How script readers can spot an amateur screenwriter

B. O'Malley

blog_18pagecandytruck

blog_18pagecandytruckYour script has a lot of working parts — character, dialogue, conflict, action, theme, beats, acts… It’s a heady brew of elements.  And that heady brew boils down into an awful lot of specific criteria that anyone reading your script will judge it by, whether you’ve sent it in to a script contest, or a script coverage company, or an agent, or studio, or a name actor.

All those elements take a lot of work to get right, and many are judged subjectively, so you don’t always have a whole lot of certainty, or baseline science you can rely on to give you an idea of how a script reader might react to them.

But some elements are very much within your control, and are a lot more black and white across the board.

Below are my most important things you can do right now, without even diving face-first into your rewrite, that can help your script’s chances, strategically, when submitting it, whether it’s to Nicholas Cage’s agent, or a big script contest, or even a script reading company like ours.

These are piddly, minor things, but they add up to so much to separate the amateur screenwriters from the professionals.

Right now, bust open your script and check to see if you do these things which amateurs do:

They use passive tense

What’s stronger? A or B, below?

A:  We see that Jack is walking across the street.

B:  Jack crosses the street.

If you selected C, you’re still drunk from last night.  But if you selected B, you’re on the money.

Stick to the money.

They use too many words

Instead of this:

A HUSBAND and WIFE, 40, hang out on the beach in their swimsuits. There seems to be no love going on between them, even though they are dressed sexy in the swimsuits.

His tired eyes peruse a copy of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings trilogy, reading with a voracious excitement as if reading each word for the first time.

She browses things on an iPad. Her restless eyes dart from a how to do your own Brazilian waxing to Youtube.com to a photo of Justin Bieber spanking a monkey. She starts to get turned on, so she reaches over and starts rubbing her husband’s arm.

He smiles; his sweetness is radiant despite the hot summer heat.  He reaches in for a kiss.

This:

A HUSBAND and WIFE (40s), read  on a beach. Both half-naked, but no heat between them.

He reads Lord of The Rings. She browses her iPad.  Stops on a pic of Justin Bieber spanking a monkey.

She gets turned on.

She rubs his arm.

He kisses her.

They rely on automated spellcheck

Their, they’re, there.  You’re, your.  Its, it’s.  These things usually don’t get caught in an automated spell check.  It takes eyeballs. If you want the film industry to take your script seriously, take your spelling, usage, punctuation, and script format seriously.

Other fun Amateur Hour stuff:  cheating the line spacing or margins, using weird fonts, or including pictures, hyperlinks, or explanations in the script.

They write things we can’t see or hear

Don’t do this…

INT. BEDROOM – DAY

JUSTIN BIEBER (28) wakes up.  Handsome but dumb as drool.  He’s the sort of person that you’d like to staple to an ostrich and set ablaze.

When all you need is this:

INT. BEDROOM – DAY

JUSTIN BIEBER (28) wakes up.  Handsome.

They use MORE’s and CONT’D’s

Every single line of your script adds to your page count.  So why add lines when they’re not necessary? (Here’s the screenwriting community at Reddit’s answer.)

That is, if Jim keeps talking on the next page, and it’s pretty obvious that his dialogue is continued, so why muck up your script and add to your line count  (and page count) with gobs of these hackish little MORE’s and CONT’D’s?

My advice:  Only use ’em when it’s not clear without them,  which is pretty infrequently, if you’re doing things correctly.

Would you like to debate this?  Feel free!  While you carry on the debate, the pro screenwriters will be over at the adult table drinking your milkshake.

They use scene headers wrong

Scene headers shouldn’t attract attention to themselves, or raise questions. They should serve their purpose and get out of the way as quickly as possible.

Here’s a bad scene header:

EXT./INT.     BOB’S APARTMENT/AUTO REPAIR SHOP -- THE ENSEMBLE CAST IS BACK FOR MORE -EVENING

And here’s everything wrong with that:

a) Only use EXT./INT. when it’s absolutely necessary for clarity.  Otherwise, pick one.

b) Don’t have excess space in your slug. (in this case, after the EXT./INT.)

c) Is it BOB’S APARTMENT or the AUTO REPAIR SHOP?  Does he live there? Fine. Pick one.  Stick with it.

d) Don’t use cute-isms like “THE ENSEMBLE CAST” or other reader asides. You’re not cute. You’re an amateur.

e) Try to stick to DAY or NIGHT. Some production-oriented folks (e.g. producers and AD’s and UPM’s) generally see anything other than DAY or NIGHT as a pain in the ass to line and schedule.  It’s not a huge, huge no-no to use EVENING or DAWN or DUSK, but use them sparingly , and just know that some folks cringe when they read ’em.  On the other hand, nobody cringes at DAY or NIGHT, and you can always put DUSK or whatever in the action block below the slug.

They use camera moves and “suddenly” and “We see”

We see Tyler hopping up and down on his one good leg.

No, what we actually see is a screenwriter who doesn’t know his craft. Fill your script with “We see” and “We hear” at your peril.

The camera moves in slowly to a MEDIUM shot of Tyler hopping on his one good leg.

Let the reader see the movie in her head.   That participation is what being an audience member is all about.  Spoonfeeding / directing on paper is anathema to participation.

Camera angles in the script, except when absolutely necessary to understand what the writer is intending to show, are visual clutter and add to your page count.  And are the mark of an amateur under all but the rarest of circumstances.

If you’re the one directing the film, use a shotlist.  Or storyboard.

SUDDENLY, Tyler is hopping up and down on his one good leg.  

“Suddenly” is not needed, pretty much ever.  Write your lines cogently and with economy, and the surprise will transmit.  Strive to strangle your “suddenlies.”

However, in the event you’ve got a bit of a wacky surprise you’d like to foist on the reader, go ahead and do it, but let the reader off the hook.  That is, let them know that what you’re saying is a bit out of left field, but that’s intentional, but using one of these:  (!)    Or something similar. Like so:

As soon as the doctor cuts the umbilical cord —

— The baby isn’t human(!)

Or if you really need to drive it home, underline it. Or use a yellow highlighter. (I KEED!)

They don’t make sure each and every word and line is 100% crystal clear

Most importantly, scan your script line by line, slowly.  Read it like Helen Keller would be reading it, had you printed it in Braille.  Bump by precious bump.

The point is to make sure every single word, every single phrase, every single line… is 100% absolutely irredeemably clear to the universe. Not to you.  To the Morgan Freeman universe.

There can be no confusion.  No ambiguity.  No misinterpretation.

If you’d like to write an ambiguous script, or sow confusion, because you’d like to do that artistically, by all means, be my guest.  But to pull that off you need to make sure you’re 100% clear with every single line.

If you catch yourself going too fast, slow down!  Read, re-read.  Read like you’re a newbie to your own script.

Can a page be told in a half page?

Can a half page be told in a paragraph?

Can a paragraph be told in a line?

Can a line be told in a phrase?

Can a phrase be told in a look?

Can a page be told in a look?

That’s what the pro’s do.

Sic ’em, tiger.

3 Comments on “How script readers can spot an amateur screenwriter”

  1. Really good points, except maybe one… I can’t help feeling Justin B really is the sort of character you’d want to staple to an ostrich…

  2. Really good article. Question: In an animated script, since it doesn’t bring the cost up or down can you use DAWN or EVENING in scene headers and some camera moves (the occasional SMASH CUT TO:)?

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