“…Run for mayor.
Live in a barrel.
Break your head with a hatchet.
Plant tulips in the rain.
But don’t write poetry.”
- Charles Bukowski, from Friendly Advice to a Lot of Young Men, The Roominghouse Madrigals: Early Selected Poems 1946-1966.
WHY WE TELL STORIES
We tell stories because there is nothing else we would rather do. I stopped writing for about a year and tried to live without writing. I couldn’t. I have a need to tell stories. When life gets me discouraged or I think I haven’t arrived at the success I would like to achieve, it can be difficult to keep working. Then its time to recharge. I have to tell stories.
We believe that in the rush to create more entrancing special effects and finding new ways to destroy the planet on screen, that the importance of story has become minimized. When you see an action movie where cities are destroyed or planet extinction is threatened, there is no real sense of stakes. We cannot emotionally respond to that kind of loss of human life. But when we watch a well crafted story and see one of the characters we’ve been following on a journey fail, we identify with that set back.
We tell stories because we want to connect with others. Film is the most powerful way to connect with other people. We have all experienced struggle or loss and we want to explore those themes through film.
We tell stories to share our experiences. This isn’t always a one to one comparison, sometimes it is about sharing the feelings we have experienced. Or taking our experiences and re-mixing them in a new way.
We tell stories to share and test our beliefs. Every film has at some level an underlying theme. By making films we get a chance to explore the themes that we find important in our own lives and on some level share those beliefs.
Why do you want to tell stories thru film?
REASONS FOR WRITING SHORT FILM SCRIPTS
When I decided I wanted to try my hand at writing and directing, I stuck to writing short film scripts. By writing scripts in the four to five minute range and one location, I was able to keep on set time to four or five hours. When making your first short films, it is a constant learning process. There is blocking, framing, and making sure you have the coverage you need to tell the story of your film. (We will go into more detail on production in future chapters). By writing short film scripts that only required one location and a short production schedule, it was easier to find other filmmakers willing to volunteer to make my first films. Writing a short film can make it easier for you to produce your own film, or find people to take a risk of making your film.
I wrote several film scripts and after meeting my Director of Photography, Scott Theile, we decided to make a short film I wrote called, “Really, Seriously? Really!” about a guy who was trying to get together with a woman by helping her with her taxes. Really, Seriously? Really was five pages long and took place in a coffee shop. I knew two actors who I thought would be good for the production. Because the script was so short, I was able to find a coffee shop that was willing to host us (Thank you to January Overton and of Jackalope Coffee and Tea House).
On March 3rd, 2013 we showed up at the coffee shop and took over their back room. After around five hours of filming, we had all the coverage I would need to edit the film together.
After that, I was able to use Really, Seriously? Really as a calling card when meeting and talking to other filmmakers. That film eventually led to the creation of two more short films involving the male lead character.
Making your first short film can help show that you have what it takes. It is one thing to get an idea for a script. It’s another to actually write the script, and producing the script can take a lot of planning and a lot of work. Your first short film can work as a calling card. With Vimeo, you can post your video with a private link or with a password so only the people you want to share it with can see it.
A short film can work as a proof of concept for a larger project. With my own work, Really, Seriously? Really led to the production of two more short films. One short became a short web series.
Writing a short film script or making a short film can give you an opportunity to learn the form, experiment with the form, and play with concepts you might have for films.
When you’re ready to submit to festivals, a short film is a great way to network with other filmmakers and to get to know your colleagues in film. In 2017, we are looking forward to submitting iPhotographer to the major festivals, as well as any festival that we feel will fit the story of the film. This will be a new adventure for us and we plan on sharing our journey as we test out the festival circuit.
Writing a short film script is a great way to learn screenwriting without becoming overwhelmed by the idea of writing a 90 – 120 page script for a feature.
My background was writing for the theater. I had a full length play produced and a one act play produced in Chicago. When I first started learning screenwriting, there was a learning curve as I went from a medium that was dialogue driven to a medium that was image driven.
Writing short films helped me make the cross over from writing for the stage to writing for the screen.
Why do you want to write a screenplay?
TIME IN THE CHAIR
Your reasons for wanting to tell stories thru film or writing a screenplay are as important if not more so than the themes you will explore, or how good your script is. Writing a screenplay, whether it is a short or a feature all comes down to time in the chair. Time in the chair when you are outlining your story. Time in the chair when you are writing character biographies. Time in the chair when you are writing your script. Time in the chair when you are editing and re-writing your script. Time in the chair when you are writing your next script.
Sylvester Stallone is said to have written around 20 feature length scripts before he wrote Rocky.
My first feature length scripts are unfilmable. One of my feature film scripts did well in screenplay competitions, but on one re-write I ended up revising a third of the script, and on another re-write I revised half of the script. All of this takes time. For me it takes about an hour to draft four script pages. It usually takes around an hour to edit four to six script pages.
If you are starting out, I recommend writing for twenty five minutes without distractions, taking a quick five minute break, and going back to writing. It is difficult for anyone who isn’t able to write full time to set aside four hours to writing and to stay on task.
For any writing project, I recommend outlining. That way you know what the story events will be and you can work on a beat or a scene in a shorter chunk of time. I have written script pages while taking the train to work, I have set aside one or two hours after work at the coffee shop to write, and I have scheduled a full day of writing on the weekend.
Find the time frame that makes most sense for you and for your schedule. But find the time. Your script will not be written unless you put time in the chair. This is also why it is important to consider the reasons you’re interested in writing or telling stories thru film. This is a time consuming process, from development to scripting, to re-writing, to production, and distribution. One of the greatest rewards is writing something that speaks to you and that will speak to others. There is an army of writers who have been writing for years and who have just started. Don’t expect to earn a living from screenwriting for the foreseeable future.
We write and develop scripts that we believe we can take thru to production, because if you rely on trying to sell a script or striking gold, even if your script is optioned it could end up on a shelf.
This isn’t meant to discourage you. If you sit down today or tonight and start to write, you have already set yourself on a path that is far beyond a lot of day dreamers out there. Depending on how much time you put in the chair, it could be a few weeks or a few years before you have a script that is ready for production.
PRACTICUM – THE FIRST IMAGE
What is the first image you want to see in your short film? If you are thinking of starting with your character sleeping and then waking up, think of something else. Take ten to fifteen minutes to describe the first thing your audience will see when they watch your film. It starts with a simple slug line:
INT. for interior or EXT. for exterior, a place, and DAY or NIGHT
INT. BAR – DAY
What do we see in your opening scene? What are the smells? What do we hear? Be as detailed as possible for this exercise. Please stop reading for now, go WRITE!
10 – 15 minutes, describe the opening image of your film.
ELEMENTS OF A SCREENPLAY
Screenplays are made up of actions lines that describe what the viewer sees and lines of dialogue. Both of these elements should reveal character and move the story forward.
This guidebook is not meat to be a complete style guide. As we mentioned earlier, we can recommend the Screenwriter’s Bible.
Here’s a brief rundown so you understand what makes up a screenplay.
Each scene starts with a slug line. This include INT. for interior or EXT. for Exterior. Followed by the location of the scene and then NIGHT or DAY.
INT. BULL MOOSE BAR – DAY
After the slugline, there is description of what the viewer sees or the action that takes place in the scene. Action lines are single spaced and left justified with no indents. New paragraphs should be indicated by a double space. I generally use new paragraphs whenever there is a new action being described or a new element in the scene being described.
JOHN (50s) the well worn bartender of Bull Moose Bar washes a glass with dirty dishwater and a white rag that’s turned grey.
The baseball game plays on the TV. When one of the teams gets a hit, he looks up at the TV from the noise of the crowds.
John looks at his patrons sitting at the bar and the hit seems to have barely registered with them. John goes back to washing beer glasses.
Whenever a new character is introduced, their name should be in ALL CAPS followed by their age range (20s), (30s), (Late 40s), etc.
Each time a character speaks their name should be x from the left of the page. This is why we recommend using Celtx, Final Draft, or other screenwriting software to ensure you have proper formatting.
After the character’s name their dialogue should be on a new line, X from the left of the page.
There’s finally some action in this game, too bad its
for the other team.
Bringing these elements together, a screenplay will look something like this:
INT. KATHY’S APARTMENT – DAY
KATHY (30s) sits on her plush overstuffed couch with pillows. She holds hands with DON (40s). She gazes at him expectantly.
Kathy, I have something to tell you.
Oh, it’s so good to see you Don. You don’t know
how much you mean to me.
(rubbing his chin)
I slept with your cousin, Rebecca.
Kathy stands up in shock and stumbles a few steps away from him.
Don rises and tip toes towards her.
(reaching out to touch
As soon as Kathy feels his fingertips, she spins around and punches him in the jaw.
We wouldn’t film anything that melodramatic, but it gives you a sense of the format. In addition to checking out Screenwriter’s Bible or online resources, we also recommend reading a lot of screenplays. We will talk more about professional screenplays later.
The driving factor of any scene is conflict. In Really, Seriously? Really!, Harold wants to get to know Arlene. He meets with her at a coffee shop “to help her with her taxes.” Arlene has no interest in Harold and is there because she hates doing her taxes, and hopes Harold will just be able to do it for her.
Their differing motivations quickly lead to conflict.
Each scene in your script should have some kind of conflict. Character A wants something that Character B wants or Character A wants to prevent Character B from getting something.
When writing a scene there is usually some set up required. You want to establish the scene and the characters. One tenant of good screenwriting is starting a scene as late as possible and ending the scene as early as possible. Every page of a script costs money to produce so the writing needs to be tight.
One of my short films, Strange and Desperate, started with a short scene where Harold and his date meet at a park bench. They greet each other and briefly talk about what they plan on doing that day. The problem with this opening is that in the next scene we see what they were talking about.
It took about two hours to film the first scene and about three or four hours to film the second scene.
Through the process of editing the film together, it became clear that the first two pages of the film weren’t necessary and I ended up cutting that footage from the final film. While two pages or two minutes might not sound like a lot, it added to the cost of making the film. We could have saved two hours on set, if the script had been cut before production.
This is why screenwriting is so important if you want to be a successful filmmaker. If you don’t put in enough time during writing the script and re-writes, you won’t find a producer for your script or you could film something that no one wants to watch.
Start your script as late in the scene as possible so we get the basic set up for the conflict of the scene. How your characters deal with conflict will reveal their character to the audience.
When preparing to write your short film or even a feature film script, you need to understand the central conflict of the story. There should be an external goal that the protagonist is struggling to attain and an internal misbehavior that they are fighting to overcome. The external goal and the internal misbehavior can offer two kinds of conflict to each scene and the screenplay as a whole.
In our short film Dead White Rabbits (currently in development), the protagonist, Violet struggles with her desire to be a gracious guest and her moral objection to eating veal. The way her hosts talk and think about veal start to make her worry how they are as parents. She is introduced to their newborn and becomes disturbed by the jokes they make about their own baby. Her concerns heighten the tension in the scenes. She starts to wonder if they would hurt their own baby.
When you are writing a script with the intent of going into production yourself, one important thing to think about is your resources. Resources can include locations, props, film equipment, crew, actors you know, and anything else that could go into the production of a film.
When I started writing with the intent to direct what I wrote, one of my resources was my experience as a writer and my ability to write dialogue that people found interesting. Another valuable resource was my theater background because I had gotten to meet a great number of really good actors.
As we built our camera kit and got filmmaking equipment, always having those resources available made it easier to make short films. There was no longer a need to scrounge for a camera or head to the rental house for the gear we would need to film.
By taking the resources you have available into account, it makes it much easier to realize your script. If you don’t know any actors, you’ll need to hold auditions (either in person or digitally). If you don’t have a camera, you’ll need to find someone who does, or rent one.
On one of our films, Little Dog, I wanted to cast a Pomeranian. I like the majestic look of Pomeranians in miniature and a Pomeranian would fit the story better than any other small dog.
Having this specific vision in mind made it more difficult to go into production. It took a couple months to find a Pomeranian and a dog owner who were a good fit for our needs. For the most part, we operate on minimal budgets and we don’t have $200 or $300 for a professional dog wrangler. This also means that we rely on craigslist, Chicago Artists Resource, Facebook Groups and the Bridgeport Film Club website to get the word out about our needs for production.
The more characters in a script, the more actors you will need to cast. The more pages and locations, the more days you will need for filming.
Many of our short films involve one location, two actors, and a run time between two to five minutes. This allows us to film everything in one day.
You should let your imagination run wild. You should write your film script as complicated or as simple as the story you are telling will dictate. Screenwriting is a great way to express your imagination. Give yourself space to do whatever you want.
Filmmaking is a collaboration where those dreams are brought into the world. The director, crew, and cast will need to find a way of bringing what you wrote on the page to the screen. The Duplass brothers made their first successful film with an answering machine, one actor, one crew, and a shitty DV camera. Keep your resources in mind if you plan on going into production. Or if you are working with a Director or Producer, discuss what resources you have available when you sit down to break story ideas.
One thing to consider when you start writing is what is your favorite genre of film. Sci-fi, Action, and Horror are three special effects heavy genres. Sci-fi may require special props or special effects in post-production. Action may require fight choreography or stunts. And horror may require make up effects or special effects in post-production. Of the primary genres, horror has the benefit of a strong and devoted fan base. If you succeed in writing a good horror script, it could help you build your fan base. One problem with genre films is that as you are learning the craft of screenwriting, it can be difficult to tell a compelling story within genre film. In addition, going into production at the no-budget level can be problematic when it comes to fight choreography, casting, and special effects.
There can be creative ways of writing a genre script without the need for heavy special effects. A script will likely be stronger if it doesn’t rely on special effects to tell the story.
When we started making films at Bridgeport Film Club, we focused on Comedy and Drama. Both of these genres are dependent primarily on the script and the acting. As long as the comedy is funny and the drama is engaging, you can create an interesting short film script. We wanted to focus on the story and the acting. Luckily, we are blessed with a strong actor talent pool in Chicago.
By sticking to comedy and drama shorts, we were able to focus on the craft of filmmaking without having to worry about special effects or fight choreography. We were also able to produce eighteen short films over the course of four years. Ultimately, I love to write so while I enjoy watching action and horror movies, I do not regret writing a lot of short action or horror scripts up to this point. Now that we have gotten to this level of filmmaking, we can always start exploring other genres.
Writing drama can help you learn the essentials of storytelling for film (i.e. conflict, character development, rising action, etc.).
As a screenwriter, you should explore the genres in which you find the most interest. When you write your scripts similar to writing to your resources, you should consider what it will take to put the story you are writing on screen. By focusing on one or two genres, it may help you hone your craft and understand the tropes of the genre. Also, by focusing on one or two genres, it will help you when it is time to research for your script.
With today’s technology just about anyone can film a short on their smartphone, edit it, and distribute their content online. All of us have a voice in a medium that was once exclusive to big studios. Everyone has a story in them. Anyone can be a screenwriter or a filmmaker. All it takes is hard work and patience.
With this access, it is likely more important than ever to think about your audience. It is ever more difficult to get attention. All of us live in a constant stream of TV, streaming media, social media, internet, and a world full of distractions.
Once you have someone’s attention, it will help you as a filmmaker if they actually like your content. When there are no budgets to film, we rely on word of mouth to market our films.
- Who do you think would want to see your films?
- What kinds of movies do they like?
- What kind of music do they listen to?
- What other short films share the same genre as your project?
- What kinds of movies do your friends like?
By thinking about these questions and watching other movies that share your preferred genre, you can better understand what might connect with your audience when you sit down to write your script. With the vast amount of content available it is important to have a sense of who might want to see your films.
We rely heavily on word of mouth and social media. We are always attempting to post interesting content and engage the audience. Your fiends and family as well as the friends and family of your cast and crew should also be considered as part of your audience. If you keep them in the loop about your film and let them know where and when it will be available that can help you reach a wider audience.
Cinema is told through images. You can tell a story through the images you show on the screen or heighten a dialogue scene. Sometimes an actor’s expression negates the need for dialogue.
Some of us think visually. This can put you at an advantage when you’re conceiving of a film. I happen to think and solve problems with words. It is always a stretch for me to conceive of my stories in terms of images. I usually feel more comfortable moving the story forward with dialogue. If you are a visual thinker, story boarding could be a way for you to work out a script. You could also compile a look book of images from other films or photography that speaks to you. Whatever it takes for you to work out a story and start getting words on the page, do it.
For both of these reasons, it may be helpful to you as a screenwriter and filmmaker to keep a bank of images that you find interesting.
Maybe an image has interesting framing or has a compelling composition. Maybe you feel something looking at the image.
Whether planning for writing a script or planning for production, finding images that you feel connect with the story you are trying to tell can make it easier to tell that story.
There have been a couple occasions in my own work where I started to rough out storyboards before sitting down to write the script. When you first start writing screenplays, it can be difficult to avoid relying on dialogue.
Wall-E does a great job of telling a story almost entirely through images. Barry Lyndon by Stanley Kubrick is an example of the power of strong imagery. A good film tells a story through dialogue paired with powerful imagery.
When writing a short film script, a web series, or a feature length screenplay, I highly recommend outlining the plot. The plot are the story events that happen in your screenplay. The longer the project, the more work that should go into breaking down scenes and outlining.
For a short film, an outline could be as simple as a list of scenes. The primary questions you may want to answer for each scene are:
- Who are the characters?
- What are their motivations?
- What is the conflict?
Scenes are driven by conflict and how characters deal with that conflict.
For example, in Die Hard, McClain wants to save his wife and his marriage. The criminals want to keep her hostage until they can gain access to a secret vault.
In Inside Out, Joy wants to finder core emotions. Sadness wants to give up and go home.
These overarching conflicts drive each of the scenes and the entire script.
During a scene there may be several beats. A beat is a turn in a scene when something changes, but the conflict of the scene hasn’t been resolved. Maybe one of the characters finds out something new or information is revealed.
A beat is also when the course of the scene changes or the conversations shifts. In our short film Little Dog, the conflict remains the same throughout the short, Cindy wants to find out why George hasn’t called her after they had sex and George doesn’t want to admit his childish reasons. The scene changes from one beat to another as Sandy tries different lines of questioning to get the information she wants, and George continues to deflect because he is embarrassed by his reasons.
An outline could start with your opening image. With some of my early outlines, I would simply write down which characters were in a scene. Now, I usually write two or three sentences about what is supposed to happen in the scene. The more information usually the better.
PRACTICUM – OUTLINE
What happens in your short film? What are the steps? Take 15 – 20 minutes to outline the plot of your script. If you are using bullets, your outline should have a bullet for each scene and notes or sub-bullets for each beat.
This can be as detailed or as loose as you want, as long as what you write down is enough to prompt you for when you are ready to sit down and write the script.
Each bullet could have a two to three sentence description for what happens in the scene. You can include motivation and the primary point of conflict. Or you could keep your outline as sparse as you like. The important thing is that you lay out the main story events and know what will happen in your script.
THE FIRST DRAFT
You’ve done, x, y, and z. If you haven’t already started, it’s time to sit down and write your first draft. On average, it can take about one hour to write four screenplay pages. When you first get started, we recommend setting aside at least an hour to write. This should be uninterrupted time. If you’re writing on a computer, you might want to turn off wifi to help limit the impulse to jump on the internet to search for something. If you run into something you feel you need to research for your script, it’s better to write a brief note in your actual script about the question you have than to stop writing. You will want to shut off your cell phone or put it in airplane mode.
When I’ve worked on a larger project, like a feature length screenplay, after work I would go to a local coffee shop and find a quiet spot. I would sit with my drink, put on some music and start writing. If staring at the computer screen isn’t working, you can always use pen and paper.
When you sit down for a writing session, having your outline handy can be helpful. The outline acts as a guidepost for where your script needs to go.
Whether your are writing your first script, or you’ve been writing for a couple years, we recommend over-writing your first draft. Give yourself the room as a writer, to explore different paths of dialogue in a scene. If you want your short film script to be five pages when you are finished, aim to write a first draft that is seven pages long.
With writing it is always easier to cut dialogue or edit scenes down than it is to expand on what you’ve already written. Sometimes without even realizing it, you can write in redundancies in the script. If two characters are talking about something and then we see what they were talking about in the next scene, it becomes redundant. It is much better to show an audience what happened than to tell them. And you never want to tell an audience what happened and in the next scene show them.
Sometimes I will keep writing dialogue for a beat even if the idea has been introduced and exhausted. As a general rule, it is better to overwrite a scene and cut back on the dialogue or action in the second draft.
You’ve probably read or heard something like this before. The reason being is that when it comes to writing, I feel that writers has an innate aversion to sitting down and actually getting words on the page. Rituals can help, as mentioned before, but they can also be a distraction. A writer quickly learns all of the reasons to not write – I need the right music, I want to make a cup of coffee first, I really want to watch this video, I need to do more research, I’m not ready to write this scene, I’m not good enough, I need to make something for dinner, I want to meet someone. That is just a sampling of the tools of procrastination. You can write. If you’ve done the free writing exercise, you’ve already shown that you can write in fifteen minute spurts. Recently, I’ve been trying to utilize the Pamodoro technique – twenty five minutes of intense activity / focus on the task at hand followed by a five minute break.
Writing is hard. When I first started writing, it took me about a month to write my first short story. As time progressed, I learned how to focus better and increase my output. I’ve drafted three novels, two stage plays, and four feature length screenplays. All of it came down to carving out the time to write the first draft.
PRACTICUM – Go Write
We’ve given you some of the basic tools for getting started and you should have an idea about your script. Stop reading this Chapter. Take at least fifteen minutes and go write your script. If you can stop doing anything else and write for an hour, you get a star.
After your writing session, we’d love to hear if you have any questions, or what you found out when you actually put fingers to keyboard or pen to paper to write your script.
Reading this book doesn’t count as writing time. Reading a book on screenwriting doesn’t count as writing time. Watching a movie that’s in the genre you want to write in doesn’t count as writing time.
There is a place and a time for research. When you are first starting out as a screenwriter, you should write to what you know. That doesn’t necessarily mean your knowledge base or your occupational experiences, but you should write from the feelings you have experienced as a human being. Whether it’s disappointment, or excitement, or hatred, or apathy, or love. Write to the feelings you have experienced and write with the intent of eliciting those those feelings in others.
By an large for the no to low budget filmmaker, it is better to write to you knowledge base and your skill set. If you know carpentry, write about a couple building their first house. If you know CPR, write about a woman who saves another person’s life and ends up saving herself. If you have access to an apartment, or a location you likely know that place very well and can write something for that setting. This is similar to writing to the resources you have available.
Research by and large should be carried out by you fully experiencing life.
The reason we say this, and the reason this form of research is so important, is because to an independent filmmaker this is where you have access.
You could be fascinated by Rome. Maybe you want to write a feature about the leadership of Nero. As writers we can write about Rome burning while Nero plays a musical instrument watching the city burn, but as filmmakers what resources would it take to capture those images? If you are writing a feature to learn the craft of screenwriting, it can be about anything you want. When you get a polished script, you can send it to competitions and use it as a calling card script.
Our focus is creating work that we can produce ourselves.
If you love screenwriting, it would be a good idea to write both. Write short film scripts to your resources available and write bigger scripts that you can use as a calling card. One thing about the professional filmmaking industry is that you never know when something is really going to hit and get made.
We’re not waiting for anyone else to give us a green light.
If you do decide to put time into research, whether you are reading something, searching via the internet, or watching something, you should be mindful to put aside time to get to the actual writing of your script. Research won’t get your script written. You can research as you write, or if you have a question about something, you can research it after your writing session to make sure you haven’t made a mistake.
Your research should be the things you experience, so go live your life and when it’s time sit down and write.
As Good As It Gets and The Princess Bride – Modern classics
Eastern Promises – worst action lines I’ve read in a script.
Wall-E – Poetry in screenplay format
If you’re not spending time in the chair, if you’re not writing, reading screenplays can be a good way to improve your screenwriting. Especially when you are starting out, it is a good idea to read the scripts from your favorite movies. Most film scripts are available online as a PDF download. Some screenplays (like a few by Quentin Tarantino) have been published in book form. When you can, it is better to find a PDF of a final draft or a shooting script from a film. An easy way to tell the difference between a screenplay and a shooting script, is that the shooting script with have numbered scenes running along the left and right margins on the script.
By reading produced scripts, you can hopefully avoid some of the mistakes that a writer can make when writing your first screenplays. A lot of times, I will see a script that has the phrase, “We see…” We don’t need to tell a reader what the audience will see, we just need to show them:
EXT. STREET – DAY
WALTER (late 50s) stands at a street corner waiting to cross the street. From age and the struggles and disappointments in his life he stands hunched over like a dog that cowers when it’s master is near. The light changes and checking traffic he shuffles across the street.
The level of detail is ultimately at the discretion of the writer. In his screen play Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, etc.) crafts this action lines like a detailed portrait with blocks of text showing what the audience will see.
In the screenplay WALL-E, the script and the dialogue reads like poetry. There is one or two lines describing each action and the dialogue in the beginning is very minimal. By leaving so much of the screenplay open, the writer has left the script open for interpretation by the director and the creative team. Pixar scripts are a little different in that they are written in house and they are developed (at least in part) by the creative team. Because all of them work so closely together, it allows for a level of shorthand that you won’t see in a lot of screenplays.
When I was first writing my scripts, I would spend a lot of time crafting the action lines. I would do everything I can to make the descriptions of what the audience would see interesting. Also, I would use the way I described a scene to show how I saw the camera moving in the scene. For example, if I was describing a character and I thought it might be interesting to see a pedestal shot from their shoes to their face, I would describe the shoes, the pants, the shirt, and then their face. Similarly you can describe a wide shot when you open a scene and then bring the reader to on fine detail in the scene.
I would recommend refraining from calling Wide shot, close up, etc. unless you are closely working with a director because ultimately, it’s up to the director to set what coverage will be needed to tell the story of your screenplay.
There came a moment when I read the screenplay for Eastern Promises. The action lines were written horribly. It was like reading a VCR instruction manual from 1983. I was completely stunned that this script that had gotten produced had action that was written so poorly. It was like reading word salad. But then I realized that as an audience member, you would never see the script pages. You would only see the images that they would film for the script. That was when I learned that action lines are for the most part irrelevant. At least when you go out to film them.
As a beginning screenwriter or filmmaker, you need to do everything you can to help your script stand out from the other scripts out there. Even thought an audience will never see it, I think you should make you action lines palatable to a reader.
When I write a script that I don’t plan on directing, I include all of the information that I feel is important to give a director and a cast and crew a blueprint for the vision I had when I set out to write the script.
Reading a variety of scripts will help you learn what goes into a solid screenplay. A lot of successful screenwriters started out as readers, they would work for a production company or a manager and read stacks and stacks of screenplays. Through reading so may scripts they quickly learned which scripts they could cut after the first ten pages and which scripts they would put in the top ten percent for sending up to their boss. When a script is really well written, it can be like reading a movie.
PRACTICUM – THE FIRST SCRIPT
If you haven’t already, set aside at least an hour and get started on your first script. If you’ve gone previous practicums you will have some text you could use for the opening of your script (don’t start your script with a character sleeping or waking up) and you should already have an outline.
See how much writing you can get done in an hour, either straight through or with a break in the middle.
When you are done with the script, whether you finish it in one sitting or over the course of a number of sittings, take a look at the questions in Appendix A.
– How long did the first draft take?
– How close is it to the original idea?
– What’s your next script?
THE NEXT SCRIPT
You’ve taken the first step, congratulations! You now have your first short script or at least a section of a longer screenplay. If you did write a short, what will your next script be about? If you’r writing a feature, do you know what your next writing session will cover?
After you’ve completed your first draft, the best thin to do is put it aside. Every description line might seem like the best prose you’ve read and each line of dialogue might read like poetry, but by and large it probably isn’t. No first draft is great.
When you’ve just written a script, you have a close emotional connection to what you’ve written. By and large, you are likely blind to the flaws in your plot, dialogue, or how your characters act. The first draft is too important, too precious.
I try to put a month between a draft of a script and the next rewrite. After I received feedback on one of my feature length screenplays, I ended up revising a third of the script. I sent it out to competition and received additional feedback on the newer draft. After the additional feedback, I ended up rewriting half of the script. If you are emotionally tied to your script, it makes it hard to cut pages. Even when the dialogue is beautiful or your action lines are fantastic, if your scenes don’t move the plot forward and show character, you need to cut pages.
While you give yourself a cooling off period after writing a script, it is best to start on the next script you have in mind. Sylvester Stallone wrote over thirty scripts before one weekend he wrote the screenplay for Rocky. Writers write.
With every script you write, you have an opportunity to become a better writer. Writing scripts also:
- Allows you to explore an idea
- Learn the craft
- Establish your voice
With the more scripts you have in your portfolio, the more likely you are to create something that a director will be interested in making. You want to build a portfolio of at least five scripts. It all comes down to the odds. The more you write, and the more time you put into writing the better writer you will become and the better your chances that one of your scripts will be produced.
When I first started writing, I would send my screenplays to competition only to be rejected. Then my fifth script would go to the quarterfinals, semi-finals, or finals of respected competitions. When I watch the shorts we made ten years ago, I cringe a little because of the dialogue.
If you’ve written your first draft, it’s time to get started on the next screenplay.
The fallacy of waiting for inspiration.
If you want to be a screenwriter, you can’t wait for inspiration. You set a time and a place for when you will write. You find your inspiration and you start writing. Whenever I’ve worked on a larger writing project, I set aside one or two hours after work at a coffee shop and I start writing. I give myself a goal (i.e. a page count, a scene, etc.). I get my favorite drink, I get something sweet, I put on some inspirational music, and I start writing.
Preparing to write can be meditative and when it is going well, you find yourself in another world.
I work a regular job from 9 to 5. Despite that schedule, there is always time. I’ve written during my commute, I’ve written after work, and I’ve worked on writing projects over the weekend.
When I’m having a hard time getting started, free writing can help. Sometimes I will write long hand because it can be easier for me to work that way. It all comes down to what will work for you.
Once you’ve started, you’ve won. Don’t wait for inspiration, just start writing.
PRACTICUM – GO WRITE
If you haven’t finished your first script, now is the time. Go Write. Set aside one or two hours to get your first draft done.
If you’ve already finished your first script, then take this as a chance to write your next script.