Writing Tighter Screenplays


Jeanne Veilette Bowerman from Script Magazine gives some advice on writing better screenplays.

TAKE THE RISK

If you ever get the opportunity to learn from someone with more experience than you, do not hesitate. Do whatever it takes to make it happen, even traveling the globe. It is better than any screenwriting course you’ll take. No one knows it all, so keep your mind open.

LEAVE YOUR EGO AT THE DOOR

It’s easy to get defensive when it comes to a script you’ve worked  on for years. Every story has endless possibilities, even ones born out of nonfiction. Find out what the buyers want. Brainstorming is never effective when one person is defensive and guarding their opinions. Open your mind, hear another viewpoint, and weigh out what you think works for your story best.

START WITH YOUR CHARACTER NOT YOUR STORY

Sometimes you need to start your outline with character development, not plot points. As your story progresses, some prior character development get lost. Map out the character development first, and then find the plot points that hit those targets organically.

USE INDEX CARDS 

 It’s a visual exercise because you can see different versions of the storyline and see if it makes sense.

PRETEND TO PITCH TO AN EXECUTIVE

After we had the index cards done, try pitching your story as if there was an executive in the room. It works. Once you can tell the story, you know you can write it because the process will iron out many kinks.

YOU’RE WRITING A READING SCRIPT, NOT A SHOOTING SCRIPT

There’s a difference between making your script a good read and the shooting scripts scripts which have additional direction and camera angles. Let go of the format-OCD behavior and just write something that is moving and compelling. That matters more than slugline perfection.

SET THE STAGE

Brainstorm the perfect way to start your story. What will grab the audience’s attention? What will make them HAVE to turn the page or sit in their seat? What questions can you set up in the beginning the reader needs to stick around to find out the answers to?

INTRODUCE YOUR MAIN CHARACTER LIKE A MOVIE STAR TO ATTRACT AN A-LIST ACTOR

Most often, the A-list actor you want to read your script is never going to read it. It needs to get past their agent first. That agent is going to head right to the descriptor that introduces their client’s character. Is it interesting enough? Does it convey a personality and a role that screams multi-layered? Is this the kind of role they can sell their client on?

USE FLASHBACKS WISELY

Flashbacks are best told in present format to deliver exposition or complicate the story by adding further questions. There needed to be a real, driving purpose for them or else it’s just lazy storytelling.

MILK SCENES TO ADD TENSION

We’re taught to start a scene late and leave early… but it’s what you do while you’re there that really matters. Don’t be in a rush to get out of a scene. Ask yourself if you’ve used it to its potential. Did you rev up the conflict enough? Is there more you can do while you’re in that moment? But you need to find the balance between milking it and just filling up pages with unnecessary dialogue.

AVOID “AND THEN”

If you just stack scenes, it’s an “and then this happened.” But if you set up the adversarial situation at the end of each scene and use the next scene to answer it, it’s an “AH HA,” not an “and then…”

KNOW WHEN TO TEASE AND WHEN TO TELL ALL

You don’t want to give away too much too soon. Build the tension slowly over the course of your story so the reveal comes at just the right time… when the audience is drooling and begging for it. Hold out for just the right moment. That will also be the A-list actor’s Oscar moment. Their agent will be looking for that too.

KEEP THE READER’S EYE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE PAGE

When writing dialogue, try to avoid breaking up the conversation with descriptor lines that pull the reader’s eye to the left. Use parentheticals, but use them sparingly. For example, instead of writing “(snarky),” use words that show the bite in the character’s voice. Those simple changes make for a faster read.

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