A Few Rewriting Tips

EditingIn a recent post, I mentioned the brain dead side effect of rewriting.  I am happy to relay that I have at least kept up the momentum, for a whole three days now.  My goal is 15 pgs. a day and I have made it to page 50 in my script, but I am nearing the corner towards that dastardly Act III, so the ambitious page count may falter in the coming days.  And of course, I’ve had another idea for the third act.  Maybe I should write a novel, then I could use all the story ideas I’ve had and propose them as “if you turned left instead of right, this could’ve happened” story lines.

I went to film school, but many of the tools I have learned for screenwriting have come from my own research and interest in bettering my writing; books, articles, and teleconferences.  If you’ve read some of my other posts in regards to the differences between screenwriting and novel writing, you’ll understand what a different mindset screenwriting requires, but I’m not going to go into those details here.  This one is meant for rewriting.

I thought I’d share a few tips, some good ones, or those that I think are good because I found they made the biggest direct impact.  These tips are more inclined for screenwriters, but some of them should be helpful to writers of all forms.  Most of us know about cutting scenes that don’t move story, creating subtext in dialogue, and making sure there’s conflict, etc. but here are a few others I’ve been keeping in mind during this final (please let this be my final) rewrite.  Also, thanks to irscriptwriter who encouraged me to stick with my two spaces after a period rule because it was causing aneurysms. 🙂

1. Wordsmithing – more meaning with fewer words.  For screenwriters this is key as a page count limits us.  It also means to take generic words like “walks” and replace it with saunters, struts, or lumbers which immediately gives the reader a visual and negates further description.

2.  Imagine the location or setting and try to describe it in three vivid and evocative terms.  Do the same with your characters.  As with wordsmithing, the right word can have multiple meanings, and immediately stir the reader’s imagination.

3.  Make the script fun to read.  Screenplays have a specific format, but you can build momentum and action by the style on the page.  We create the story and how the reader will follow it, so in that we have freedom.  There’s also an unspoken rule of making blocks of action only four lines a piece so the reader doesn’t skip through larger blocks of text, just FYI.

4.  Make it a silent film.  Read only the action.  Would a reader still understand what’s happening?  This helps solve the “talking head” problem where exposition is given via dialogue.

I have pages upon pages of rewriting tips, so if anyone is interested in more, I will share them in another post.

Have a great weekend everyone!

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Novels vs Screenplays Pt. 2

FlyingLettersSo continuing on…I recently added my own insight into a discussion regarding the nature of screenplays.  A writer was finding it difficult to follow the screenplay formula and not leave the reader confused.  Screenplays involve a lot of blank page, little description, and subtext to limit dialogue…a whole, action packed story, all in under 120 pages.  As I stated in the previous post, 1 page of screenplay roughly equals 1 minute of screen time.  So, those romantic comedies that are always around the 1 1/2 hr mark are about 90 pages.  Again, there are exceptions to the rules.  That’s why the phrase “rules are meant to be broken” is so well loved among screenwriters.  But, you have to learn them first.

When I started writing, I tried writing longer stories.  What I found inhibiting was the attention to details.  Where does the story fall among all those descriptions and idle moments.  When I was introduced to screenwriting, that it was it for me.  Don’t misunderstand, I love to read.  Getting lost in a book is a great way to spend time.  But, as a writer, I find I’m more effective in screenwriting.  Since I began screenwriting, I tried my hand at transferring one of my ideas to novel form, and it took great pains to switch the brain to that mode.  But here’s something I learned along the way.  Because I had to expand the story, I learned more about my characters, their thoughts, their feelings, and the plot became more involved which in turn caused me to rewrite the screenplay.  The two worked better together, in this case.  (This may need to be another topic of discussion.)

So here are a few things to keep in mind if you’re writing a screenplay:

1) Description should be bare minimum.  Only those things that add to the character should be mentioned.  The director and casting agents will decide on who gets cast in your roles, so don’t over-describe what they look like.  Same goes for clothing.  A few references to add to the character are useful, but can be eluded to easily without spending a lot of time on it.  If your character works in the fashion industry, most readers will have some understanding of what type of looks are involved in that world.  And you only have to mention it once when you first introduce your character.  I have an “angsty” teenager in one of my scripts and I just mentioned that she wore all black.  That’s it.  Our imaginations can conjure up an image without going into great detail.  Sometimes locations will be altered, for multiple reasons, so don’t waste time with a lot of description here either.  But let’s say your character randomly quotes movie lines, then perhaps you can write that they have old movie posters around their apartment.  But don’t tell us what color the walls are.  If your characters go to a country house in England, again, we can pretty much imagine that.

On the flip side, if your story takes place in an “alien” world (and by alien, I mean anything out of the ordinary.  It could be a secret military base, or a parallel world), then yes, you may need to describe things a little more in detail, but try not to go over the top, because Hollywood readers (from what I’ve heard) will sometimes just skim over long blocks of description because it takes away from the flow.

2) The same is true of dialogue.  Screenplay dialogue does not always mimic real life conversations.  You can leave out traditional conversation fillers like “hello”, “how are you”, “have a good day”, etc., again, unless it’s adding to the subtext.  Maybe we’re meeting the villain for the first time and he’s unusually cordial and it makes everyone uneasy.  Or a couple has just had a fight, so their conversation is a little stilted as they try to get past the tension.  There’s a phrase to remember in writing, “Enter (the scene) late, Leave (the scene) early”.  Think about it as if you were attending a party.  You get there an hour after it’s started.  You don’t know what happened before you arrived, so some of the conversations you overhear are just strange.  When you leave, the same thing can be said.  The last line of dialogue you hear uttered may leave you questioning what just happened.  Not everything needs an explanation.  Maybe it’s foreshadowing.  Maybe we just learned how other people view our character.

3) Try to conserve words.  If you can use one word instead of two and achieve the same intent, do it.  120 pages isn’t a lot.

4) Lastly, over describing action is unnecessary as well.  I remember reading once that in the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, there was an elaborate fight sequence that was written only as “They fight”.  As writers we see the entire sequence in our heads, but leaving out some of the details does not necessarily mean it will weaken your story.  Obviously, you can write a little more than that, such as, “a fight that ensued through every room” or “an intense fight that seemed to last hours”.  A film involves so many more people, all with specific skills, and it is this knowledge that allows you to just tell the story.

This was a long one…goodness.  I hope it was helpful!  If you have any questions, feel free to send me a message.

Best of luck and have a good weekend!

Novels vs Screenplays

FlyingLettersI recently added my two-cents to a discussion about screenwriting and was compelled to talk about it a bit more.  This particular writer had posed a question about why screenplays had to be a certain length because he felt that his story lost something and might be confusing if everything he wanted was not included.  If you’ve written longer prose the switch to screenwriting can be a difficult transition.  Screenwriting is not like novel writing.  A novel can sometimes be upwards of a thousand pages, where a screenplay, especially for new writers in the field, should never exceed 120 (1 page roughly equals 1 minute of screen time).  Yes, there are exceptions to this rule — Gandhi, Malcolm X, Braveheart, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, to name a few — but they’re all historical, epic, so I can imagine if you have one of those in your arsenal, the page count rule will not apply.  But good luck selling that right out of the gate.*  Historical usually equals costly, and a “first time” writer will be hard pressed to sell something like that without a track record.  Now, again, there are always exceptions, so if you have an amazing story, go for it!  If it’s that good, someone will take notice.  *A disclaimer: I am not an expert.  I am a writer new to the world of Hollywood.  I have just started to make my rounds in the industry, have read a lot, and am partially regurgitating what I’ve learned so far.  Please take my ramblings as just that, ramblings.  I am only trying to impart the lessons of those who have come before.  I feel it’s important to know the terrain before heading out into it.

A screenplay is a blueprint for the film.  There are two mottos by which a screenwriter lives (there are more, I’m sure, but these are the big ones) — show don’t tell & write only what can be seen.   Not all the details need to be included.  If the screenplay is based on a novel many details can be excluded simply because there is source material to refer to.  Novels can spend entire chapters setting up characters, locations, and the premise, where a screenplay is supposed to have all that within the first 10 pages.  Novels can delve into a character’s inner dialogue, but in screenplays, unless it can be shown, you can’t do it.  And from the things I’ve read, most industry professionals don’t care for voice overs which could be considered a quick fix for faulty storytelling.*  *Again, refer to the above disclaimer.

I understand this particular writer’s frustration, but where I find screenwriting liberating, as it is formulaic and has rules (which of course are meant to be broken), to others it might be too restrictive.  For writers interested in exploring screenwriting, I would encourage you to find a screenplay of a movie you like and compare the two.  Even better if it was based on a novel as you can see how different all three can be.  Here is a site that lists where to find mostly free downloadable screenplays.

To be continued…I have a few more “pearls of wisdom” to impart.  Oh, yea.

Wishing you the best of luck in your writing endeavors!