninteresting writing. Give them the important elements in a scene, the mood and the feeling, give them the components of a montage but leave how they are conveyed to the people doing the shooting.

MAYBE: Worry about the budget. This is dependent on the kind of screenplay you’re writing because with certain genres part of the appeal is the low production costs like Rom Coms and horror. So if you’re writing a Rom Com it’s probably a bad move to dump the characters on a crowded ocean liner then have it sink. Action movies, science fiction and historicals command the higher budgets. You should feel free to go wild there.

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