I’ll start by saying that I am in no way a professional screenplay writer. I am not an expert on storytelling strategies, but I know a little something about a little bit. This is how I see it; all writers must throw their ideas against walls to see what sticks, then throw our written material against skilled readers to see what works. This entry is to school some beginners because truthfully speaking, I don’t feel like reading horrible material. If I don’t feel like reading horrible material, more mature writers would probably go even further by deleting any contact for you. There is absolutely no room for basic mistakes. I’ll go over at least five.
1) Learn the format – The first thing that gives amatuer writers away is botching the screenplay format rules. Not one sentence has to be read before realizing that there is something wrong with the technical aesthetics of your screenplay. There are specific margin rules for every single element: including the scene slate, character dialogue, action descriptions, title card, transitions, etc. Do not open up Microsoft Word and begin typing any way that you see fit. In fact, don’t even estimate margin placements in Microsoft Word. Do yourself a favor. Purchase screenwriting software for your computer; such as Final Draft. If are like me and have been affected by the recession, you can always download free software, like Celtx from the software’s website. Whatever you decide to do, you better get those numbers correct or we ain’t having it.
2) Novel vs. Screenplay – This is the second thing that will squeal on you like a bad conscience during police interrogation. There is a big difference between writing novels and writing screenplays. This is why. Novels are the physical end products. A novelist’s work is published, printed and stacked on shelves for purchase. The screenplay is not the end product, unless you were just planning on wasting your time. If the latter is not true, then you are hoping to get your screenplay produced into a film for millions of people to see. With that said, you are not the last deciding factor in the creative process. If I am reading your script, I do not want to read long and lavish descriptions of everything the audience should see. If your character is in a prison cell, tell me, in a few sentences, what this cell should look like. For example: A dim and damp cell. Water leaks from ceiling has stained the walls. A rat walks across the floor and stops at character’s foot. That is good enough material for any director. I don’t need to read: A dim and damp cell. There are exactly 25 water streaks cascading from the ceiling to the floor and small drips have found themselves in the middle of the floor. There are four walls and one is a brighter beige than the other three. The bed may sit about two feet off from the ground. Also, do not go into long, elaborate paragraphs about what character’s are thinking and feeling. Unless it is extremely necessary, do not write too many physical motions: such as crying, sneezing, stretching, blinking, scratching, etc. Give the actor space. One last and very important thing. Unless you plan on directing this film and are writing the shooting script, stay far far far away from writing camera directions. That slows down the reading and is an exact infringement on the Director’s vision. Everything written, should be written for the purpose of pushing the story forward.
3) Who is Our Protagonist – If you are a straight up beginner and do not know what a protagonist is, then shame on you. The protagonist is often our hero, yet does not have to be a hero at all. The protagonist is simply the character who’s perspective and/or journey we follow. Staying true to your protagonist answers the question, “Who’s story is this?” If the story is from the perspective of your protagonist, everything that happens in your script should affect the protagonist one way or another. The protagonist does not have to be in every scene, but if you have a scene where someone is killed and that in no way affects the protagonist, something has to give. That is a great point to always keep in mind while you are writing. Continuing to answer the question of “Who’s story is this” will get you through to the resolution of your script. You do not have to only have one protagonist, but that question must always be answered. If for anything, that just becomes the glue to hold your story together, otherwise shit will not make sense.
4) Keep Stacking Bricks – I saw a great quote on Twitter by Red Smith. He says that writing is very much like bricklaying. You put one brick on top of another and spread the mortar so thick. That’s very true. I remember speaking with Big Southwest after he viewed my film and he mentioned how I should have ran my protagonist through so much shit that he’d come up a different color. That’s bricklaying. The protagonist should have to deal with constant obstacles while on a journey of realizing desires. The bricks should be strategically placed. The mortar is there to make sure everything stays in place. When there are way too many random bricks, the building begins to crumble. You don’t want that. Learning when too much is too much may take time, but right now, continue to raise the stakes. Crossing a busy highway may be difficult, but what about crossing that highway while blind. While you’re blind and crossing, a large truck blows its horn loud enough to knock out your hearing. That’s raising the stakes. In life, there is never one conflict.
5) Stay True to Your Blueprint – This is fairly simple, yet detrimental when the writer deviates. The blueprint is the foundation of your story. What is the blueprint composed of? The blueprint is composed of three things: the theme, the logline, and the plot. All great writers have something to say. It’s as simple as that. They have something to tell the world and that message becomes the theme of the story. As a writer, you must have a clear theme that intrigues you before you begin to put ink to paper. That is a law. Without a theme, you only have a soulless file of useless papers. Your story will become forgettable halfway through the second act. After you have your theme, work on a solid logline. The logline summarizes your plot in no more than two sentences. The best loglines are done in one sentence. The logline is the center of your story. At the end of the day, your story is about “so and so.” Use your logline when you feel like the boat is drifting too far from shore. Even further, your plot is there to prevent your boat from sinking. I am prone to begin writing a script only after solidifying my theme and logline. I have failed many times because I have not mapped out my plotline. The plot is the expanded version of the logline. The plot is where the bricks come in. I’ve found that many beginners who have not lined their plots have second acts that suffer from gaps and confusion. Please, please, please use notecards to map out your plots. This will make your life easier and my reading experience pleasurable.
So there you have it. Five things that beginning screenwrights should know. I’m not saying that I’m a master screenwriter but I am saying that I’d rather not read garbage. DonCon signing off.