Practical Advice For The Working Screenwriter
Updated: Nov 19, 2020
The following screenwriting articles are from our older blog. Below, please find excerpts from 4 of our favorite "how-to" screenwriting articles. Articles were written by Screenwriting Staffing's Founder, Jacob N. Stuart
LEARN DIALOGUE [to view the entire article, click here: DIALOGUE IN 20 MINUTES]
Hollywood has a short attention span. Unlike writers—who sit and ponder, plotting out their next script, revising and revising a screenplay until their fingers are numb—the truth is that the people you need to impress with your script do not. So during your writing breaks, rather than looking yourself up on Google, why not take 10 minutes to learn the key elements for success when writing dialogue?
Ben: “You can never ask me to stop drinking. You understand?”
Sera: “I do.”
– Leaving Las Vegas
I think this is one of my favorite lines in any movie. This quick, intense exchange of words holds invaluable subtext. Ben’s line is on-the-nose and purposely done. We know he’s lost his wife, his son, and his job. He has sold his belongings and methodically plans to kill himself in Vegas by use of the bottle. But when Sera says, “I do [understand],” does she?
The words “I do” are only a quick fix, an answer that clearly masks how she feels but can momentarily end this conversation. Sera is not concerned about his drinking habits. Ben, at least for the time being, serves as a selfish distraction from her prostitution life. Finally, after many years of sorrow, she’s found someone who is “worse off” than she is. So what is Sera really saying? She’s saying, “No, I do not understand, but who cares, as long as you stay.”
Subtext in dialogue is the only truth in a character’s speech. Subtext is the underlying meaning of the character’s “surface” dialogue, and it can only be achieved when the writer understands the real motivations of their characters. Without subtext, your characters are dull. Unfortunately, you will find that the audience does not truly understand your characters, which will later force you to add too much exposition dialogue.
There is nothing I hate more than watching a TV pilot that shows a married couple sitting on the porch and listening to the husband saying, “Honey, you know we’ve been married for 25 years.” Of course she knows! But writers feel the need to add information that is not only organic, but also obvious. How can a writer ensure that the audience knows the couple has been married for 25 years? It’s simple. In your action and description lines, highlight family photos with kids in their later teen years or a wedding photo that is well-worn and faded, with the couple looking dramatically younger. And instead of having the couple cuddled hand in hand on the couch like a newlywed bride and groom, show them stretched out on the couch with a bucket of ice cream in between them. Add subtle action and description rather than obvious dialogue. There is a time for exposition. For the most part, every film has expositional dialogue. Still, the best films take advantage of this initially by communicating key information that the audience must have to understand the story fully. Remember, it’s always better to show, not tell.
It was always so embarrassing in film school when we held casting calls. It’s bad enough that we can’t pay the actors for their time and that an audience will never see the film, but the fact that we brought these actors in to read one line for a front desk clerk at a hotel (“Thanks for staying with us; come back again”) makes it all the more egregious.
First, you must ask yourself if this scene is even needed. If it is, does there really need to be dialogue? Can’t the clerk just wave goodbye? Try giving the front desk clerk something interesting to say, which provides the audience with a clear understanding of the hotel’s charm, size, or personality. You can also use this opportunity to give insight into your protagonist’s personality by having the front desk clerk do something silly or even obnoxious. This will allow the audience to see how your protagonist reacts. But please, don’t waste an actor’s gas money just to read a generic line by a generic character.
It is said that dialogue should be a maximum of two to three lines. Having white space on a script is very important. But while real people don’t typically give long speeches, every great script should have one long and powerful speech. This should not be done at the beginning (unless it pushes the story forward), but at the end. One of my favorite examples of a great speech is in Scent of a Women. The script is full of fabulous one-liners and memorable quotes, but one of the most stunning parts of the film happens when Colonel Frank Slade delivers his bombshell support for Charlie at the school. The impact of his speech is breathtaking, and the film wouldn’t have worked without it. A great speech: Al Pacino as Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade and Chris O’Donnell as Charlie Simms in Scent of a Woman
Think silent films are dead? What about 2011’s Oscar-winning Best Picture The Artist? We go to the movie to see moving images. If we want lengthy dialogue and text, we can read a book. (Now, I’ll admit I go to Tarantino’s films to hear his characters speak, but he’s an exception.) Turn the volume off on your favorite movie. Watch it all the way through. Do you still understand the characters goals? Do you understand the theme and message the director is trying to capture and preach? If the film is done right, this can be achieved. It’s not uncommon for writers to draft their script with only action and description and later add the dialogue. I do not personally use this method, but many writers find it’s essential to tell the story visually before they tell it verbally. Think about it.
Commanding a Voice
Over 75 percent of scripts that are never produced were rejected because of the lack of voice for each character. It’s 120 pages of a writer speaking in the same tone and voice, giving us a boring sermon. Screenplays that work owe much of their success to real voices that come from real characters. Try this: Blackout the character’s name in your entire script. Then go back in and re-read the screenplay. Can you differentiate between characters? Do you know who is speaking and to whom they are speaking? If not, you are setting yourself up for failure. When I was a screenplay reader covering multiple scripts a day, I wanted to scroll through them as fast as possible. The most impressive and enjoyable ones were those in which I didn’t need to check and see who was speaking. I just knew.
I love voiceovers and will continue to use them when needed. But when do voiceovers destroy a screenplay? There are many explanations of why and how this happens. When a writer, for whatever reason, can’t fix character development or plot holes, they tend to revert to voiceovers, which is a cop-out. So before writing a voiceover, you need to ask yourself, “If my voiceovers are removed, will the story still make sense?” If so, consider taking them out. Think of a director who watches his film and comments on it to an audience while watching. The director is adding insight, bonuses and layers to the story—something the naked eye may not see. Could Shawshank Redemption work without Morgan Freeman’s voiceovers? Yes, it could. But what the voiceovers provided was flair, personality, and a sense of continuity. The film’s success was achieved by clever writing and allowing the characters actions to dictate the story first. The voiceovers were just the icing on the cake.
Conclusion: The Concept
Screenplays are bought on concept, not dialogue. So every writer should first focus on the overall concept of the script. When a writer has a compelling story to tell, the script is already halfway to selling. But dialogue should not be overlooked. It can add a great break when a script has a lot of action. Dialogue sticks with us and is quoted by people for years and years. It can make us cry and laugh at the same time. Just remember, if you create a story worth telling, memorable characters, and an ending that will blow an audience’s socks off, adding in the dialogue will come naturally. It will be a total breeze.
Have your dialogue evaluated by Screenwriting Staffing.
SUPPORTING CHARACTERS [to view the entire article, click here: SUPPORT YOUR SUPPORTING CHARACTERS]
Here is a shortlist of ways to enhance your script by improving your Supporting Character(s)
1) Contrast. Have you ever thought someone was more attractive than they really were just because they were standing by someone in the bar who was…well… hideous? The same theory goes with your supporting character, as well. You can set your protagonist apart, making him/her stand out and amplify the traits you give him/her merely by making your supporting character the polar opposite. This is an excellent device used in television all the time. Take ‘Cheers’, the TV Show – another favorite of mine – and compare Sam Malone (the main character) to Dianne Chambers (supporting). Because of their different taste in movies, sex, relationships, friends, and everything else for that matter, it’s easy to identify who the “playboy” is and who the “brain” is. Instead of riddling your script with “dialogue”, having to explain to the audience what kind of “guy” Sam is, it’s much easier to create a supporting character that is the exact opposite.
2) Experiment. When writing your protagonist, you have to be very careful and detailed. This will be the character that drives your story. If this character isn’t lovable, or at least appealing, your movie will FAIL. But with supporting characters you can write “outside the box”. Think about the ‘Dark Knight’. We know Batman is the main character, right? But why did you keep watching the movie over and over again? Because of the Joker. While much of the Joker’s character should be credited to Heath Ledger’s performance, Nolan did an excellent job creating this character. Nolan doesn’t hold back and creates a witty, dark, and emotionally unstable supporting character, which can challenge Batman in every way. Many writers would be scared to create a character like this, worried this might ruin their script -- quite the contrary. You can’t go “too” wrong with your supporting character. It’s much easier to replace supporting actors rather than the main actor. So experiment. Think outrageous and give your character the most striking and comedic traits known to man!
3) Calm Down. Don’t be afraid if your supporting character begins taking over the story… to an extent. Think about Johnny Depp’s character in the first ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’. The plot (A blacksmith trying to save his love interest from a bunch of savage, now undead pirates) was a masterpiece, and the protagonist (Will Turner, played by Orlando Bloom) was developed brilliantly. Still, it was Depp (Captain Jack Sparrow) that pushed the way for a sequel. But, still, my favorite example reverts back to “Cheers”, with Dianne and Frasier. Dr. Frasier Crane was introduced in Season 3 to cure Diane (and date her), “proving” that her feelings for Sam were now over, which would allow her to work back in the bar distraction-free. Frasier was never meant to be a lead role. But the audience loved him, and the writers capitalized on it, and that’s why we see in later seasons many of the plots revolving around him, like him even getting married and having a child. And, which I’m sure you are all very well-aware of, resulted in his spin-off, too. So don’t fear a powerful supporting role. That character needs to have just as much depth and importance.
Please Keep In Mind. Don’t let your supporting character completely take over your script. We see this all the time, and it makes the movie uneasy, unbalanced, and confusing. Creating your supporting character should be fun, but don’t get carried away. If your supporting character doesn’t drive the story, try these 3 things: Define the protagonist role. Illuminate the theme of the story. Or, cut the character out altogether, it’s NOT needed.
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BREAKING INTO THE INDUSTRY [to read full article, click here: SCREENWRITING FROM A CAMERA LENS]
Here are 5 of the most universally popular suggestions when asked how to break in as a screenwriter:
-- Become a screenplay reader for a studio.
-- Join a writers’ group in your city.
-- Submit your screenplay into contests.
-- Take screenwriting/film courses at a local community college.
-- Write and Produce a “short” film.
While these strategies are all practical, and may I add achievable…I did all 5, I’d like to offer a more subjective solution. Though it seems a bit unorthodox, I’ve found that one of the best approaches to achieving success in the screenwriting business is by “working on-set”; not as a screenwriter, but as part of the crew.
Why is my screenplay being turned down?
If you are reading this article, I am going to assume you, like many screenwriters, are searching for new and innovative ways to break into the business and sell your screenplay. So let’s start with this. Toss your “big-budget” screenplay to the side and strap-on a walkie talkie. It wasn’t until I worked on-set, on everything from studio films to zero-budget indie flicks, that I realized just how much work is put into making a film. Simply watching the “behind the scenes” portion of your favorite Blu-ray will not do justice to what “production life” is really like. Until you have hauled loads of equipment across uneven and treacherous trails, lit a daytime scene in a thunderstorm at night, or tried to record crisp dialogue near an international airport, you cannot honesty say you have experienced life as part of the crew.
The first screenplay I ever wrote, just like you probably, required 6+ plus scenes to be shot at the Chicago White Sox Stadium (with sellout crowds), a funeral scene on the Navy Pier (during the winter), and a named actor attached (think Denzel Washington, “He’s Got Game”). The script did get optioned for a short period with Warner Bro’s on the back-end, but there just wasn’t enough money to make the film a reality, so the rights reverted back to me. But instead of being discouraged, I started taking into consideration what it takes to make a film, everything from money to time-frames. That meant I could no longer write scripts about high-speed chases near the White House, or large wars near ‘The Great Wall of China’, and scenes that involved 2,000-plus men dressed in 1940’s World War II uniforms.
Solution? I began to write low-budget screenplays. Seeing first-hand on-set how expensive it is to cast a large amount of characters (or even feed them) just blew my mind. The cost of renting a location (and equipment) was jaw-dropping. So I tailored my screenplay to the independent world. This does not mean you can’t write the next “Transformers”, but if you are looking to add some credits to your name, then work on-set in a crew position, review budgets and call sheets, and take that experience and knowledge and write a screenplay that a person like you and me can produce.
I have no formal training in production, so now what?
If you think screenwriters are the only ones asked to work for “free” in this industry, you are DEAD wrong. Crew members, especially production assistants, grips, and craft service, are only given copy/credit. And the credit is worthless because most of the time, the film is never finished. The point I’m trying to make is that there are thousands of productions being shot today that would love a helping hand on-set. And most of the time, since you are working for free, the crew will be happy to show you around.
But for those who want to take a different approach, I suggest taking up Script Supervising. Script Supervising is a much easier trade to pick up than anything else in film, well, at least for me, since it didn’t involve a lot of technology. If you are not sure what script supervisors do, I’d suggest doing a little research, but as far as the basics go, a script supervisor works directly with 4 of the most important people on-set: the Director, Cinematographer, Boom/Mixer (sound), and Actors. There is no other position on-set that allows you to work hands-on with all of the “department heads” which make your screenplay shine. So, if you are going to be on-set, why not be holding a screenplay the whole time because, seriously, that’s what you do. You dissect it, analyze it, and study it. Not only are you watching how a screenplay is translated to film, but you can see how actors and directors approach action and dialogue in a screenplay (you would be disgusted to see how much is cut and mocked). This alone will honesty change the way you approach your next screenplay.
I understand how a film is made, so I don’t need to work on-set.
Kudos, Spielberg. But working on-set is not just for the screenwriter who needs to scale down the budget on their screenplay. It’s for EVERY screenwriter, especially for those looking to make connections in this industry — which should be all of you. In this day and age, the way films are being made (and those making them) has totally changed since film was first created. If you have ever been on-set in Hollywood, you will find out very quickly that the production assistant, who fetches coffee during the day, owns a petite production company with his buddy in Venice Beach. They own the equipment and have the skills, but they are missing one thing: a screenplay. The same goes for that girl on the second unit camera crew who graduated from film school last year with a 4.0, a reputable degree, and a considerable amount of student debt that’s now looming over her. She learned how to operate a camera over a 4 year span, so she figures why not take side gigs to pay her bills. But in her free time, she raises funds on “Kickstarter” so she can begin her “directing” career. The point I’m trying to make is, don’t judge a person by their position on-set. Everyone in this industry is a connection worth having. Connecting on-set can also be so rewarding. Pass your cards out to everyone. Put your name, number, e-mail, and even throw something subtle on there that you’re a “screenwriter”. Tell people about what you are working on, your success, or just talk “favorite films”. Don’t forget about the actors. Have you ever been asked if an actor is attached to your screenplay? I have. Network! Add them on social networks, follow-up through phone and skype calls. Before you know it, you could be producing your screenplay since you already know the cast and crew! At the end of the day, every starting screenwriter must hold a day job. So why not make your day job film-related? Believe me, don’t get run down by working on-set. It’s exhausting, and honestly, mentally discouraging. So just like any job, be balanced.
In closing, here are 5 things (in my opinion) a screenwriter should achieve while being on-set , so be sure to check these off if you land yourself some “crummy” on-set job:
1) Understanding production value, so you can write a screenplay that can be easily made (and making it easy for someone to buy).
2) Study the screenplay before production, so while on-set, you can observe how film-makers translate and understand screenplays.
3) Make friends with the crew. Find out what they are working on when this production ends and how you, as a screenwriter, can be of assistance.
4) Come to set excited and ready to learn. No one in this industry, or any industry for that matter, will give you a fighting chance if you don’t appreciate (or understand) the process of taking a script to screen. A novelist can read a book and mirror how it’s written. But can a screenwriter really write a screenplay if he/she doesn’t know how scripts are filmed?
5) Be sure to add your on-set experience to a resume. At Screenwriting Staffing, we often help writers with their resumes. Some do not have any credit as a screenwriter, but for those who have on-set experience, we try to incorporate it in. If anything, it shows you are knowledgeable in your industry.
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WHITE SPACE IS YOUR FRIEND [to view full article, click here: HOW TO PARE DOWN YOUR PROSE]
Having surveyed over 1,000 industry professionals over the last 4 1/2 years through Screenwriting Staffing, I have found that the majority of producers who request scripts from our writers perform the following tasks before reading a script:
1) Scroll to the VERY last page, checking page-length. If the script is any more than 100 pages, the producer already sees a red flag. It’s terribly hard to fund a spec script (especially from a newer screenwriter) if the film runs more than 1 1/2 hours. Yes, Aaron Sorkin can submit a 140+ page script — he’s earned it; the rest of us must follow the rules: never submit a spec OVER 120 page. I’d suggest 90-100. Attention spans are at an all-time low!
2) Randomly flips through the script, seeing if the writer’s script is formatted correctly. Script that doesn’t follow industry standards are tossed. If the writer doesn’t take the art form seriously, why should the producer take the writer seriously? This includes scene #’s — that’s for a shooting script, not a spec.
3) And lastly — and this is the most important one — they check for WHITE SPACE. If a producer sees plenty of white-space throughout, they know this will be a quick read, which means your script will be read first since they have time to squeeze it in during their morning coffee, a lunch break, or right before bed. A script with a lot of white space also shows you understand the craft; less is more; film is a visual medium. If you enjoy writing long-drawn-out descriptions, write a novel. Seriously.
White space is your friend; learn how to use it!
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This article was written by Screenwriting Staffing’s Founder, Jacob N. Stuart. Jacob is an award-winning screenwriter with over 20 scripts either optioned or produced to screen, airing in over 15 different countries. He is a graduate of The Los Angeles Film School with a degree in FILM/ENTERTAINMENT. Outside of judging and spear-heading multiple film festivals across the country, he is a regular contributor for FINAL DRAFT and CREATIVE SCREENWRITING MAGAZINE. You can follow him on TWITTER.
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