Five Guidelines for Writing a Screenplay that Doesn't Suck
By Nate Waggoner
This past two summers, I worked for a company that held a script writing contest, judging amateur screenplays. I spent endless hours in my room and in coffee shops reading hundreds of scripts -- sitcom pilots, spec scripts based on already-existing TV shows, sci-fi, kid's fare, drama, horror, comedy, dramedy, dramuhorrordy, etc. I was fair, tactful, supportive, caffeinated, and bleary-eyed. By the end, I started having trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality, but the experience ultimately made me a more perceptive writer and critic, as well as what NOT to do when trying to get someone to care about your screenplay, whether it's a lowly contest consultant or a Hollywood bigwig.
Here are five guidelines to help aspiring script-writers and contest submitters out there.
Note: I signed a contract saying I would not publicly discuss any specific scripts I had read, and I plan on holding to that. Any examples I give here will be fictional and exaggerated. Any similarities to actual scripts submitted are purely coincidental.
5. Throw whatever stupid guidebook you bought out the window.
Sure, $17.95 doesn't come easily in this world, and you could probably get at least store credit if you return it. But I'm telling you, it will be so much more satisfying to just toss the thing.
How in the world did Orson Welles write Citizen Kane without first having read H.J. Hollywood's best-selling book, How to Write a Blockbuster that Will Appeal to Literally Everyone in 10 Days? When Robert Towne wrote Chinatown, do you think he was following the 30 steps laid out by Professor Alan Smithee in his book, Write a Script Better than Chinatown in 30 Steps?" No, that's absurd!
People get so hung up on hacky rules about structure that they forget what they were writing about in the first place. Script-writing convention dictates that every script must have the major plot elements in motion by page 30, and some kind of game-changing twist around page 60 that gets things moving towards the climax around page 90. Many Hollywood scripts follow these guidelines beautifully, but many scripts just allow their characters to hang out doing nothing until they hit a certain page. Don't be afraid to shake things up!
4. Choose a tone and stick with it.
If your script's premise is that a man discovers his dog can talk, and they go on whimsical adventures together, don't end the script with the man murdering his whole family. Conversely, if your script is a cop drama for 88 of its 90 pages, reconsider the two pages in the middle where Frankenstein shows up and sings a song. Some of these scripts I read made me wonder if the writers were testing to see if I would read the whole thing or not.
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