Monday, September 08, 2008

Some tips for the noobs

The other day - okay like two months ago - a first time screenwriter I'd given some advice to asked me to read his screenplay. After much hemming and hawing, I finally got around to reading it yesterday and made some notes.

It's been a long time since I read a first script. Oh man.

First let me say, this guy has what it takes in the attitude department. Not only does he take criticism well, but he begs for it. He doesn't get defensive or angry, he listens to suggestion and acts on it, and he has a real passion for the craft. And that's the only reason I agreed to read his script.

In the end, however, I only read ten pages because I realized he needed to fix a few basic things before I could give him any advice on story. I wrote pages of notes just on format and structural stuff and never had a chance to pay attention to the plot. So I gave him some notes and told him to fix the style stuff and send me the next draft so I could advise him on story elements instead of rambling on about character introductions and camera instructions.

I don't know how many of my readers are first time writers, but just in case you are, here's some stuff new writers do, and here's what I told this guy:

1) Make sure the script you're using as a format reference is a SPEC script, not a shooting script. This guy had a character list right up front, the way you do in a shooting script. Spec scripts are written for the reader, not the director, so not only do you leave out camera instructions unless ABSOLUTELY necessary, but you have to make the script feel like a story unfolding on the page, not like a series of instructions for a camera crew. So read tons of spec scripts and pay attention to how they flow.

2) That doesn't mean your script is a novel. Your screenplay is in third person limited point of view. What that means is, it's written by someone who's OBSERVING the events as they happen. I can't read anybody's mind if I'm a limited narrator; all I can do is tell you what I see. Now you may read scripts that include some introspection and mind reading, but chances are excellent that the writer is better known than you and that those instances are few and far between. Instead of telling me "Anna is royally pissed off," tell me "Anna puts her fist through a wall and screams." This especially applies to character introductions.

3) Don't bore me. This is actually rule number one in my classroom when the kids do group projects. You can walk into my classroom and ask all my kids "What's rule number one about projects?" And they will echo like good little boys and girls: "Don't bore the teacher." Your script is over 100 pages long. When's the last time you read 100 pages of something boring? Probably college, and probably with a great deal of resentment. Don't spend eight pages introducing fifteen characters. Get in, get to the story, and introduce the characters as they become necessary. If your story hasn't started by page ten, you've already lost your reader.

Now, I'm not trying to come off as an expert or anything, but I'm certainly not on my first script. God knows I did a lot of this crap when I wrote my first script, but I learned over time not to do this stuff. Maybe by reading this any newbies out there can skip that part so the first person to read your first script can focus on story, not format.

I have a feeling this guy whose script I read will figure it out pretty quickly. Hell he'll probably have a career before I do.

Speaking of my career, I have another cool thing coming up. The owner of PitchQ, a website that posts visual pitches and submits them to companies, is going to guide me through the process so I can blog about it. I'm going to film my pitch for Not Dead Yet and report back on the whole experience. I thought this might be neat because PitchQ is one of the sponsors of the Expo and a prize in the screenwriting contest. Also, I'm a big skeptic about this kind of stuff so it gives me a chance to see if it really works.

So stay tuned. That should be coming soon.

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