The Good, the Bad, and the Irredeemable

Project GreenlightWell, I’ve completed reviewing eight screenplays now, and I’m sure not feeling a whole lot better than I was a few days ago. Screenplay number six was garbage, seven was decent (if a little conflicted in its message), and eight... eight was the worst yet. Perhaps not as bad as one from the first Greenlight contest that will make me cringe until my dying day, but as close to that mark as anything I’ve read since.

So today I’m going to start a little feature, which I’ll plan to revisit from time to time. A few helpful hints for aspiring screenwriters. Nothing that isn’t available elsewhere — and from writers who have a lot more credibility than I — but I can no longer sit back and watch while people continue to screw up in ways that could so easily be corrected.

Screenwriting Tip #1: Learn how to write. I know, that sounds basic, but you’d be positively shocked at how many people haven’t bothered to take even that simple step. I have no doubt that if I asked some of these people to define the “plot” of a story, I’d be rewarded with a blank stare. I am not saying you have to stick to “formula,” but you’d damn well better know the most elementary rules of storytelling before you decide to throw them out the window.

Screenwriting Tip #2: Learn how to write a screenplay. The rules for screenwriting are extremely rigid. Yes, there are ways to bend those rules, but unless you know the rules cold, you’re not in a position to decide when that is. And don’t look to published screenplays for help — those are books, written for people who have already seen the movies made from them. They’re also shooting scripts, not spec scripts. If you can’t handle the most basic rule — screenplays must be written in 12-point Courier, with exactly specified margins and indentation spots — you’re not ready to write a screenplay. Oh, and one more thing — a screenplay’s “log line” is not a “tag line.” If you want someone to read your screenplay, you can’t just spout meaningless marketing tripe like, “You never know what you’ve got until it’s gone.” I read that, and I can tell you that your screenplay’s the first thing that’s gone. (On the flip side, don’t give away your story’s final twist in the log line — if I know how it turns out, why should I care about reading it?) A recommended — nay, required — reading list: Standard Script Formats — Part I by Cole & Haag (the rules); The Screenwriter’s Bible, by David Trottier (when to deviate from those rules); How Not to Write a Screenplay, by Denny Martin Flynn (how not to completely screw up). None of these will teach you how to write, but they will teach you how to turn your writing into a workable screenplay.

Screenwriting Tip #3: If it’s not on the screen, don’t put it in your screenplay. Hey, it’s great that you’ve thought enough about your characters to flesh out their past lives, but if I have to read one more time about a newly introduced character’s ex-wife, three kids, girlfriend, and aspirations to get his real estate license — none of which has any bearing on what’s on screen — I’m going to scream. Stick to a few basic — visible — characteristics that give me an understanding of your character. The same advice goes for drawings, maps, character lists, and anything else you think helps readers “understand” your screenplay. If you can’t make it clear — and simple — in your screenplay, then rewrite it until you can. Unless you plan on handing out programs at every screening of your picture.

Screenwriting Tip #4: Remember that you are not the director. Avoid all camera instructions, dissolves, “we see” narrative, production designs, music suggestions, what have you. None of that is your call to make. This isn’t a novel — this is a blueprint you’ll be handing off to other creative professionals, who are going to remove you from the process entirely at that point. Is it nice? No. Is it necessarily wise? Perhaps not. But that’s the reality. Stick to telling the story, and let others figure out how to put it on the screen. Music is particularly galling. First of all, just because you love the new Justin Timberlake single doesn’t mean everyone else will. Not to mention the fact that the odds of your getting the rights to use it are between slim and none. (And before any more experienced screenwriters jump down my throat, yes, there are times when it’s appropriate to insert minor instruction — but it had better be absolutely integral to the story; better to err on the side of omission.)

Screenwriting Tip #5: Read what you’ve written. No, your spelling doesn’t have to be perfect, but if it’s clear that you haven’t even done a spelling check, I’m going to assume that’s the level of care you’ve taken across the board. You start confusing characters, introducing inconsistencies as the result of rewrites, and demonstrating other mistakes that a simple read-through would have caught, and your screenplay will get tossed into the dustbin before it’s halfway finished.

Okay, that’s all the venting I’ve got the energy for right now. Like I said, I’ll probably revisit this topic from time to time, but if anyone wants any other tips in the meantime, drop me a line.

All right, now that I’m calm once again, it’s on to screenplay number nine.

Addendum: In case anyone’s keeping score, number nine sucked, too.


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