Screenwriting Tips Page
Tips To Improve Your Screenplay Entry and Get it to the Finals
By Andrew R. Piggott
While some people think rules are made to be broken, doing so will only hurt the chances for your material to succeed in screenplay competitions, or to be read by professionals in a position to buy the material. The following rules and guides will help you make your script look as professional as possible, and will guarantee that readers will not be tempted to pre-judge your material because of appearance.
A Note On Fairness:
While it isn’t “fair” that some readers may pre-judge material based on things like appearance, it is a reality that must be accepted. Some scripts that fail to follow some of the rules and guides listed below have won contests, and some may have even been purchased. However, that kind of success is the exception, not the rule. With the tremendous number of scripts available for purchase, it makes good business sense to present your material in the best possible manner, and conform to industry standard. Reducing the reasons for readers to say no will give your material the best possible chance for consideration.
Font/Typeset: Courier/Courier New font, 12 point. No exceptions. Do not use any other font.
Page Count – Is your script too thick or too thin? Ideally, a script should be between 95-110 pages. The acceptable range is from 90 to 120 pages. Anything beyond 130 pages is unacceptable and indicates the script needs considerable editing. This is even true for epics. When you are an established writer you can hand scripts with page counts in excess of 130 pages to people. Until then, shelve it, or edit it to be within the accepted range. If your script is under 90 pages, you need more story content.
Fly Page (Title Page) – Put the title, genre and log line on the Fly Page. The genre should be correct, and the log line should accurately convey your story. You’d be surprised how many scripts contain incorrect genres and/or log lines. This information also helps the person in charge of assigning your script to get it into the hands of a reader who likes the genre of your story. This is a good thing. For most competitions, do not put your name on the fly page or anywhere else on the script. This is for anonymity. All submissions are supposed to be blind to be as fair as possible. Also, do not put the WGA registration number anywhere on the script. Never put the draft or revision number on a spec script. They don’t belong on spec scripts.
White Space – This is defined as the density of text on each page of your script. The origin came from readers/agents/etc. taking a script and rifling the pages in their hands. They preferred to see a lot of white space when rifling the script. If they saw a lot of black space, or printing/text, then it indicated the script was too dense and there were problems with the material. A lack of “white space” indicates you may have too much information in your narrative (typically), or dialogue (not as typical).
Typos – Be sure to proofread your material. Spell check features in software won’t catch all mistakes, especially where words that have different meanings are spelled correctly. For example: to; too; two. While a few errors are forgivable, many errors appear sloppy. Sloppy submissions are quickly tossed by agents/managers, etc., and negatively tinge the rest of the script for readers. It is the easiest element to rectify, so be sure to clean up your submission.
Bolding/Underlining – Spec scripts do not require any bold or underlined print. Some writers choose to bold or underline actions or phrases for emphasis, similar to the use of italics or capitalization. In this instance it is acceptable, but can be distracting. Use bolding and/or underlining as infrequently as possible. Or better yet, don’t use them at all.
Capitalization – Typically, capitalization of words is only required in slug lines and for character names when introducing them. The rule is; capitalize character names the first time they are visually introduced. You must also capitalize all slug lines. Capitalization can also be used for emphasis. Certain words or actions may be capitalized. If you overuse this tool, you detract from it and that can work against you. So limit capitalization as much as possible.
Titles and Direction – It may seem elementary to omit this from spec scripts. However, many novice writers don’t know to eliminate all references to direction, including START/END TITLES, PAN, DOLLY, CRANE, ZOOM, etc. Spec scripts are written in master scenes. Avoid inserting any reference to direction at all. If you feel you must have direction, use it only once or twice in a script. Better yet, write the master scene in a way in which direction that must appear for emphasis is written into the scene without the use of direction terms.
Scene Numbering – Don’t do it. If you have, take them out. Numbering is for shooting scripts. Many changes occur with scripts before they are ready to be shot, so any numbering you have done will be irrelevant anyway.
CUT TO’S and CONTINUED’s – While both are still acceptable, it is better to avoid CUT TO’s altogether, and cutting out CONTINUED’s will save you valuable script space. The use of SMASH CUT and similar variants are wholly unnecessary.
Slug Lines – This convention of screenwriting should be set up in the following manner:
INT. (for Interior) or EXT. (for exterior) – Scene Description – Time of Day
INT. JOHN’S KITCHEN – DAY
A key to remember is that slug lines are reference points for those reading it. So if you have a number of scenes sprinkled throughout your script that take place in John’s Kitchen, make sure to keep the slug lines similar. Though time of day may change, the place will not.
Double or triple spacing is used between slug lines and the narrative or action lines.
Genre – There are many genres and genre hybrids. Try to be as accurate as possible when specifying your genre. Avoid labeling your script with too many hybrid terms, such as “Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi/Comedy”. Figure out which are the most prevalent in your material and label appropriately.
Common Genre types include:
Coming of Age
While all scripts are inherently different, most follow a set of rules that will stand out to the reader if broken. The following guide will help get your script to the next phase of the competition, and possibly to the finals.
While some scripts set trends and break the rules applied to content, a seasoned reader will be able to tell if the rule breaking enhances the story or detracts from it. The following problems are common to novice writers, and writers who need to further develop their script before it is ready for the marketplace.
Common problems with scripts:
Story Vs Character – All stories are about people. Some writers try to write a story around an event (usually historical), an action sequence or a plotline that doesn’t involve character. Don’t sacrifice character for plot, or the story will fail. Your story must be about someone’s life, and the conflict that occurs within it.
Not Enough Conflict – A screenplay is all about conflict. If conflict doesn’t occur, the story is boring. This is true in any genre. Some writers don’t put enough conflict into their stories. When conflict subsides, the story quickly becomes uninteresting. Conflict can take many, many forms. Be sure there is enough in your story.
First 10-20 pages – In all scripts, the first ten to twenty pages must do a variety of things. It must hook the reader into the story. It must introduce the main character of the story. It must introduce the antagonist. It must introduce conflict in one form or another. And it must introduce the story. It acts like the thesis of an essay.
Story Hook – The first 5 to 15 pages must hook the reader in. Don’t begin a script with a lot of back-story unless it contains a hook. A hook can be defined as an event that grabs the reader’s attention and generates a strong desire to read on. The hook must have something to do with the story or character, and often are ‘setups’ for events that happen later in the story.
Story Logic – Quite often the logic of a story fails because the structure isn’t in sync with the plot, or because of weaknesses in character or dialogue or both. Even in fantasy stories, logic must be present. So if things occur that defy logic in the real world, you must set up the parameters that allow those things to occur in your story, or you will lose the audience. Logic will also fail if characters behave in manners that defy logic or seem bizarre, unless those mannerisms have been set up.
The biggest error new writers make is to have structural elements happen out of place, or they occur without enough setup. The death of a character won’t have an impact on the audience unless setup has occurred to make the audience care about that character. If you introduce the antagonist in the middle of the second or third act, the audience will feel the story logic is out of sync because it will look contrived. If a character is presented with a problem to solve, and they solve it too easily, it will throw the story logic out of sync.
Dramatic Elements – The use of them skillfully will greatly enhance a story. The misuse of them will take away from the story. Dramatic elements are twists, turns, tension, suspense, or other events that add excitement to the scene and to the story. Be sure they have a relationship to the story. Don’t throw a car chase into the story just because it’s action. Don’t throw a big story twist out to the audience without preparing the groundwork for that twist to occur. Otherwise you’ll injure the story logic. The best dramatic elements are full of subtext. Use them skillfully, and for effect.
The narrative or action lines in a screenplay have two rules:
1. Show it (it is after all, a visual medium)
2. If you can’t see it or hear it, it doesn’t belong in the scene.
Other common problems within the narrative:
Too Much Narrative – Too often new writers write long passages of narrative that run four or more lines in length. This indicates too much superfluous information appears within the narrative. Good narrative is short, concise, and to the point. It should be quick to read and contain subtext. It should be up to three lines long, four maximum. If the narrative is running long, break up the paragraphs.
“Flowery” Narrative – Some writers fall into the trap of writing things out in overly long sentences, full of color and literary appeal. The point of narrative is to describe the scene and present action that moves the story forward. Anything else is filler. Filler needs to be removed.
Non-Visual Narrative – Some writers make the mistake of adding content more attuned to novels than screenplays. Never mention emotion unless it is visually displayed. Don’t describe things that haven’t been visually portrayed in previous scenes, like references of where the character grew up, went to school, etc.
Irrelevant Narrative – Everything that appears in a scene should have some relevance to story, plot or character. If it doesn’t, it shouldn’t be included. Edit out all extraneous information from the narrative.
Narrative Too Sparse – Conversely, some writers write extremely short narrative paragraphs. This can be effective in places and is common in action scripts, however some writers will accidentally omit information necessary to the scene. Be sure all information needed in a scene is present.
Develop you characters as much as possible before you begin writing. This is true even of secondary characters in a screenplay. One of the biggest problems in scripts are under-developed characters. Address them early, and your script will be stronger for it.
One or Two Dimensional Characters – If your characters aren’t fully developed, it will be very apparent, and will detract from the read. While secondary characters do not need to be fully developed, your script will fail if the main character and antagonist are not.
Character Arc – Too many main characters do not have one. A character arc is the internal lesson learned by the hero over the course of the story. The arc must be substantial to the character. The character must not want to traverse the arc. Events must occur to push the character to complete the arc. Don’t complete the arc too soon. Be sure the completion of the arc occurs in the final act, preferably at or just after the climax. While some genres don’t require them, any story is enhanced with the successful implementation of a character arc.
External/Internal goals – They are very different. Internal goals can incorporate character arc. An internal problem or need that will be resolved by the end of the story, without the willful participation of the character involved. External problems populate a script, but cannot be substituted for internal problems. If your characters only have external problems to solve, the script will lack depth and substance. External problems can have relationships with internal problems. Internal problems are the very essence of character. They usually comprise the root of the theme to the story.
Antagonist/Protagonist Balance – Many writers write a good antagonist but a weak hero or vice-versa. They must be balanced with each other. If either is much stronger than the other, believability will be stretched to the breaking point.
Memorable Characters – Many writers forget to add qualities that make their characters leap off the page and be memorable. Specific mannerisms, quirks or eccentricities are all ways of adding depth to your character.
In a screenplay, dialogue helps to advance the plot and describe character. It must be remembered that film is a visual medium, and dialogue in plays meant for the stage will not work well in a screenplay. Dialogue works best when it enhances the visual story, and doesn’t attempt to lead it.
On The Nose Dialogue – Dialogue that describes what we just saw, or conveys something obvious is “on the nose”. For example:
A ball rolls across the floor.
Look! A ball!
Other examples include references to emotion already conveyed, or actions that have already occurred.
Characters Sound Alike – Many scripts suffer from this. Often it indicates that the characters are not fully developed. The more the writer understands the characters in the material, the more natural the dialogue will become. Don’t fall into the trap of giving accents to characters to give distinctive voices. Readers will see through it. Mannerisms, quirks, eccentricities, etc. help to distinguish characters, and will help give your characters distinctive voices.
Unrealistic Dialogue – Characters in scripts do not talk like everyday people. If they did, they would be far too boring. There are too many techniques to inject life into passages of dialogue to mention here. Things to watch out for are phrases that are out of character, and speech that is too matter-of-fact. Good dialogue conveys character and plot without directly expressing it. Film is a visual medium, so show it, don’t say it, as much as possible. Keep it short, concise and to the point.
Soliloquies – Avoid them like the plague. Readers hate to see a character with half a page or more of dialogue in one passage. If a character is making a speech, or otherwise must speak a very long passage, consider breaking the dialogue up with action. With dialogue, less is more.
Action in Parentheticals – This is a big problem with new writers. You will even find it in shooting scripts of successful big pictures. However, it is improper for spec scripts, and should be eliminated. Parentheticals that appear under the character name and before dialogue are meant to give a stage direction on how the dialogue is to be spoken. Too often, writers will put action in parentheticals. For example;
(Walking across the room)
Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.
In this instance, action appears in the parenthetical. Action should only appear in the narrative. If a parenthetical is necessary here, it should convey non-action stage direction.
Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.
It can also be used to direct speech, if more than two characters appear in a scene and clarification is needed.
(Sarcastically; to Scarlet)
Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.
In any event, use parentheticals as infrequently as possible. Only use them when clarification is absolutely necessary.
Voice Over/Off-Screen Dialogue – Voice Over (V.O.) and Off-Screen (O.S.) dialogue indicators should always appear beside the character name, before any parenthetical (if needed), and before dialogue. It should never be placed where the stage direction parenthetical appears.
You can’t see me, but I’m talking!
Here’s how the story began, to bring you up to date.
You may substitute (O.C.) or Off-Camera, for Off-Screen.
As you can see, there are many elements that need to work together harmoniously in order to make a script successful. The above guide should help you refine your material and assist in getting it into the next round, or into that buyer’s hands.
Take all criticism received on your material with a grain of salt. While it would be wonderful if all critiques were in unison with each other, undoubtedly you will find some readers opinions conflicting with each other. Intangible things can influence a readers opinion. How your characters speak out to them, and/or the theme of your story may have a stronger affect with some while not with others. Accept the criticisms that assist you in enhancing your material, and discard the rest.
Keep writing, and don’t get discouraged. Many revisions occur before a script is ready for market. And after it is bought, many revisions will happen before it goes into production. Best of luck in all your writing endeavors!