Screenwriting: When Less is More

Brevity.  Clarity.  Subtext.

In reading the work of some of the more influential screenwriters of the last few decades, one thing (with a few exceptions) holds true across the board. These top-tier writers are both thrifty with their use of words, yet also able to convey so much more than most with the words they commit to the page. Sure, every writer knows about subtext, yet some are true experts at crafting dialogue and descriptives that can fill a reader’s mind with a full-frame of information from just a few brief lines.

The Script Lab

Be Clear. Be Concise. Be Creative.

The Script Lab recommends “The Three C’s” as a simple guideline to keep in mind. Now if you’ve read my previous posts, you know I’m not a believer in following cut & dry methods (and don’t get me started on Save the Cat), but I do believe “The Three C’s” is actually a useful and easy to remember tool when you find yourself questioning if something is perhaps too wordy, too vague, or too bland.

For an example, let’s turn to arguably the most well known script from the legendary William Goldman. I’ll link the shooting script (there’s a bit more included in shooting scripts, such as direction for camera and whatnot, but you’ll get the idea). Look at the economy of words, the quality of words chosen, and the mental picture painted with them.

Goldman’s writing is a classic example of The Three C’s well before that was even a thing. His writing is Clear and Concise with not a wasted sentence as he crafts the world, the scene, and the dialogue, yet even his shortest of lines has that Goldman Creativity. The man had a way with words, on that we can all agree. If anyone says otherwise, I have but one word for them…

Inconceivable!

For further insight into screenwriting, as well as occasional amusing nuggets, The Bitter Script Reader Twitter feed can provide an enjoyable barrage of quips and commentary that are often surprisingly on-point.

He’s been an industry script reader for a decade and his exchanges with fellow readers can be downright hilarious. You’ll likely notice that followers of the “more is more” and “fill the page, let the reader figure it out” school of writing tend to be pet peeves of the pro-reader crowd. In other words, the pros tend to agree, Less is More more often than not.

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Amazing Script Reads for Aspiring Screenwriters

Internet advice is flung at you just about everywhere you turn, but how about just providing a few really good examples of excellent, tight, and well-structured screenwriting? That’s what I’m putting up today, a pair of really well-written scripts. I hope you enjoy them.

First is a recent 2014 Blacklist feature screenplay titled Bird Box. While the genre may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and people certainly argue over the story itself, no one I’ve spoken with disputes the quality of the writing. I highly suggest giving it a read.

Next is from TV-Land, Jon Bokenkamp’s pilot of the TV series “The Blacklist” (not to be confused with Franklin Leonard’s Blacklist). It’s a show that is impressive in both scope and pacing, with writing that is really top-notch. If you want to see why this was the best testing-rated pilot in the past 10 years at NBC then I suggest you take a gander.

I hope these inspire you. I know personally after the rush of reading these faded, I was quite motivated to get back to the keyboard and start cranking out more pages.

Really Good Writers Sometimes Write Not-So-Good Material

Working on some fairly big features and television shows over the years, I’ve noticed an interesting but often overlooked occurrence. That of otherwise good writers putting out some truly wretched material.

Sometimes it’s too many chefs in the kitchen. We’ve all seen laundry list credits with scores of writers and story editors, all chipping in their two cents worth, but once in a while there’s the opportunity to observe a single writer’s “shooting script” of remarkable crappiness evolve into a dozen or so revision scripts, also of remarkable crappiness. Let me tell you, it can be pretty impressive, and I don’t mean that in a good way.

Recently I had the opportunity to take a gander at some of the clunkiest dialogue I’ve read in years. I’m talking burn the script after 10 pages bad. Instant PASS bad. How does this person have a job writing bad. The twist is, this writer has previously penned a bunch of things I really enjoyed in the past. Apparently this particular assignment just wasn’t in their wheelhouse. I was torn, I wanted to like their work, but holy crap I just couldn’t.

And that’s the thing I began thinking about. Even seasoned pros sometimes blow it big time but keep getting a free pass. This fact really doesn’t do much for us aspiring screenwriters, once you’re established you can fail pretty spectacularly and still get work, but the takeaway for me at least is that a good many of us have quite likely written things objectively better than some seasoned pros. Will that knowledge get any of us work? Of course not. Can we keep that tidbit tucked away for those rainy days when we feel like our work just isn’t up to snuff and want to give up in a fit of frustration and foot stomping while howling at the moon in an angry tirade like a frustrated child with a bad case of colic? You bet your run-on sentences we can. (and that was a painful one to write).

I’m really just posting this as a little pep talk, an incentive to fellow writers, an objective bit of info that sometimes it’s not about the material as much as the connections and name you’ve built up.

Frustration happens and we all have self-doubt sometimes, just don’t let it stop you from writing.

Knight Resurrected: Knight Rider Reboot 30 Years Later

KITT2000

No article today, just a quick self-serving blurb.

I just posted Knight: Resurrected to The Black List. I rather enjoyed this one, the story of a teenager who unwittingly rescues a long-lost artificially intelligent supercar.  The two become friends and ultimately wind up facing enemies from long ago.  Sort of E.T. meets Fast and Furious in a way.  In any case, if you’re on The Black List, give it a gander, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Productive Screenwriting – Avoiding 1st Draft Pitfalls

Pitfall!

Pitfall!

First off, I’m sure I’m going to piss off a few ‘experts’ when I say this, but it is my sincere belief that there really is no right or wrong way to write. For the most part at least. A screenplay consisting entirely of page-long run-on sentences would be pretty horrible, though someone may write one some day and prove me wrong.

postitoutline

Outlines and idea notes are the most common tool for laying out the basics of a story before you get to the actual writing of it. Some may write meticulously detailed outlines while others (myself included) prefer a more basic outline of the key themes, characters and ideas and what order they’d work well in. There are myriad programs to help with the process, or you can do it the old-fashioned way with cards or Post-it notes.

As old-school as it may be, I actually like using Post-its as I can quickly move scenes around on the large wall mirror I use, allowing me to see every scene and descriptions of it with just a single glance. I use different color notes for different times of day to more easily visualize that aspect of the story. Some find it easier to switch pages on a computer screen, and the ability to take that with you via laptop is certainly an advantage, but physical cards are kinetic and I find them more conducive to creativity (for me). I also prefer to do the core of my writing in one place, so the need to move my Post-its doesn’t typically arise.

AP_NYC_train_derailment_jt_131130_16x9_992Others utilize a Train of Thought method, opting to go with the flow and see what comes of it. While this can be a fun way to write, it does tend to lead to a lot of revisions as completion more often than not follows a very windy road rather than a sleek expressway. Anyone who has decided to “just write” with no plan and see where it goes likely has the same story we’ve read time and again, the one with their train of thought derailing like an Amtrak traveling in a straight line (and why is it rollercoasters stay on track but Amtrak seems to flip with nary a curve in the line?) Writers who do this often send their formerly interesting characters on random side trips that ultimately detract from the story.

These exercises in tangential writing often lead to some interesting ideas that may ultimately find a place somewhere, perhaps in a later creation, but the story at hand most often becomes a jumbled mess in need of serious revision. Having a plan, even the most basic one, helps you stay on track and not waste days or weeks chasing the dragon of new ideas that don’t fit in the concept of what you set out to write.

200474875-001Then there are the Meticulous Rewriters. You know who you are, the ones who edit as they go, unable to leave a sentence on the page unless it is perfect. We’ve all been guilty of it at one time or another, getting so wrapped up with making every single word count that we don’t see the forest for the trees. Unfortunately this leads to what I call Hitting the Perfection Wall, where one imperfect sentence can bring an unfinished script to a screeching halt. Quality writing and the exquisite turn of a phrase are certainly ideals to strive for, but that is not what anyone should be focusing on in their first draft unless they want to be one of those writers who puts out one completed work every few years or so. Over-correcting and constant tweaking/editing can derail actual writing. Get that first draft written, you can edit and tweak to your heart’s content once that is accomplished.

edvard munch1Like a painter creating a body of work for an upcoming exhibit, sometimes you have to put a piece aside and stop tweaking it or you’ll have nothing to show but just one piece that’s never finished. Crank out a body of work and you’ll have a lot of things to revisit and rewrite.

Now in the sea of tips, tricks, and advice out there (mine included) there are many methods that may work well for your particular style. Experiment, try things out, just keep in mind that no matter a blog creator or writing expert’s credentials and bona fides, you don’t have to conform to someone else’s structure if it doesn’t work for you. Some people swear by Save the Cat, others abhor it. Choose what works best for you.

In the quest for a great story, I am certainly guilty of leaving drafts unfinished, though that typically stems from working 60 to 70 hour weeks on set in my “day job”, leaving little brain power to write. This is why I carry notepads, rapidly filled full of outlines, ideas, dialogue and scenes that I hope to have time to fully explore during a break. One such notepad became my Knight Resurrected screenplay first draft in just 5 days during the downtime between shows. For me the outline first then write process works well. But don’t take my word for it, I’m just a guy on the internet, giving my 2 cents worth.

One un-related bit of advice:

Don’t be ashamed to say “I’m a writer.” There’s a lot of negativity placed on saying “I’m an actor/musician/writer/artist” if you aren’t successful yet, but just because you might not be in the .0001% who make a living at it does not lessen or invalidate what you do. I tell people I’m a writer, albeit unproduced, who also works below the line, though I’d prefer to write for a living. There’s no shame in a day job. Very few people make a living from their artistic endeavors, and several amazing artists I know still work other jobs when not selling paintings for thousands of dollars. A paycheck doesn’t define you.

Now go write!

Screenwriters Must Always Follow The Rules! (Except When They Don’t)

Never give camera direction.

Don’t say “We see.”

Cut out those graphic descriptions.

Oh, and don’t forget to always use well-crafted sluglines.

These are just a few of the oft repeated rules spouted by bloggers, gurus, and countless “experts” the world over, but if you read some of the top scripts floating around out there, you’ll see these rules (and many others) ignored all the time. In fact a great deal of the “rule breakers” spurned so often online wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow amongst actual execs.

Take for example the recent film “The Imitation Game” by Graham Moore. In the first several pages he throws bolded sluglines out the window, opting instead for a very dynamic (if not conventional) style. Rather than traditional sluglines, here is what he wrote:

A CONSTABLE PHONES IN the robbery to headquarters —

— At headquarters, a RADIO GIRL transmits the information to the detectives on duty —

— And in London, a RADIO OPERATOR in a dark room far below Victoria Street TAKES DOWN AN URGENT MESSAGE —

— ON THE MESSAGE: Random letters. Gibberish. It’s ENCRYPTED.

The ENCRYPTED MESSAGE is handed to a CRYPTANALYST, who DECODES it —

— Before the MESSAGE is HANDED OFF and WHISKED through the dim hallways —

— Until it’s finally deposited on the desk of STEWART MENZIES, the Director of MI-6. British Secret Intelligence Services.

Menzies picks up the message: “Alan Turing has been robbed.”

EXT. ALAN TURNING’S HOUSE – MORNING

Another example comes from the Nightcrawler script. Once again, sluglines are eschewed for an unconventional (according to internet gurus at least) style. These breaks shift focus intentionally to what the writer wants the shot to be, but without giving explicit camera direction (though the writer was also the director). Even so, you very clearly see where the writing forces you to visualize the focal point of the images as you read. Take a gander:

PEOPLE

riding bikes and jogging and roller-blading in Venice where we find

LOU

sitting on wall … watching

A MAN

in a spandex bicycle outfit as he locks his racing bike, enters a juice store and

LOU

crosses … picks the bike lock and CUT TO

A PAWN SHOP

You get the idea. Now as I said, the screenwriter was also the director, so liberties are expected.

As far as the use of “We see” or other camera direction, everyone I’ve ever spoken with who actually works in the industry (as opposed to myriad online gurus and experts who are more often than not not making their living as writers) have said that if a script is well written and engaging, they really don’t care if there is camera direction. The point is to tell a good story, and if you’re doing your job as a writer the story should be so enthralling that they don’t even stop to notice visual cues and direction.

This is one of the interesting elements (in my opinion) of the online world of experts and coaches. I wonder how many people have changed their dynamic and engaging reads on the advice of people whose credentials are minimal at best. There are literally thousands of writers who have completed scores of screenplays, but the act of writing a body of work alone should not be enough to give anyone the title of expert. Of course there are those who are like great coaches, perhaps not able to do it themselves, but possessing a keen eye towards improving other people’s creations. An old friend of mine is this way. She’s a lawyer by trade, a stage actress by hobby, and is utterly amazing at picking apart a story and finding strengths and weaknesses. She is also the first to say that she can’t write worth a damn, but she can edit with the best of them.

The takeaway from this all is these rules aren’t rules at all, but rather suggestions or guidelines. Do what you need to do to make your story flow. Just remember that if you do venture outside of conventional style, make sure you do it elegantly and effectively. You can get away with just about anything if you do it really well.

Scoring High on SpecScout

Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 7.45.30 PM

After several revisions and some great notes from friends and co-workers, Living the Good Death was recently submitted to SpecScout for coverage. The result? It is one of the very few non-agency submitted scripts to score high enough to warrant listing on SpecScout’s pages. For comparison, Living the Good Death actually scored higher than an Austin Semi-Finalist and a Script Pipeline Grand Prize winner, both recently listed on SpecScout.

Another plus is Living the Good Death will now be highlighted in the next Scoggins Report.

Obviously I’m thrilled, and though a few folks have recently expressed some interest in the script, achieving this positive traction (the script received two “Recommend” and one “Consider” ratings) is a wonderful validation of a story I hold dear.

Whoopeeeee!!!

For writers looking for really good coverage, I highly recommend checking out SpecScout (and no, I’m not a shill or on their payroll in any way).  I’ve also used The Black List (this same script scored an 8 from an Industry Member) in the past but felt their coverage was quite sparse, even though the price is lower. Ultimately it’s up to you which, if any, service to get coverage from.

And now on to the fun part. Writing another one.