The final checklist in this series from Wordplayer.com looks at the technical aspect of screenwriting aka format. For those new to the craft or just unfamiliar, screenplays have a particular format that doesn’t resemble other writing.
Here’s a flirty(?) example from my script, Fate(s). It’s receiving a polish next month, and I’ve just found two things I want to change…note to self…
As you can see, there’s a lot of white page. After reading or writing a few, you’ll quickly notice when something is off in someone else’s. *Side note, even full length features vary from TV scripts.
Screenwriters, and the Hollywood set, use terminology that is also specific to screenwriting, so before you decide to embark on creating your first screenplay, be sure to study up to have a better understanding of what goes into this style of writing. I suppose that is a good lead-in for a post on terminology.
Social media with its limited characters, and texting in a new form of shorthand, have done nothing to help the writer. Plus, the illiterate form most texts and updates take now just drive me crazy. How hard is it to put in a comma or a period or just spell out a simple word?! Seriously. It makes me feel old. I don’t like it. That being said, as writers hoping to be professionals, we have to separate ourselves from all that and know the rules in order to break them.
- Is it properly formatted?
- Proper spelling and punctuation? Sentence fragments okay.
- Is there a discernible three-act structure?
- Are all scenes needed?
- Screenplay descriptions should direct the reader’s mind’s eye, not the director’s camera.
- Begin the screenplay as far into the story as possible.
- Begin a scene as late as possible, end it as early as possible. A screenplay is like a piece of string that you can cut up and tie together — the trick is to tell the entire story using as little string as possible.
- In other words: Use cuts.
- Visual, Aural, Verbal — in that order. The expression of someone who has just been shot is best; the sound of the bullet slamming into him is second best; the person saying, “I’ve been shot” is only third best.
- What is the hook, the inciting incident? You’ve got 10 pages to grab an audience. *There is talk that you now have to grab attention within 3 pgs.
- Allude to the essential points two or even three times. Or hit the key point very hard. Don’t be obtuse.
- Repetition of locale. It helps to establish the atmosphere of the film, and allows audience to “get comfortable”.
- Repetition and echoes can be used to tag secondary characters. Dangerous technique to use with leads.
- Not all scenes have to run five pages of dialogue and/or action. In a good screenplay, there are lots of two-inch scenes. Sequences build pace.
- Small details add reality. Has the subject matter been thoroughly researched?
- Every single line must either advance the plot, get a laugh, reveal a character trait, or do a combination of two — or in the best case, all three — at once.
- No false plot points; no backtracking. It’s dangerous to mislead an audience; they will feel cheated if important actions are taken based on information that has not been provided, or turns out to be false.
- Silent solution; tell your story with pictures. *This is the whole idea of screenplays and the phrase, “Show don’t tell”.
- No more than 125 pages, no less than 110…or the first impression will be of a script that “needs to be cut” or “needs to be fleshed out”. *Romantic comedies are generally 90 mins which equals 90 pgs. The bigger concern is the bigger script, especially, from what I’ve read, for new writers. It shows a lack of editing capability. Just FYI.
- Don’t number the scenes of a selling script. MOREs and CONTINUEDs are optional.
While screenplay structure is fairly precise, there are a number of tricks to learn that help draw the readers eye down the page and, subsequently, turning pages. This comes with knowledge and practice. I’m experimenting with some new things in my pilot, so I guess we’ll see how that works out.
Also, I need to research (and then update) no# 13. I’ve never heard the term “echo” in regards to screenwriting. If you know, please share!
I hope you found this series useful! I’ll try to get back on track with sharing useful/helpful tips…I’ve been bad recently.